Universities blinded by rankings and scientific gobbledygook

It’s bad enough that public institutions like Kansas State University use public funds to promote crap.

As a parent of four university daughters, I’ve seen the debt they’ve accumulated and the crap they’ve been sold.

Crap1But it’s bigger than public institutions – the foundations of science are for sale, to the highest bidder.

I tend to be the reviewer journal editors go to when they sense crap – I have a ridiculously large rejection rate because I know bullshit when I read it.

Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen says he’s just written the world’s worst science research paper: More than incompetent, it’s a mess of plagiarism and meaningless garble.

Now science publishers around the world are clamouring to publish it.

They will distribute it globally and pretend it is real research, for a fee.

It’s untrue? And parts are plagiarized? They’re fine with that.

Welcome to the world of science scams, a fast-growing business that sucks money out of research, undermines genuine scientific knowledge, and provides fake credentials for the desperate.

And even veteran scientists and universities are unaware of how deep the problem runs.

When scientists make discoveries, they publish their results in academic journals. The journals review the discovery with independent experts, and if everything checks out they publish the work. This boosts the reputations, and the job prospects, of the study’s authors.

Many journals now publish only online. And some of these, nicknamed predatory journals, offer fast, cut-rate service to young researchers under pressure to publish who have trouble getting accepted by the big science journals.

In academia, there’s a debate over whether the predators are of a lower-than-desired quality. But the Citizen’s experiment indicates much more: that many are pure con artists on the same level as the Nigerian banker who wants to give you $100 million.

Last year, science writer John Bohannon sent out a paper with subtle scientific errors and showed that predatory journals were often failing to catch them. The Citizen covered his sting, published in Science magazine.

Estimates of their numbers range from hundreds to thousands.

To uncover bottom-feeding publishers, the simplest way was to submit something that absolutely shouldn’t be published by anyone, anywhere.

My short research paper may look normal to outsiders: A lot of big, scientific words with some graphs. Let’s start with the title: “Acidity and aridity: Soil inorganic carbon storage exhibits complex relationship with low-pH soils and myeloablation followed by autologous PBSC infusion.”

Look more closely. The first half is about soil science. Then halfway through it switches to medical terms, myeloablation and PBSC infusion, which relate to treatment of cancer using stem cells.

The reason: I copied and pasted one phrase from a geology paper online, and the rest from a medical one, on hematology.

I wrote the whole paper that way, copying and pasting from soil, then blood, then soil again, and so on. There are a couple of graphs from a paper about Mars. They had squiggly lines and looked cool, so I threw them in.

Footnotes came largely from a paper on wine chemistry. The finished product is completely meaningless.

The university where I claim to work doesn’t exist. Nor do the Nepean Desert or my co-author. Software that catches plagiarism identified 67 per cent of my paper as stolen (and that’s missing some). And geology and blood work don’t mix, even with my invention of seismic platelets.

I submitted the faux science to 18 journals, and waited.

Predators moved in fast. Acceptances started rolling in within 24 hours of my submission, from journals wishing to publish the work of this young geologist at the University of Ottawa-Carleton.

First came the Merit Research Journal of Agricultural Science and Soil Sciences, which claims it sent me to “peer review” by an independent expert in the field who gave me a glowing review. It laid out my article and was ready to post it online 48 hours after submission — for $500.

That’s cheap. The going rate at genuine journals is $1,000 to $5,000.

I didn’t pay.

There are seven more acceptances from the International Journal of Science and Technology, Science Journal of Agricultural Research and Management, the International Journal of Current Research, Science Park, Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Research (actually based in Jordan), American Journal of Scientific Research, and International Journal of Latest Research in Engineering and Computing. Yes, “Latest.” Makes you wonder what other kind there is.

Several others are still considering and a couple are silent and appear to have shut down.

Only two turned me down, for plagiarism. And one of these will turn a blind eye and publish anyway if I just tweak it a bit.

Emblem of the King Arthus from Monty Python and the Holy Grail 1975 Graham ChapmanThe acceptances came embarrassingly fast. A real journal needs weeks at the very least to ask reviewers — outside experts — to check an author’s work.

I wrote back to one of these publishers explaining that my work was “bilge” and the conclusions don’t stand up.

The journal wrote right back offering to tweak a few passages and publish anyway. And by the way, it asked, where’s the $500?

At the University of Saskatchewan, medical professor Roger Pierson wonders how can scientists trust the journal system to share knowledge.

“Basically you can’t any more,” he said, except for a stable of well-known journals from identifiable professional societies, where members recognize ethical work is in all their best interests.

He had just spent time with the committee that oversees tenure and promotions at his university.

“We had three cases where people had published things in what were obviously predatory journals, and they didn’t think anything was wrong with that.

“The reality though is that these (fake journals) are used for promotion and tenure by people who really shouldn’t be there. The world is changing fast … It’s a big problem.”

And taxpayers wonder if the university system is broken.

I don’t know of a better system than vigorous and brutal peer-review, but universities are rapidly becoming redundant in their quest for meaningless metrics.

And for any university to claim they are global, geography shouldn’t be a factor.

Toilet-to-tap: don’t drink poop, unless it’s treated really, really well

Don’t eat poop, and if you do, cook it.

Australians may be trying out don’t drink poop, unless it’s safely treated.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australians will be encouraged to embrace treated sewage for drinking in the largest-ever bid to overcome the toilet.to.tap”yuck factor” and push the contentious option onto the national agenda.

A $10 million drive, partly funded by the federal government, aims to convince the public that introducing recycled water to drinking supplies is a palatable, cost-effective alternative to measures such as desalination.

The ”engagement strategy” will target households, students, politicians and the water industry.

Public scepticism and fears over health risks have traditionally kept the toilet-to-tap concept off the political agenda.

The chair of the project’s research advisory committee, Ian Law, said recycled water for drinking should be examined before crisis loomed ”when dams are full … so we have the ducks in a row when the next drought comes”.

The project, led by the University of NSW, will develop a national engagement program to show that recycled water is safe and reliable. It will include devising education programs, a social media campaign and MutantFishdemonstration projects where the public could see wastewater being treated. Similar schemes overseas allow visitors to sample the water.

The Brisbane-based Australian Water Recycling Centre of Excellence is co-ordinating the project, which will also examine recycled stormwater.

In a terrible example of risk communication, Mr Law said, ”There is nothing more powerful than an informed public,” he said, adding those who drank recycled water wouldn’t ‘”grow five heads.”

The target audience will remember the five-heads bit.

If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap; Scotland to form own food agency

The Scottish Government has today announced that it will create a new Scottish body for food safety, food standards, nutrition, food labelling and meat inspection.

On behalf of the Board, Jeff Rooker, Chair of the Food Standards Agency, said: ‘The FSA Board respects the decision the Scottish Government has taken to propose a free-standing, independent FSA for Scotland. We will work with the Scottish Government to meet their objectives while ensuring that consumers’ interests in relation to food continue to be protected.

‘The FSA Board is particularly mindful that this decision will directly impact on almost 200 of our staff based in Scotland, for example in meat plants as well as those in the FSA’s Aberdeen office, and will have an effect on how the rest of the organisation works. We will work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure that the concerns of our staff are appropriately addressed.

‘Until any alternative legislative amendments come into force, the FSA will continue to carry out its duties as at present. Food safety throughout the UK remains the FSA’s number one priority.’

Cue the bagpipes.

“One time one of my kids came out with crap on his hands”; posting grades for fast outlet playgrounds

About once a month we take our kids to Chick-Fil-A and let them run wild in the play area. It’s a treat that keeps Jack behaving relatively well for a few hours beforehand – and Dani and I like the food there. Our kids get exposed to lots of dirty places (child care at the gym; preschool; Marbles, a kids museum with lots of hands-on stuff) and we spend a lot of time washing hands. At Chick-Fil-A, we do a bunch of handwashing after visiting the play area and before jumping into our meals. The staff also disinfects the whole room using a bunch of different sanitizers every night. Not risk elimination, but definitely reduction.

A Toronto (that’s in Canada) city councilor wants public health officers to inspect not just the kitchens and processes in food establishments, but add sanitation of playgrounds to the list as well.

The councilor, Paul Ainslie, cites an awesome example of some of the risks and challenges in an interview with the Toronto Sun.

The father of three said he’s had concerns about the cleanliness of those indoor playgrounds, often in fast-food restaurants, for a while.

“I’ve had concerns for a long time about the play tubes and kids going in and once and a while someone comes out and says a kid crapped his diaper and they go find the manager,” Ainslie said. “One time one of my kids came out with crap on his hands.
“I just became very concerned about the cleanliness of them and how they are being taken care of.”

The Ward 43, Scarborough East councillor stressed some restaurants do a great job keeping their play areas clean but not all of them.

Toronto Public Health officials said Thursday that currently there is “no legislation governing the disinfection of indoor playgrounds in eating establishments.”

The move would also have the medical officer of health to come up with a checklist for eating establishments who operate an indoor play area to ensure it is a health environment for kids.

Playgrounds, particularly outdoor ones (with sand or surface bark) have been linked to outbreaks in the past. Pathogens can stick around and persist in soil (especially something hardy like Salmonella) and on fomites like slides (norovirus).

Food safety surveys still suck; someone’s making money off crap

In the latest ridiculously expensive survey of Canadians, 77 per cent of Canadians said they were either "very" or "somewhat" concerned with the safety of the food they eat, up from 66 per cent in 2007,

The Ipsos Reid poll conducted for Postmedia News found 87 per cent agree that they trust food that comes from Canada more than food that comes from abroad, with 85 per cent of respondents saying they make an effort to buy locally-grown and produced food.

So, Canadians trust Maple Leaf and their listeria-laden cold cuts more than stuff from other places?

Debbie Field, executive director of the Toronto-based food advocacy group FoodShare, said,

"Even though it seems silly and a bit utopian to imagine small producers being safer, what people like me believe is that it’s true. You’ll always have some problem, you’ll always have contamination, you’ll always have some airborne illness. But if it’s kept local, its impact is much smaller.”

The only way to verify such claims is to assess

Food safety audits never enough

“Know your suppliers. An audit does not make up for lack of knowledge of a supplier.”

So said Bob Whitaker, chief science officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, at the Winning at Retail conference last week.

Or as Mansour Samadpour of Seattle says,??

“The contributions of third-party audits to food safety is the same as the contribution of mail-order diploma mills to education.”

Which is why every time some group like organic growers proclaims to be validated by third-party audits as a sign of superior product, I sigh. Have they not heard of the third-party audits done at Peanut Corporation of America which found the plant produced superior peanut paste – so superior that some 700 people got sick, nine died and over 4,000 products had to be recalled because of Salmonella flourished in the crappy production plant?

Guess that didn’t come up in a recent survey announced by press release and uncritically repeated by others.

A study being conducted by Michigan State University (MSU) on behalf of DNV finds that U.S. consumers are highly aware of food safety issues and they have high recognition of third party certification as an effective signal of food safety assurance. The consumers strongly prefer to see products labeled as safety certified. … US consumers say they want to see evidence on product labels that the food they are buying has passed some kind of independent safety certification process. Moreover, slightly more than one third of consumers indicate a willingness to pay a premium, upwards of 30 percent more.

Food safety surveys along with hypothetical willingness-to-pay studies are crap: people overestimate their own food safety behaviors and vote at the supermarket checkout counter with their wallets.

The vast number of facilities and suppliers means audits are required, but people have been replaced by paper. Audits, inspections, training and systems are no substitute for developing a strong food safety culture, farm-to-fork, and marketing food safety directly to consumers rather than the local/natural/organic hucksterism is a way to further reinforce the food safety culture.

Whitaker also challenged the conventional wisdom that a high audit score — especially on an announced audit — is indicative of an all-is-well food safety program.

He said it’s obvious when a company cleans up in preparation for an audit.

“Unfortunately, I think in this industry we’ve gotten pretty good at dressing up and taking audits.”

Most Australian restaurants serve ‘crap:’ critic

Matthew Evans is a food critic for The Sydney Morning Herald.

In September 2003, the paper published a review by Evans
of the now defunct restaurant Coco Roco at Sydney’s King Street Wharf, in which Evans said the dishes were "unpalatable" and that the restaurant’s overall value was "a shocker," scoring it 9/20 – in the "stay home" category.

The restaurant went under in March 2004, and is suing both the paper and Evans for defamation and damages.

Under cross-examination, Evans, a former chef, said while he believed a bad review could have some impact on a restaurant, it was not enough to cause its demise, and was asked if he still held the opinion he wrote in his 2007 book which said "most restaurants in this country still serve crap food."

Evans stood by that opinion, adding that he was "not too happy" with most food he was served in restaurants.

Me neither. I had an artsy friend do this recreation of a New Yorker cartoon some 25 years ago (right); still hangs in our kitchen.

The lawyer defending Coco Roco referred Evans to a December 2003 review of Coco Roco by Ray Chesterton, who "thought everything was great."

"He says he never met a meal he didn’t like," the barrister also noted.

Justice Ian Hamilton then quipped: "That emerges from the photograph."

Hearty guffaws all around.

Filth cuisine — 5 edible things borne from crap you’d never eat

Ian Fortey reports for the Asylum blog on the 5 edible things borne from crap you’d never eat. The edited list is below.

• Tilapia
Tilapia are little fish found pretty much all over the world at this point in farms and in freshwater, swimming about innocent as you please and occasionally winding up on the menu at Red Lobster. In countries like Vietnam, tilapia is a great crop for fish farmers as it is what is known as a "value added" crop, meaning not only can the fish be raised and sold for food, they also eat poo.
Like your strange cousin whom you were never allowed to be alone with, tilapia will put anything in their mouths. People exploit that by using tilapia for sewage treatments, where they clean up crap as they grow before getting sold to some lucky diner to eat with a side of mashed potatoes and a biscuit.
Research has shown that fish raised on poop will have significantly higher levels of fecal choliform bacteria in their tissue than fish raised in treated water, but the bacteria doesn’t seem to affect the muscle tissue, meaning the fish is more or less safe for you to eat. And, if it was raised in your neck of the woods, or at least where your toilet drains, it may even taste familiar.

• Citric Acid
If you’ve ever licked the walls under a sink in a condemned building, you have issues. But it’s also likely you’ve been horribly exposed to Aspergillus niger, one of the most common molds known to man, strains of which supply the bulk of our citric acid supplies.

• Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is a pretty necessary ingredient of any Oktoberfest celebration. It’s fermented cabbage and it belongs on sausage, because if you’re sucking back beer you can’t taste it anyway. And in some cases that’s likely a good thing as some sauerkraut has an unwholesomely close relationship with human urine.
Apparently in blind taste tests, seven in 20 people prefer the taste of sauerkraut that has been made from urine-fertilized cabbage. Which is to say someone peed on the cabbage and then later you ate it, and 35 percent of people think it tastes better than stuff no one peed on.

• Lutefisk
A Norwegian dish made from whitefish and lye, Lutefisk is one of the few foods you can eat that is made from an ingredient that can melt you. If you remember that scene in "Fight Club" when Brad Pitt kisses Ed Norton’s hand and pours powder on it to give him a chemical burn, you have a bit of an idea of what lye in action looks like.
Apparently some industrious Norseman at some point in time ventured to soak fish in water for six days, then soak it in lye to the point where it turns to jelly and would melt your insides out if you ate it, then soak it in water again to decrease some of that horrifying meltiness, and voila. Edible! Seems like such an easy recipe it’s a wonder it’s not served all over the world.

• Pruno
You can’t really expect a prison to offer up the finest in wines, but even by prison standards pruno is kind of disgusting and, according to Wikipedia, is occasionally described as tasting like a "vomit-flavored wine cooler."
Because pruno is made in facilities where alcohol is not allowed and none of the tools to produce it are afforded to anyone, its production is a little more slapdash than your average bottle of Thunderbird. Basically, pruno is made from the remnants of whatever biomatter a felon can get his hands on — fruit salad, oranges, bread or anything that has the ability to ferment.
Once everything is smashed into a bag together, it needs to be kept warm for a few days, and then sugar has to be added. This can be real sugar, ketchup, honey, whatever is handy again, because this recipe is going to be disgusting no matter what. A few more days of being kept warm and voila, you have fermentation. Filter out the chunks of pulp and mold (because there will be mold), perhaps through an old sock, and there you have it, your own glass of awful, awful pruno. Enjoy as you try not to go blind.