German science scandal on “fake science”

Today the two German public television stations WDR and NDR and the newspaper SZ have published articles about “fake science”, which they describe in their publication as a scandal. They highlight, that scientists (among others) of German universities published a huge number of papers in “fake journals” and have visited “fake scientific conferences”. They give several examples of “fake articles” they have submitted to those publishers and which got without real peer review published.

As someone who works in science, I am used to these invitations. On average five to ten mails reach me every day for conferences or journals. Some seem to have fitting topics, some are just arbitrarily conference invitations where they basically invite everybody who claims to be a scientist. These things of course come with a hefty price tag, but compared to the regular conferences and journals they are often quite cheap. They promise a quick review and also a quick publication of the submitted content.

Why these things could be attractive for some scientists? Because scientific publications are important for every scientist, they basically work as an unemployment insurance. When you have enough publications per year, you have quite a good chance to stay in science, when not, you will quite likely lose your job or do not get a new one. What it makes the offers especially tempting for some, are that renowned journals often need a lot of time to publish the research. Review processes with unpaid reviewers often need a year or more. When you have a three year project, need a year to do the science, write it up for a half a year with many coauthors and then submit it with a review process of over y year, you have to be lucky to be able to put the paper into your CV in time for the next applications. Offers to have a guarantee to have something published, even when the journal is not famous, might be of interest, even for those working in the real science. That also some people use these journals to give their b***s*** publications a platform is of course even more damaging for real science.

So what can be done? Information is of course the first thing, this currently hardly happens and you have to get the idea by yourself, that it might not be good for you to interact with these journals and conference providers. Also we have to rethink our funding for scientific literature publication. Especially in Germany, the amount of money available for publications is low. When you remember that a paper in a journal might need several thousand euros/dollars/pound, especially when you want to have your paper published as open access, then money is key. Some countries like the UK have reacted in the past to enforce publishers to make papers open access after after a certain time. This would certainly help, because only reachable science is of long term benefit to the authors. As Germany has not yet implemented such a law it is time for politics to act.

The market for scientific literature and conferences is connected with high profits. The profit margins for the renowned providers are enormous, and so it is expected that fake providers get onto the market. It will be on the long term a tough fight to keep an eye on what is real and what is “fake”. Let’s hope most real scientists get this done and the working and publication conditions get better over the long term. Otherwise, science as we know it for 400 years is in danger.

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A look at lecturing: The future of examinations

Exam time is stressful for the students and docents alike. Whether they are written exams, oral ones or some other form of work, they all have their advantages and disadvantages for both sides. But how will they change in future? Do we really want to let students learn books by heart and how will the examinations purpose change in the future?

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Outreach: bringing science to the next generation

Outreach is fun, at least for me. You are going to an event, present what you do in easy terms and discuss with people about science, what you are working on or why what you do matters at all. These events are usually quite relaxed, filled with young people and a good break out of your usual day job. That is why I was happy to volunteer when we got as a group the question whether we would like to present our field at “Highlights der Physik” (Highlights of physics), a science fair held every year on a market place in a minor town somewhere in Germany.

All started with the question whether we want to do it and what we would like to show. As a meteorologist, I had done several of these events, and the usual stuff to show are measurement instruments and some experiments with water, because that works for 10-12 year old and this is usually the general target group to be able to catch everyone. This time the target group was given by the organizers with 13-15 years old, so the instruments would do it (especially as we are not a working group of meteorologists). Back in the days when we did these shows I always wanted to show something like statistics and ensembles at these events, because that is may daily job, but quite hard to boil down for little kids. This time the chance opened up with some reasonable budget to get it done.

As a group we decided to show the difference between weather forecasting and climate prediction, and of course our group topic, seasonal and decadal prediction. After several brain storming events we decided to develop a Galton board and try our luck how far we can go with it. With a lot of practical help of the one who finally build it, we designed it in a flexible way, so that we can show many different topics with it. Little barriers allow us to deviate the little wooden balls at any place on the board in the direction we want them and having a lot of little balls allow us to make impressive statistical experiments. So all in all, this little toy got us really exciting for the event and of course it helped us to get over the not so funny parts of organising our appearance there (posters, questionnaires, travel etc.).

When the time came, I had a beautiful week in Münster, a university town in the western part of Germany. Within a tent, surrounded by many other physics groups we showed our experiment and talked a lot about the wide field of climatology and weather. We are used to get questions about politics and energy as well, as many connect nowadays with climate the changing environment we are living in. And of course there is the main motivation for founders to send us to such events: talking with pupils, students and teachers about the great career opportunities, when you choose a geoscientific field for study. It also gave us this time again the opportunity to show that geosciences are part of the physics community, which also lead to interesting discussions with other physicists.

Being back I got contact with our PR department and they wrote a lovely piece for their web presence (unfortunately just in german). So all in all it was a lot of time, half a year of preparation and a lot of communicating science. And yes, I am happy that it was with such simple means possible to explain a lot of people a statistical topic in a physical environment.

 

A look at lecturing: Just before the start

After I had written nearly two months ago how the preparations for the lecture in the new term has started, it is now the time to wrap up the preparations as from next week on the term starts. So what have I achieved up to now? Well, more or less nearly all lectures are prepared, I have one left to do, but this will be done nearer to the actual lecture, because I need one for a bit of wiggle room in the middle (so when I am too slow or I see that students do not get used to my concepts). Also I have managed to have ideas and prepare most of the practical sheets, which the students have to do. So far, I am quite happy with that, but I will only see in the active phase, whether this will really work out as planned. Continue reading

Scientists and holidays

Every worker as a right for holidays. Yes, especially in Europe this promise by the declaration of human rights is seen as very important, while in the US the amount of holidays is generally quite limited. So in Europe most scientists, as most workers, have the right to something around 25 to 30 holidays per calendar year. Many enjoy it, but when you talk to scientist you often hear some form of guilt when they take it. This post should address the reasons for it and are of course only my own observations. Continue reading

A look at lecturing: Preparations months ahead

Part of an academical job is to lecture. Myself am very lucky that this duty is part of my obligations as I really like to do it. In the past I have mainly assisted teaching or did tutoring in various lectures, but next term I will get my own lecture to plan and give in full. I will get important assistance on one or two lectures as my schedule require me to be away for some dates, but apart from that it I will have to fill the four hours a week. The topic will be in a statistical area and so more in my core expertise as my lecturing I did up to now, which was mainly in the physical areas of climate science.

In the upcoming months I will write some posts about this topic, my experience of preparing the lectures and my thoughts about concepts. Of cause I will omit talking about the actual lectures, as students should never fear that they are put on the spot. As the topic of the lecture will be the basis of statistics, it will be not so much about the actual topics, but on how to present them and how to make it an interesting learning experience for the students.

As there are another two month to go I have started to prepare the first lectures. All in all there will be roughly 15 weeks to fill, partly with predefined content and with practicals. The german system sets a fixed numbers of hours the student should work on any lecture and in my case this number can be worked out as 12 hours per week. That is a lot, because even with taking the four hours of presence study not into account, there are eight hours left. So it will be a balance to get enough stuff into the lectures and explaining it in a way that a general unloved topic can be understood. Statistics is for many students like maths and that is in applied physics courses like meteorology/oceanography/geophysics usually not very popular for them. Usually one to two years of mathematical studies, mostly not very connected to the rest of the curriculum, are the beginning of every students life and so the next step with a mostly quite dry topic like statistics is thought to be the same. And unfortunately, therein lies a problem. When you get into statistics too much on the applied side, then you do not give context to the maths lectures given before and it will get harder for the students in the future to get into statistics properly (so not only as an auxiliary subject, but a real tool which is comfortable to handle). On the other side when you do it too mathematically, it is just another hated maths subject. Balancing in the middle of it is certainly an aim, but not really realistic to achieve.

I am looking forward to this experience, but am also aware that all my planning and thoughts might not work out as planned and it ends up it a struggle for the students and myself. That is a challenge and I like challenges.

The burden of maintaining an R-package

During my PhD I worked on Quality Assurance of Environmental Data and how to exchange quality information between scientists. I developed a concept for a possible workflow, which would help all scientists, data creators and re-users, for making data publications much more useful. One major foundation of this were quality tests, which I either taken from existing literature or developed anew.

Part of this work was the development of a proof-of-concept implementation of the methodologies. I used R, which is my prime language for quite a while, to design an as much as possible automisable test workflow. It was quite complex and in retrospect a bit too ambitious for real world applications. Anyway, as I prefer open science, I published it as an extension package for R in 2011: qat – Quality Assurance Toolkit.

The publication process was more challenging as anticipated. For each function, and my package had more than a hundred, a detailed help file was requested, which cost me at that time quite a while to create. I also wanted to add additional information, like an instruction manual, so that at least in theory it would have been possible to use the full functionality (like automatic plotting and saving of the test results) could be understood. Finally, when it was uploaded, I was happy and extended it until my PhD project came to an end.

Unfortunately, with this the work on the package has not stopped. R as a language is constantly changing, not really on the day-to-day tools, but in the background of the packages. New requirements come up now and then, usually associated with a deadline for package maintainers. What is quite simple to solve for small packages, can be a real challenge for complex ones like mine. I had to eliminate my instruction manual when the vignette system changed and created a dedicated website to have it still accessible. Also I had to replace packages I depend on, which is usually associated with quite a bit of change in the code.

All these changes are doable, but the big problems start with the requirement, that a newly uploaded package has to fulfil the current norms of the R packages. A package, which was fine a few months earlier has to change dramatically with the next update. This leads usually to a time problem, as each update needs therewith several days. So minor changes to the original code lead to a heavy workload. This lead to the situation, that I was not able to update it on time when the last deadline turned up and so my package went to archive. Half a year later I found some time and have now brought it back up to the CRAN network.

All in all, this workload is keeping me off to create new R packages. Making them would be feasible, but maintaining them is a pain. With these constant policy changing measures, R gets more and more out of fashion for heavy users and with it, it is in danger to lose out compared to other languages like python in teaching for the next generation of scientists. My personal hope is that future development will lead to a more stable policy on the package policy within R, so that more packages will be available also for the future. As things stand, I am happy to have my package up again, but when the next deadline will enter my mailbox, I will again have to evaluate the threatening workload, before I can afford to schedule a new release.