Spring 2013     ISSN 1096-1453     Volume 17, Issue 1

Guest Editorial

Academic Accuracy 2.0: Ensuring Quality in the Internet Era

In 2012, a controversy occurred over a faculty member’s university-sponsored web page as well as his personal blog. Some who read them online questioned the academic quality of the contents, while others hailed the work as an important resource to help identify journals that don’t meet commonly accepted academic publication standards. The ongoing debate calls attention to a larger predicament: In an era where the Internet allows for nearly immediate publishing, and creates an environment where unscrupulous or merely careless researchers can circumvent the established checks and balances that traditionally ensure academic quality, who has the responsibility to maintain accuracy? Does it lie in the hands of individual faculty members, who may not have realized that online identities are no longer neatly divided by personal and professional distinctions? Is the expectation today that the Internet population will ultimately vet any and all content made public? Finally, should institutions do more to protect their reputations and the academic quality of the work done under their auspices, since any imbroglio, whether in print or online, may reflect poorly in the eyes of accrediting bodies, funding organizations, other researchers, or even expose them to legal ramifications?

A Scandalous Year
There was no shortage of academic controversy or scandals in 2012. In addition to a number of faculty web pages and blogs that raised ire, other cases ranging from shameless fakery to those where best practices simply fell to the wayside sullied the reputations of both researchers and institutions alike, sometimes leading to retractions, resignations, and even terminations.

On September 13, 2012, The Guardian chalked up many of these unethical activities to an “increased competition for shrinking government budgets and disproportionate rewards for publishing in good journals.” As one piece of evidence, it cited the spike in retractions as noted in Nature the previous year: “Published retractions in scientific journals have increased around 1,200% over the past decade, even though the number of published papers had gone up by only 44%. Around half of these retractions are suspected cases of misconduct.”

One such case was followed by Retraction Watch, an online blog dedicated to “tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process.” On June 29, 2012, it reported on the biggest cheater in the halls of academia to date. The scientist in question is said to have falsified results in at least 172 of the 212 studies he published over the course of nearly 20 years. Some journals have already retracted his work, and many more have promised to follow suit, according to the site. The researcher was terminated, and the institutions behind him have been given “time to analyze the articles.”

A pure-Internet play on academic skullduggery involves not the falsification of data or results, but instead of bogus email addresses and reviewers. Both The Atlantic (August 24, 2012) and The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 30, 2012) recounted tales of researchers who supplied journals with the names of possible expert reviewers. The problem? The so-called experts didn’t exist; they were fakes dummied up by researchers who went on to write positive reviews of their own works. Others cons seeking peer reviews were even craftier, and swapped out real, qualified reviewers’ email addresses with ones that the researchers created and controlled access to.

Redefining Academic Identity
Though we can’t blame the Internet for causing an integrity crisis – there have been and likely always will be a few among us who cheat and manipulate the system – I think it’s fair to say that the Internet has introduced something akin to an identity crisis. And it’s a predicament playing out across campuses worldwide.

Not so long ago, it was easy for researchers, faculty, or administrators to separate their academic lives from their personal ones. There was a clear definition of what constituted being on or off campus, and, for the most part, people behaved accordingly.

On campus, they worked in laboratories, classrooms, or libraries. They saw students during office hours, collaborated with respected colleagues, and shared their work products through perhaps one or two peer-reviewed papers annually.

Who they were off campus remained a mystery to everyone except family and close friends.

Then along came the Internet, which eventually evolved into its current state, where an individual’s words and images can show up anytime and anywhere: on institution websites, faculty pages, personal blogs, online comments, social media outlets, or crowd-sourced research projects – just to name a few.

And just like that the curtains were drawn back, making it difficult for anyone, including academics, to maintain any sense of a private identity. Though a cautious professional might not need institutional guidelines to warn against the dangers of “friending” students, tweeting about divisive or potentially offensive topics, or posting malicious comments in response to a competitor’s online paper, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests that a lot of people haven’t yet gotten the memo.

In “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications” (adopted November 2004), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) updated its 1940 statement warning faculty members against speaking for or representing their institutions, noting, “In the digital world, however, avoiding an inappropriate or unwarranted inference may be more difficult.” The report documents a number of instances in which professionally inappropriate comments, including homophobic references and politically charged rants, had appeared on university pages or personal blogs and adversely affected the institutions involved.

In the examples above, the AAUP noted the ramifications to institutions. One university expressed concern that the entire student body could be offended should they happen upon abhorrent references in a professor’s personal blog; at another institution, an instructor stated that because a more senior faculty member made inflammatory pronouncements on a university-sponsored web page, it made “it appear that I and every other…faculty member are a party to what I consider a libel.”

Faculty and researchers must become aware, if they are not already, that everything they publish on the Internet reflects upon them professionally. On the Internet, there is no distinction between professional and personal identities, and once information is posted, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to remove completely.

Before clicking the “upload” or “post” button, they must be mindful that what they publish online might be seen by students, colleagues, administrators, co-authors, rivals, granting institutions, or even covered by the mass media. The primary responsibility to maintain professional integrity and academic accuracy lies with the persons who publish information.

The Internet: A Powerful Equalizer
Should a university professional fail to maintain accuracy or academic integrity in material posted online, he or she shouldn’t be surprised if someone from the Internet community calls them out. As was the case with the faculty member who questioned the integrity of many Open Access (OA) journals, or the many academics reported on in Retraction Watch, this can have potentially damaging outcomes. For the most part, though, the innovations brought to academic collaboration and publishing via the Internet far exceed any embarrassingly public results.

Researchers and faculty are deeply connected through the Internet to others within their disciplines and those farther afield, allowing them to collaborate and ensure accuracy in ways that were nearly unimaginable just several decades ago.

One site that helps them do so is ResearchGate. With 2.6 million members, it aims to “facilitate scientific collaboration on a global scale,” and “help researchers build reputation and accelerate scientific progress.” While the majority of ResearchGate’s members are in STEM fields, other disciplines, including literature, history, the law, education, entertainment and arts, design, anthropology, social science, religious studies, psychology, political science, and philosophy are represented by groups of 12,000 to nearly 100,000 members.

In addition to its growing membership (which is free), ResearchGate boasts an open library of 45 million abstracts, and 10 million full-text publications.

It also provides researchers with a forum to share not just their successes, but also their failures. Traditional research reports only positive outcomes, and the peer-review process is a lengthy one. With open-access (OA) systems like ResearchGate, scientists can get near immediate feedback, share raw data, and discuss negative outcomes. An article in PandoDaily (January 8, 2013) explained why this is so critical to the advancement of science: “those negative results are arguably more valuable than the successful research findings…With negative results, other researchers can scrutinize the data and apply their different perspectives.”

Other academic networking sites offer similar and complementary services for researchers and scientists. The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 29, 2012) took a close look at advantages – and drawbacks – of Academia.edu, Mendeley.com, and Zotero.org. Rapid answers to questions that once might have taken months to receive feedback on ranks high in the list of benefits, while “communication overload” may remain the biggest challenge to the success of these networking sites.

OA journals like the Public Library of Science (PLoS) are also upending the traditional routes to publishing. – and many thought leaders feel they’re also improving the accuracy and quality of the published works. In “Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption” (July 23, 1020), U.S. News & World Report likened what’s going on in scholarly open-access publishing right now to the introduction of the E-book, which “spent the first 10 years of its existence in obscurity…like the E-book, the open access journal…is a platform largely applauded conceptually, but, until recently, rarely adopted….”

The article details the many forces that are converging to force innovation in academic publishing, and accelerate its acceptance. PLoS “published 84 percent more articles in 2011 than in 2010,” according to its chief product officer Kristen Ratan, and “…publishers have responded by in some cases launching open access publications themselves.” Further, in preparing for the article, its author Simon Owens discovered “nearly every society publisher interviewed has either published an open-access journal or plans to in the near future (that includes both Elsevier and Wiley)” naming two academic publishing giants.

Using the E-book analogy to look into the future of academic publishing, it would appear that while open-access journals will continue to gain in popularity and acceptance, their more traditional counterparts like Academic Exchange Quarterly will remain. Like readers who have a choice to download a book to their Kindle, or purchase paper-based books from Amazon or a bookstore in their neighborhood, researchers will have more choices when it comes to the publication of their works. Since the E-book revolution is about a decade ahead of the disruptions now happening in academic publishing, it may be in the best interests of those responsible for the publication of printed scholarly journals to stay abreast of the ongoing changes in publishing in general.

Many thought leaders feel open-access publishing can actually improve the accuracy and quality of the published works. On PLoS, any registered user can comment on an article, post-publication, fostering robust, yet “civilized scientific discussions.” Authors may submit corrections to their works, which are reviewed by PLoS and then designated as either minor or formal.

In “Measured Innovation in Peer Review” (November 1, 2012), Inside Higher Ed examined PeerJ and Rubriq, two other organizations that aim to take the peer-review process online, and improve quality along the way.

Unlike many open-access journals like PLoS that charge authors fees for publication, PeerJ instead requires a just a small, one-time membership fee, allowing members to “pay once, publish for life.” Founded by alums of PLoS and Mendeley, PeerJ has an editorial board of 800 scholars and a 20-member advisory board that includes five Nobel Laureates. PeerJ published its first papers in February 2013.

Rubriq offers independent, double-blind peer reviews at a cost of US$500 to US$700 per manuscript, and guarantees swift one- to two-week turnarounds. The speed of its response is an obvious improvement to authors; others include matching research with the appropriate journal and a standardized score with quality controls built in. Reviewers receive compensation for their work as well as professional exposure, and journals get rigorously pre-screened manuscripts. The site launched in December 2012.

University Oversight
Though the first responsibility to maintain integrity and accuracy falls upon the faculty who publish online or in print, sometimes they fail to do so whether due to fraud, bad practices, or poor judgment. When this happens, the university doesn’t get a free pass; its reputation is equally on the line. Instead of waiting for any online fallout, institutions may want to take steps to protect their character by vetting more of what they sponsor online, and becoming aware of personal blogs that may be maintained by faculty members.

A first step, suggested by AAUP, includes adding a disclaimer to university sites, pages, and/or blogs associated with institutions. Disclaimers shouldn’t signify “either approval or disapproval but should, consistent with principles of academic freedom, recognize that the individual professor (not the institution) is responsible for his or her views or opinions.”

One university in Washington, D.C. created a web steering committee to “to ensure quality, manage risk, and present the university’s Web content to users in the most effective ways.” In stating the scope of the institution’s policies regarding online content, it importantly notes, “With such distributed publishing responsibility comes shared responsibility for quality assurance, usability, performance and security. The actions of one individual or department can affect the entire system.”

Shared responsibility within an institution can take on many forms. Like the university in Washington, institutions could select a committee to review all content before publication to mitigate risk and ensure standards. Others might decide that a departmental-level peer review could better achieve these ends. Or like many corporations, some institutions could insist that content be examined by legal counsel or by communications professionals.

Regardless, institutions should in the least consider drafting a clear statement that sets out policies, expectations, and standards in online communication and publishing. Expanding on existing guidelines for maintaining professional standards in print, such statements might take into account the vast audience afforded by the Internet, and the potential for implied endorsement via web pages and personal blogs.

J.R. Reagan, Senior Professional Faculty
The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School
100 International Drive, Washington, DC 21202
Cell: (571) 238-1955
Email: jreagan2@jhu.edu
Web: carey.jhu.edu