Weekend reads: Views on the “grievance studies” hoax; universities play “pass the harasser;” what next for NEJM?

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The week at Retraction Watch featured questions about what should happen to a paper published by Theranos; a replication of a famous paper on treatment of writer’s block that led to — well, you’ll see; a researcher joining our leaderboard’s top 10; and a data faker who became chief scientific officer of a cannabis product company. Here’s what was happening elsewhere:

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8 thoughts on “Weekend reads: Views on the “grievance studies” hoax; universities play “pass the harasser;” what next for NEJM?”

  1. Regarding the PhD thesis under investigation at Tilburg University, it is perhaps relevant to note that there is a wider investigation going on, related to several staff members who seemed to have been promotor for a rather large number of external PhD theses. This includes the current PhD thesis under investigation (promotor Ruben Gowricharn). Also, there were some rather odd financial arrangements related to these theses.

    See: https://universonline.nl/2018/09/20/dismantling-tilburgs-phd-factory

    1. Thanks for the link. The following excerpt caught my attention:

      “Professor of evolutionary social psychology Bram Buunk of Groningen University reviews six of these dissertations and states that they do not qualify as dissertations at all. “None of those dissertations contain any kind of research data.” ”

      Does that mean that the dissertations were not reviewed before the Thesis defences? Where are the evaluation reports delivered by the jury members?

      1. I’ve worked at a PhD thesis factory university, and there are lots of ways to avoid meeting minimal standards of a PhD dissertation while giving the appearance of rigor.

        One way was to write a thesis “incorporating publications”. This entails publishing 3 or 4 articles and bundling them together into a “thesis”. The published articles would include literature reviews and perhaps a minor descriptive study. Other theses “incorporating publications” would have a few salami-sliced publications of a single under-powered study with a sample of 6 or 7 people, for example.

        These published papers would not meet the PhD criteria of being “original and significant” research, but the thesis would be an impressive 80,000 words and contain 3 published articles.

        In practice, thesis defense processes in this thesis factory university were nominal despite the rhetoric of excellence. PhD theses were examined by two examiners who were hand-picked by the supervisor and student, so there was not much risk of the thesis being deemed inadequate.

        Australian universities get significant government funding for every completed PhD and PhD completions increase the prestige of departments and supervisors. This is what underpins the PhD thesis factory mindset.

        I feel badly for the conscientious students who spend years conducting rigorous original research who end up with the same qualification as those who had done little more than write a couple of literature reviews or run a bunch of t tests on a preexisting database, published in low impact journals.

      2. The evaluation reports are not public. The theses will have been reviewed, though.
        There’s a story in Dutch that gives some indication of what went on for most of the theses – google translate gives a quite reasonable translation:
        https://universonline.nl/2018/10/02/rijsman-komt-op-voor-kwaliteit-verdachte-proefschriften

        Then there is the way the promotor defends the thesis mentioned specifically in this overview (again, in Dutch):
        http://religionresearch.org/closer/2018/09/29/institutionalisering-salafisme-ruben-gowricharn/
        I’ll quote the most disconcerting part:
        “De tweede mogelijkheid is dat de onderzoeker niet alles heeft verzonnen, maar wel een deel. Laat de proportie ‘verzinsels’ de helft zijn van het logboek, dan nog blijft er genoeg materiaal over voor een stevige empirische fundering van het onderzoek. En zelfs als het overgebleven materiaal betrekking zou hebben op één moskee, is het onderzoek valide, vergelijkbaar met veel promoties die betrekking hebben op één dorp, één etnische groep, één wijk of één iets anders.”
        Translated:
        “The second possibility is that the researcher did not make everything up, but a part. If the proportion of ‘fabrications’ is half the logbook, there is still enough material left for a solid empirical foundation of the research. And even if the remaining material would relate to one mosque, the research is valid, comparable to many promotions that relate to one village, one ethnic group, one neighborhood or one thing else.”

        In other words, who cares if some or half of it is just made up, as long as some of it is right, it still has validity.

        1. In other words, who cares if some or half of it is just made up, as long as some of it is right, it still has validity.

          An excellent opportunity to deploy the rather dated joke (from an era when hens’ eggs were not always as fresh as they might be—cf. also “last one in is a rotten egg!”) from England (referring to a lowly assistant clergyman eating breakfast with his superior): “Like the curate’s egg, ‘good in parts’.”

        2. Can we read the dissertations online somewhere?

          I ran the Dutch pieces through Google Translate: these “diary dissertations” sound alwfully similar to the “grievance studies scandal”…

          1. Not sure if they are online. Some departments at Tilburg University (try to) publish all theses. I’d need a few names of the PhDs to search.

  2. “In the original version of these 14 articles the reference list was unfortunately not represented according to the journal’s new bibliographical style, which should have been implemented from January 2018.”

    Not sure whether that issue is really worth of our attention…

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