University rankings are questionable at best

23 09 2019

university-rankingMeasuring educational performance is difficult at any stage, especially since most school-level performance indicators are based on ‘standardised’ tests of a few select students in particular years. But if you think that is questionable, you can rest assured that it is a hell of a lot more objective and better quantified than how we rank our universities.

In fact, it is rather stunning how superficial the criteria are for ranking universities, for there are no standardised exams or measures of teaching quality that have been applied to a large-enough section of universities across the world to make any meaningful comparisons. Instead, we tend to rely on brute metrics like the number of high-level academic prizes that employees of a university have won, how many citations they received for their academic papers, and other, highly subjective survey questions regarding the perceived ‘reputation’ of an institution.

As a result, a sceptic might in fact think that all the existing metrics are utter nonsense, especially considering how much advertising from universities appears to be incorporated in the online literature (one could be justified in being concerned about the possibility of undue influence and corruption in this regard 🤔).

While there are many types of university rankings, possibly the three most-recognised and reported are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the (Shanghai) Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) University Rankings. The first purports to Read the rest of this entry »

Academic? You’re just a cash-hamster spinning a publisher’s profit wheel

9 09 2019

mindslaveI contend that publishing articles in nearly all peer-reviewed journals amounts to a form of intellectual slavery.

I defend my use of the word ‘slavery’ here, for how else would you describe a business where the product (scientific results) is produced by others (scientists) for free, is assessed for quality by others (reviewers) for free, is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others (editors) for free, and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s knowledge consumers at exorbitant prices? To make matters worse, most scientists have absolutely no idea how much their institutions pay for these subscriptions, so there is little consumer scrutiny passed from researcher to administrator. In 2015, Jason Schmitt of Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York quoted Brian Nosek, Director of the Center for Open Science, to sum up the situation:

“Academic publishing is the perfect business model to make a lot of money. You have the producer and consumer as the same person: the researcher. And the researcher has no idea how much anything costs. I, as the researcher, produce the scholarship and I want it to have the biggest impact possible and so what I care about is the prestige of the journal and how many people read it. Once it is finally accepted, since it is so hard to get acceptances, I am so delighted that I will sign anything  —  send me a form and I will sign it. I have no idea I have signed over my copyright or what implications that has — nor do I care, because it has no impact on me. The reward is the publication.”

Some journals go even beyond this sort of profiteering and also inflict ‘page charges’ of hundreds to thousands of US dollars on the authors for the privilege of having their work appear in that journal.

I am not just grumpy about what many might assume to be a specialised and irrelevant sector of the economy, because it is in fact an industry worth many billions of dollars annually. In fact, one of the biggest corporations, Reed-Elsevier*, made over £1.8 billion (nearly US$2.8 billion) in adjusted operating profit in 2015 (1). Other major publishing companies like Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Sage Publications, which with Reed-Elsevier collectively published more than half of all the academic papers published in 2013, make many billions in profit each year as well: Wiley-Blackwell took in US$965 million in revenue in 2016, Springer had a 2012 revenue of US$1.26 billion, and Sage Publications had a 2015 profit of $585 million. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVI

4 09 2019

The fifth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

Read the rest of this entry »

No, you won’t sacrifice scientific objectivity if you advocate

29 08 2019


Despite a lot of rather uninformed people out there who might view scientists as just flesh-covered automatons lacking the customary set of feelings, we are in fact normal human beings embedded in the same society as everyone else. We own houses, drive cars, have sex, have children, eat out in restaurants, drink, dance, vote, pay taxes and utilities, do sport, take vacations, see the doctor, laugh, cry, love, and all the rest of it.

As such, we have just as much stake in society as everyone else, and we are very much at the mercy of government policies, cultural norms, and other limitations that everyday life presents us. If we happen to discover through our research some aspect of our society that can be approved, does it suffice merely to publish the material within the academic literature and nebulously ‘hope’ someone else does some good with it?

It is a short, metaphysical step to entertain the idea of advocating for change more proactively than a random Tweet or a newspaper interview might imply. I appreciate that the ‘a’ word strikes fear and derision in the hearts of many scientists, for I too was once under the impression that it was not my job to advocate for anything beyond good scientific practice. Indeed, I practically insisted that my role was uniquely to develop the tools, collect the data, design the experiments, and elaborate the intricacies and complexities of the results to test hypotheses. No more. No less.

Even the thought of mimicking those placard-holding street protestors (my rather naïve impression of what an advocate looked like) used to revile me, for I had formed the (incorrect) opinion that any scientist who took up the protestor’s mantle had clearly abandoned her claim to be an intellectual.

In my view, once one crossed that intangible line into advocacy, the objectivity of all previous intellectual pursuits was immediately compromised, if not abandoned entirely. For me then, ‘advocacy’ equalled ‘subjectivity’, and that was not consistent with what I understood science to be.

I have since done a 180-degree turn on that innocent and narrow-minded perspective. First, I have since come to realise that true objectivity is beyond the reach of any human being, and that science can only provide the tools to reduce our innate subjectivity. As human beings, even scientists have all of our species’ weaknesses and limitations of perception, but science allows us to get as close to objectivity as is humanly possible. So, science is not the pursuit of objectivity per se; rather, it is the pursuit of subjectivity reduction. Errare humanum est. Read the rest of this entry »

10 things I wish I knew before doing an Honours degree

19 08 2019



In 2018 I started my Honours degree in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University. I had completed my Bachelor of Science in 2017, after being accepted in the Honours stream through my Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

I will not sugar-coat it — I was a bad Bachelor student. I scarcely attended classes and at times submitted sub-par work. I believed that as long as I didn’t fail anything I would still be able to do my Honours, so I did the bare minimum and just got by. However in the last semester I discovered I needed an average GPA of 5.0 to secure my Honours position, regardless of what stream I was doing. Panic ensued, I was already too deep in my final semester of not achieving to pull my grades around. Thankfully, I was eventually accepted, after having to plead my case with the Honours board.

In the end I managed to score myself a First Class Honours and a PhD candidature (and hopefully soon a publication). Honours was definitely a struggle, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. I just wish I had known these 10 things before I started …

1. You will fail

Not the brightest note to start on, but don’t fear, everyone fails. Honours is full of ups and downs, and at some point, somewhere along the line, something in your project will go wrong. But it’s okay! It happens to every person that has ever done an Honours or a PhD. Whether the failing is small or catastrophic, remember this happens all the time.

More importantly your supervisor or co-ordinator sees it all the time. The best thing to do is tell your supervisor and your co-ordinator early on. It may be a simple case of steering your research in a slightly new direction, changing the scope of your project, or even taking some extra time. It’s okay to fail, just keep pushing. Read the rest of this entry »

The (not-so) funny question of whether scientists should be political leaders

15 08 2019


At the risk of precociously setting fire to my powder keg, I thought it would be interesting to discuss the very real question of whether there should be more scientists in politics.

The reason I’m contemplating this particular question is because I’ve been forced to. Perhaps contrary to better judgement, I’ve agreed to take part in a the SciFight Science Comedy Debate in Adelaide on 31 August. Organised by scientist-comedian Alanta Colley, the event will pitch two scientist-comedian teams against each other to argue either in the affirmative or negative regarding this — scientists should rule the world.

Of course, the primary goal of the evening is to make people laugh (which still has me wondering whether I was a worthy choice for the role — thank Cthulu there will be some actual, live comedians there too).

But there’s a serious side to this question that I don’t think has any simple answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Nothing like a good forest

31 07 2019

Our history and culture are intimately tied to the planet’s forests and the services they provide to all living beings. In modern times, forests also help combat the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, not only by acting as powerful sinks of the carbon excess resulting from our greenhouse-gas emissions, but also as thermal shields we and many other species can benefit from.


Understory of the laurel forest in Garajonay National Park (La Gomera, Canary Islands) – also part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves since 2012. The fog, combined with the cloud belt blowing from the Atlantic Ocean against the mountains (Garajonay is the highest peak at 1500 m), creates a mesic microclimate crucial for plant endemism. Forest canopies reinforce humidity and buffer temperature variation for many species. Photo: Paco Rodríguez.

If we were to choose a house to live, most would likely opt for one with water and electricity supply, noiseless nights, nearby leisure and shopping, and easy communication by public transport. Lacking only one of those aspects could be off-putting.

In truth, those who have the privilege of living in a stable household value it by the full set of available commodities. Similarly, the value of an ecosystem rests on its entire repertoire of ecological functions (1). And this is particularly so for forest ecosystems.

The ecological value of a forest relies on the collection of its native characteristics (2): how many autochthonous and mature trees it can host, how much photosynthesis it fuels, how many pollinisers it feeds, how much soil and water it creates and retains, and many more (3). Read the rest of this entry »