Saturday, 23 January 2021

Time to ditch relative risk in media reports

The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge has done some sterling work in developing guidelines for communicating risk to the general public. In a short video,  David Spiegelhalter explains how relative risk can be misleading when the baseline for a condition is not reported. For instance, he noted that many women stopped taking a contraceptive pill after hearing media reports that it was associated with a doubling in the rate of thrombo-embolism. In terms of absolute risk the increase sounds much less alarming, going from 1 in 7000 to 2 in 7000. 

One can understand how those who aren't scientifically trained can get this wrong. But we might hope that,  in a pandemic, where public understanding of risk is so crucial, particular care would be taken to be realistic without being alarmist. It was, therefore, depressing to see a report on Channel 4 news last night where two scientists clearly explained the evidence on Covid variants in terms of absolute risk, impeccably reflecting the Winton Centre's advice, only to have the reporters translate the numbers into relative risk. I have transcribed the relevant sections: 

0:44 Reporter: "The latest evidence from the government's advisers is that this new variant is more deadly. And this is what it means:"

Patrick Vallance: "If you took somebody in their sixties, a man in their sixties, the average risk is that for 1000 people who got infected, roughly ten would be expected to unfortunately die with the virus. With the new variant, with 1000 people infected, roughly 13 or 14 people might be expected to die." 

Reporter: "That’s a thirty to forty per cent increase in mortality." 

5:15 Reporter (Krishnan Guru-Murthy): "But this is a high percent of increase, isn't it. Thirty to forty percent increase of mortality, on a relatively small number." 

Neil Ferguson: "Yes. For a 60-year-old at the current time, there's about a one in a hundred risk of dying. So that means 10 in 1000 people who get the infection are likely to die, despite improvements in treatment. And this new variant might take that up to 13 or 14 in a 1000." 

The reporters are likely to stoke anxiety when they translate clear communication by the scientists into something that sounds a lot more scary. I hope this is not their intention: Channel 4 is one of the few news outlets that I regularly watch and in general I find it well-researched and informative. I would urge the reporters to watch the Winton Centre video, which in less than 5 minutes makes a clear, compelling case for dropping relative risk altogether in media reports. 


This blogpost has been corrected to remove the name of Anja Popp as first reporter. She confirmed was not in this segment.  My apologies.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Faux peer-reviewed journals: a threat to research integrity


Despite all its imperfections, peer review is one marker of scientific quality – it indicates that an article has been evaluated prior to publication by at least one, and usually several, experts in the field. An academic journal that does not use peer review would not usually be regarded as a serious source and we would not expect to see it listed in a database such as Clarivate Analytic's Web of Science Core Collection which "includes only journals that demonstrate high levels of editorial rigor and best practice". Scientists are often evaluated by their citations in Web of Science, with the assumption that this will include only peer-reviewed articles. This makes gaming of citations harder than is the case for less selective databases such as Google Scholar. The selective criteria for inclusion, and claims by Clarivate Analytics to take research integrity very seriously, are presumably the main reasons why academic institutions are willing to pay for access to Web of Science, rather than relying on Google Scholar. 

Nevertheless, some journals listed in Web of Science include significant numbers of documents that are not peer-reviewed. I first became aware of this when investigating the publishing profiles of authors with remarkably high rates of publications in a small number of journals. I found that Mark Griffiths, a hyperprolific author who has been interviewed about his astounding rate of publication by the Times Higher Education, has a junior collaborator, Mohammed Mamun, who clearly sees Griffiths as a role model and is starting to rival him in publication rate. Griffiths is a co-author on 31 of 33 publications authored by Mamun since 2019. While still an undergraduate, Mamun has become the self-styled Director of the Undergraduate Research Organization in Dhaka, subsequently renamed as the Centre for Health Innovation, Networking, Training, Action and Research – Bangladesh. These institutions do not appear to have any formal link with an academic institution, though on ORCID, Mamun lists an ongoing educational affiliation to Jahangirnagar University. His H-index from Web of Science is 11. This drops if one excludes self-citations, which constitute around half of his citations, but nevertheless, this is remarkable for an undergraduate.

Of the 31 papers listed on Web of Science as coauthored by Mamun and Griffiths, 19 are categorised as letters to the Editor. Letters are a rather odd and heterogeneous category. In most journals they will be brief comments on papers published in the journal, or responses to such comments, and in such cases it is not unusual for the editor to make a decision to publish or not without seeking peer review. However, the letters coauthored by Griffiths and Mamun go beyond this kind of content, and include some brief reports of novel data, as well as case reports on suicide or homicide gleaned from press reports*. I took a closer look at three journals where these letters appeared to try and understand how such material fitted in with their publication criteria. 

The International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (Springer) featured in an earlier blogpost, on the basis of publishing a remarkably high number of articles authored by Griffiths. In that analysis I did not include letters. The journal gives no guidelines about the format or content of letters, and has published only 16 of them since 2019, but 10 of these are authored by Griffiths, mostly with Mamun. As noted in my prior blogpost, the journal provides no information about dates of submission and acceptance, so one cannot tell whether letters were peer-reviewed. The publisher told me last July and confirmed again in September that they are investigating the issues I raised in my last blogpost, but there has to date been no public report on the outcome.  

Psychiatry Research, published by Elsevier, is explicit that Case Reports can be included as letters, and provides formatting information (750-1000 words or less, up to 5 references, no tables or figures). Before 2019, around 2-4% of publications in the journal were letters, but this jumped to an astounding 22.4% in 2020, perhaps reflecting what has been termed 'covidization' of research.

The Asian Journal of Psychiatry (AsJP), also published by Elsevier, provides formatting information only (600-800 words, 10 references, 1 figure or table), and does not specify what would constitute the content of letters, but it publishes an extremely large number of them, as shown in Figure 1. This trend started before 2020, so cannot be attributed solely to COVID-mania. 


Figure 1: Categorization of documents published in Asian Journal of Psychiatry between 2015 and 2020.

For most journals, letters constitute a negligible proportion of their output, and so it is unlikely to have much impact whether or not they are peer reviewed. However, for a journal like AsJP, where letters outnumber regular articles, the peer review status of letters becomes of interest.  

The only information one can obtain on this point is indirect, by scanning the submission and acceptance dates of articles to see if the lag between these two is so short as to suggest there was no peer review. Relevant data for all letters published in AsJP and Psychiatry Research are shown in Table 1. It is apparent that there is a wide range of publication lags, some extending for weeks or months, but that lags of 7 days or less are not uncommon. There is no indication that Mamun/Griffiths have favourable treatment, but they benefit from the same rapid acceptance rate as other letters, with 40-50% chance of acceptance within two weeks.  


Table 1: Proportions of Letters categorized by publication lag in two journals publishing a large number of Letters. 

Thus an investigation into unusual publishing patterns by one pair of authors has drawn attention to at least two journals that appear to provide an easy way to accumulate a large number of publications that are not peer-reviewed but are nevertheless cited in Web of Science. If one adds a high rate of self-citation to the mix, and a willingness of editors to accept recycled newspaper reports as case studies, one starts to understand how it is possible for an inexperienced undergraduate to build up a substantial number of citations. 

I have drawn this situation to the attention of the integrity officers at Springer and Elsevier, but my previous experience with the Matson publication ring does not instil me with confidence that publishers will take any steps to monitor or control such editorial practices.  

Clarivate Analytics recently published a report on Research Integrity, in which they note how "all manner of interventions and manipulations are nowadays directed to the goal of attaining scores and a patina of prestige, for individual or journal, although it may be a thin coat hiding a base metal." They described various methods used by researchers to game citations, but did not include the use of non-peer-reviewed categories of paper to gain numerous citations. They describe technological solutions to improve integrity, but I would argue they need to add to their armamentarium a focus on the peer review process. The lag between submission and acceptance is a far from perfect indicator but it can give a rough proxy for the likelihood that peer review was undertaken. Requiring journals to make this information available, and to include it in the record of Web of Science, would go some way to identifying at least one form of gaming. 

No doubt Prof Griffiths regards himself as a benign influence, helping an enthusiastic and energetic young person from a low-income country establish himself. He has an impressive number of collaborators from all over the world, many of whom have written in his support. Collaboration between those from very different cultures is generally to be welcomed. And I must stress that I have no objection to someone young and inexperienced making a scientific contribution - that is entirely in line with Mertonian norms of universalism. It is the departure from the norm of disinterestedness that concerns me. An obsession with 'publish or perish' leads to gaming of publications and citation counts as a way to get ahead. Research is treated like a game where the focus becomes one's own success rather than the advancement of science. This is a consequence of our distorted incentive structures and it has a damaging effect on scientific quality. It is frankly depressing to see such attitudes being inculcated in junior researchers from around the world.


Letters co-authored by Mamun and Griffiths based on newspaper reports (from Web of Science). Self-cites refers to number of citations to articles by Griffiths and/or Mamun. Publication lags in square brackets calculated from date of submission and date of acceptance taken from the journal website. The script used to extract these dates, and .csv files with journal records, are available on:, see Faux Peer Review.rmd 

Mamun, MA; Griffiths, MD (2020) A rare case of Bangladeshi student suicide by gunshot due to unusual multiple causalities Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 49 10.1016/j.ajp.2020.101951 [5 self-cites, lag 6 days] 

Mamun, MA; Misti, JM; Griffiths, MD (2020) Suicide of Bangladeshi medical students: Risk factor trends based on Bangladeshi press reports Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 48 10.1016/j.ajp.2019.101905 [2 self-cites, lag 91 days] 

Mamun, MA; Chandrima, RM; Griffiths, MD (2020) Mother and Son Suicide Pact Due to COVID-19-Related Online Learning Issues in Bangladesh: An Unusual Case Report International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10.1007/s11469-020-00362-5 [14 self-cites]

Bhuiyan, AKMI; Sakib, N; Pakpour, AH; Griffiths, MD; Mamun, MA (2020) COVID-19-Related Suicides in Bangladesh Due to Lockdown and Economic Factors: Case Study Evidence from Media Reports International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10.1007/s11469-020-00307-y [10 self-cites]

Mamun, MA; Griffiths, MD (2020) Young Teenage Suicides in Bangladesh-Are Mandatory Junior School Certificate Exams to Blame? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10.1007/s11469-020-00275-3 [11 self-cites]

Mamun, MA; Siddique, A; Sikder, MT; Griffiths, MD (2020) Student Suicide Risk and Gender: A Retrospective Study from Bangladeshi Press Reports International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10.1007/s11469-020-00267-3 [6 self-cites]

Griffiths, MD; Mamun, MA (2020) COVID-19 suicidal behavior among couples and suicide pacts: Case study evidence from press reports Psychiatry Research, 289 10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113105 [10 self-cites, lag161 days] 

Mamun, MA; Griffiths, MD (2020) PTSD-related suicide six years after the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh Psychiatry Research, 287 10.1016/j.psychres.2019.112645 [0 self-cites, 2 days] 


Sunday, 16 August 2020

PEPIOPs – prolific editors who publish in their own publications

I recently reported on a method for identifying authors who contribute an unusually high proportion of papers to a specific journal. As I noted in my previous blogpost, one cannot assume any wrongdoing just on the grounds of a high publication rate, but when there is a close link between the author in question and the journal's editor, then this raises concerns about preferential treatment and integrity of the peer review process.

In running my analyses, I also found some cases where there wasn't just a close link between the most prolific author in a journal and the editor: they were one and the same person! At around the time I was unearthing these results, Elisabeth Bik tweeted to ask if anyone had examples of editors publishing in their own journals. I realised the analysis scripts I had developed for the 'percent by most prolific' analysis could be readily adapted to look at this question, and so I analysed journals in the broad domain of psychology and behavioural science from six publishers: Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor and Francis, Sage, Elsevier and American Psychological Association (APA). I focused on those responsible for editorial decisions – typically termed Editor-in-Chief or Associate Editor. Sometimes this was hard to judge: in general, I included 'Deputy editors' with 'Editors-in-Chief' if they were very few in number. I ignored members of editorial boards.

Before reporting the findings, I thought I should consult more widely about whether people think it is appropriate for an editor to publish in their own journal.

As a starting point, I looked at guidelines that the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has provided for editors  

Can editors publish in their own journal? 
While you should not be denied the ability to publish in your own journal, you must take extra precautions not to exploit your position or to create an impression of impropriety. Your journal must have a procedure for handling submissions from editors or members of the editorial board that will ensure that the peer review is handled independently of the author/editor. We also recommend that you describe the process in a commentary or similar note once the paper is published.

They link to a case report that notes how this issue can be particularly problematic if the journal is in a narrow field with few publication outlets, and the author is likely to be identifiable even if blinding is adopted.

I thought that it would be interesting to see what the broader academic community thought about this. In a Twitter poll I asked specifically about Editors-in-Chief:

The modal response was that it was OK for an Editor-in-Chief to publish in their own journal at a modest rate (once a year or less). There was general disapproval of editors publishing prolifically in their own journals – even though I emphasised that I was referring to situations where the editorial process was kept independent of the author, as recommended by COPE.

My poll question was not perfectly phrased - I did not specify the type of article: it is usual, for instance, for an editor to write editorials! But I later clarified that I meant regular articles and reviews, and I think most people interpreted it in that way.

The poll provoked some useful debate among those who approved and disapproved of editors publishing in their own journals.

Let's start with some of the reasons against this practice. I should lay my cards on the table and state that personally I am in agreement with Antonia Hamilton, who tweeted to say that as Editor in Chief of the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology she would not be submitting papers from her lab to that journal during her term of office, citing concerns about Conflict of Interest. When I was Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, I felt the same: I was concerned that my editorial colleagues would be put in a difficult position if they had to handle one of my papers, and if my papers were accepted, then it might be seen as involving a biased decision, even if it that was not the case. Chris Chambers, who was among the 34% who thought an Editor-in-Chief should never publish in their own journal, expressed concerns about breaches of confidentiality, given that the Editor-in-Chief would be able to access identities of reviewers. Others, though, questioned whether that was the case at all journals.

Turning to those who thought it was acceptable for an Editor-in-Chief to publish in their own journal, several people argued that it would be unfair, not just on the editor themselves, but also on members of their research group, if presence of an editorial co-author meant they could not submit to the journal. How much of an issue this is will depend, of course, on how big your research group is, and what other publication outlets are available.  Several people felt there was a big difference between cases where the editor was lead author, and those where they played a more minor role. The extreme case is when an editor is a member of a large research consortium led by someone else. It would seem unduly restrictive to debar a paper by a consortium of 100 researchers just because one of them was the Editor in Chief of the journal. It is worth remembering too that, while being a journal editor is a prestigious role, it is hard work, and publishers may be concerned that it becomes a seriously unattractive option if a major outlet for papers is suddenly off-limits.

Be this as it may, the impression from the Twitter poll was that three papers or more per annum starts to look excessive. In my analysis, shown here I found several journals where the Editor-in-Chief had coauthored 15 or more articles (excluding editorials/commentaries) in their own journal between 2015 and 2019.  I refer to these as PEPIOPs (prolific editors who publish in their own publications). For transparency, I've made my methods and results available, so that others can extend the analysis if they wish to do so: see More legible versions of the tables are also available.

Table 1 shows the number of journals with a PEPIOP, according to publisher. 
Table 1: Number of journals with prolific authors. Columns AE and EIC indicate cases where Associate Editor or Editor-in-Chief published 15+ papers in the journal between 2015-2019
The table makes it clear that it is relatively rare for an Editor-in-Chief to be a PEPIOP: there were no cases for APA journals, and the highest number was 5.6% for Elsevier journals. Note that there are big differences between publishers in terms of how common it is for any author to publish 15+ papers in the journal over 5 years: this was true for around 25% of the Elsevier and Springer journals, and much less common for Sage, APA and Taylor & Francis. This probably  reflects the subject matter of the journals - prolific publication, often on multiauthored papers, is more common in biosciences than social sciences.

Individual PEPIOPs are shown in Table 2. An asterisk denotes and Editor-in-Chief who authored more articles in the journal than any other person between 2015-2019.

These numbers should be treated with caution – I did not check whether any of these editors had only recently adopted the editorial role - largely because this information is not easy to find from journal websites*. I looked at a small sample of papers from individual PEPIOPs to see if there was anything I had overlooked, but I haven't checked every article - as there a great many of them.  There was one case where this revealed misclassification: the editor of Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health wrote regular short commentaries of around 800 words summarising other papers: this seems an entirely unremarkable thing for an editor to do, but they were classified by Web of Science as 'articles' which led to him being categorised as a PEPIOP.  This illustrates how bibliometrics can be misleading.
Table 2: Editors-in-chief who published 15+ papers in own journal 2015-2019
In general I did not find any ready explanation for highly prolific outputs.  And I where I did spot checks I found only one case where there was an explanatory note of the kind COPE recommended (in the journal Maturitas) - on the contrary, in many cases there was a statement confirming no conflict of interest for any of the authors. Sometimes there were lists of conflicts relating to commercial aspects, but it was clear that authors did not regard their editorial role as posing a conflict. It was also worth mentioning there were cases where an Editor-in-Chief was senior author.

The more I have pondered this, the more I realise that the reason why I am concerned particularly by Editor-in-Chief PEPIOPs is because this is the person who is ultimately responsible for integrity of the publication process. Although publishers increasingly are alert to issues of research integrity, journal websites typically advise readers to contact the Editor-in-Chief if there is a problem. Complaints about editorial decisions, demands for retractions, or concerns about potential fraud or malpractice all come to the Editor-in-Chief. That's fine provided the Editor-in-Chief is a pillar of respectability. The problem is that not all editors are the paragons that we'd like them to be: one can adopt rather a jaundiced view after encountering editors who don't even bother to reply to expressions of concern, or adopt a secretive or dismissive attitude if plausible problems in their journal are flagged up. And there are also cases on record where an editor has abused the power of their position to enhance their own publication record. For this reason, I would strongly advise any Editor-in-Chief not to be a PEPIOP; it just looks bad, even if a robust, independent editorial process has been followed. We need to have confidence and trust in those who act as gatekeepers to journals.

My principal suggestion is that publishers could improve their record for integrity if they went beyond just endorsing COPE guidelines and started to actively check whether those guidelines are adhered to. 

*Note: 21st Aug 2020: A commenter on this blogpost has noted that Helai Huang fits this category - this editor has only been in post since 1 Jan 2020, so the period of prolific publication predated being an editor-in-chief.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Bishopblog catalogue (updated 7 August 2020)


Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed a lack of thematic coherence. I write about whatever is exercising my mind at the time, which can range from technical aspects of statistics to the design of bathroom taps. I decided it might be helpful to introduce a bit of order into this chaotic melange, so here is a catalogue of posts by topic.

Language impairment, dyslexia and related disorders
The common childhood disorders that have been left out in the cold (1 Dec 2010) What's in a name? (18 Dec 2010) Neuroprognosis in dyslexia (22 Dec 2010) Where commercial and clinical interests collide: Auditory processing disorder (6 Mar 2011) Auditory processing disorder (30 Mar 2011) Special educational needs: will they be met by the Green paper proposals? (9 Apr 2011) Is poor parenting really to blame for children's school problems? (3 Jun 2011) Early intervention: what's not to like? (1 Sep 2011) Lies, damned lies and spin (15 Oct 2011) A message to the world (31 Oct 2011) Vitamins, genes and language (13 Nov 2011) Neuroscientific interventions for dyslexia: red flags (24 Feb 2012) Phonics screening: sense and sensibility (3 Apr 2012) What Chomsky doesn't get about child language (3 Sept 2012) Data from the phonics screen (1 Oct 2012) Auditory processing disorder: schisms and skirmishes (27 Oct 2012) High-impact journals (Action video games and dyslexia: critique) (10 Mar 2013) Overhyped genetic findings: the case of dyslexia (16 Jun 2013) The arcuate fasciculus and word learning (11 Aug 2013) Changing children's brains (17 Aug 2013) Raising awareness of language learning impairments (26 Sep 2013) Good and bad news on the phonics screen (5 Oct 2013) What is educational neuroscience? (25 Jan 2014) Parent talk and child language (17 Feb 2014) My thoughts on the dyslexia debate (20 Mar 2014) Labels for unexplained language difficulties in children (23 Aug 2014) International reading comparisons: Is England really do so poorly? (14 Sep 2014) Our early assessments of schoolchildren are misleading and damaging (4 May 2015) Opportunity cost: a new red flag for evaluating interventions (30 Aug 2015) The STEP Physical Literacy programme: have we been here before? (2 Jul 2017) Prisons, developmental language disorder, and base rates (3 Nov 2017) Reproducibility and phonics: necessary but not sufficient (27 Nov 2017) Developmental language disorder: the need for a clinically relevant definition (9 Jun 2018) Changing terminology for children's language disorders (23 Feb 2020) Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in relaton to DSM5 (29 Feb 2020)

Autism diagnosis in cultural context (16 May 2011) Are our ‘gold standard’ autism diagnostic instruments fit for purpose? (30 May 2011) How common is autism? (7 Jun 2011) Autism and hypersystematising parents (21 Jun 2011) An open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield (4 Aug 2011) Susan Greenfield and autistic spectrum disorder: was she misrepresented? (12 Aug 2011) Psychoanalytic treatment for autism: Interviews with French analysts (23 Jan 2012) The ‘autism epidemic’ and diagnostic substitution (4 Jun 2012) How wishful thinking is damaging Peta's cause (9 June 2014) NeuroPointDX's blood test for Autism Spectrum Disorder ( 12 Jan 2019)

Developmental disorders/paediatrics
The hidden cost of neglected tropical diseases (25 Nov 2010) The National Children's Study: a view from across the pond (25 Jun 2011) The kids are all right in daycare (14 Sep 2011) Moderate drinking in pregnancy: toxic or benign? (21 Nov 2012) Changing the landscape of psychiatric research (11 May 2014) The sinister side of French psychoanalysis revealed (15 Oct 2019)

Where does the myth of a gene for things like intelligence come from? (9 Sep 2010) Genes for optimism, dyslexia and obesity and other mythical beasts (10 Sep 2010) The X and Y of sex differences (11 May 2011) Review of How Genes Influence Behaviour (5 Jun 2011) Getting genetic effect sizes in perspective (20 Apr 2012) Moderate drinking in pregnancy: toxic or benign? (21 Nov 2012) Genes, brains and lateralisation (22 Dec 2012) Genetic variation and neuroimaging (11 Jan 2013) Have we become slower and dumber? (15 May 2013) Overhyped genetic findings: the case of dyslexia (16 Jun 2013) Incomprehensibility of much neurogenetics research ( 1 Oct 2016) A common misunderstanding of natural selection (8 Jan 2017) Sample selection in genetic studies: impact of restricted range (23 Apr 2017) Pre-registration or replication: the need for new standards in neurogenetic studies (1 Oct 2017) Review of 'Innate' by Kevin Mitchell ( 15 Apr 2019) Why eugenics is wrong (18 Feb 2020)

Neuroprognosis in dyslexia (22 Dec 2010) Brain scans show that… (11 Jun 2011)  Time for neuroimaging (and PNAS) to clean up its act (5 Mar 2012) Neuronal migration in language learning impairments (2 May 2012) Sharing of MRI datasets (6 May 2012) Genetic variation and neuroimaging (1 Jan 2013) The arcuate fasciculus and word learning (11 Aug 2013) Changing children's brains (17 Aug 2013) What is educational neuroscience? ( 25 Jan 2014) Changing the landscape of psychiatric research (11 May 2014) Incomprehensibility of much neurogenetics research ( 1 Oct 2016)

Accentuate the negative (26 Oct 2011) Novelty, interest and replicability (19 Jan 2012) High-impact journals: where newsworthiness trumps methodology (10 Mar 2013) Who's afraid of open data? (15 Nov 2015) Blogging as post-publication peer review (21 Mar 2013) Research fraud: More scrutiny by administrators is not the answer (17 Jun 2013) Pressures against cumulative research (9 Jan 2014) Why does so much research go unpublished? (12 Jan 2014) Replication and reputation: Whose career matters? (29 Aug 2014) Open code: note just data and publications (6 Dec 2015) Why researchers need to understand poker ( 26 Jan 2016) Reproducibility crisis in psychology ( 5 Mar 2016) Further benefit of registered reports ( 22 Mar 2016) Would paying by results improve reproducibility? ( 7 May 2016) Serendipitous findings in psychology ( 29 May 2016) Thoughts on the Statcheck project ( 3 Sep 2016) When is a replication not a replication? (16 Dec 2016) Reproducible practices are the future for early career researchers (1 May 2017) Which neuroimaging measures are useful for individual differences research? (28 May 2017) Prospecting for kryptonite: the value of null results (17 Jun 2017) Pre-registration or replication: the need for new standards in neurogenetic studies (1 Oct 2017) Citing the research literature: the distorting lens of memory (17 Oct 2017) Reproducibility and phonics: necessary but not sufficient (27 Nov 2017) Improving reproducibility: the future is with the young (9 Feb 2018) Sowing seeds of doubt: how Gilbert et al's critique of the reproducibility project has played out (27 May 2018) Preprint publication as karaoke ( 26 Jun 2018) Standing on the shoulders of giants, or slithering around on jellyfish: Why reviews need to be systematic ( 20 Jul 2018) Matlab vs open source: costs and benefits to scientists and society ( 20 Aug 2018) Responding to the replication crisis: reflections on Metascience 2019 (15 Sep 2019) Manipulated images: hiding in plain sight (13 May 2020) Frogs or termites: gunshot or cumulative science? ( 6 Jun 2020)  

Book review: biography of Richard Doll (5 Jun 2010) Book review: the Invisible Gorilla (30 Jun 2010) The difference between p < .05 and a screening test (23 Jul 2010) Three ways to improve cognitive test scores without intervention (14 Aug 2010) A short nerdy post about the use of percentiles (13 Apr 2011) The joys of inventing data (5 Oct 2011) Getting genetic effect sizes in perspective (20 Apr 2012) Causal models of developmental disorders: the perils of correlational data (24 Jun 2012) Data from the phonics screen (1 Oct 2012)Moderate drinking in pregnancy: toxic or benign? (1 Nov 2012) Flaky chocolate and the New England Journal of Medicine (13 Nov 2012) Interpreting unexpected significant results (7 June 2013) Data analysis: Ten tips I wish I'd known earlier (18 Apr 2014) Data sharing: exciting but scary (26 May 2014) Percentages, quasi-statistics and bad arguments (21 July 2014) Why I still use Excel ( 1 Sep 2016) Sample selection in genetic studies: impact of restricted range (23 Apr 2017) Prospecting for kryptonite: the value of null results (17 Jun 2017) Prisons, developmental language disorder, and base rates (3 Nov 2017) How Analysis of Variance Works (20 Nov 2017) ANOVA, t-tests and regression: different ways of showing the same thing (24 Nov 2017) Using simulations to understand the importance of sample size (21 Dec 2017) Using simulations to understand p-values (26 Dec 2017) One big study or two small studies? ( 12 Jul 2018)

Journalism/science communication
Orwellian prize for scientific misrepresentation (1 Jun 2010) Journalists and the 'scientific breakthrough' (13 Jun 2010) Science journal editors: a taxonomy (28 Sep 2010) Orwellian prize for journalistic misrepresentation: an update (29 Jan 2011) Academic publishing: why isn't psychology like physics? (26 Feb 2011) Scientific communication: the Comment option (25 May 2011)  Publishers, psychological tests and greed (30 Dec 2011) Time for academics to withdraw free labour (7 Jan 2012) 2011 Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation (29 Jan 2012) Time for neuroimaging (and PNAS) to clean up its act (5 Mar 2012) Communicating science in the age of the internet (13 Jul 2012) How to bury your academic writing (26 Aug 2012) High-impact journals: where newsworthiness trumps methodology (10 Mar 2013)  A short rant about numbered journal references (5 Apr 2013) Schizophrenia and child abuse in the media (26 May 2013) Why we need pre-registration (6 Jul 2013) On the need for responsible reporting of research (10 Oct 2013) A New Year's letter to academic publishers (4 Jan 2014) Journals without editors: What is going on? (1 Feb 2015) Editors behaving badly? (24 Feb 2015) Will Elsevier say sorry? (21 Mar 2015) How long does a scientific paper need to be? (20 Apr 2015) Will traditional science journals disappear? (17 May 2015) My collapse of confidence in Frontiers journals (7 Jun 2015) Publishing replication failures (11 Jul 2015) Psychology research: hopeless case or pioneering field? (28 Aug 2015) Desperate marketing from J. Neuroscience ( 18 Feb 2016) Editorial integrity: publishers on the front line ( 11 Jun 2016) When scientific communication is a one-way street (13 Dec 2016) Breaking the ice with buxom grapefruits: Pratiques de publication and predatory publishing (25 Jul 2017) Should editors edit reviewers? ( 26 Aug 2018) Corrigendum: a word you may hope never to encounter (3 Aug 2019) Percent by most prolific author score and editorial bias (12 Jul 2020)

Social Media
A gentle introduction to Twitter for the apprehensive academic (14 Jun 2011) Your Twitter Profile: The Importance of Not Being Earnest (19 Nov 2011) Will I still be tweeting in 2013? (2 Jan 2012) Blogging in the service of science (10 Mar 2012) Blogging as post-publication peer review (21 Mar 2013) The impact of blogging on reputation ( 27 Dec 2013) WeSpeechies: A meeting point on Twitter (12 Apr 2014) Email overload ( 12 Apr 2016) How to survive on Twitter - a simple rule to reduce stress (13 May 2018)

Academic life
An exciting day in the life of a scientist (24 Jun 2010) How our current reward structures have distorted and damaged science (6 Aug 2010) The challenge for science: speech by Colin Blakemore (14 Oct 2010) When ethics regulations have unethical consequences (14 Dec 2010) A day working from home (23 Dec 2010) Should we ration research grant applications? (8 Jan 2011) The one hour lecture (11 Mar 2011) The expansion of research regulators (20 Mar 2011) Should we ever fight lies with lies? (19 Jun 2011) How to survive in psychological research (13 Jul 2011) So you want to be a research assistant? (25 Aug 2011) NHS research ethics procedures: a modern-day Circumlocution Office (18 Dec 2011) The REF: a monster that sucks time and money from academic institutions (20 Mar 2012) The ultimate email auto-response (12 Apr 2012) Well, this should be easy…. (21 May 2012) Journal impact factors and REF2014 (19 Jan 2013)  An alternative to REF2014 (26 Jan 2013) Postgraduate education: time for a rethink (9 Feb 2013)  Ten things that can sink a grant proposal (19 Mar 2013)Blogging as post-publication peer review (21 Mar 2013) The academic backlog (9 May 2013)  Discussion meeting vs conference: in praise of slower science (21 Jun 2013) Why we need pre-registration (6 Jul 2013) Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate (12 Sep 2013) High time to revise the PhD thesis format (9 Oct 2013) The Matthew effect and REF2014 (15 Oct 2013) The University as big business: the case of King's College London (18 June 2014) Should vice-chancellors earn more than the prime minister? (12 July 2014)  Some thoughts on use of metrics in university research assessment (12 Oct 2014) Tuition fees must be high on the agenda before the next election (22 Oct 2014) Blaming universities for our nation's woes (24 Oct 2014) Staff satisfaction is as important as student satisfaction (13 Nov 2014) Metricophobia among academics (28 Nov 2014) Why evaluating scientists by grant income is stupid (8 Dec 2014) Dividing up the pie in relation to REF2014 (18 Dec 2014)  Shaky foundations of the TEF (7 Dec 2015) A lamentable performance by Jo Johnson (12 Dec 2015) More misrepresentation in the Green Paper (17 Dec 2015) The Green Paper’s level playing field risks becoming a morass (24 Dec 2015) NSS and teaching excellence: wrong measure, wrongly analysed (4 Jan 2016) Lack of clarity of purpose in REF and TEF ( 2 Mar 2016) Who wants the TEF? ( 24 May 2016) Cost benefit analysis of the TEF ( 17 Jul 2016)  Alternative providers and alternative medicine ( 6 Aug 2016) We know what's best for you: politicians vs. experts (17 Feb 2017) Advice for early career researchers re job applications: Work 'in preparation' (5 Mar 2017) Should research funding be allocated at random? (7 Apr 2018) Power, responsibility and role models in academia (3 May 2018) My response to the EPA's 'Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science' (9 May 2018) More haste less speed in calls for grant proposals ( 11 Aug 2018) Has the Society for Neuroscience lost its way? ( 24 Oct 2018) The Paper-in-a-Day Approach ( 9 Feb 2019) Benchmarking in the TEF: Something doesn't add up ( 3 Mar 2019) The Do It Yourself conference ( 26 May 2019) A call for funders to ban institutions that use grant capture targets (20 Jul 2019) Research funders need to embrace slow science (1 Jan 2020) Should I stay or should I go: When debate with opponents should be avoided (12 Jan 2020) Stemming the flood of illegal external examiners (9 Feb 2020) What can scientists do in an emergency shutdown? (11 Mar 2020) Stepping back a level: Stress management for academics in the pandemic (2 May 2020)
TEF in the time of pandemic (27 Jul 2020)

Celebrity scientists/quackery
Three ways to improve cognitive test scores without intervention (14 Aug 2010) What does it take to become a Fellow of the RSM? (24 Jul 2011) An open letter to Baroness Susan Greenfield (4 Aug 2011) Susan Greenfield and autistic spectrum disorder: was she misrepresented? (12 Aug 2011) How to become a celebrity scientific expert (12 Sep 2011) The kids are all right in daycare (14 Sep 2011)  The weird world of US ethics regulation (25 Nov 2011) Pioneering treatment or quackery? How to decide (4 Dec 2011) Psychoanalytic treatment for autism: Interviews with French analysts (23 Jan 2012) Neuroscientific interventions for dyslexia: red flags (24 Feb 2012) Why most scientists don't take Susan Greenfield seriously (26 Sept 2014) NeuroPointDX's blood test for Autism Spectrum Disorder ( 12 Jan 2019)

Academic mobbing in cyberspace (30 May 2010) What works for women: some useful links (12 Jan 2011) The burqua ban: what's a liberal response (21 Apr 2011) C'mon sisters! Speak out! (28 Mar 2012) Psychology: where are all the men? (5 Nov 2012) Should Rennard be reinstated? (1 June 2014) How the media spun the Tim Hunt story (24 Jun 2015)

Politics and Religion
Lies, damned lies and spin (15 Oct 2011) A letter to Nick Clegg from an ex liberal democrat (11 Mar 2012) BBC's 'extensive coverage' of the NHS bill (9 Apr 2012) Schoolgirls' health put at risk by Catholic view on vaccination (30 Jun 2012) A letter to Boris Johnson (30 Nov 2013) How the government spins a crisis (floods) (1 Jan 2014) The alt-right guide to fielding conference questions (18 Feb 2017) We know what's best for you: politicians vs. experts (17 Feb 2017) Barely a good word for Donald Trump in Houses of Parliament (23 Feb 2017) Do you really want another referendum? Be careful what you wish for (12 Jan 2018) My response to the EPA's 'Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science' (9 May 2018) What is driving Theresa May? ( 27 Mar 2019) A day out at 10 Downing St (10 Aug 2019) Voting in the EU referendum: Ignorance, deceit and folly ( 8 Sep 2019) Harry Potter and the Beast of Brexit (20 Oct 2019) Attempting to communicate with the BBC (8 May 2020) Boris bingo: strategies for (not) answering questions (29 May 2020)

Humour and miscellaneous Orwellian prize for scientific misrepresentation (1 Jun 2010) An exciting day in the life of a scientist (24 Jun 2010) Science journal editors: a taxonomy (28 Sep 2010) Parasites, pangolins and peer review (26 Nov 2010) A day working from home (23 Dec 2010) The one hour lecture (11 Mar 2011) The expansion of research regulators (20 Mar 2011) Scientific communication: the Comment option (25 May 2011) How to survive in psychological research (13 Jul 2011) Your Twitter Profile: The Importance of Not Being Earnest (19 Nov 2011) 2011 Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation (29 Jan 2012) The ultimate email auto-response (12 Apr 2012) Well, this should be easy…. (21 May 2012) The bewildering bathroom challenge (19 Jul 2012) Are Starbucks hiding their profits on the planet Vulcan? (15 Nov 2012) Forget the Tower of Hanoi (11 Apr 2013) How do you communicate with a communications company? ( 30 Mar 2014) Noah: A film review from 32,000 ft (28 July 2014) The rationalist spa (11 Sep 2015) Talking about tax: weasel words ( 19 Apr 2016) Controversial statues: remove or revise? (22 Dec 2016) The alt-right guide to fielding conference questions (18 Feb 2017) My most popular posts of 2016 (2 Jan 2017) An index of neighbourhood advantage from English postcode data ( 15 Sep 2018) Working memories: A brief review of Alan Baddeley's memoir ( 13 Oct 2018)

Monday, 27 July 2020

TEF in the time of pandemic

An article in the Times Higher today considers the fate of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).  I am a long-term critic of the TEF, on the grounds that it lacks an adequate rationale,  has little statistical or content validity, is not cost-effective, and has the potential to mislead potential students about the quality of teaching in higher education institutions. For a slideshow covering these points, see here. I was pleased to be quoted in the Times Higher article, alongside other senior figures in higher education, who were in broad agreement that the future of TEF now seems uncertain. Here I briefly document three of my concerns.

First, the fact that the Pearce Review has not been published is reminiscent of the Government's strategy of sitting on reports that it finds inconvenient. I think we can assume the report is not a bland endorsement of TEF, but rather that it did identify some of the fundamental statistical problems with the methodology of TEF, all of which just get worse when extended down to subject-level TEF. My own view is that subject-level TEF would be unworkable. If this is what the report says, then it would be an embarrassment for government, and a disappointment for universities who have already invested in the exercise. I'm not confident that this would stop TEF going ahead, but this may be a case where after so many changes of minister, the government would be willing to either shelve the idea (the more sensible move) or just delay in the hope they can overcome the problems.

Second, the whole nature of teaching has changed radically in response to the pandemic. Of course, we are all uncertain of the future, and institutions vary in terms of their predictions, but what I am hearing from the experts in pandemics is that it is wrong to imagine we are living through a blip after which we will return to normal. Some staff are adapting well to the demand for online teaching, but this is going to depend on how far teaching requires a practical element, as well as on how tech-savvy individual teaching staff are. So, if much teaching stays online, then we'd be evaluating universities on a very different teaching profile than the one assessed in TEF.

Finally, there is wide variation in how universities are responding to the impact of the pandemic on staff. Some are making staff redundant, especially those on short-term contracts, and many are in financial difficulties. Jobs are being frozen. Even in well-established universities such as my own, there are significant numbers of staff who are massively impacted by having children to care for at home. Overall, what it means is that the teaching that is delivered is not only different in kind, but actual and effective staff/student ratios are likely to go down.

So my bottom line is that even if the TEF methodology worked (and it doesn't), it's not clear that the statistics used for it would be relevant in future. I get the impression that some HEIs are taking the approach that the show must go on, with regard to both REF and TEF, because they have substantial sunk costs in these exercises (though more for REF than TEF). But staff are incredibly hard-pressed in just delivering teaching and I think enthusiasm for TEF, never high, is at rock bottom right now. 

At the annual lecture of the Council for Defence of British Universities in 2018 I argued that TEF should have been strangled at birth. It has struggled on in a sickly and miserable state since 2015. It is now time to put it out of its misery.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

'Percent by most prolific' author score: a red flag for possible editorial bias

(This is an evolving story: scroll to end of post for updates; most recent update 19th Sept 2020)

This week has seen a strange tale unfold around the publication practices of Professor Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University. Professor Griffiths is an expert in the field of behavioural addictions, including gambling and problematic internet use. He publishes prolifically, and in 2019 published 90 papers, meeting the criterion set by Ioannidis et al (2018) for a hyperprolific author.

More recently, he has published on behavioural aspects of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is due to edit a special issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction (IJMHA) on this topic.

He came to my attention after Dr Brittany Davidson described her attempt to obtain data from a recent study published in IJMHA reporting a scale for measuring fear of COVID-19. She outlined the sequence of events on PubPeer.  Essentially Griffiths, as senior author, declined to share the data, despite there being a statement in the paper that the data would be available on request. This was unexpected, given that in a recent paper about gaming disorder research, Griffiths had written:
'Researchers should be encouraged to implement data-sharing procedures and transparency of research procedures by pre-registering their upcoming studies on established platforms such as the Open Science Framework ( Although this may not be entirely sufficient to tackle potential replicability issues, it will likely increase the robustness and transparency of future research.'
It is not uncommon for authors to be reluctant to share data if they have plans to do more work on a dataset, but one would expect the journal editor to take seriously a breach of a statement in the published paper. Dr Davidson reported that she did not receive a reply from Masood Zangeneh, the editor of IJMHA.

This lack of editorial response is concerning, especially given that the IJMHA is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and Prof Griffiths is an Advisory Editor for the journal. When I looked further, I found that in the last five years, out of 644 articles and reviews published in the journal, 80 (12.42%) have been co-authored by Griffiths. Furthermore, he was co-author on 51 of 384 (13.28%) of articles in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions (JBA). He is also on the editorial board of JBA, which is edited by Zsolt Demetrovics, who has coauthored many papers with Griffiths.

This pattern may have an entirely innocent explanation, but public confidence in the journals may be dented by such skew in authorship, given that editors have considerable power to give an easy ride to papers by their friends and collaborators. In the past, I found a high rate of publication by favoured authors in certain journals was an indication of gaming by editors, detectable by the fact that papers by favoured authors had acceptance times far too short to be compatible with peer review. Neither IJMHA nor JBA publishes the dates of submission and acceptance of articles, and so it is not possible to evaluate this concern.

We can however ask, how unusual is it for a single author to dominate the profile of publications in a journal? To check this out, I did an analysis as follows:

1. I first identified a set of relevant journals in this field of research, by identifying papers that cited Griffiths' work. I selected journals that featured at least 10 times on that list. There were 99 of these journals, after excluding two big generalist journals (PLOS One and Scientific Reports) and one that was not represented on Web of Science.

2. Using the R package, wosr, I searched on Web of Science for all articles and reviews published in each journal between 2015 and 2020.

This gave results equivalent to a manual search such as: PUBLICATION NAME: (journal of behavioral addictions) AND DOCUMENT TYPES: (Article OR Review) Timespan: 2015-2020. Indexes: SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, A&HCI, CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH, BKCI-S, BKCI-SSH, ESCI, CCR-EXPANDED, IC.

3. Next I identified the most prolific author for each journal, defined as the author with the highest number of publications in each journal for the years 2015-2020.

4. It was then easy to compute the percentage of papers in the journal that included the most prolific author. The same information can readily be obtained by a manual search on Web of Science by selecting Analyse Results and then Authors – this generates a treemap as in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Screenshot of 'Analyse Results' from Web of Science

A density plot of the distribution of these 'percent by most prolific' scores is shown in Figure 2, and reveals a bimodal distribution with a small hump at the right end corresponding to journals where 8% or more articles are contributed by a single prolific author. This hump included IJMHA and JBA.

Figure 2: Distribution of % papers by most prolific author for 99 journals

This exercise confirmed my impression that these two journals are outliers in having such a high proportion of papers contributed by one author – in this case Griffiths - as shown in Figure 3. It is noteworthy that a few journals have authors who contributed a remarkably high number of papers, but these tended to be journals with very large numbers of papers (on the right hand side of Figure 3), and so the proportion is less striking. The table corresponding to Figure 3, and the script used to generate the summary data, are available here.

Figure 3: Each point corresponds to one journal: scatterplot shows the N papers and percentage of papers contributed by the most prolific author in that journal

I then repeated this same procedure for the journals involved in bad editorial practices that I featured in earlier blogposts. As shown in Table 1, this 'percent by most prolific' score was also unusually high for those journals during the period when I identified overly brief editorial decision times, but has subsequently recovered to something more normal under new editors. (Regrettably, the publishers have taken no action on the unreviewed papers in these journals, which continue to pollute the literature in this field.)

JournalYear range N articlesMost prolific author% by prolific
Research in Developmental Disabilities2015-2019972Steenbergen B1.34

2010-20141665Sigafoos J3.78

2005-2009337Matson JL9.2

2000-2004173Matson JL8.09
Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders2015-2019448Gal E1.34

2010-2014777Matson JL10.94

2005-2009182Matson JL15.93
J Developmental and Physical Disabilities2015-2019279Bitsika V4.3

2010-2014226Matson JL10.62

2005-2009187Matson JL9.63

2000-2004126Ryan B3.17
Developmental NeuroRehabilitation2015-2019327Falkmer T3.98

2010-2014252Matson JL13.89

2005-200973Haley SM5.48

Table 1: Analysis of 'percentage by most prolific' publications in four journals with evidence of editorial bias. Those with '% most prolific' scores > 8 are shown in pink.

Could the 'percent by most prolific' score be an indicator of editorial bias? This cannot be assumed: it could be the case that Griffiths produces an enormous amount of high quality work, and chooses to place it in one of two journals that have a relevant readership. Nevertheless, this publishing profile, with one author accounting for more than 10% of the papers in two separate journals, is unusual enough to raise a red flag that the usual peer review process might have been subverted. That flag could easily be lowered if we had information on dates of submission and acceptance of papers, or, better still, open peer review.

I will be writing to Springer, the publisher of IJMHA, and AK Journals, the publisher of JBA, to recommend that they investigate the unusual publication patterns in their journals, and to ask that in future they explicitly report dates of submission and acceptance of papers, as well as the identity of the editor who was responsible for the peer review process. A move to open peer review is a much bigger step adopted by some journals that has been important in giving confidence that ethical publishing practices are followed. Such transparent practices are important not just for detecting problems, but also for ensuring that question marks do not hang unfairly over the heads of authors and editors.

**Update** 20th July 2020.
AK Journals have responded with a very prompt and detailed account of an investigation that they have conducted into the publications in their journal, which finds no evidence of any preferential treatment of papers by Prof Griffiths. See their comment below.  Note also that, contrary to my statement above, dates of receipt/decision for papers in JBA are made public: I could not find them online but they are included in the pdf version of papers published in the journal.

**Update2** 21st July 2020
Professor Griffiths has written two blogposts responding to concerns about his numerous publications in JBA and IJMHA.
In the first, he confirms that the papers in both journals were properly peer-reviewed (as AK journals have stated in their response), and in the second, he makes the case that he met criteria for authorship in all papers, citing endorsements from co-authors.   
I will post here any response I get from IJMHA.  

**Update3** 19th Sept 2020

Springer publishers confirmed in July that they would be conducting an investigation into the issues with IJMHA but subsequent queries have not provided any information other than that the investigation is continuing. 

Meanwhile, it is good to see that the data from the original paper that sparked off this blogpost have now been deposited on OSF, and a correction regarding the results of that study has now also appeared in the journal.