November 12, 2013 | Graham

Won’t read it in The Conversation

On Line Opinion invented the genre of the online op-ed in 1999. In the 14 years since we’ve had lots of imitators, but when it comes to openness and balance, no competitors.

One of our closest imitators, so close that it not only copied the genre but stole our financial model as well, is The Conversation. However it’s never been further away from our aims of fostering broad and open debate than today.

The proof of that is in this article – University misconduct inquiries lack transparency – published in OLO yesterday, but originally commissioned for The Conversation.

Why isn’t it running in The Conversation? That’s a good question, but a reasonable inference is that when you are an online vanity press for the university sector, then being open and transparent enough to criticise that sector’s approach to openness and transparency is not possible.

Which raises worrying questions not so much about The Conversation, but the universities themselves.

No role of a university could be clearer than to foster an open and enquiring approach to areas of intellectual inquiry. Yet, universities fail this role in so many ways.

Given some of the misuse of statistics, one wonders why it is necessary to fiddle results in a way that the law finds fraudulent. Plenty of academics fiddle results in ways which apparently keep their universities happy.

One Australian example of misuse of statistics close to my heart is that of Professor Stephan Lewandowsky. Not only does he have a chair at the University of Western Australia, but he receives ARC funding, which he uses in the pursuit of Soviet style punitive pscyhology, essentially defaming opponents under the cover of academic rigour.

Yet the rigour is not there. He famously tried to link climate change skepticism with a belief that NASA faked the moon landings based on a sample of 10, carefully selected from a biased sample of 1200. In his most recent work he draws a conclusion based on zero data points. Why am I not surprised?

Even good researchers in good faith get it wrong. We know that somewhere around 50% of peer reviewed research is wrong, and then there is the fact that often it proves impossible to successfully repeat the original experiment that gave rise to a particular theory in the first place.

Tony Abbott doesn’t have a science minister, but perhaps his education minister can start to look at this mess. Universities are a significant driver of whether we are a “clever country” or not, as well as a major source of import income and prestige.

Some government money judiciously disposed could change academic behaviours and improve the sector out of site. For example, there is a need to do peer review other ways.

Review is outsourced to private organisations like Science and Nature. Why not sponsor the universities to get into the academic publishing business on the basis that they do open peer review via exposure drafts of papers on the net where anyone can comment?

Another area crying out for attention is what I will call “Devil’s Advocacy”. As many studies can’t be replicated, it’s just that we don’t know which ones, monies ought to be put aside to pay teams of scientists to attempt replication. You could also perhaps condition some government buying contracts, so that say, before putting a drug on the PBS the manufacturer has provided funding to a third party to attempt to replicate their studies.

The government should also look at the Australian Research Council. As Lewandowsky’s work demonstrates, public money is in some cases being funnelled into private witch hunts rather than useful research. That is the tip.

Having been close to a few applications to the ARC, it is obvious that it operates as a cosy club, maintaining often mediocre mature researchers at the expense of younger and brighter academics.

That 57 year old economist John Quiggin is a Federation Fellow – an award designated for an early to mid-career academic, is a good example of the latter.

It’s time the country had a genuine conversation about our university sector.

Posted by Graham at 8:18 am | Comments (11) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. “Tony Abbott doesn’t have a science minister,” I’m not surprised, all those independent scientists who actual understand what they’re talking about and are not sock puppets for the plutocracy are really, really annoying.

    Climate change ‘scepticism’ is another squalid attempt by industry to first deny, then to transfer the cost of externalities onto the taxpayer, a tactic as old as the Industrial Revolution. It’s the usual rear guard action to buy time, when the smart money moves into low CO2 emitting industries, climate change denial will mysteriously evaporate, even in Australia.

    Comment by RussellW — November 12, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

  2. I could not agree more. I just spent the last 3 years running an elective at the University of Technology Sydney on Venture Capital Finance and IPOs as an adjunct lecturer. I did an MBA at the London Business School and was stunned to learn that of the 42 business schools in Australia only 2 required the GMAT. Secondly even though numbers doing the course had almost doubled from 28 to 46 participants the elective was suddenly cancelled with no logical reasons given.

    I also had an Australian academic recommend The Conversation to me. After a week I unsubscribed, it reminded me when I lived in London of the Morning Star.

    Comment by Chris Golis — November 12, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  3. President Obama does not have a Science Secretary in his cabinet. It is also the only major country last year where CO2 emissions significantly declined.

    Comment by Chris Golis — November 12, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  4. Thank you for this article. Much needed.

    Comment by Richard Meredith — November 12, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Chris, I wasn’t entirely sure what a science minister might do, but after thinking about it, getting hold of the science sector and bringing it into the 21st Century would be a good idea. Of course it is already in that century when it comes to what it produces, but it hasn’t kept pace with developments in democracy and has picked-up some bad habits as well.

    Comment by Graham — November 12, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

  6. I would agree OLO leaves it for dead in terms of a fair dinkum debate. The Conversation has some good articles, but not enough diversity, typical of the humanities, to reflect the complexity evident in most issues and reality.

    Comment by Chris Lewis — November 13, 2013 @ 6:50 am

  7. Hear hear, well said Graham!
    Alan B. Goulding.

    Comment by Alan Goulding — November 13, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  8. Graham

    Interesting article, but there is one factual error in the latter part. John Quiggin does indeed hold a Federation Fellowship, but that is a program designed to support senior researchers of international standing. The ARC program that supports mid-career researchers (5 to 15 years out from completing their PhD) is the Future Fellowship program.


    Comment by Terry Flew — November 13, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

  9. Hi Terry, from the Federation Fellowship website: “Preference was given to early- to mid-career researchers who would play a leadership role in building Australia’s internationally competitive research capacity.”

    Comment by Graham — November 13, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

  10. My expectations of The Conversation decline each day, which is a pity, because it was a good idea. But in areas in which I am interested it seems to have the same kind of culture possessed by those at the ABC, which means that critics of the abiding interests of the culture are described as deniers, or misinformed, or unable to understand.

    Universities might have a go at something else that is needed — good journals that publish what academics write, and are not behind a paywall. Virtually all academic research has been funded with public money, yet it disappears behind expensive paywalls, for the most part. I’m sure that others have similar feelings, and there are signs overseas that academics themselves are beginning to decline to publish in journals that charge a fee.

    Comment by Don Aitkin — November 13, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  11. Graham, you are right that the web site does indeed say that. I guess that I am surprised it says that on the web site.

    Comment by Terry Flew — November 15, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

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