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.