Vanity, but not in vain

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It has been a little while (okay, a long while) since I last posted here.  I am far from the only person who has had a difficult last few years, of course, but still.  I hope my personal situation is easing now and that I can fully get back into the swing of things.

I did start several blog posts during my long “sabbatical” and I may get round to completing them if they still seem relevant. What has sparked my interest now is, in a way, very personal, and conceited fool that I am, I can not resist sharing.

Many readers of this blog have accounts with platforms for sharing academic research and articles such as and ResearchGate, to access academic papers, contribute informally to the body of knowledge and making themselves known to the community. Among other things, such services send notifications of articles within subscribers’ stated fields of interest, alert subscribers to articles which cite their own work, and so on. Subscribers can search for and read articles online; they can often download copies of these articles.  Sometimes authors may not wish their articles and papers to be openly available, but those interested may be able to send a personal message to such authors requesting copies of the sought-for paper.

Researchers at any level can open accounts through their institutions or companies and sometimes independently. Some platforms ask that new subscribers prove their interest or credentials by uploading at least one paper written by the applicant (though this is sometimes abused by some who choose to upload someone else’s work, in which case probably without permission and possibly breaching copyright).  As so often with social media, there is often free access with limited features and a pay-for membership with advanced features and tools.

As noted, one useful feature of these platforms is notification when articles are found which cite work written by the subscriber.  Knowing someone else has cited your work can enable you, the original writer, to read and possibly make contact with someone else working in the same field.

So it was puzzling to find this message in my inbox a few weeks ago:

John, we found a recent chapter that cited you:

Timely Telling Tweets: Using Social Media Data to Tell the Stories of Window Sex Workers in Amsterdam Facing Major Changes to Their Working Conditions.

Puzzlement indeed.  What work of mine might have been cited in this paper?  I soon found out, I just had to scroll down in the email.  it was the article  “Has got it all wrapped up?”  (The article I submitted was in fact called “Trust or Trussed?  Has got it all wrapped up?” but Teacher Librarian decided that was too long a title and shortened it.)

What use, I wondered, did an article on sex workers in Amsterdam have for my article on the text-matching company

The article is not immediately available on the Researchgate page. and those interested are invited to contact the author.

The ResearchGate page does note that the chapter is in the book Sex Work, Labour and Relations, New Directions and Reflections.  The page provides the abstract (but not the full-text) and also includes a list of (12) references.

And yes indeed, there in the list of references is my article.

Reading the abstract more closely, I realised that this chapter focuses not on sex work per se but on the effectiveness and the challenges of using Twitter posts as a means of gathering data – it is about the research methodology as against (or is it as much as?) what was found out.  The abstract includes the sentence

Focussing on practical challenges of using tweets highlighting academic shortcomings in adherence to confidentiality and ethical pathways when submitting research to plagiarism software.

Consideration of “plagiarism software” might explain inclusion of my 2003 article, although it appears to be the only reference in the list of references to published work on plagiarism or plagiarism software.

The title line on the ResearchGate page includes a DOI link to the publisher’s page on SpringerLink – and this proved worth following up.  The chapter is still behind a pay-wall (UK£19.95 for the chapter or UK£79.50 for the eBook, UK£99.99 for the full hardback book), but the SpringerLink page did make me sit up.

The Researchgate page lists only 12 references but the SpringerLink page lists more, 50 in all.  This is useful to know.  At a quick count, in the list on the SpringerLink page there are

    • 20 references to items discussing sex work
    • 26 references to items discussing social media and/or research methodologies
    • 2 references to online translation tools
    • 1 reference to a work on APA style and referencing
    • 1 reference to a work on plagiarism software (my article on Turnitin).

I am still no wiser as to why or how my work has been used; indeed, I wrote to the author using the ResearchGate request facility asking for a copy of the text – but I have had no response, I am none the wiser.

But I am wiser in what I learn from this, the difference between the ResearchGate list of References and that used in the actual article is worth iterating.  I wonder if the Researchgate list includes only writers whose work is included in the Researchgate database?  As so often for the serious researcher, it pays to go to the original.

We are reminded that academic writers do not compile lists of references solely as a matter of academic honesty; indeed, academic honesty is a comparatively minor aspect of a reference list – we assume honesty.  More important are the assistance that the writer gives the reader in understanding the sources used to inform the writing and the assistance which enables the reader to find and follow-up the sources used – backward citation searching is the technical term.  When as here the list of references is available online, this last factor is enhanced by the hyperlinked URLs or DOIs which lead to the webpages or repository where the referenced article may be accessed (although again often password or pay-wall protected).

Even when stymied by a pay-wall, interested researchers may gain much from understanding and following up sources used which are openly available, especially those on the same topic.  In this case, anyone interested in the working conditions of sex workers will find works which could be of interest, anyone interested in the use of social media (and especially Twitter) will find works which could be of interest.  And without seeing the article, it has to be said that anyone interested in plagiarism and plagiarism is less likely to find much of interest, apart from my somewhat dated article, written for a less scholarly audience – better perhaps to look elsewhere.

Just as an extension of this, when stymied by a pay-wall, aware researchers may gain much from reading what others have said about the inaccessible article, perhaps in reviews of the work (perhaps in professional magazines and journals), and also how the article has been used in later works in the same field. It can be worthwhile using Cited by features when they are available, as on Google Scholar. (Is this “forward citation searching”?)

My fit of vanity has not been in vain!  At the least, it has led to this discovery that the list of references available on ResearchGate (and perhaps on other, similar services) may be incomplete; if wanting to conduct a review of the literature or a backward citation search, it is worth (as always) checking the original publication for perhaps more complete information.

And, for better or for worse, it has got me writing and posting again. I hope to be writing more frequently than of late. We shall see.

Smile, please – it’s for real

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I came across this news item in the i newspaper (page 13 of the 29 August 2018 edition, a short article by John von Radowitz). The article reports on a study in which “Scientists showed 20 goats unfamiliar photos of the same human face looking happy or angry;”  they found that “goats preferred to interact with the smiling face.”

It sounds fun, it sounds odd, it almost sounds improbable.

Two things struck me immediately.  The first was that phrase, “unfamiliar photos.”  When you’re a goat, who’s to say whether a photo is familiar or unfamiliar?

The second was a memory – a memory of the academic paper Feline Reactions to Bearded Men.  You might remember it: the researchers claimed to have held cats in front of photos of bearded men and observed their reactions.  The paper suggests that ” Cats do not like men with long beards, especially long dark beards.”

The cats “paper” was first published in 1999, maybe earlier.  It is frequently used in website evaluation exercises to make students aware of web pages which look authentic but could be big hoaxes.

The name of the site – Improbable Research – is claimed as a warning signal (though as this is the site responsible for the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, a very real event, one might not be so sure). The biggest giveaway in the cats paper is probably the bibliography, which includes entries for Pat Boone, Madonna, Yul Brynner, Sinead O’Connor, Mary Quant, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the if-only Dr Seuss (responsible for the paper “Feline Responses to Hats”).  How much of a giveaway, 20 years on, might be questionable; many of the names are probably unknown Continue reading

What’s common about common knowledge?

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A participant in a recent workshop had a cautionary tale to tell: one of her school’s brightest students, one who scored 40 points in her IB examinations (out of a maximum 42 for the six subjects), had been found guilty of plagiarism in her extended essay. This merited a straight Fail for the essay and that meant she could not receive a diploma (normally awarded to students scoring 24 or more points, with at least a D in Extended essay and Theory of knowledge).

During the investigation, the student accepted that she had not provided a citation for the passage which had been questioned – and declared that, as it was common knowledge, there was no need to cite it. Without seeing the essay and the passage in question, it is not possible to comment on the merit of this claim or to decide whether the examiner and the Awards Committee were over-harsh – or if they were perfectly justified in their decision.

It is a salutary reminder. I always advise classes and workshops of the five golden rules of citation: Continue reading

Vested interest

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Just a follow-up to earlier posts (1) on shale gas drilling (fracking) Still wrong to be forgotten and (2) on the problems of research performed on the behalf of companies with vested interests in a process or a product Flattering flaws

In the first, I discussed a heavily redacted report which had been released by the UK government on problems associated with fracking; the report, evidently, was intended to present the facts and so promote  unbiased discussion and informed argument – difficult when so much of the paper was censored.

The post on research and vested interest discussed, inter alia, unsubstantiated claims made in a press release posted by the plagiarism software company, the company behind Turnitin and The press release stated “the number of retractions in scholarly publications doubled between 2010 and 2011,” and cited the well-respected blog Retraction Watch as the source of this information. There was and is nothing in Retraction Watch to this effect (confirmed by one of the blog’s authors), and I made the point that, even if the statement about the doubling of the number of retractions was true, there is nothing to suggest that the retractions due to plagiarism had doubled; on the other hand, might possibly be thought to have a vested interest in promoting plagiarism hysteria, the better to sell its products.

[It was verifying this for the present story which led to my discovery that iThenticate has since removed the erroneous claim that plagiarism doubled in scientific papers in the years 2010-2011. In its stead is an equally erroneous post regarding a ten-fold increase in the rate of retraction of scientific papers over the past 20 years. This second claim is attributed to an article in Nature – which had indeed reported on a study which demonstrated a ten-fold increase in the rate of retraction, but the period under review was more than 36 years, not the 20 years of the iThenticate story (see Memory hole).]

I have Retraction Watch to thank again, for a report which draws together these threads, fracking and vested interest. In the post Undisclosed industry funding prompts correction of fracking paper, Adam Marcus reports on a research paper published in Environmental Science & Technology. The abstract of “Methane Concentrations in Water Wells Unrelated to Proximity to Existing Oil and Gas Wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania” states that the researchers “found no statistically significant relationship between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater from domestic water wells and proximity to pre-existing oil or gas wells” – and had suggested that the difference in findings to earlier studies (which found significant differences) was because the data-sets used in the EST study were far larger than those used in the earlier studies.

As may be. According to Inside Climate News, “Industry welcomed the Siegel study, the largest ever evaluating methane in water near gas development, as evidence of the safety of hydraulic fracturing.”  Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

But, as Retraction Watch reports, the journal has now published a correction, Continue reading

The three legs of research

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As promised in my last post, Hang on…, here is a two-minute take on Ken Vesey’s “three legs of research.” It’s an analogy that works, especially when we try to wean students away from internet-only research, when we get them to demonstrate use of a wide range of sources.

Picture the milking stool. It’s a three-legged piece of furniture, and it’s been around for thousands of years.  Just imagine an 8-year old girl… it’s four o’clock in the morning, it’s dark outside, the girl is asleep, the cow she is milking is asleep, swaying from side-to-side, occasionally knocking into the girl as she milks away…  The girl does not fall off her milking stool because a milking stool has three legs.  Three legs make for a stable form of furniture, it is very difficult to knock it over. It’s better than furniture with one leg or two legs, and it’s better than four legs or five legs or six or .. It has stood the test of time.

Three legs are good, three legs are stable. Think about the modern camera, many many thousands of dollars worth of equipment.  Photographers and movie-makers put them on three-legged tripods. They trust their expensive to a three-legged piece of equipment, because three legs are stable.

It’s the same with research. Research based on three legs makes for stable research… Continue reading

Not so easy does it

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Since this was posted, the company critiqued has addressed a few, but by no means all, of the issues detailed here. Some of the links in this post may now lead to pages different to those listed and illustrated. The editing process has not been thorough, and the reader will soon find other errors and inconsistencies throughout the site. It is, however, not my job to proof-read their site, nor to debug the software. JRR – 30 January 2015.

I was recently asked my opinion of the EasyBib add-on for Google Docs.  I don’t – didn’t – have an opinion. I haven’t tried it.  But, pushed by the request, I took a look.

First, though, I had a look at EasyBib itself, to see if an issue I had noted before had been addressed.  It hadn’t.  While checking, I found a lot of features new to me – and many more issues to add to my list of concerns.

So, let’s go over these first.

Auto-citation generation

The first thing I looked at was whether EasyBib had improved the way it handles dates, in its automatic citation generator mode. I have remarked before [Getting it wrong] that it seems to convert (some) British dates to US dates.  Nothing has changed.


Here, 1 December 2014 is interpreted as 01-12-2014 and so becomes January 12 2014.

Anyone relying on auto-citation might, or might not, notice that something is wrong.

There are other details that EasyBib’s auto-cite feature cannot always find or identify, such as the author, the title, the publisher, even when they are plainly there… Some omissions are highlighted, and users are invited to complete the missing details themselves.  I understand (anecdotally) that few students do. They tend to accept whatever EasyBib gives them, and few check what is missing or the actual citation generated. Some omissions are highlighted, some entries are just plain wrong.  It’s a quick-and-easy route to disaster. Continue reading

Remember the coffee study?

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(Spoiler alert: I succumbed!)

You surely remember the coffee study? I posted it only last week, Memories are made of this…

Okay, the study was actually on the effects of caffeine on the memory; Michael Yassa and associates were looking at how a dose of caffeine taken after a learning experience affected memory (even if the volunteer participants were not aware that they would be tested the following day on what they had remembered seeing during the “learning” experience).

My post was not about Yassa’s study itself; it was about the number of differences in press reports of the study: reports disagreed as to the number of volunteers Continue reading

Memories are made of…

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The headlines say it all:

Coffee boosts memory retention, study says (
Coffee a memory enhancing drug, say boffins (Register)
Coffee boosts long-term memory (Financial Times)
Study: coffee enhances long-term memory retention (
Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory’ (BBC News)
Researchers Find Coffee Enhances Memory, Good News for Seniors (
Caffeine has positive effect on memory, Johns Hopkins researchers … (The Hub at Johns Hopkins)
One or Two Cups of Coffee Improves Short-Term Memory, Study (University Herald)
Daily Coffee might Help Memory (Onlymyhealth)
Drink two espressos to enhance long-term memory (New Scientist)
Scientists reveal caffeine provides huge boost to your short-term memory (

This is a selection of headlines found in a Google Search for [coffee memory] on 13 January.  It looks like good news, strong news, positive news, doesn’t it?

Though, a moment’s careful looking might suggest a discrepancy or two… Continue reading