Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Publishing spam

This week, my colleague Susan Stepney posted an interesting blog article on the emerging phenomenon of "publishing spam" - unsolicited emails sent to academics in an attempt to flatter them into submitting a paper for publication. Unfortunately, such publications generally come with significant page charges attached. While the notion of page charges is not, in itself, inherently bad (most open access publishing relies on it), problems arise when they are levied by so-called "predatory publishers" - operations set up specifically to harvest fees from sometimes gullible academics (who may be desperate to add papers to their CVs in an attempt to gain tenure, or even gain a first position). The number of such outfits is growing rapidly, and they are discussed in detail here.

Susan was discreet enough to redact the name of the publisher in her case;  I, however, have been contacted several times by the same operation, despite several requests for my address to be removed from their mailing list. I therefore have no qualms about reproducing here the email I've just sent to them. MASAUM appear on the most popular list of predatory publishers, and so I can only conclude that their primary aim is to make money, rather than disseminate good scholarship.

To whom it may concern:

Despite several requests to you to remove my email address from your contact list, you still persist in sending me your academic spam. I am therefore copying this message to members of your "editorial board", in the hope that they will come to realise the precise nature of your operation.

Your messages are unsolicited and unwelcome. No credible organization would garner publications by sending out boiler-plate invitations in the way that you do. It is clear that the only objective of your operation is to gather publication fees from desperate and/or gullible academics. The role of academic editors is to use their contacts in order to solicit submissions. The people you list in your email should be made aware of the fact that associating themselves with MASAUM will do their careers a lot more harm than good; seeing such an editorship on a CV would immediately cause me to call into question a colleague's judgement, since they have clearly not done their homework on the precise nature of your business model. I would encourage them to resign immediately.You are listed in a directory of predatory publishers


and it is clear that such a listing is well-deserved.

Please do not contact me again. 

Monday, April 02, 2012


After removing some Blogger folders from my new Android phone, I quickly realised that they were actually synced with my blog (as opposed to just being copied). As a result, I've lost any images posted to my blog. I've tried to restore the most recent ones, but the rest are gone. Ho hum.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Come and work with us - Ph.D. in Digital Design

MIRIAD/DRI Studentship in Digital Design

Ref: JA2012/3

The Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD) and the Dalton Research Institute (DRI) at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) seek qualified candidates for a fully-funded, three-year full-time Ph.D. studentship in the area of digital design.

The use of computers and associated technologies has a long history in art, design, architecture and other affiliated disciplines. Research at the intersection of informatics and art/design is developing quickly, due to the increasing availability of high-performance computers, and the accessibility of various software packages and programming tools and techniques. Recently, though, a new wave of digital creativity has emerged that seeks to go beyond the simple application of software to problems in art and design. Practitioners in this area are using novel computing techniques, in a ‘bottom up" fashion, to generate entirely new representations, structures and designs. Examples of this (from ongoing work at MMU) include the design of 3D structures using methods inspired by embryonic development, and the evolution of rules for pattern formation.

The successful candidate will be jointly-supervised by leading academics in both MIRIAD (Art & Design) and the DRI (Science and Engineering), and will belong to both Research Institutes. MIRIAD and the DRI are embarking on an ambitious programme of formal collaboration, and the student will be expected to contribute fully to this. Trained in art/design/architecture or a related discipline, you will have substantial computational skills, at least to the level of having a good working knowledge of scripting and/or programming languages. You should be prepared to cross disciplines during the course of your research, and be willing to play a role in bridging the gaps between disparate research fields.

More details at


The deadline for all applications is 10th April 2012 (new deadline!)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

On public engagement (Part I)

Last week I was privileged to be invited to speak to participants in the University of Sheffield's Crucible programme. The idea is to create "outward facing researchers", who are capable of thinking and working in an inter-disciplinary fashion, exchanging knowledge and reaching out to wider society. I was asked to talk to them about public engagement, so here's a summary of my presentation (split into a number of parts).

The notion of "the good, the bad and the ugly" is often used as a device with which to frame a discussion. I thought I'd use it, but with a minor modification, as I couldn't really think of any truly ugly experiences of public engagement.

We first need to define what we mean by "public engagement". I was quite happy to go with the National Co-ordinating Cente for Public Engagement definition:

The phrases to emphasise here are "connect and share their work", "mutual benefit", "sharing knowledge, expertise and skills", "trust, understanding and collaboration", and the inevitable "impact".

In my view, what public engagement is emphatically not about is "selling" an institution or a particular piece of work.
People taking a more positive view of an institution should be a beneficial side-effect of effective public engagement, rather than an end in itself. In my experience, people know when they are being sold to, and it can often be counter-productive. Good, honest attempts to truly engage will always leave people with a favourable impression, whereas sales tactics generally give off a whiff of desperation and tackiness.

I then invoked my utterly unscientific idea of the "axes of involvement" to categorise different types of public engagement (with which I've been personally involved. On the x-axis we have the level of "audience" participation (running from "passive" to "actively involved in delivering the product", and on the y-axis we have audience numbers (on a log scale, running from single individuals to thousands of people).

On the left-hand side we have activities such as my book Genesis Machines, which was read by thousands of people (honest!), but involved a very low level of "participation" (a few people emailed me after reading the book, but there was no real interaction involved). On this side we also have our exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry; again, seen by potentially thousands of visitors, but which involves them passively watching a video interview.

To the right we have more participative activities, such as DIYbio Manchester, or Manchester Methods (see the video below):

Both of these activities, by their very nature, might involve handfuls of individuals (up to maybe 50 or 60), but they're a lot more hands on in terms of their participation.

I therefore decided to call projects to the left "broadcasting" activities (lots of communication, not much feedback, large numbers), and those to the right "collaboration" activities (lots of participation, lots of feedback, smaller numbers). I also identified four different activity types: Writing, Presenting, Teaching and Working.

Writing is often the most obvious route into public engagement. It was certainly mine; my first popular science book was published in 2006, as a direct result of my entering the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in 1999. I didn't win, but I was shortlisted (and was delighted to learn that the panel that year included Douglas Adams), and the winner was the acclaimed Right Hand, Left Hand, by Chris McManus. Afterwards, Toby Mundy, who was publishing the winner, contacted me to discuss the possibility of my working up my synopsis into a full book, which would appear some years later. This led, in turn, to appearances at the ICA, turns at both Edinburgh Science and Book Festivals, newspaper features, appearances on Radio 4, and so on (I was greatly helped in all of this by having an excellent publicist in Annabel Huxley).

Message 1 is therefore Write, Write, Write!. Accessible articles can really open up your field to outsiders; you can either post them on your blog (where they form a useful ready-made archive of soundbites for interested journalists), or enter them into competitions. Leading writer Ed Yong has described how winning the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize kick-started his own career, and the Guardian has a large list of tips for successful writing.

Next time: Presenting.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Warning: (Center for) Advanced Modeling and Optimization, and a plagiarism case.

Since I described the plagiarism of one of our papers, one of the authors has been in touch to (a) apologize, and (b) confirm his agreement to retract the paper. He's been perfectly helpful, which is more than can be said for the editor of the journal in which the paper appears.

Both the author and myself have contacted him several times, without reply, so I'm now taking the opportunity to name both him and his journal. I do this in the hope that it will discourage potential authors from submitting papers to an operation that publishes plagiarised work and then refuses to even acknowledge the fact, let alone investigate it.

Advanced Modeling and Optimization is an "electronic international journal" edited by Neculai Andrei of the "Center for Advanced Modeling and Optimization" in Romania. It's rather obscure, but the fact that its content is freely-available means that papers it "publishes" will often be used in preference to others if authors have no access to better sources (one of the few down-sides of open access publishing).

As a result, the paper in question, containing swathes of our work, has attracted a fairly respectable 19 citations, including mentions in papers published in decent journals.

I would therefore ask you to consider this case before citing the following paper:

DNA Simulation of Nand Boolean Circuits. H. Ahrabian and A. Nowzari-Dalini.
Advanced Modeling and Optimization 6:2, 2004.

If you're thinking about submitting a paper to Advanced Modeling and Optimization (or even citing a paper in which it appears) I'd also ask you to consider the scientific credibility of the journal, given its lax reviewing and non-existent quality assurance processes.

EDIT 13/11/12: The paper has (finally) been withdrawn.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Big in Iran

(With apologies to Alphaville).

After yesterday's post on plagiarism, I didn't think it could get any worse. I was wrong.

Another search turned up a second Iranian remix of our (clearly legendary) 1997 paper on DNA-based Boolean circuits. Again, ours is on the left:

This version is due to Mahnaz Kadkhoda and Ali A. Poyan, of the University of Birjand and Sharood University of Technology respectively, and it appeared in the proceedings of the Second International Conference on Quantum, Nano and Micro Technologies (2008). Notice, once again, the direct copying of sections of text.

I've made the full versions of our paper and their paper available here, as they serve to illustrate the point made yesterday about a culture of "remixing" existing work, adding a little spin and then releasing it as one's own. Although there are differences between the two papers, they aren't technically significant. In this case, they've simply inverted our scheme, and thus claimed a new method which is "much faster and easier" (it isn't, as it still requires a fairly brutal gel extraction step).

But there's more.

By Googling a selected phrase from the original paper, we also find our text embedded in this paper, due to Zoraida, Arock, Ronald and Ponalagusamy, from the National Institute of Technology in India.

At this point, I've decided to give up chasing the matter, if only for the sake of my sanity. There are only so many rabbit-holes one can jump down in fruitless pursuit of plagiarists.

Monday, February 06, 2012

My worst plagiarism case yet

I've written before about having our stuff plagiarized. In the past, the cases I've found have been generally low-impact, in that the places in which the ripped-off material appeared have been low-key (eg. news articles, course materials). When contacted, the miscreants have either ignored me, or apologised. In this particular case, things got a lot more weird.

Full (and ironic) disclosure: the sections of the paper that were ripped off were actually written by my co-author, Paul Dunne.

A few years ago (in 2007), while searching for a reference to back up an assertion I'd made about NAND gates, I came across a paper on simulating Boolean circuits using DNA. "Looks familiar", I thought, and a side-by-side comparison shows just how similar it was to a 1997 paper I wrote with Paul (our paper is on the left):

At the time, I contacted the senior author, who I'll call Dr A, for reasons which will become clear shortly.

I received a response from Dr A, saying that there had been a "misinterpretation", and decided not to pursue it any further. However, I recently found myself coming across the paper again after following a different trail of references. According to Google Scholar, it's been cited 18 times in the past four or so years, which is a decent number. That's 18 citations to a paper that borrows large conceptual chunks from our original idea, as well as taking whole sections verbatim.

Happily for us, our original paper has been cited many more times than the plagiarized version, but I was rather annoyed to see this bastardised "ghost" version mopping up after it. So, I sent another email to Dr A; this time they sent me a fairly detailed response (on January 31 2012, the date is important), arguing how their method is subtly different to ours. I wasn't entirely happy with this, so I sent them the side-by-side comparison (above). Here's the response I got:

In the first slide, exactly above the highlighted text, I cited you paper. In second slide, I used some text from your paper in problem definition. The definition of Boolean network was very good in your paper and I used it. I thought, this kind of use is fair, and show the value of the paper (you paper).

It's true that our paper was cited, but the text was lifted without any form of quotation. Most telling is the explanation along the lines of "I liked it, so I took it."

I wasn't particularly happy with this, so I responded

I am pleased that you recognize that this is a case of plagiarism; I do not accept the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" argument.

The response I got was quite shocking:

...unfortunately I have cancer and I'm dying and I do not live more than one month.

Huh. I responded to say "I'm sorry to hear that", and then left it, but Googled Dr A on a hunch.

It turned out that Dr A actually died in November of last year. I'm not naming her here directly, because I have no desire for her to show up in connection to a post about plagiarism when she is in no position to defend herself. Nonetheless, it seemed as if someone was posing as her, and responding to her emails through her official University account.

I responded:

I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I am sure that you are not Dr A. The reason I say this is that I believe she died at the end of last year. So, please explain who you are, and why you are continuing to use her email address. This is not about plagiarism now, it's more about establishing who I am actually speaking to.

The person then responded, explaining that they were an ex-student of Dr A (let's call him Mr M), and she had given them her email password prior to her death. Whether or not she had given them permission to pose as her is another question entirely.

I then pointed out to Mr M that he seemed to know a lot about the paper's contents, given that he was not listed as a co-author. His response:

I am a computer programmer. I wrote the programs of Dr. A's papers. For this paper, I wrote the simulation program for testing the algorithm.

So, this guy wrote some simulation code (the results of which are described in the paper), but wasn't listed as a co-author (or even acknowledged). He was paid for his services, I established later.

This all seemed pretty grubby to me at that stage, so I contacted the other author to explain what had happened. On the surface he was very angry, and told me that he had had Mr M's access to Dr A's email revoked. However, when I suggested to him that the paper should be retracted (as suggested for non-trivial cases of plagiarism), he fell strangely quiet.

Edit 9/2/12: He's agreed to retract the paper.

The reason that I'm highlighting this right now is that this week I received a paper to review, which came from Dr A's country (Iran). Without giving anything away, the paper contained several plagiarised figures from various sources, and drew far too heavily on a Ph.D. thesis with which I am familiar. I initially tried to dismiss it as coincidence, but then some cursory research into Iran's research culture led me here and here.

I was particularly struck by the observation in the Times Higher article that "People who are under pressure to get publications out sometimes look to research done in another language, add their twist to it and publish it..", which certainly seems to be the case here.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the complex political, cultural and social reasons for endemic plagiarism, but I very much doubt that tackling plagiarism is high on the Iranian government's agenda right now.