A Peek Inside the Strange World of Fake Academia

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29up conference superJumboBy Kevin Carey for the NY Times

The caller ID on my office telephone said the number was from Las Vegas, but when I picked up the receiver I heard what sounded like a busy overseas call center in the background. The operator, “John,” asked if I would be interested in attending the 15th World Cardiology and Angiology Conference in Philadelphia next month.

“Do I have to be a doctor?” I said, because I’m not one. I got the call because 20 minutes earlier I had entered my phone number into a website run by a Hyderabad, India, company called OMICS International.

“You can have the student rate,” the man replied. With a 20 percent discount, it would be $599. The conference was in just a few weeks, I pointed out — would that be enough time for the academic paper I would be submitting to be properly reviewed? (Again, I know nothing about cardiology.) It would be approved on an “expedited basis” within 24 hours, he replied, and he asked which credit card I would like to use.

If it seems that I was about to be taken, that’s because I was. OMICS International is a leader in the growing business of academic publication fraud. It has created scores of “journals” that mimic the look and feel of traditional scholarly publications, but without the integrity. This year the Federal Trade Commission formally charged OMICS with “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.”

OMICS is also in the less well-known business of what might be called conference fraud, which is what led to the call from John. Both schemes exploit a fundamental weakness of modern higher education: Academics need to publish in order to advance professionally, get better jobs or secure tenure. Even within the halls of respectable academia, the difference between legitimate and fake publications and conferences is far blurrier than scholars would like to admit.

OMICS is on the far end of the “definitely fake” spectrum. Real academic conferences evaluate potential participants by subjecting proposed papers and presentations to a rigorous peer-review process. Some 15,000 people attend the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, for example, and only about a third of submitted proposals are accepted.

In October, a New Zealand college professor submitted a paper to the OMICS-sponsored “International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics,” which was held last month at the Hilton Atlanta Airport. It was written using the autocomplete feature on his iPhone, which produced an abstract that begins as follows: “Atomic Physics and I shall not have the same problem with a separate section for a very long long way. Nuclear weapons will not have to come out the same day after a long time of the year he added the two sides will have the two leaders to take the same way to bring up to their long ways of the same as they will have been a good place for a good time at home the united front and she is a great place for a good time.”

The paper was accepted within three hours.

An OMICS employee who identified himself as Sam Dsouza said conference papers are reviewed by its “experts” within 24 hours of submission. He couldn’t provide a list of its reviewers or their credentials.

Having dispensed with academic standards, OMICS makes money on volume. Its conferenceseries.com website lists hundreds of so-called academic meetings, many at vacation destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. On Dec. 1 and 2, the “2nd International Congress on Neuroimmunology and Therapeutics,” the “13th International Conference on Vaccines, Therapeutics and Travel Medicine: Influenza and Infectious Diseases,” and the “International Conference on Clinical and Medical Genetics” were all held, simultaneously, at the Hilton Atlanta Airport.

Stacking multiple fake conferences at the same hotel is a common practice, says Jeffrey Beall, a tenured University of Colorado Denver librarian. He maintains a website for identifying “predatory open access scholarly publishers” that masquerade as scholarly journals, but are actually in the business of pumping out worthless articles and exploiting scholars with hidden fees. “You just rent a hotel, make up a name and stand around while everyone is reading their papers,” Mr. Beall says. “It’s easy money.”

Mr. Beall’s list, which has grown to 923 publishers from 18 in 2011, also includes a British company called the “Infonomics Society.” Like OMICS, it publishes a raft of journals, 17 in all, with legitimately dry-sounding titles like “International Journal of Sustainable Energy Development.” Mr. Beall calls Infonomics an “impostor scholarly society” that is “designed to generate as much revenue as possible.” All 17 journals are run by a single person named Charles Shoniregun out of a modest two-story attached brick home in the outer suburbs of London.

Infonomics also sponsors a series of conferences. But when I looked into one of them, the “World Conference on Special Needs Education,” or W.C.S.N.E., the story was more complex than I expected.

Like many predatory publishers, the Infonomics website for W.C.S.N.E. has a certain word-salad, shaky-command-of-English-syntax quality familiar to anyone who reads the spam folder in their email. “The Infonomics Society has an established reputation for promoting research esteem that is valued by research community,” it says. The W.C.S.N.E. is attended by “Policy Makers and Stakeholders who care deeply about bringing creative, innovative and rigorous learning practices barriers.”

The W.C.S.N.E. paper submissions guidelines warn that all papers must be strictly limited to “a total of 4 to 6 pages.” That includes all figures, tables and references. Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall, says that this is “a red flag.” Education research papers are typically much longer, he notes — the tables and reference pages alone can run to double digits. But short papers are easier to pack into a single “journal.”

The website included a long list of “Program Committee members” with impressive academic credentials, as well as “Keynote Speakers” for the coming conference, scheduled to be held in August at Temple University, the W.C.S.N.E. host for the last three years.

But when I contacted those identified as committee members and speakers, many immediately replied that they had no idea they were on the website and had no affiliation with the W.C.S.N.E. The announced keynote speakers told me they were nothing of the kind. Within 24 hours of my inquiries, someone removed their names and biographies from the site and replaced them with a page that said “Keynote Speakers to be Announced!”

A spokesman for Temple, Hillel Hoffmann, said the university condemned “predatory open-access publishing” and said no university money had been spent on the conference. He said that special-needs learners in the community, including adult literacy students, had attended parts of the conference and had benefited from it, but that none had paid to participate. He added that the W.C.S.N.E. would no longer take place at Temple.

Richard Cooper, the director of disability services at Harcum College, a private two-year institution in Philadelphia, helped create W.C.S.N.E. along with Mr. Shoniregun. He says he has no involvement with the paper selection process or financial aspects of the conference, simply serving as an organizer, presenter and master of ceremonies. He described it as a worthwhile gathering of scholars, many of whom live in Africa and India and pay hundreds of dollars in conference fees to attend.

The papers presented at previous W.C.S.N.E. conferences don’t appear to have been composed using the autocomplete function on an iPhone. They mostly describe small qualitative studies and surveys that examine well-established ideas, break little new ground and use statistical jargon to make their findings seem more complicated than they really are. They very likely would be rejected by the American Educational Research Association. But they are also well within the bounds of what gets published in many scholarly journals that, while not prestigious, have never been called a fraud.

Barba Patton, an education professor at the University of Houston-Victoria in Victoria, Tex., defended the W.C.S.N.E. unreservedly. “I have attended ten to fifteen of the conferences in the U.S., Canada and in Europe,” she wrote via email. “I have no concerns about the website. You must remember that the conference reaches many who are using the British English rather than the American.”

Mr. Shoniregun did not respond to messages sent to his several email addresses. But he appears to have created a kind of hybrid conference that combines the shady, volume-first internet marketing practices of OMICS with the more quotidian inattention to academic rigor that characterizes much of legitimate academia.

Take the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), by all accounts a legitimate organization. This year, Peter Dreier, chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy department at Occidental College, described how he submitted a proposal full of jargon, misquotation, non sequitur and general academic gobbledygook to an international conference sponsored by the 4S. It was accepted. “I look forward to meeting you in Tokyo,” the panel organizer wrote.

Lucy Suchman, a sociologist at Britain’s Lancaster University and the president of 4S, acknowledges that the abstract review process is “not perfect” and that she would have rejected Mr. Dreier’s submission. But, she notes, 4S reviews hundreds of submissions every year with an “assumption of good faith.” It would not have occurred to them that someone of Mr. Dreier’s standing in academia was engaged in such an “unfortunate prank,” she said, emphasizing the overall high quality of 4S presentations.

There are real, prestigious journals and conferences in higher education that enforce and defend the highest standards of scholarship. But there are also many more Ph.D.-holders than there is space in those publications, and those people are all in different ways subject to the “publish or perish” system of professional advancement. The academic journal-and-conference system is subject to no real outside oversight. Standards are whatever the scholars involved say they are.

So it’s not surprising that some academics have chosen to give one another permission to accumulate publication credits on their C.V.’s and spend some of the departmental travel budget on short holidays. Nor is it surprising that some canny operators have now realized that when standards are loose to begin with, there are healthy profits to be made in the gray areas of academe.

People in UAE read for 51 hours a year, survey shows. Lebanon tops the index with 59 hours

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booksBy Nadeem Hanif for the National

People in the UAE read for around 51 hours a year, well above the average of 35 hours for the rest of the Arab world.

According to a survey by the Arab Reading Index, people in the emirates read 24 books a year compared with the regional average of 16.

Overall Lebanon topped the index with 59 hours of reading a year covering 29 books. The UAE came fourth. "Reading is an essential tool to build knowledge and culture within a society and this index will help us take social and economic development to the next level in the region," said Najoura Ghriss, the report’s main author and a professor at the Higher Institute of Education and Continuous Training in Tunisia.

She was speaking on the second day of the Knowledge Summit at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Dubai.

In all 148,000 people in 22 Arab countries took part in the survey.

For Jamal bin Huwaireb, managing director of Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation, the findings have finally debunked a perception that Arabs rarely read.

"We had always heard these statistics claiming that Arabs only read six minutes on average every year and that, statistically, it takes 80 Arabs to read one book every year," he said.

"We were very sceptical and sought to determine the source of these statistics only to find that there was virtually no sound evidence to support them.

"This is why we launched the Arab Reading Index, and set out to find the accurate data ourselves – and from all Arab countries."

Respondents n the UAE said they had the easiest access to books at school or at home, at 89 and 88 per cent respectively, followed by 76 per cent in wider society.

The top five countries in terms of reading were Lebanon with a score of 90, Egypt with 89, Morocco with 87, the UAE with 82, and Jordan with 71. The rankings were based on scores given for extent of reading, access to reading material and personal attributes.

The summit was told it is essential that parents and families nurture a positive reading habit.

"Like a plant it needs to be watered and tended to and only them will it be able to flourish," said Noureddine Selmi, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research for Tunisia.

Elias Bou Saab, Minister of Education and Higher Education in Lebanon, said he was proud that his country was ranked first in the Arab Reading list but more needed to be done to encourage the practice in the region.

"Learning itself depends on reading, whether you’re in school or university it requires reading as a first step," he said.

"And in that role the family and mother in particular can play a crucial role. If a child sees their mother reading then he or she is more likely to pick up the practice and make it a part of their own life."

For more details about the Arab Reading Index, visit www.knowledge4all.com

Robot-Written Peer Reviews

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fakeBy Jack Grove for Times Higher Education

Soulless computer algorithms are already churning out weather bulletins, sports reports, rap lyrics and even passable Chinese poetry.

But it seems machines have now taken another step toward replacing human enterprise by generating their own reviews of serious academic journal papers that are able to impress even experienced academics.

Using automatic text generation software, computer scientists at Italy’s University of Trieste created a series of fake peer reviews of genuine journal papers and asked academics of different levels of seniority to say whether they agreed with their recommendations to accept for publication or not.

In a quarter of cases, academics said they agreed with the fake review’s conclusions, even though they were entirely made up of computer-generated gobbledygook -- or, rather, sentences picked at random from a selection of peer reviews taken from subjects as diverse as brain science, ecology and ornithology.

“Sentences like ‘it would be good if you can also talk about the importance of establishing some good shared benchmarks’ or ‘it would be useful to identify key assumptions in the modeling’ are probably well suited to almost any review,” explained Eric Medvet, an assistant professor in Trieste’s department of engineering and architecture, who conducted the experiment with colleagues at his university’s Machine Learning Lab.

“If, by chance, a generated review combines sentences which are not too specific, but credible, the review itself may appear as written by a real, human reviewer even to the eyes of an experienced reader,” added Medvet, whose paper “Your Paper Has Been Accepted, Rejected, or Whatever: Automatic Generation of Scientific Paper Reviews,” was published in the journal Lecture Notes in Computer Science last month.

Mixing the fake reviews with real reviews was also likely to distort decisions made by academics by making weak papers appear far stronger thanks to a series of glowing reviews, the paper found.  The research team was able to influence the peer review process in one in four cases by throwing fake reviews into the mix, it said.

“This [may be] the situation [faced by a] real conference program chair … who has to take decisions about all the submissions at his or her conference,” Medvet told Times Higher Education.
“He or she could decide [whom to accept] without actually reading all the reviews, or maybe by giving them just a shallow read,” he added.

While computer-generated reviews “cannot possibly deceive any rigorous editorial procedure, [they] could nevertheless find a role in several questionable scenarios and magnify the scale of scholarly frauds,” the paper concludes.

With nearly 1,000 so-called predatory publishers seeking pay-to-publish journal papers, automatically generated reviews may make it easier for bogus papers to gain credibility, he added.
“It is quite easy to spot the fact that [these reviews] are not sound, but not if you do not read them,” said Medvet.

A Future For Higher Education... That Works

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futureBy Pierre Dubuc for the Huffington Post

Why would anyone want to be a student today? As David Birch pointed out recently, the average cost of tuition and fees at private national universities has risen by 179 per cent since 1995. Last month, we saw the latest march against the current government’s education policies - a tradition that has become as much a part of student life as Rag Week - while changes to student finance in Wales will see many students losing their grants.

The answer to this question is, of course, that universities are seen as the only realistic pathway to employment for a whole range of careers. But the education la ndscape is indeed changing, and David has shown us how technology is opening up new opportunities for people to access a great education for the fraction of the cost of traditional undergraduate degrees.

Before we get carried away with the possibilities of online learning and MOOCs, however, it’s important to sound a note of caution. Technology is not a silver bullet; nor is it a guarantee of quality. In fact, the lack of regulation for online learning means that it’s easier than ever for charlatans to set up their own establishments, offering dodgy “degrees” that are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

The government’s proposals to relax the rules governing the accreditation of new institutions was one of the central issues earning the ire of the most recent student demonstrators - and they have a right to be worried. At present, there is no overarching system of accreditation - or even best practice - for judging the merits of an online education course.

This matters. The last thing that tomorrow’s students need is an educational marketplace full of meaningless qualifications - similar, for example, to a certain US course in real estate which even its own employees described as a rip-off.

So while I share David’s excitement about the possibilities of online education, I believe that more needs to be done to ensure recognised standards that enable prospective students to choose a worthwhile course, and for employers to select the best and brightest graduates.

Any education course, whether online or offline, must demonstrate its utility, and one of the best ways of doing this is to show a direct link between learning and employment. At OpenClassrooms, for example, we work closely with businesses - including IBM and Google - to build courses and curricula which answer today’s skills shortage in the workplace. We see our mission very simply: to enable students to master the skills they need to get jobs in the digital economy, and we believe the only way to do this effectively is to involve enterprises intimately in the development of our courses and learning pathways.

The second element that needs to be addressed is the personal one. David recognises that face-to-face interactions are valuable, but argues that many students “prefer online learning”. When studying traditional university degrees, students’ tend to receive around 14 hours of teaching time (Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute survey). I see no reason why students learning online should be deprived of the same tutorials and mentorship that are available within “physical” degree programmes. In fact, I’d argue that mentoring is central to these courses’ success, especially with highly technical subjects.

It’s very easy to become frustrated when one is having difficulties with some aspect of the course, which can lead to high dropout rates (some online courses have a woeful completion rate of around five per cent). Having a dedicated mentor and a forum where students can share ideas with, or give encouragement to their peers is, I would say, more than just desirable - it’s a necessity. Where students take a learning path with mentoring we see a completion rate of 87% showing just how powerful one-to-one mentoring is in supporting online learning.

The third aspect that must be addressed is accreditation. Deakin University’s decision to deliver six postgraduate degree MOOCs in 2017 is a watershed moment that demonstrates online courses are now seen as a realistic alternative to traditional models of education. But more than this, we are seeing employers around the world recognising in depth online learning courses like our Bachelor’s degree in web development for what they are - not a certificate for watching videos, but a demonstration of skills attainment and competence.

A checklist of best practices and accreditation for online education providers will help weed out poor course providers. But ultimately any course should be judged on its ability to secure you a job, so it is employers and recent graduates who are best placed to judge the quality of learning.

These are indeed exciting times for the world of education, and for those who are seeking new ways to equip themselves with the skills they need to succeed at life. We owe it to the students of the future - those currently at school, or stuck in jobs dreaming of a better, more fulfilling career - to give them a true choice, and the ability to access educational excellence.

The paradox of higher education in MENA

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GCCWomenHigherEdBy Shanta Devarajan

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was the cradle of higher education. The three oldest, still-functioning universities in the world are in Iran, Morocco, and Egypt. The University of Al-Karaouine in Fes has been granting degrees since 859 A.D. The Ancient Library of Alexandria, in addition to being repository of books and manuscripts, was a center of learning during the Ptolemaic dynasty, with scholars traveling to there from all around the Mediterranean and beyond. And scholars such as Ibn Khaldoun discovered fundamental economics four centuries before Adam Smith and others. In short, all of us who have benefited from a university education owe a debt to the MENA region.

Yet, today the quality of higher education in MENA is among the lowest in the world. Only two or three Arab universities are in the list of the top 500 universities in the world (and none are in the top 200).

Employers in the region complain that university graduates lack the skills needed to work in the global marketplace. Many are not trained in science, mathematics, engineering, and other technical subjects where the jobs are. Furthermore, these graduates lack the “soft skills,” including creativity and teamwork, partly because their training has emphasized memorization and rote learning. In Egypt, despite an unemployment rate of over 10 percent, some 600,000 jobs remain unfilled. About 40 percent of university graduates in MENA are unemployed; the labor force participation of women, most of whom are better educated than the men, is the lowest in the world. Worse, violent extremist groups have used universities as one of their sources of recruitment.

How could this have happened? How could the same region that created higher education have a system that is so dysfunctional that it’s contributing to, rather than alleviating, the problems facing MENA? And how can the situation be turned around, so that the universities are once again the best in the world?

We can start by seeking the reasons behind the current problems of the region. To be sure, the reasons for the high unemployment rate among university graduates are manifold and have mostly to do with the investment climate and the (lack of) growth of the private sector. But there is one feature that is common to all the countries in the region: The majority of university graduates received jobs in the public sector. The state was the employer of first and last resort.

This feature had an impact on the quality of university education:

  1. The subject of specialization didn’t matter as much in the public sector, so students didn’t choose to study science and engineering; they chose somewhat “easier” subjects such as literature and history.
  2. The public sector was not demanding of soft skills.
  3. The nature of the curriculum, with its emphasis on memory, repeating what the professor says without questioning or debating, may have been acceptable for the public sector—but it didn’t help the private sector, which is looking for creative minds who will invent the next Uber, for example. This curriculum may have also made it easier for radicalized groups to recruit students.

The second, more controversial, reason has to do with the pricing of university education. Almost all the universities provided education free of charge, based on the notion that poor people should have access to higher education as a means of escaping poverty. Unfortunately, the result has been that the overwhelming majority of students in universities come from the richest parts of the population. The pattern is not unique to MENA: It is found in Asia and Africa. And the reason has to do with economics. Whenever something is provided for free, there is excess demand. Universities ration the excess demand by requiring students to pass an entrance exam. The rich can afford to send their children to the best secondary schools to prepare them to pass the entrance exam. As a result, the universities are full of students from the richest strata of society. Put another way, free higher education confers a huge rent to those who have access to it. And the rich are better placed to seize those rents than the poor.

In fact, the problem is worse because free education gives weak incentives to improve the quality of university education. The university has little to gain by investing in improving the curriculum (since more students doesn’t mean more revenue). Meanwhile, students don’t demand better quality as much as they would if they were paying for the education and needed to recoup their investment. The experience of Tribhuvan University in Nepal is instructive. When they started charging tuition fees in their institute of engineering, the quality improved so much that they started attracting students from all over South Asia. Moreover, the reforms spread to the rest of the higher education sector in the country.

To be sure, simply charging for higher education will not solve the problems of universities in MENA. For one thing, poor people should still be able to afford tertiary education, but this should be addressed by providing means-tested scholarships, rather than an across-the-board subsidy that, as we noted, the rich can take advantage of. For another, the transition needs to be managed because such shifts are likely to elicit a political reaction. However, the principle has to be that universities should be given incentives to invest in higher quality education, and students should have an incentive to demand higher quality instruction.

If we can bring about these two changes—a shift in the focus of higher education away from public-sector jobs and a system of financing that aligns incentives with quality—we can go a long way towards restoring the grandeur of higher education in MENA. As I mentioned at the beginning, the whole world owes the MENA region a huge debt for having created and nurtured university education a millennium ago. It is time to repay that debt.

Shanta Devarajanis, Chief Economist, Middle East and North Africa Region - World Bank

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