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.

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

Scholarships aren’t the only answer for Syria

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man walking in destroyed building syriaBy Rebecca Hughes and Adrian Chadwick

The crisis in Syria is about to enter its sixth year. Of the 12 million Syrians displaced, half are children whose education has been put on hold or seriously disrupted. The impact of this will be felt in Syria and the region for generations to come.

The UK is one of the largest donors to the Syria crisis, having recently doubled its contribution. The British Council is part of the UK’s response, working directly with and in the refugee-hosting countries of Lebanon, Turkey, northern Iraq and Jordan since 2012. During this time, we have developed education programmes that take account of the complex and changing needs of people on the ground.

We are ensuring that more children and young people get access to quality education, in particular; to gain recognised qualifications to prepare them for the future, and to ensure that more women and girls are protected from violence and receive an education. It is an approach that reaches the broadest base of the educational “pyramid”, supporting vulnerable young people who are less easily catered for. These include those unable to finish school because of the conflict and those who need access to informal education and entrepreneurial skills.

Further up the educational system we are supporting those already working, often illegally, who need upskilling with technical or workplace skills, and high school graduates who need access to higher education; and here universities also have an important role to play. While scholarships are an important contribution for some, and demonstrate solidarity from the academic world, they are not the only, or necessarily the most effective, solution. Although many international donors are offering scholarships, there are difficulties in selecting students with the requisite language and academic skills, and in absolute terms the numbers remain low. The UK Higher Education International Unit estimates that more than £2 million in support has been made available by British institutions, but, in many cases, the places made available remain unfilled.

An alternative that we are advocating is for UK institutions to implement a broader approach in the region to reach the greatest number of Syrians through a combination of language, skills and other training. One initiative under way includes a partnership between the University of Bath and universities in Jordan to build the capacity of higher education institutions to respond to the refugee crisis. Well-informed and targeted initiatives such as this, delivered in the region with local partners, can be most impactful in making a lasting difference to the so-called “lost generation”.

To assist with this, the British Council is providing guidance and acting as a platform for UK institutions seeking to offer academic and institutional capacity-building to regional universities. We are also working to provide digital learning offers – including accredited degree programmes through distance learning, and working with individuals who do meet the academic requirements for UK scholarships, and linking them to UK scholarship programmes through collaboration with Universities UK and others large European Union agencies such as DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) and Nuffic (the Dutch equivalent) to help coordinate efforts across borders.

Education in fragile environments is not organised, mass produced or neat and tidy, but can support meaningful change, by helping to provide disadvantaged youth with knowledge and skills and hope. So by providing UK universities with the information, opportunities and support that they need to work in the Middle East and North Africa region, we are able to show that engagement in higher education in the region is possible and meaningful, despite the difficulty of the environment and the scale of the challenge.

The EU-funded and British Council-run Language, Academic Skills and E-Learning Resources Project (Laser) in Jordan and Lebanon is one such project. Through Laser, Syrian refugees and disadvantaged Jordanians can participate in an intensive, three-month language course, followed by the opportunity to enter online higher education to complete a three-year bachelor’s degree through the Open University.

As learning remotely is challenging, participants in the project are provided with support and mentoring. If they are unable to or do not wish to study for a degree or a diploma, learners have access to massive open online courses (Moocs) and short courses in Arabic and English to help them develop a range of academic and practical skills. Despite limited internet access, personal challenges and traumatic experiences being barriers to learning, research shows that the flexibility of online learning, together with the provision of personal support and encouragement, helps to increase the chances of students’ success.

Laser and many of the initiatives in the region are just beginning. Although working in such a challenging context is complex, there are indications that such activity will increase both in scale and funding, driving innovative approaches to education and increasing training in the region.

The British Council believes that alongside scholarships, a “basket” of diverse responses is required to meet the very wide range of academic and skills needs of Syrians and other displaced and traumatised youth. As the number of young people leaving school as refugees increases, these needs will become ever greater and a focus within the region will be the only way to meet them.

Rebecca Hughes is head of education, and Adrian Chadwick is regional director, Middle East at the British Council.

Article Source: Times Higher Education

Multidisciplinary research ‘career suicide’ for junior academics

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25286 group of people squeezed into cramped office spaceBy This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Carrying out multidisciplinary research can be “career suicide” for young academics as top journals are highly specialised and there is still little funding for projects that span subject areas.

So says Ian Goldin, professor of globalisation and development and director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, who added that interdisciplinary research has not “seen much progress” in funding in the UK in research years, despite the fact that it has “become much more of a buzzword” and “all the research councils say they support it”.

He said that this is because research councils “have a bias against” multidisciplinary research as it falls outside their areas of expertise.

The councils “don’t know whether the people who are part of these interdisciplinary teams are leaders in their field or not and they don’t know whether the work is innovative or not”, he told Times Higher Education, ahead of his opening plenary speech at British Council’s Going Global conference on 3 May.

He added that there are very few highly ranked multidisciplinary journals, meaning that it is “extremely difficult” for young academics doing this type of work to get published.

However, Professor Goldin said that universities should not focus on interdisciplinary research at the expense of advanced work within each discipline.

“It’s not about breaking away from disciplinary expertise. It’s about building on it,” he said. “If you can’t master any one field and really advance knowledge within it in a structured way, you’re unlikely to be able to…grapple with issues that spill over multiple disciplinary boundaries.”

He added that “one of the reasons” for the 2008 financial crisis was that “people lost their ethics, their judgement, and their wisdom” because they were “too disciplinary siloed”.

Speaking about his upcoming book, Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, which will be published on 19 May, he said that there is a “real pressure” on universities to be “thinking ahead” and teaching information that will remain relevant when current students “reach their mid-careers”.

He said that “timeless” disciplines, such as the Classics and the humanities, often best “withstand rapid periods of change" because they give students a “skill set of enquiry based on evidence, the ability to assimilate lots of rapidly changing information in a curious way and a hunger for learning that remains for them for the rest of their life”.

“If [universities] can impart those things, [they’re] in pretty good shape,” he said.

Source: Times Higher Education

Five Ways to Improve Leadership in Universities

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follow the leadersBy Alison Johns, Chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Higher education is facing more challenges than ever before, so it needs leaders who can motivate staff and ensure the sector remains relevant in a competitive global context. And for that to happen, we need clarity about what good leadership looks like.

Our latest study found that more than four in five staff in the sector believe that developments are needed in this area. So how can we make improvements?

1. Create development opportunities
A strong and sustainable sector relies on opportunities for those with the ambition and potential to progress. Yet many currently working in the sector feel that the pathways to formal leadership positions are unclear: more than half of employees that we surveyed said they would need to leave their university in order to progress in their careers.

Leadership opportunities must be accessible and communicated proactively to prevent high staff turnover and a deficit of potential leaders. Formal mentoring schemes can be particularly effective – our study found that almost nine out of ten staff who had a mentor felt they benefitted from the relationship.

2. Be proactive in improving diversity
Women and those from black and minority ethnic groups (BME) are under-represented in leadership and management positions, and many staff reported an awareness of the difficulties faced by these groups in progressing to senior levels.

But universities need a much greater understanding of the experiences of women and BME staff: fewer than one in ten governors in our study identified increasing diversity as a means through which leadership in the sector could be improved.

Raising this as a priority issue for governors could lead to more targeted support and improvement, helping to ensure that higher education adequately reflects the society it serves.

3. Address work-life balance, particularly for women
Heavy workloads can put enormous pressure on the personal lives of many who occupying leadership positions, but there is a clear gender difference in work-life balance. Our survey found that about two-thirds of female academic leaders feel unhappy with their work-life balance, compared with about a third of male academics. This can be a serious deterrent for those looking to step up and risks limiting the number of women in leadership positions.

Universities are generally good at flexible working policies. However, active implementation of them and systematic monitoring of individual workloads would do much to improve this. Leadership teams have an important role in influencing organisational culture, to ensure that it values and rewards outputs, and serves academic enterprise above presenteeism.

4. Attract leaders with outside experience
Leaders with a wider range of professional backgrounds provide higher education institutions with new insights and experience, which helps them to tackle ever-evolving challenges, particularly around areas such as managing reputational risk. Our study found that a third of governors believe leadership within the sector could be improved by increasing the number of leaders with diverse experience and expertise.

We already see increasing numbers of appointments in professional services from business. Mirroring this on the academic side and creating opportunities for leaders with management experience would help to address this, and could be achieved through secondments, work shadowing and mentoring opportunities.

5. Analyse the motivations of potential leaders
An in-depth understanding of the motivations for aspiring to leadership is essential to ensure the right development opportunities are available. Our research shows that engaging in challenging work, having opportunities for growth and exercising autonomy are important motivating factors for potential leaders, alongside the desire to contribute to the sector more generally.

Universities can act on this by ensuring the development of roles and projects that allow staff to challenge themselves, and by providing training programmes that offer on-the-job opportunities for growth. Engaging staff at all levels with strategic direction and decision-making will also help to encourage more people to pursue leadership roles. For women and younger staff, there is a particularly strong desire for clarity around career progression.

Universities will put themselves in a better position to attract and retain talented employees if they can provide clarity, job security and proactively communicate the opportunities for development.

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