Friday, May 04, 2018

UGC strikes back: INSA's Indian Journal of History of Science is not an "approved" journal!

After many people pointed out that the University Grants Commission's "White List" of "approved" journals had many, many predatory journals (see, for example, this recent report in The Hindu), UGC tried to make amends by issuing another list [pdf], which now consists of all the journals which are "removed" from the list of "approved" journals.

What is really galling is that in this pruning process, which killed some 4000+ journals, UGC has gone way too far on the other side, and removed a whole bunch of legitimate journals. [see this report from today's The Hindu].

I just learnt that The Indian Journal of History of Science, published by the Indian National Science Academy, has also been kicked out of the "approved" list!

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Obituary of the 100 Dollar Laptop

Way back in March 2014, OLPC News, which used to track all the OLPC-related news and developments, bid farewell to this pipe dream riding on poor people's money. Earlier this month, Adi Robertson penned a formal detailed obituary in The Verge: OLPC’S $100 laptop was going to change the world — Then it all went wrong. Buried deep within Robertson's essay (actually, right at its end), we find this:

There’s surprisingly little hard data about the long-term impact of OLPCs on childhood education, though. Zamora points to some case studies for individual countries, and says OLPC wants to commission more comprehensive research in the future. But the organization has mostly focused on anecdotes and distribution numbers as markers of success. “OLPC was always very averse to measuring how well they were doing versus the traditional school system,” says Gros. “There have only been a very limited number of attempts to actually measure how well students were doing with OLPC versus not, because it was very hard to do.”

Ames thinks that OLPC’s high-profile failures helped temper the hype around ed-tech programs. “There was a lot of worry that OLPC would crash and take everything with it — that there would be no funding in [educational technology], there would be no funding in tech development,” says Ames. “I think ed-tech in particular can still really draw on some of the same tropes, and hasn’t fully learned the lessons that OLPC should have taught it. But both of those spaces did have to mature to some degree, and stop being quite so naive in their tech utopianism.” Non-OLPC student laptop programs are still contentious. Maine Governor Paul LePage trashed his state’s initiative as a “massive failure” in 2016, and while it’s still running, its results have been ambiguous and difficult to measure. Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall project won a $1 million TED prize in 2013, but critics say he still hasn’t published any rigorous studies of its effects. Bender isn’t convinced that Mitra’s minimalist computing project proved anything. “We already knew that kids could learn to use computers. They’ve been doing that since day one,” he says. “What the project did not demonstrate is that kids could use computers for learning.”

Ames says the real question isn’t whether laptop programs help students, but whether they’re more effective than other programs competing for the same money. “I think that given unlimited funding, absolutely ... Learning about technology is very important,” she says. “That said, there’s always a tradeoff. There’s always some project that will be defunded or de-emphasized as a result of this.”

Thirteen years ago, OLPC told the world that every child should get a laptop. It never stopped to prove that they needed one.


... [B]ad papers take a lot of time too, so let us just write a good one.

Attributed to the Princeton economist Dilip José Abreu by his junior colleague Markus Brunnermeier, as reported in Rohit Lamba's essay on Prof. Abreu and his key contributions.

The full paragraph presents the context in which these words were uttered:

In the late 1990s, as Abreu started to develop an interest in financial markets, a young Markus Brunnermeier, now a leading financial economist, joined Princeton. The duo teamed up to write a paper that explained why financial bubbles sustain. Investors are uncertain of when others will start trading against the bubble, making it worthwhile to continue riding it until its painful burst. For example, in the prelude to the 2008 financial crisis, banks kept issuing subprime mortgage backed securities, even as it was becoming clear that the mountain of debt was going to collapse. The then chief executive officer of Citigroup, Chuck Prince, uttered the now iconic words, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” Bubbles emerge and persist in many such situations, breaking the hypothesis that prices internalize all possible information. It was as if Prince had received the Abreu-Brunnermeier memo, but a tad late. Brunnermeier is effusive in his respect for Abreu: “He has been a mentor… He sets very high standards for himself. As we worked through many models of bubbles and I grew anxious as an assistant professor, he joked that bad papers take a lot of time too, so let us just write a good one.” And boy they did.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

PhD recipients from US universities

NSF has a handy 24-page report [pdf] tons of interesting info on PhD recipients from US universities; published in March 2018, the report summarizes data going upt to the year 2016. [This page has a huge list of reports and data tables from NSF on S&E doctorate awards]

Fun facts: During 2006-16, US universities accounted for nearly 50,000 Chinese PhD graduates; followed by Indian (~25,000)and South Korean (~15,000) graduates. Together, these three countries account for over 50% of the PhD degrees awarded to non-US citizens.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

What if Facebook was actually called Policebook?

Apparently, a serial murderer and rapist was identified by the police when they used a DNA database (called GEDmatch, which appears to be a site meant for helping people find their relatives) to which he had voluntarily provided his DNA data. Science has an interview with Yaniv Erlich, a Columbia University geneticist, who had alerted to possible uses of a site such as GEDmatch in 2014.

An excerpt where Erlich makes a key point:

Q: There’s a lot of concern about privacy being compromised here, but people voluntarily put their data into GEDmatch.

A: It's not like people fully understand the consequences of putting their DNA into a public database. They think, “So many people use the website, so it’s OK.” Or: “Oh, it’s a website for genealogy.” What if it was called Police Genealogy? People wouldn’t do it. We don’t think about everything. We think about the most likely thing. [Bold emphasis added]

Avijit Pathak: "Debating Plagiarism: Indian Academia Is Producing Imitative Conformists"

Riffing off on recent cases of plagiarism by Indian academics, he poses a deeper question: "Is ... our thinking itself ... plagiarised?"

To illustrate his point, he presents an episode from his own days "as a student of sociology at a leading university in Delhi":

... Let me recall what I experienced as a student of sociology at a leading university in Delhi. My professor asked me to write a paper on caste. I met my professor and conveyed my wish. ‘Sir, I have read what you have asked us to read. However, in my paper I wish to write something more: the way I saw, experienced and analysed the institutionalisation and practice of caste, and through this account, I would learn and unlearn the texts you have suggested.’

The professor said, ‘No, you can’t write what you think, experience and feel. You are required to write the way the likes of M.N. Srinivas and Louis Dumont have thought about it’.

I followed his instruction and wrote a highly-mechanised but ‘academically impressive’ paper with predictable quotes and references from the big names. Needless to add, I got a good grade. In other words, I got the message: My style, my perception, my words do not count; what matters is a defined academic format, a style created by others. I have to be clever in the art of copying.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Meredith Wadman on Sexual harassment charges against Inder Verma

From this explosive, deeply reported story in Science [which should be applauded, I think, for not paywalling the story]:

In reports stretching from 1976 to 2016, women allege, variously, that he grabbed their breasts, pinched their buttocks, forcibly kissed them, propositioned them, and repeatedly commented on their physical attributes in professional settings. The allegations come from a Salk lab technician, a postdoctoral researcher, other Salk staffers and faculty, and women outside of the institute, including a potential faculty recruit.

Five women in their 50s and 60s in secure scientific positions agreed to be named in this story. Three younger women requested anonymity, fearing repercussions to their careers. They cited Verma’s power at Salk and the reach of his influence, including his connections to Nobel laureates, National Institutes of Health (NIH) peer-review committees, and journal editorial boards.

Last Saturday, Wadman also reported that Verma was asked to go on administrative leave by the Salk Institute. Here's an extract from Salk's announcement:

We have also learned that Science is preparing a story about Dr. Verma and related allegations. Earlier this week, the reporter presented the Institute with information about her story that included claims the Institute was not previously aware of. We take these allegations very seriously and have expanded the scope of the investigation.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A student's FB post on scientific misconduct in her lab

There are several updates, which appear at the end of the post.

* * *

Read this post (on FB) by Jayita Barua from a week ago. After reading her post, keep a copy for your own record -- just in case her FB post is taken down.

The magnitude of the misconduct in Barua's post is mind-boggling, and the frank way in which she talks about the mental trauma caused by the toxic environment in her lab is truly moving.

It is very brave of Barua to have come out and said all this in an open forum. I hope she will get all the support she needs. From my distance, the least I can do is to spread the word.

I know nothing about Barua's background -- not even the college and the research group she was in, and I stay away from FB. Which means that I am not aware of any follow-up action at her college / university. If you know of any, please leave a comment.

[Thanks to a friend who forwarded it.]

* * *

Update 1 (1 May 2018): G. Mudur of The Telegraph has a story on this case, triggered by Barua's post: CU teacher under data fraud scanner. This story appears in the Metro section, implying that the editors decided that this is of interest primarily to the residents of their home ground, Kolkata.

We learn two things: (a) Calcutta University has formed a two-member inquiry committee to probe this case, and (b) Dr. Anindita Ukil, Barua's PhD adviser, denies having committed any fraud or misconduct. A key quote:

Ukil said Barua was not a regular National Eligibility Test-qualified scholar who earned her own fellowship as most others in her laboratory, but was dependent on a project-based salary.

"She was in our lab for four years and participated enthusiastically in all our activities. She has raised this issue now - after being told earlier this month that she could not be provided any new project fellowship," Ukil said. "Why she has done this is beyond my understanding."

* * *

Update 1a (A little later on 1 May 2018): Barua has an FB post in which she rubbishes Ukil's (implied) suggestion that the impending loss the scholarship might have been the reason behind Barua's allegations.

* * *

Update 2 (2 May 2018): I am a little late to post this, but Nature India too has covered this case (in fact, this story was done even earlier than the one in The Telegraph). In their story, Biplab Das and Subhra Priyadarshini report that:

Barua's PhD guide Anindita Ukil, an assistant professor in the department, denied having forged data or being involved in any kind of scientific misconduct. “All these allegations are entirely false,” Ukil told Nature India over phone. “I have already informed the authorities of the Calcutta University and the matter is under scrutiny,” she said.Barua said she had also informed Prasanta Kumar Bag, head of biochemistry department of the University, and funding authorities – the Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology – about years of wrongdoing at the lab. Contacted, Bag also refrained from commenting saying that the issue was "under scrutiny by higher authorities".

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Economics Job Market

I first learned about it -- the economics job market which happens during the annual meeting of AEA, the American Economic Association -- from this post by Noah Smith, and I found the whole thing fascinating [I am always interested in disciplinary subcultures -- like the importance of conference papers in Computer Science, or the alphabetical listing of authors in certain disciplines].

But you must listen to this fantastic Planet Money (on NPR) story what this job market does, and how it goes about it -- from the point of view of one of the job applicants (a truly brave soul -- right through the podcast, I was seriously rooting for him!) and of several employers. Absolutely fabulous!

* * *

Hat tip to Econ Nobel Prize winner Alvin Roth, who is also interviewed in the Planet Money story.

Monday, April 17, 2017

If lack of reproducibility is a crisis, so is lack of producibility

The accepted practice is instead to adjust the model so that it continues to agree with the lack of empirical support.

This very Zen statement is a part of a commentary by theoretical particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder-- in Nature, no less (so it must be fashionable, if not also true) -- who writes candidly about the crisis in her field (and its neighbours: astrophysics and cosmology): Science needs reason to be trusted [Caution: paywall]. She calls it a crisis of "overproduction" (i.e., abundance) of theories, but I like to think of it as a crisis of "producibility" of experimental data.

In recent years, trust in science has been severely challenged by the reproducibility crisis. This problem has predominantly fallen on the life sciences where, it turns out, many peer-reviewed findings can't be independently reproduced. Attempts to solve this have focused on improving the current measures for statistical reliability and their practical implementation. Changes like this were made to increase scientific objectivity or — more bluntly — to prevent scientists from lying to themselves and each other. They were made to re-establish trust.

The reproducibility crisis is a problem, but at least it's a problem that has been recognized and is being addressed. From where I sit, however, in a research area that can be roughly summarized as the foundations of physics — cosmology, physics beyond the standard model, the foundations of quantum mechanics — I have a front-row seat to a much bigger problem.

I work in theory development. Our task, loosely speaking, is to come up with new — somehow better — explanations for already existing observations, and then make predictions to test these ideas. We have no reproducibility crisis because we have no data to begin with ... [Bold emphasis added]

Here's something that will makes your jaw not just drop, but go into a tailspin:

In December 2015, the LHC collaborations CMS and ATLAS presented evidence for a deviation from standard-model physics at approximately 750 GeV resonant mass2, 3. The excess appeared in the two-photon decay channel and had a low statistical significance. It didn't look like anything anybody had ever predicted. By August 2016, new data had revealed that the excess was merely a statistical fluctuation. But before this happened, high-energy physicists produced more than 600 papers to explain the supposed signal. Many of these papers were published in the field's top journals. None of them describes reality.

How good are graduate admission interviews, if job interviews are "utterly useless"?

Faculty members in almost all the Indian institutions are getting ready to interview tens (if not hundreds) of students for a handful (or a few handfuls) of PhD slots in their departments. A recent NYTimes article urges us to be mindful of limitations of this format: The Utter Uselessness of Job Interviews by Jason Dana.

I realize there are quite a few differences between the kind of interviews Dana describes in his article and the kind we use. For example, his "experimental" interviews were (probably) unstructured, while we may be using something more structured [such as probing candidates specifically in the areas / subfields they say they are strong in]. Also, given the overwhelmingly large number of candidates compared to the number of available slots, there's usually a pre-screening exercise which relies on previous academic record, research experience, scores / ranks in entrance exams, etc.

And yet, this article reminds us some of the pitfalls of the interview process.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Editorials by Colleagues

These days, Current Science features only guest editorials by invited contributors, and it's great to see my IISc colleagues being featured in this very exalted space. Here's a quick sample:

Picture and a Thousand Words

This, from PhD Comics, is a gem.

That's all.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A 'Special' Resonance

Resonance, the "journal of science education" published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, had something 'special' in its March issue: as Guest editors Prajval Shastri and Sudeshna Mazumdar-Leighton write in their editorial, "while this issue is no different from any other in intent, it is ‘special’ because it has an all-female authorship."


Hat tip to Vasudevan Mukunth's article in The Wire, which also points to special issues of Current Science and Physics News, but I am not able to locate their URL.


Update: The original post had a link to the special issue of Current Science; a friend alerted me that this issue has not yet been published.

Monday, March 27, 2017

"Removing Morons from the Productive Flow"

This profile of Scott Adams, the genius who created the Dilbert comics, has its focus elsewhere (his rationalizations of the rise and rise of Donald Trump during the US Presidential primaries and election), but somewhere in the middle is this gem (in bold, below) [If you are wondering why it stuck a chord, you haven't seen this ... (;-)]:

Adams’s Dilbert empire has been growing for three decades. When he launched the strip in the late ’80s, long-running staples such as Dennis the Menace, Family Circus, and Blondie seemed saccharine and dated. Adams’s creation was fresh, starring a sardonic software engineer named Dilbert; his conceited and grandiose dog, Dogbert; an incompetent boss; and a host of odd co-workers. Early installments showed Dilbert at home. When Adams refocused the strip on the workplace, it caught fire among a generation of office drones who spent their days staring at spreadsheets and slide decks. While workers had long tacked comics like The Far Side and Cathy to their felt cubicle walls, to say something about themselves and their brand of humor, here was a subversive comic about cubicle culture itself. During the ’90s, amid waves of corporate downsizing and the tech boom, a zeitgeisty Dilbert graced the covers of Newsweek, Time, and Fortune. Adams churned out Dilbert-themed calendars, knickknacks, and even a TV show. He also penned op-eds and business tomes, including The Dilbert Principle, based on the theory that companies tend to promote their least competent employees to middle management, “removing morons from the productive flow.”

* * *

Update: Wikipedia has an entry on the Dilbert Principle, in case you are interested.