The week in higher education – 1 June 2017

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the world’s media

June 1, 2017
Dog cartoon

Some papers served up to academic journals can seem like a dog’s dinner, but few scholars would guess that a Staffordshire terrier is sitting on the editorial boards of some publications. A canine owned by Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Australia’s Curtin University is, in fact, registered on the panels of no less than seven medical journals and is even in demand to review scholarly papers, reported the Medical Journal of Australia’s InSight Magazine on 22 May. Professor Daube signed up “Ollie” to the editorial boards to highlight the problem of predatory journals prepared to publish anything in exchange for a fee, borrowing a photo of the pop singer Kylie Minogue for Ollie’s online mugshot. “They’re trying to take advantage of gullible younger academics, gullible researchers…but they charge researchers to publish and don’t check credentials or peer review articles,” said Professor Daube. Although Ollie’s academic career – she has been awarded a fake PhD by her owner – began as a joke, it’s no laughing matter: Professor Daube said that it was “important to expose shams of this kind”.

A top Russian university’s plan to award an honorary degree to controversial Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte has come under fire, Radio Free Europe reported on 24 May. Mr Duterte – who has boasted of personally murdering alleged drug dealers – was due to receive his award at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) last week, but the ceremony was called off at the last minute when his state visit was cut short by events in the Philippines. Before the sudden cancellation, however, staff and alumni of Russia’s leading training school for diplomats had criticised the move. One professor stated that it would be “embarrassing” to honour someone who might face investigation for overseeing a wave of unlawful killings of suspected criminals. However, Andrei Zubov, a historian who was fired by MGIMO in 2014 over his criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said that he was not surprised by Mr Duterte’s planned doctorate because, in offering it, the institute was just “executing the will of the Foreign Ministry”. “It’s not an independent institution that can act based upon its own principles, unfortunately,” he said.

The publication of a hoax paper deliberately laden with meaningless, empty jargon has exposed as “fashionable nonsense” much of the work emanating from social science departments, its authors have claimed. Despite being made-up twaddle, a paper by Portland State University’s Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct”, was published to acclaim in the UK-based journal Cogent Social Sciences, the Daily Mail reported on 23 May. “We wrote an absurd paper loosely constructed in the style of post-structuralist discursive gender theory,” explained Professor Boghossian, adding that the co-authors even managed to link the male anatomy to climate change. The sting paper – which was praised as “outstanding” by one reviewer and as an excellent treatment of the “issue of hyper-masculinity through a multi-dimensional and non-linear process” – was designed to highlight the low standard of research coming from gender studies, in particular, the pair said. A spokesman for Taylor & Francis Group, which publishes the journal, said that it was investigating.

Cheerleading at university sports fixtures has long been something of an art form, especially in the US. But some Chinese students have raised the bar by taking part in a display that recreates the classic computer game Tetris, the Daily Mail reported on 22 May. The performance, part of the opening ceremony for a sports day at Qufu Normal University near the eastern Chinese city of Jining, saw about 350 students form falling Tetris tiles that change colour as they move into place. The display was apparently inspired by the cheerleaders practising in the past to the Tetris theme tune. However, something that did not seem to be part of the performance was the blind panic a Tetris player experiences as they realise that they are not going to fit shapes together in time.

A University of California, Berkeley professor accused of sexually harassing students has been dismissed from his post almost two years after an internal investigation first concluded that he might have broken institutional rules, The Guardian reported on 24 May. It was alleged that Blake Wentworth, an assistant professor, sexually harassed and inappropriately touched female students he was overseeing – claims that he denies. The fallout from the allegations contributed to a major scandal at the university and beyond over the handling of such cases. According to the newspaper, lawyers for Dr Wentworth – who is suing the university and three women who made allegations against him – issued a statement saying that Berkeley was trying to distract from a financial scandal at the institution and that he denied the “false assertions, which are a pretext to discriminate and retaliate against him”.

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