Saturday, November 26, 2011

Update 5 on El Naschie vs Nature

The BBC has another piece on the Nature case by Pallab Ghosh. It seems that El Naschie is now admitting that his papers were not peer reviewed but argues that this was because he had no peers who could review them:

He said that he would discuss his papers with fellow scientists, and only when he thought that they were of a sufficiently high standard would he publish them. "I am too arrogant and have too much self-respect to allow a bad paper to pass through," he said.
Prof El Naschie called one witness, Prof Otto Rossler - an honorary editor of Chaos, Solitons and Fractals.
He told the court that there was no-one who could peer review him, referring to Prof El Naschie, because "if you have something new to offer, peer review is dangerous", adding that in such cases "peer review delays progress in science".
Prof El-Naschie asked his witness whether he thought that his (Prof El Naschie) papers were of "poor quality".
Prof Rossler replied: "On the contrary, they were very important and will become more important in the future."
And he added: "You are the most hard-working and diligent scientists I have ever met."

It is a useful to compare Rossler with Neil Turok, Nature's expert witness. Rossler is best known lately for warning that the Large Hadron Collider risked creating black holes that would destroy the world. See El Naschie Watch for this and other information. He is also a self-proclaimed simultaneous submitter, something that for journal editors is almost as bad as plagiarism. A comment on Rossler's claims concludes "To conclude: this text would not pass the referee process in a serious journal".

It seems that it is increasingly difficult to argue that Alexandria University's remarkable scores for research impact in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings were the result of outstanding, excellent or even controversial research.

I am not sure what an honorary editor is but at the moment Rossler is not listed as any sort of editor at the official Chaos Solitons and Fractals home page.

Incidentally, since the trial will presumably turn to the question of El Naschie's affiliations at some point, this page lists him as Founding Editor but does not give any affiliation.
The Politics of Ranking

One of the more interesting aspects of the university ranking business is the way it is used by local politicians to advance their agenda. This is especially obvious in Malaysia where errors and methodological changes have sent local universities bouncing up down the QS rankings. Every rise is proclaimed to be a vindication of government policy while every fall is accompanied by head shaking from the opposition.

This year Universiti Malaya moved into the QS top 200. There is nothing surprising about that: it has been there before. More significant was getting into the Shanghai Academic ranking of World Universities top 500. That is a lot harder but also more likely to reflect real underlying changes. It seems that UM has finally realised that a little bit of encouragement and financial support can produce quite significant results in a short period time.

Patrick Lee, in the blog of opposition leader Lee Kit Siang, comments that:  

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia has little to show for its universities despite spending more money on tertiary education than do many other countries.
Malaysian universities lag behind many counterparts in Asia, including those located in neighbouring countries like Thailand and Singapore, according to a World Bank report released today.
“While Malaysia spends slightly more than most countries on its university students, leading Malaysian universities perform relatively poorly in global rankings,” said the report, entitled Malaysia Economic Monitor: Smart Cities.
Citing the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2010, it noted that Universiti Malaya (UM) was ranked 207th worldwide and 29th in Asia.
It also quoted a US News and World 2011 report on the World’s Best Universities, which put UM, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia at 167th, 279th, 335th and 358th place respectively.
Even more worrying, the World Bank report observed, was the “increasing gap” between Malaysia’s and Singapore’s universities.
It compared UM with the National University of Singapore (NUS), which QS cited as the leading university in Southeast Asia.
“The gap between UM and NUS has been high and generally increasing, especially in the sciences,” the report said.
According to the report, UM and NUS were on par when it came to science and technology in 2005. However, UM has lost out to NUS over the past six years.
The report also said many of Malaysia’s university graduates did not seem to have the skills that would help them get employment.

Firstly, the QS  and the US News and World Report rankings are the same. Secondly, it is a lot easier to start a university in Malaysia than in Singapore.

Even so, moving into the Shanghai rankings is a real advance and should be recognised as such. 
Update 4 on El Naschie vs Nature

Gervase de Wilde has an article on the case in Inform's Blog. He refers to the Guardian's account and then adds the following comment:

The case seems to offer ammunition to libel reformers. Even in the absence of the ill-advised and incoherent aspects of his case which were excluded before trial, and of the implicit comparisons of his work to Einstein’s made during the first five days at the High Court, his claim against a venerable and highly respected scientific journal seems a poor substitute for meeting their allegations head on in some form of correspondence or public debate. Moreover, the journal had published the Claimant’s own defence of his methods in running CSF, that he sought to emphasise scientific content above impressive affiliations, in the original article.

A spokesperson for the Libel Reform campaign, speaking to the Guardian, commented that reform can’t come soon enough, since
“Scientists expect publications like Nature to investigate and write about controversies within the scientific community. The threat of libel action is preventing scientific journals from discussing what is good and bad science.”

However, the public interest defence argued for by campaigners is one which is already being employed. The BBC reports that Andrew Caldecott QC’s opening statement for the Defendants described their defence as relying on the article being “true, honest opinion and responsible journalism on an issue of public interest”.

As the choice of witnesses indicates, the case does touch on the seemingly incomprehensible branch of physics in which the Claimant has made his academic career. In this respect there is a threat of a libel action stifling academic debate, and a similarity to BCA v Singh 2010 EWCA Civ 350, where opinions expressed in a controversy on what was essentially a scientific matter were at issue. But it is also about the methods he employed in running a publication in the context of a widely recognised system of accreditation and review, and about allegations regarding the professional affiliations which feature on his website. These are the kind of criticisms that might be made about any professional person, and would not necessarily come under scope of a scientific exception for “rigorous debate” on good and bad science urged by campaigners.

It is questionable whether the phrase "academic career" is appropriate since El Naschie has not apparently held any formal permanent academic posts recently unless one counts the award of an Emeritus Professorship by Alexandria University, a strange distinction since there is no sign of the professorship from which he retired.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Update 3 on El Naschie vs Nature

The Guardian has a substantial report on the case by Alo Jha. It seems that El Naschie believes that expert witness Neil Turok is unqualified to understand his work.It is difficult to see how this argument, even if valid, is relevant to the point of whether or not peer review took place.

Should the court decide in favour of El Naschie, it would provide some sort of justification for the methods used in the citations indicator in the Times Higher Education rankings which gave high scores to Alexandria University mainly or partly because of the many citations of papers by El Naschie.

El Naschie is suing Nature as a result of a news article published in 2008, after the scientist's retirement as editor-in-chief of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. The article alleged that El Naschie had self-published several research papers, some of which did not seem to have been peer reviewed to an expected standard and also said that El Naschie claimed affiliations and honorary professorships with international institutions that could not be confirmed by Nature. El Naschie claims the allegations in the article were false and had damaged his reputation.
On Friday, Nature called Professor Neil Turok, a cosmologist and director of the Perimeter Institute in Canada, as an expert witness to assess some of the work published by El Naschie.
Turok described his expertise as being in cosmology. "I work at the theoretical end of cosmology … my work consists of applying unified theories, such as string theory, to the most difficult questions in cosmology, namely the beginning of the universe or the initial singularity, the moment where everything was at a single point in the conventional description."
In his evidence, Turok said he found it difficult to understand the logic in some of El Naschie's papers. The clear presentation of scientific ideas was an important step in getting an idea accepted, he said. "There are two questions – one is whether the work is clearly presented and readers would be able to understand it. It would be difficult for a trained theoretical physicist to understand [some of El Naschie's papers]. I couldn't understand it and I made a serious attempt to understand it. The second question is about the correctness of the theory and that will be decided by whether it agrees with experiments. Most theories in theoretical physics are speculative – we form a logical set of rules and deductions and we try, ultimately, to test the deductions in experiments. For me, clear presentation is the first thing in the presentation of a theory."
In response, El Naschie pointed out that even Albert Einstein had made mistakes in his publications. "Einstein is the most sloppy scientist ever. He never defined his quantities, he doesn't put in references and he made so many mistakes of mathematics and concepts. He was a very natural man when he explained something to lay people. But Einstein, whom I admire very much because he had imagination and the courage to stand up to the bloody Nazis, Einstein was an extremely sloppy man."
Later in the session, El Naschie accused Turok of having "no idea" about mathematics and being unqualified to assess his work. "If somebody doesn't understand things, it's his own limitation," El Naschie said.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Times Higher Social Science Rankings

1.  Stanford
2.  Harvard
3.  Oxford
The Influence of Rankings

Varsity, the student newspaper at Cambridge, suggests that British universities are recruiting staff in order to improve their position in the QS rankings:

Matthew Knight, chairman of Universities HR and the University of Leeds HR director, said: “Within the context of £9,000 fees, many universities have a strategic drive to improve the quality of the student experience.
“Therefore, many are taking the opportunity to improve student staff ratios regardless of the numbers of applicants. So there’s a lot of recruitment going on at some universities, although there’s no specific pattern to this.”
As the QS World University Rankings use student-faculty ratios as the only globally comparable indicator to determine their tables, an increase in employment can be used to promote a university’s image and attract students.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Update 2 on El Naschie and Nature

Note that New Scientist describes El Naschie as an "independent physicist". Does this imply that he has no affiliation and that Nature was correct in questioning his claims to academic status?
Update on El Naschie and Nature

The New Scientist has provided some coverage of the trial which is also discussed at El Naschie Watch. On November 15,  this item by Chelsea Whyte appeared:

Benjamin De Lacy Costello, a materials scientist at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK, testified yesterday that when El Naschie was editor, the peer-review process at Chaos, Solitons and Fractals was "frustrating" and unlike that of other journals.

With regard to the dispute over El Naschie's affiliations, Timothy John Pedley, former head of the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge, said that El Naschie was a visiting scholar with access to libraries and collaborations at the department, but was not an honorary scholar working with the privileges of a professor.

On November 16 this update appeared:
Update: Mohamed El Naschie, a former editor of the scientific journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, appeared in London's High Court today for the libel lawsuit he has brought against the scientific journal Nature.

El Naschie is representing himself.
During El Naschie's cross-examination of journalist Quirin Schiermeier, who wrote the 2008 article about him, Schiermeier stood by the content of the work, saying, "We wrote the article because you published 58 papers in one year in a journal where you acted as editor-in-chief. That is unusual and potentially unethical."

El Naschie responded that he felt it wasn't unheard of for journals to publish work that isn't peer-reviewed. He also said that his work had been stolen. "We published my work to secure it," he told the court. "Senior people are above this childish, vain practice of peer review."

I am not an expert, but it seems that El Naschie does not appear to dispute any longer  that his pattern of self-publication was unusual or that there had  been little or no peer review. He is simply claiming that publication was necessary to preempt the theft of his work by rivals and that the absence of peer review was excused by his seniority. Whether that is inconsistent with Nature's comments is, I assume, a matter for the judge to decide.

El Naschie and Nature

The El Naschie vs Nature case is under way at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Briefly, Mohamed El Naschie, the former editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, is suing the journal Nature and the writer Quirin Schiermeier for its comments on the journal's publication of many of his own papers.

El Naschie is claiming that he was defamed by the suggestion that his papers were of poor quality and were published without a normal peer review process. He also claims that he had been defamed by the imputation that he had claimed academic affiliations to which he was not entitled.

The case is of vital importance to academic freedom since if successful it would mean that wealthy persons could stifle even the most balanced and temperate comments on scientific and scholarly activities.

 It is also of importance to the question of international university ranking since El Naschie's unusual self-publication and self-citation within a short period of time in a field where citations are low allowed Alexandria University to achieve an extraordinarily high score in the 2010 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Even this year,  the university had a n unreasonably high score in the ranking's research impact indicator. If El Naschie were successful in his claim then Times Higher and Thomson Reuters, who collected and analysed the data for the rankings, would be able to argue that they had uncovered a small pocket of excellence.

The case has been covered extensively in El Naschie Watch and has been discussed in the scientific press.

Updates will be provided from time to time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The THE Subject Rankings

The ranking seasons has drawn to a close, or at least it will when we have digested the feasibility report from the European Commission's U-Multirank project. Meanwhile, to tie up some loose ends, here are the top 3 from each of THE's subject group rankings.

Engineering and Technology

1.  Caltech
2.  MIT
3.  Princeton

Arts and Humanities

1.  Stanford
2.  Harvard
3.  Chicago

Clinical, Pre-Clinical and Health

1.  Oxford
2.  Harvard
3.  Imperial College London

Life Sciences

1.  Harvard
2.  MIT
3.  Cambridge

Physical Sciences

1.  Caltech
2.  Princeton
3.  UC Berkeley

Social Sciences

To be posted on the 17th of November.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Conference in Shanghai

I hope to post something in a day or two on the recent World Class Universities conference in Shanghai. Meanwhile, there is an interesting comment by Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Canadian consulting firm.

"In discussions like this the subject of rankings is never far away, all the more so at this meeting because its convenor, Professor Nian Cai Liu, is also the originator of the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Rankings. This is one of three main competing world rankings in education, the others being the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and the QS World Rankings.

The THES and QS rankings are both commercially-driven exercises. QS actually used to do rankings for THES, but the two parted ways a couple of years ago when QS’s commercialism was seen to have gotten a little out of hand. After the split, THES got a little ostentatious about wanting to come up with a “new way” of doing rankings, but in reality, the two aren’t that different: they both rely to a considerable degree on institutions submitting unverified data and on surveys of “expert” opinion. Shanghai, on the other hand, eschews surveys and unverified data, and instead relies entirely on third-party data (mostly bibliometrics).

In terms of reliability, there’s really no comparison. If you look at the correlation between the indicators used in each of the rankings, THES and QS are very weak (meaning that the final results are highly sensitive to the weightings), while the Shanghai rankings are very strong (meaning their results are more robust). What that means is that, while the Shanghai rankings are an excellent rule-of-thumb indicator of concentrations of scientific talent around the world, the QS and THES rankings in many respects are simply measuring reputation.

(I could be a bit harsher here, but since QS are known to threaten academic commentators with lawsuits, I’ll be circumspect.)

Oddly, QS and THES get a lot more attention in the Canadian press than do the Shanghai rankings. I’m not sure whether this is because of a lingering anglophilia or because we do slightly better in those rankings (McGill, improbably, ranks in the THES’s top 20). Either way, it’s a shame, because the Shanghai rankings are a much better gauge of comparative research output, and with its more catholic inclusion policy (500 institutions ranked compared to the THES’s 200), it allows more institutions to compare themselves to the best in the world – at least as far as research is concerned. "

Some technical points. First, Times Higher Education Supplement changed its name to Times Higher Education when it converted to a magazine format in 2008.

Second, the Shanghai rankings are not entirely free from commercial pressures themselves although that has probably had the laudable effect of maintaining a stable methodology since 2003.

Third, both THE and QS accept data from institutions but both claim to have procedures to validate them. Also, the Shanghai rankings do include data from government agencies in their productivity per capita criterion and in some places that might not be any more valid than data from universities.

Fourth, until recently there has been a significant difference in the expert opinion used by THE and by QS. Most of QS's survey respondents were drawn from the mailing lists of the Singapore- and London- based academic publishers, World Scientific,  while THE's are drawn from those who have published papers in the ISI indexes. All other things being equal, we would expect THE's respondents to be more expert. This year the difference has been reduced somewhat as QS are getting most of their experts from the Mardev lists supplemented by a sign up facility.

Fifth, although THE publish a list of 200 universities in print and on their site, there is a fairly easily downloadable iphone app available that lists 400 universities.

The most important point though is the question of consistency. It is quite true that the various indicators in the Shanghai rankings correlate quite closely or very closely with one another (.46 to .90 in 2011 according to a conference paper by Ying Chen  and Yan Wu of the Shanghai Center for World- Class Universities) while some of those in the QS and THE rankings have little or no relation to one another. However, it could be argued that if two indicators show a high correlation with one another then they are to some extent measuring the same thing and one of them is redundant. Still, that is probably better than indicators which statistically have little to do with one another.

What is more important perhaps is the consistency from one year to another. The main virtue of the Shanghai rankings is that changes in position can be assumed to reflect actual real world changes whereas those in the THE and QS rankings could easily be the result of methodological changes or, in the case of THE, omissions or inclusions.