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News / Spotted

Spotted: Celebrating scrutiny; impact detractor

by  /  19 June 2015

WEEK OF
June 15th

Celebrating scrutiny

Once a footnote in the vast library of scientific literature, retractions are becoming front-page news. An article in Monday’s New York Times credits much of this trend to Retraction Watch, a blog that exposes fraud, flubs and other falsehoods from the ‘publish or perish’ world of research.

“We see ourselves as part of an ecosystem that is advocating for increased transparency,” Retraction Watch editor Ivan Oransky told the Times. (Oransky is on SFARI.org’s advisory board.) “And that ecosystem is growing.”

Thank goodness, because retractions are on the rise and American scientists blow $28 billion a year on research that can’t be replicated.

Impact detractor

Speaking of scrutiny, an editorial published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS) takes a critical look at impact factors — the small numbers that carry huge meaning for journal publishers and researchers alike. The figures reflect the number of citations a journal receives in proportion to the number of articles it publishes.

Inder Verma, professor of genetics at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and editor-in-chief of PNAS, says many members of the scientific community improperly interpret the numbers as a sign of a scientist’s merit. “When it comes to judging the quality and significance of a body of work, there is no substitute for qualitative assessment,” Verma wrote. “And it bears repeating that the impact factor is not an article-level metric, nor was it intended as a yardstick for comparing researchers’ scholarly contributions.” (The impact factor for PNAS is a respectable 9.809.)

Should we do away with the 54-year-old standby that is the impact factor? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Postdoc plight

A heartbreaking tribute in a physics paper highlights the emotional toll a career in academia can take, particularly for postdoctoral fellows. The acknowledgement, first reported by the blog Back Reaction, recognizes Francis Dolan, who died after experiencing severe depression as a postdoc. The blog identifies isolation and financial insecurity as among the difficulties postdocs face.

“I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academia in roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers,” wrote study author Oliver Rosten, a theoretical physicist based in Brighton, England.

The postdoctoral system has come under fire in recent months, with critics claiming it fails the budding researchers it’s supposed to help. We have invited experts from all stages of their scientific careers to share their thoughts on the problem in a Cross Talk next Tuesday.

Equine intervention

There’s no shortage of anecdotes supporting animal therapy for children with autism. But research on the subject is, well, fuzzy.

Enter the first large-scale randomized, controlled trial of therapeutic horseback riding for children on the spectrum. The “equine-assisted intervention” was associated with significant improvements in social cognition and communication, according to the trial results reported in the July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The study has limitations, of course, including its reliance on parent reports of the children’s behavior. But it’s a good gallop toward stronger evidence for animal therapy in autism.


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