Research

Author provides inside look at IRBs

Author gets inside look at IRBs, and offers perspectives on how they operate, and how researchers can improve their chances of a smooth review.

Researchers discover challenges of debating scholarly work on the Web

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Blog-borne debate about a study on the relationship between social media and scholarly communications reaches new levels of meta.

Montana State's Faculty Senate narrowly votes down proposed economics research center to be funded by Charles Koch Foundation

Montana State's Faculty Senate narrowly votes down proposed economics research center to be funded by an active Charles Koch Foundation grant.

The importance of counting an institution's research expenditures in the humanities (opinion)

Humanities research is both poorly funded and poorly understood. When I served as dean of humanities at Arizona State University, I tried to explain to people what humanists do in this way: we research the whats, hows and especially whys of who we are across cultures and time. We delve deeply into individual cultures and histories, and we try, as difficult as it may be, to juxtapose different traditions and ways of thinking -- sometimes without judgment, but sometimes with a judgment formed by a combination of deep knowledge and relentlessly critical thinking.

This research serves our teaching, of course, but it also helps change the world outside academe through books, articles, digital projects and contributions to large-scale research about the “wicked problems” humanity faces. Anyone who knows anything knows that solutions to such wicked problems are at least as cultural as they are technical.

Somewhat ironically, I’ve found that the public often understands what humanists do more accurately than many of our nonhumanist colleagues, even, or especially, at research universities like mine. Such institutions need to do a better job to support, and tap into, the wealth of knowledge and creative thinking that humanists have and use.

For our part as humanists, to make an impression inside our institutions and in the outside world, we need to do a better job of understanding the relationship between research support and research outcomes. And for starters, we might do a much better job of counting the support our hardworking faculty members receive to pursue their important work.

The Numbers Tell a Story

My institution, Arizona State University, has been among the most successful in both supporting and counting humanities research. In the recently released National Science Foundation rankings for university research expenditures in the area of the humanities, Arizona State University placed fourth, registering more than $12.5 million in 2016. The year before, our ranking was 12th ($7.7 million), and in 2014, it was 18th (almost $5 million). In fact, our humanities research expenditures in 2016, composed of both internal and external support for research in such areas, were greater than those of public institutions like the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Virginia; and the University of Wisconsin, as well as private institutions like Harvard, New York, Princeton and Yale Universities. (We were bested only by Brown University and the Universities of Michigan and Notre Dame.)

Those rankings haven’t mattered much in the past, but they should impel us to think again about humanities research and its funding. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, a wing of the National Science Foundation, puts together the Higher Education Research and Development Survey -- or HERD -- rankings. Universities boast about their science and technology research expenditures in the way hedge fund managers might crow about the size of their funds. Over all, Johns Hopkins University was again ranked first in 2016 with over $2.4 billion in research expenditures. Arizona State University was, over all, 44th (up from 48th in 2015) with just over $518 million in research expenditures.

Arizona State’s national ranking in the overall HERD numbers reflects the university’s core belief that service to students goes hand in hand with knowledge creation and creative work. The university has received attention for its transdisciplinary research in biomedical science, engineering and the physical sciences. Similarly, the university’s rise specifically in the humanities rankings demonstrates not only the continuing power of research in traditional areas of humanistic research but also in the possibility of bringing together the humanities with other areas of research in the university and with the community.

From 2014 to the middle of 2017, I served as associate vice president for humanities and arts in Arizona State’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, or OKED, as well as dean of humanities. The office is a supercharged office of research, not only covering traditional areas of research compliance, research animal care and coordination of data but also fueling the productive use of knowledge across campus and with students, industry leaders and other key constituents. As with other academic and support units at the university, the funny name both reflects and prompts a deep rethinking of the roles of administrative structures at a research university. When we turned our attention to the humanities, we were able to increase the scope, impact and amount of our research expenditures.

Internal and External Investments

During my time in OKED, the university made important and substantial investments in humanities research. We built those investments upon the principle that funding should support faculty members to do what they love and know yet also provide them with the opportunity to extend their intellectual work to change the world.

We created major funding opportunities for faculty members, including support for traditional humanities research as well as large-scale projects that took their work in a new, collaborative directions. And we created an incentive program for faculty members seeking external support. Connections with the outside world -- federal agencies, foundations and the media -- were central to all that we tried to do.

The digital humanities, which we have consciously built at ASU over the past half decade, represent one area in which funded humanities research can make an impact. For example, one of our university’s digital humanists, originally a scholar of 17th-century English culture, has been embedded in the university’s Global Security Initiative, the interdisciplinary hub for research that addresses human security in a broad way -- tackling issues in defense cybersecurity, safety, individual privacy and many other vital areas.

But it’s not just the digital humanities: humanists are collaborating with scientists in our Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. They are also working across town with colleagues at the Mayo Clinic to better develop ways the humanities can help address issues of health and wellness.

An explicit goal of most of our institutional support for research is also to obtain external funding. Such support not only acts as a multiplier of internal investments, it provides external validation and a pathway for extended impact.

Meanwhile, we haven’t diminished the university’s traditional support for humanities research, including sabbatical leave, book subventions and funding to attend, present at and host scholarly conferences. “The library is my laboratory,” some humanists will say, and Arizona State has dedicated effort to building the library of the future. We can’t count that investment toward the HERD rankings, but better counting is a hallmark of Arizona State’s annual rise in humanities expenditures over the past three years.

More Than a Rounding Error

If you look at our university’s fourth-ranked expenditures of $12 million in relation to the university’s overall expenditures of over $500 million, you could see the humanities as “budget dust” -- a rounding error in a major research university’s efforts. The comparatively small amount involved is perhaps the main reason that few universities have taken the time and trouble to accurately count their internal and external research expenditures.

Moreover, accurate counting to the standards of the HERD rankings is difficult. One vexing problem that we’ve only recently fixed is how to gather information on the individual research fellowships that faculty members in the humanities receive from the National Endowment for the Humanities, foundations and scholarly organizations. If a professor making $100,000 per year receives $70,000 from a foundation to devote a year of work to a scholarly project, how do you know that, and how do you count it?

You only know that if your department chairs and deans are aware that it’s going on. At Arizona State, the accounting system doesn’t automatically code that $70,000 fellowship as “research support,” because it typically goes straight to the department to pay for the teaching that the faculty member is not doing. And although the dean typically “tops up” support so that fellowship recipients keep their full salary and benefits, the college and university haven’t always counted those top-up funds as research expenditures.

In my scenario, the cost for the faculty member to do the year of research is $135,000 to cover salary and benefits for full-time scholarly work. We hadn’t been counting either the $70,000 in external fellowship support or the top-up amount of $65,000. If a productive humanities faculty at a major university has 10 faculty members per year winning fellowships, that’s around $1.5 million of typically uncounted research expenditures. Through manual processes and the hard work of OKED staff members, department chairs and budget managers, we are now successfully counting those fellowships.

This better counting has been important for us internally and externally. A ranking of fourth in the nation (“higher than Cornell!”) brings attention to the brilliant scholars among our faculty in the humanities. Scientists may laugh at the amounts involved, but with a place in the rankings, scientists and the community members alike recognize the significance of the efforts of Arizona State humanists. Recognition helps build the transdisciplinary connections necessary for the “grand challenge” research that will help solve large-scale problems in our world.

I hope other universities will emulate some of what we’ve done at Arizona State. If every place counted as well as we did, I’m not sure we’d rank fourth in the nation. But we would welcome the competition and celebrate the continued excellence of humanities research across the country. Most of us genuinely want to understand the world better and to use our knowledge to make a positive difference. The more exposure we humanists receive, the greater attention we garner and the better collaborations we can set up, the better the world will be.

George Justice is a professor of English at Arizona State University. He served as dean of humanities and associate vice president for humanities and arts at the university from 2013 to 2017.

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UCLA takes on 'grand challenge' of ending depression

UCLA is attempting to end the disease entirely, starting with students on its campus.

Facebook is using academic pedigrees to whitewash unethical practices (opinion)

There are plenty of reasons to be upset at the news that a voter-profiling firm secretly harvested private information from 50 million Facebook profiles. Beyond the big-picture questions about Facebook’s nonstop surveillance of our daily activities and the use of this information to influence U.S. elections, another part of this story should cause particular disquiet for academics: Facebook is using academic pedigrees to whitewash unethical corporate behavior.

In 2014, Facebook let Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor at Cambridge University, use its platform to collect information. Kogan enlisted Facebook users to take a personality quiz and download an app that collected information from not only the users but their Facebook friends. Participants in this study were paid a small fee. From this information, Kogan developed “psychographic profiles” on millions of Facebook users. The information collected supposedly revealed whether someone was shy or extroverted, liberal or conservative, and a host of other personality traits that could be used to deliver targeted political ads.

This isn’t the first time researchers have used Facebook to survey the emotions and behavioral quirks of its users. In June 2014, it came to light that the social networking site had allowed researchers to manipulate the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users to see if they could be made to feel more happy or more sad. (They could.) Last summer, a leaked memo showed Facebook executives boasting that they could monitor the posts and photos of teenagers in real time to determine if they were in midst of vulnerable mental states like “stressed,” “defeated” and “insecure.”

The difference here is that Kogan turned over all of his psychological data to a private business built for the purpose of swaying voters. Facebook contends Kogan never revealed that he was sharing this data with Cambridge Analytica. In high dudgeon, Facebook now labels Kogan and Cambridge Analytica’s experiment a “scam” and a “fraud.”

Facebook appears to be shocked to find that gambling is going on in Casablanca. It apparently did nothing to verify Kogan’s research project was actually for the “academic purposes” he claimed. No safeguards were imposed to ensure that the private information Kogan collected remained with him alone and did not fall into other hands.

Nor did Facebook take steps to prevent Kogan or Cambridge Analytica from collecting information on the friends of the users who took Kogan’s personality quiz. In fact, Facebook’s terms of service appear to have permitted just this kind of hijacking of personal information. Facebook was not a dupe; it was an enabler.

Other parties have been complicit in Facebook’s use of scholars to justify abuses of its users’ trust. The 2014 study that tweaked user news feeds to see if they could make users post more happy or more sad content was conducted by researchers from Cornell University. Normally, academic-run experiments on human subjects require approval from a university institutional review board. But Cornell contended that IRB review was unnecessary because the Cornell researchers were working with Facebook’s private data.

Facebook benefits from this less-than-rigorous relationship with academe. The Cornell experiment may have probed an interesting scientific question about human psychology. Yet the study also offered impressive evidence of Facebook’s value to advertisers. You can bet that corporate CEOs took note that a study of over half a million Facebook users proved that the social media platform can change how people feel with just a couple small algorithmic tweaks.

Likewise, the Cambridge Analytica revelations may be a public relations nightmare for Facebook, but they may also be a corporate relations dream. What better proof of Facebook’s power to persuade shoppers than steering the results of an election?

This is not to say that academics should be excluded from using Facebook for research. There has long been a tension between purely academic study and applied market research. It is unrealistic to call for a complete separation of one from the other. A blanket ban on academic participation would make Facebook even more of a black box than it is already. Done the right way, academic experiments using the social media giant’s enormous data set can make its influence on us more transparent, not less. And Facebook deserves some credit for finally starting to develop a more rigorous review process for in-house research.

But the best practices of academia need to find more purchase at Facebook. For studies on humans, it is necessary in the university setting to obtain informed consent. As a private business, Facebook is not obligated to comply with this standard, and it doesn’t. Instead, it need only make sure that the terms of any potential human experimentation are covered under its capacious and unreadable terms of service.

By contrast, in the realm of academic research, scientists cannot wave a bunch of impenetrable legalese under a test subject’s nose and receive a blank check to do what they want. Moreover, university internal review boards act as a safeguard, making sure that even when consent is informed, the benefits of any proposed research outweigh their costs to the participants. University IRBs need to make sure they fulfill their responsibilities when it comes to experimenting on social media users.

More importantly, it is time that Facebook starts following academics’ best practices instead of using them for cover.

Mark Bartholomew is a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law and the author of Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing (Stanford University Press).

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IEEE in trouble once again for allegedly minimizing work of female historians

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Scholarly society for engineers and technologists is on blast once again for allegedly minimizing the work of female historians who write about bias against women in technology.

Essay on study of "junk news"

Calling a fabricated or misleading story “fake news” is less and less an option now that the president has made that the label for information that undermines whatever stories he feels compelled to tell at any given moment. (Never underestimate a bully’s capacity to play word games -- or to win by changing the rules.)

The effect of Trump’s semantic rebranding can be felt in “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption Over Social Media in the U.S.,” a study issued Wednesday by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University. Vidya Narayanan and her five co-authors use the expression “fake news” just once in the paper, in a sentence that also appears, slightly tweaked, in the abstract. The researchers define their preferred term, “junk news,” as “misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be about real news about politics, economics or culture.”

A distinction without a difference? Perhaps -- though I think the Oxford study has less to say about problems of veracity at the level of individual articles than it does about how American public culture is filling up with big bags of garbage.

Old-fashioned public opinion surveying requires finding a demographically representative set of respondents willing to answer a series of questions -- and usually to do so by selecting from the range of options established beforehand. The availability to researchers of public pages on social media makes a different sort of analysis possible. Researchers can gather opinions previously expressed, for example, as well as indications of whether those doing the opining are connected, and of how strong those connections are. And all of these data can be collected on a large scale and relatively quickly.

The Oxford study focuses on public communications among Twitter and Facebook users (about 13,500 and 10,700, respectively) in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union. These sources were identified from Computational Propaganda Project sample of over 22 million tweets posted between Nov. 1 and 11, 2016, as well as a data set of about 47,700 public Facebook pages also from the election year.

Networks, communities and interest groups can be mapped via the following and friending connections among users of each social media platform. The results, when translated into graphic form, look like a masses of hundreds of bubbles of various sizes, color coded according to expressed affinities (Republican or Democrat), media preferences (progressive, conservative, mainstream, local) or special interests (public health, women’s rights, conspiracy theory, sustainable farming). And the coloration makes it easier to see how smaller social networks cluster together to form cultural and ideological enclaves -- each overlapping somewhat with two or three others but at considerable distance from the rest.

From the pool of media links shared by Twitter and Facebook users, the researchers found “91 sources of political news and information, which we identified over the course of several years of research and monitoring, produce content that includes various forms of propaganda and ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan and conspiratorial political information.” Besides the grinding of axes, these junk-news sources tended to be characterized by a neglect of fact-checking, a failure to publish corrections and the tendency “to present opinion and commentary essays as news.”

The study finds that “a network of Trump supporters” on Twitter “shares the widest range of known junk news sources and circulates more junk news than all the other groups put together,” while “on Facebook, extreme hard-right pages -- distinct from Republican pages -- share the widest range of known junk news sources and circulate more junk news than all the other audiences put together.” Finally, “the audiences for junk news on Twitter share a wider range of known junk news sources than audiences on Facebook’s public pages.”

This is not shocking. It will anger some people, and there is some validity to the complaint that secondhand accounts of the report tend to equate sharing junk news with believing in it. But on the whole, the findings render as charts and correlations something that would otherwise go undoubted: that an already well-funded and well-organized hard-right political movement has forged its own media system (much as Roger Ailes told Richard Nixon would be necessary, decades ago), which has in turn gathered an audience that welcomes "alternative facts" as long as they are delivered with the right tone and feeling.

The authors of the paper note that "social polarization is a driver -- just as much as it may be a result -- of polarized social media consumption patterns." This is true, although at some point, the distinction becomes moot. Evidence about how fast the vicious circle is spinning is interesting to have, but it seems like time for some research on how to put on the brakes.

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A tenure-track professor explains why she left academe to join a tech company (opinion)

Chandra Y. Osborn explains why she walked away from a position at a prestigious university to join a tech start-up -- and what she learned about academic research along the way.

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STEM professors' choices of content are political whether they like it or not (opinion)

Two decades ago, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Jane Lubchenco, called for a new social contract for science. She pointed out that, given the current state of the human-environment system, it is no longer adequate for scientists -- and all STEM practitioners -- to view our primary obligations as simply to discover, publish and train the next generation of scientists. If we expect society to support the pursuit of our disciplines, our work and our teaching must have at least some direct relevance to society. Whether we are personally interested in fundamental or applied issues, it is also our job to communicate the insights of our disciplines in a way that informs policy and management decisions.

On the surface, it would seem that this is not such a radical notion: to provide the best information possible to decision makers and voters. Yet, science has a long and illustrious history of challenging deeply held views of society and thus becoming politicized. (Consider Galileo, Darwin, Carson and the like.) Still, while STEM practitioners don’t necessarily have any special expertise or primacy in determining what society should do about problems, it has until recently been accepted that at least it was appropriate for us to provide information that could be used to develop solutions.

In general, STEM practitioners rightly adhere to the fundamental notion that if science is to be used to inform political decisions, it must be viewed as nonpartisan. We believe that there should not be Democrat Science that differs from Republican Science. Or that there is a liberal science that is different from a conservative science. History shows us that when this happens, as it did in the Soviet Union in the 1930s with Lysenkoism, social disaster ensues.

Despite this warning from history, the relationship between politics and science in the United States has deteriorated to the point where a crude cognitive relativism allows for “alternative facts” and state legislatures to ban the mention of scientific discoveries. Today, simply being a STEM practitioner has become, in and of itself, a political statement, as reflected in last year’s March for Science. For better or worse, apolitical no longer means nonpartisan. Apolitical now means being irrelevant.

Mirroring Lubchenco’s call for a new social contract for science, it is now time for a new social contract for STEM educators. While the STEM classroom might be a nonpartisan space, we can no longer afford to pretend that it is an apolitical space. The choice to attempt to be apolitical is now a political choice. Global temperature change, sea level rise, water and food insecurity, biodiversity loss, degradation of ecosystem services, loss of arable land, global human population growth, alterations in the global nitrogen cycle, plastics in the ocean, depletion of fossil fuel resources -- all these and more are associated with real data. As a society, we can and should debate prioritization, resource allocation and social justice issues regarding all these problems. And who better to get our students thinking critically about these societal problems based on data than STEM educators? If we don’t, who will?

In 1998, Lubchenco suggested that it is time for scientists to prioritize their work based on societal need. Today it is all the more imperative that STEM educators take every opportunity -- and, in many cases, create opportunities -- to connect our content in the classroom to pressing societal issues. Each of us needs to take a comprehensive look at our overall curriculum and specific course content, and then make the changes necessary to be certain that our students are prepared to enter society with the knowledge, technical skills and cognitive tools to deal with these looming issues.

We are not suggesting that we need to do this 100 percent of the time, but it can no longer be absent. In addition, because of the increased blurring between knowledge and the current trending and transient political whimsy, we also must spend some time on metacognitive thinking about knowledge generation itself. How do we know what we know? How does knowledge generation in the STEM disciplines happen? What is the difference between an idea supported by theory and data as opposed to one supported by our own wants and desires?

Our choices of content are now political whether we like it or not. There are about 7.5 billion people on the planet, a challenging quantity to understand, with hundreds of millions of humans -- more than 10 percent of the world population -- living in extreme poverty. We are changing the earth’s atmosphere, altering our climate and using resources at an ever-increasing rate. The sizes of the quantities and flux rates for our influences on the social-ecological system are difficult to comprehend by themselves, let alone their ramifications. STEM educators have a responsibility to provide the education to make this comprehensible -- and solutions possible.

The new social contract for STEM educators recognizes that our classrooms are the crucial settings for addressing sustainability issues related to our social-ecological system. The issues we are dealing with are all encompassing and complex to the degree that all the STEM disciplines are needed. We cannot hope that the environmental and sustainability scientists can do this alone.

For example, statistics classes can discuss distributions of income and wealth in different parts of the world, or how a day or month with below-average temperatures does not disprove climate change. Calculus classes can address income inequality with the Gini coefficient and use curve fitting to investigate the change of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Global heat balance with changes in albedo can be discussed in physics classes, and kinetic and potential energy provide a setting to discuss regenerative braking in hybrid cars. Chemistry courses can discuss the heat-trapping qualities of carbon dioxide and the breakdown (or lack thereof) of persistent toxic chemicals and plastics in the environment. Computer science classes can discuss climate modeling. For all of these examples, quality data sets and educational materials are available online that can be taken advantage of by numerous STEM courses.

As STEM practitioners and educators, the issues and ramifications brought up by dealing with the real world will not be comfortable for us. As soon as we start dealing with the social-ecological system, issues of equity, fairness, race and class will arise. We will be accused of being elitists pushing a leftist liberal agenda, but then again, the academy is already accused of this. We do need to push an agenda, but the agenda is not one of partisan politics. The agenda, which should be made explicit to students, is to add real data, careful analysis and reason to the emotional debates regarding the future of our society and how we as humans will take care of each other and the other organisms on this planet.

In addition, many of us are neither trained nor experienced in dealing with the emotions that will be brought out in our students when dealing with real-world, value-laden issues. However, we are not alone here. Our colleagues in the humanities and social sciences are well trained to deal with exactly this. We can seek their advice or partner with our colleagues in an interdisciplinary collaboration to help us in this new area for us.

The new social contract for STEM educators calls for us to adapt to the reality that data and discovery challenge people's worldviews and are, at times, upsetting. Retreating into the realm of “neutral” facts is not an option. (Today we have “alternative” facts.) We must counter with a concerted effort to broadly educate all students about the complex issues facing society. This is the challenge facing us, and while the task may seem daunting, the STEM community is about solving problems. And we can solve this one.

Thomas J. Pfaff is a professor of mathematics at Ithaca College. Jason G. Hamilton is a professor and chair of environmental studies and sciences at the college.

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