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Academic capture

27 September 2021

Academic capture

The 21st century has brought with it some new terms that have not been welcomed. One of these was ‘state capture’: when the government and its institutions’ policies and laws are significantly influenced by private individuals and their companies for profit. This became a hallmark of governments in Europe (Hungary, Bulgaria, western Balkans), several Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia and Mexico) and South Africa. Some have also suggested that the USA under Donald Trump was undergoing ‘state capture’. 

The lament of academics that publishers are profiteering from their labours through charging ever increasing sums to access their work are familiar to most of us. We are caught in a system whereby our employers judge us by the prestige of what we output, and typically these outputs are publications published by the same profiteering publishing companies. Choosing to opt out would result in academic suicide for any Early Career Researcher who cannot show that they are capable of publishing in upper quartile journals. Similarly, publishing in the highest ranked journals can facilitate and define a career - so much so that some academics are prepared tocommit fraudin order to publish there. Moreover, pushing for increasingly high metrics perpetuates dynasties ofbad sciencethat jeopardise the centralscientific tenets of rigour, reproducibility, and transparency. 

Björn Brembs and colleagues have just revealed a much darker side to this story in apreprint on Zenodo. In it, they describe what we could describe as the incipient capture of all academia by the same four publishing giants that are dominating the publishing conundrum described above. In it, they describe the shift of profits by these companies from publishing towards data. We know that Elsevier owns Scopus and so are able to drive the listing of all of their own journals therein, and ensure that they attain maximum benefit from inflation of metrics. But did you know that the new academic database on the block, Dimensions, is owned by publishing supergroup SpringerNature? 

When an institution subscribes to one of these databases, they also subscribe to a whole set of access to metrics that inform them about their own academics, and any prospective academics that they may want to employ. Owning the company that makes the metrics, makes sure that the publisher gets a controlling stake in the future of publishing in that institution. But the most startling revelation by Brembs et al. is that discovery and publishing are just the two ends of what these four publishing houses are attempting to acquire: the complete academic workflow.

Figure 1. The academic workflow undergoing capture 

In the central figure of their manuscript, Brembs et al. provide a breakdown of each of the companies acquired by Elsevier, SpringerNature (Holtzbrinck), Wiley-Atypon and Taylor & Francis. It might not surprise you to know that Elsevier and Holtzbrinck are far ahead of the others in terms of completing their work-flow capture. Holtzbrinck, for example, also own Digital Science, a new company that owns Dimensions, Elements and Altmetrics. This captures the discovery, outreach and assessment ends of the work-flow. They also own Overleaf (the writing component) and a raft of analytical tools. It goes without saying that they have all Springer, BMC and Nature journals in the publication sector. 

And once they’ve captured the workflow?

We should be aware by now that companies that capture a lot of data are in a commanding position to find plenty of customers. Who do you think are the customers for all publicly funded science? 

Imagine the worst implications of theCambridge Analytica data scandal, and then apply this to the entire academic workflow. Not a pretty picture for sure. But it’s one that should strike fear into the hearts of all academics. This is happening now, and you and your research is feeding it. These publishers don't even need to install spyware onto our computers as their tools do it all for them. Once collected, individual data on employees can be sold to employers, or third parties interested in our research topics. At least with Cambridge Analytica you had to be duped into giving over your data. Right now, we are giving our entire academic workflow into the hands of the same people that have prompted our greatest obstacles to free and open science. 

For those of us who have lived through state capture, we felt powerless and could only watch as institutions were plundered. Right now, we are willing participants in the capture of our own academic freedom. 

Academic capture: when the institutions’ policies are significantly influenced by publishing companies for their profit. 

How can we prevent academic capture?

There is a growing community of academics that are pushing for Open Research, and in particularOpen Source Tools. Always use open source software, and avoid using any software offered for free by publishers (e.g. Mendeley, Overleaf, Peerwith, Authorea, etc.). 

Where possible, we should be avoiding publishing work with the big four academic publishers, and when necessary ensuring that they do not hold any rights to our data or our work. Support smaller publishers where possible, and promote their use in your scholarly societies. If possible, advocate for diamond open access using platforms likeOverlay Journalswith any journals that you conduct work for. Discourage your library from subscribing to databases run by big publishers. 

An economic solution, offered by Brembs et al., is to ensure that publishers can be replaced through competition. In this vision, currently adopted by funders such as the EU’s Horizon 2020, publishers win contracts to publish research and bid to win consecutive contracts with no right to being locked-in. Although it is possible that market forces may move profit from unreasonable numbers towards actual costs, it seems unlikely that our big academic publishing companies will ever release their grip on profits. Instead, we can expect them to fill in the missing gaps in our academic workflow, and increase the rate at which they capture our data.


Björn Brembs, Philippe Huneman, Felix Schönbrodt, Gustav Nilsonne, Toma Susi, Renke Siems, Pandelis Perakakis, Varvara Trachana, Lai Ma, & Sara Rodriguez-Cuadrado. (2021). Replacing academic journals. 

  Lab  Writing

A 'massive turd' or an eminent physicist?

16 September 2021

Who is your co-author? I've never heard of them

Yesterday we had a lab meeting about SciSci and ever increasing publishing trends. Somehow we got side-tracked along the way by fake authors, and so I decided to write this blog post about some of the things we learned. Today, while I’m having breakfast, I find that fake authors of scientific articles are very popular topics for blog posts, and there’s a number out there that you can read if you are interested (here,  hereand here). 

What motivates people to invent co-authors? 

When I was doing my PhD at Bristol University, there was a competition among post-grads about getting dodgy words or phrases published in their papers. I don’t remember any examples from back then, but my contribution was to add a condom into the first paper published during my PhD (Measey & Tinsley 1997) - all quite legitimate in that I really did use a Durex Gossamer to waterproof the microphone.

Obviously, people have their own reasons for wanting to add their pets or fictional authors to their by-line. Here are a few that caught my eye:

One of the most touching stories (for me) is that of Polly Matzinger who wrote her paper on T cells in the active tense, but apparently was uncomfortable using “I”. When she was asked to re-write her paper in the passive tense, she chose instead to keep using “we” and added her dog (seehere). Apparently, the editor was so upset that he banned her from authoring more publications in the journal until he died. In these days of Emotional Support Animals, shouldn't we all have the right to add our pets as supporting companions on our papers? It's not just me that believes this, my dog feels the same way... 

The mathematician Jack Hetherinton had also used “we” instead of “I” when writing a paper on atom exchange, and rather than typing out the manuscript entirely from scratch, added his cat, Chester (see the cat’sWikipedia page).

Others have genuinely felt that their study animals should receive credit in the papers that inspired them. This includes Madge the parrot who was first author on a paper on her use of a tool to scratch the back of her head. Strangely, Madge wrote about herself in the third person. Maybe she hadn’t learned how to use the typewriter at that point?

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh  added her three bonobo subjects (and the inspiration for a lot of her work) as co-authors on her paper about the welfare of apes in captivity. 

Last, but not least, in the animals as authors line-up is a hamster named Tisha. Tisha was levitated by giant magnets by Nobel and Ig-Nobel prize winner, Andre Geim.  

There are also totally fictional entities that have been elevated to author status. In the Max Planck institute in Munich, for example, a sign next to a door reading “Alois Kabelschacht” (or ‘cable duct’ in English) prompted physicists there to use Prof. Alois Kabelschacht as a fictional member of the institute, and a straw man in their arguments. Consequently, Alois Kabelschacht was added to a number of their publications for several years. 

Others have opted for authors to stand as cryptic messages to their readers. In their paper on the stochastic Gross-Pitaevskii equation, Gardiner and Anglin added a constant that they couldn't account for, and so their co-author "This Is A Fudge" was born.

The last story is that of Prof. Stronzo Bestiale. If you know Italian, you will already know that ‘stronzo bestiale’ is common slang meaning a massive turd (or similar). According to William Hoover, the man responsible for adding this Italian insult to the scientific literature, he heard two Italian woman on a flight to Paris repeatedly using the phrases ‘stronzo bestiale’  and ‘che stronzo’ (what a shit) in their conversation. Later, he asked a colleague what this meant, but decided that Stronzo Bestiale sounded like a great name and should work as a co-author. Hoover has a specific role in mind. He had had a series of rejections from journals regarding a new piece of work that he was proposing. He thought that if he added an international colleague to his author line up, then the ideas might be better received. Whether it was luck, or the addition of the Italian Prof. Stronzo Bestiale to the author line, we shall never know, but Hoover’s paper did get accepted and another paper published with Prof. Bestiale as a co-author. 

You can read the true story of Stronzohere

Happily for all Italian speaking physicists, the author now has a SCOPUS profile that they can laugh at:

I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about the lighter side of scientific co-authorship. It’s not all astronzo bestiale !


Breitenlohner, P. and Kabelschacht, A., 1979. The auxiliary fields of N= 2 extended supergravity in 5 and 6 space-time dimensions. Nuclear Physics B148(1-2), pp.96-106.

Dittmaier, S., Kabelschacht, A. and Kasprzik, T., 2008. Polarized QED splittings of massive fermions and dipole subtraction for non-collinear-safe observables. Nuclear physics B800(1-2), pp.146-189.

Gardiner, C.W., Anglin, J.R. and Fudge, T.I.A., 2002. The stochastic gross-pitaevskii equation. Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics35(6), p.1555.

Geim, A.K. and Ter Tisha, H.A.M.S., 2001. Detection of earth rotation with a diamagnetically levitating gyroscope. Physica B: Condensed Matter294, pp.736-739.

Hetherington, J.H. and Willard, F.D.C., 1975. Two-, three-, and four-atom exchange effects in bcc he 3. Physical Review Letters35(21), p.1442.

Hoover, W.G., Posch, H.A. and Bestiale, S., 1987. Dense‐fluid Lyapunov spectra via constrained molecular dynamics. The Journal of chemical physics87(11), pp.6665-6670.

Janzen, M.J., Janzen, D.H. and M Pond, C., 1976. Too-Using by the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Biotropica 

Matzinger, P. and Mirkwood, G., 1978. In a fully H-2 incompatible chimera, T cells of donor origin can respond to minor histocompatibility antigens in association with either donor or host H-2 type. The Journal of experimental medicine148(1), pp.84-92.

Measey, G.J. and Tinsley, R.C., 1997. Mating behavior of Xenopus wittei (Anura: Pipidae). Copeia1997(3), pp.601-609.

Moran, B., Hoover, W.G. and Bestiale, S., 1987. Diffusion in a periodic Lorentz gas. Journal of Statistical Physics48(3), pp.709-726.

Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Wamba, K., Wamba, P. and Wamba, N., 2007. Welfare of apes in captive environments: comments on, and by, a specific group of apes. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science10(1), pp.7-19.

Read more:

Erren, T.C., Groß, J.V., Wild, U., Lewis, P. and Shaw, D.M., 2017. Crediting animals in scientific literature: Recognition in addition to Replacement, Reduction, & Refinement [4R]. EMBO reports18(1), pp.18-20.

Penders, B. and Shaw, D.M., 2020. Civil disobedience in scientific authorship: Resistance and insubordination in science. Accountability in research27(6), pp.347-371.

  Lab  Writing

Fortune favours the bold urban toad

04 September 2021

Urban toads show themselves to be bolder - before and after invasion

Many of us are now familiar with urban commensal species - those that have adapted to life in towns and cities and can be seen to exploit their new surroundings. The Guttural Toad,Sclerophrys gutturalis, is one such species that can be more easily found in urban areas of east and southern Africa than in rural situations. This toad readily adapts to feeding under street lights at night, and breeding in garden ponds. 

In this study, MeaseyLab postdoc James Baxter-Gilbert, collected toads from urban and rural areas in their native (Durban) and invasive (Reunion & Mauritius) ranges (see blog posts about the field work here and here). He then examined differences in boldness and exploration in toads from each site. Because the invasion route of these toads is already known (see blog post here), James was able to reconstruct whether trends in boldness along the invasion route. Have invasive toads become bolder than their native counterparts?

What he found was that urban toads were consistently more bold than those in rural situations. This means that along the invasion route, there has been a reversal from bold to not so bold when toads moved from urban situations into rural ones. This tells us that urban settings significantly benefit these bold traits, and that toads (at least) are able to switch between these different phenotypes no matter where they are introduced. 

This finding shows us more of the flexibility of these toads as invaders. If they are moved from native or invasive ranges, they will adapt for both urban and rural lives. 

Read the article in full here:

Baxter-Gilbert, J., Riley, J.L. & Measey, J. Fortune favors the bold toad: urban-derived behavioral traits may provide advantages for invasive amphibian populations. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 75, 130 (2021). pdf

Also see the blog entry at the CIB here: 

Selecting key-words

03 September 2021

Selecting appropriate key-words

Key-words are very useful in your studies, because if you have a good selection, they can help nail down a good proportion of the literature that you will need to read during your studies. Moreover, if you have the best selection of key-words, then you can set up some automated notifications for when new items are published. The only problem then is pulling together the correct key-words. 

When you submit a conference abstract, or a paper for publication, you will also be faced by a demand for key-words. This is when I often draw a blank. What will be the appropriate key-words for my study? I can often think of one or two, but regularly journals want at least five. 

A method for finding key-words

Here is my method for finding appropriate key-words. It’s quick, but it does require a piece of free-ware:VOSviewer, which for me has become an invaluable research tool.

  1. Go to yourliterature databaseof choice (i.e. Web of Science, Scopus, PubMed, Dimensions.)
  2. Search for documents using the key-words that you are sure are appropriate
  3. Constrain the results to ~500 documents. 
    1. You can either do this with the search date (e.g. the most recent 5 years)
    2. Or you can simply take the first 500 documents that are found
  4. Download these ~500 documents in a tab delimited text file.
  5. In VOSviewer
    1. Press the ‘create’ button
    2. Create a map based on bibliographic data
    3. Read data from bibliographic database files
    4. Select the file that you downloaded in the appropriate tab
    5. Type of analysis
      1. Co-occurrence
      2. All keywords (you can choose here)
      3. Full counting
    6. You should see the total number of key-words in your downloaded file now
      1. Change the minimum number of occurrences of a key-word so that you have ~100 results (again you can choose what suits you)
    7. Press finish

You should end up with a network like the one below. Here I have used the key-words “invasive” and “fish” (following previous exampleshereandhere). 

In VOSviewer, you can highlight any one of these key-words and see exactly what combination they have been used in. I have selected examples that occur 10 or more times in my downloaded file. This means that I can be fairly sure that these are relatively common key-words to use in combination with the ones I know are good.

The larger the panel in this network, the more frequently the word is used. This should help you when you select your own key-words. For example, even though I had used the keywords “invasive” and “fish” to generate this network, one of the first things I noticed is that the term “invasive species” is far more common than “invasive”. Hence, the first thing I should do is to change the first of my key-words.

Some of the key-words relate to specific taxonomic groups. Others include the habitat in which the fish were sampled. Now I have a shortlist from which to pick the remaining 5 key-words that I need in order to submit my abstract or manuscript. Once you’ve made your selection, you can go back to your literature database, add this combination of key-words into a search and see what comes out. If you’ve done it right, you should see some familiar papers on similar topics to your own. 

If you found this article useful, then read more helpful tips about writing and publishing in these free OA online books written for biologists:

How to write a PhD in Biological Sciences

How to publish in Biological Sciences

  Lab  Writing
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