Another “shocking state of our universities today” story has appeared on the BBC news Website. A report from the Quality Assurance Agency says the degree classification system is broken. I smiled when I read this bit:

The reports from the QAA raise some worries about the effectiveness of the external examiner system, in which examiners from other universities are brought in to provide an external verification of standards.

and the comment from an external examiner below it:

I’ve seen some very poor examining before – a lot of examiners are old pals of the course team and their visits are simply catch-up exercises.

because, in the same academic year as I was visiting lecturer and examiner on a degree course at [insert name of top-three university here], I received a letter at [insert name of other top-three university here] inviting me to be an external examiner of exactly the same course at [insert name of first university here]. Asking one of the authors of a course to then review it and pass on his remarks to himself might be taking the old boy network thing a smidgen too far—or, perhaps, not far enough.

When I was a bioinformatician, the top hit on Google for the title of my discipline was my “Bioinformatics Frequently Asked Questions”. I first wrote the document when I was at the Institute of Cancer Research because people kept writing to me to ask what bioinformatics was. One of the points I made in my definition was that bioinformatics was, by necessity, an impure science. I went as far as to call it a kind of engineering science. Especially within the Golden Triangle of Oxford, Cambridge, and London, where I spent my years in biomedical research, this was generally looked down on. Academic grant giving bodies prefer to fund academic projects, not applied ones (and run screaming from funding research services). I thought, on the contrary, that the applied nature of bioinformatics it was one of its strengths. Research work in the pure sciences is already orders of magnitude more intellectually exacting and successful than work in the arts, humanities, and social “sciences” because it is mostly tested against experiment. Testing its output against practice as well (usually) makes it even more so

Once bioinformatics showed its usefulness however, it was soon assimilated by the Academic Collective and even the additional external discipline of having to make things work in a production environment didn’t keep out the bullshitters—as I discovered more than once when I found myself wading through, and sometimes rewriting, the code of computer programs written by academic researchers that didn’t do anything like what their authors claimed it did. (At a dinner with some currently practising biomedical scientists a couple of weeks back, they told me that many bullshitters have since migrated to the more recently fashionable field of “systems biology”. Don’t ask me to define that one.)

Later, but before I moved to the Genome Campus, the Bioinformatics FAQ was adopted by the independent, not-for-profit Bioinformatics Organization. As usual with my teaching materials (though not my actual teaching), I gave it away gratis, with the simple requirement that no one passed off the content as their own—and I tried my best to credit every single contibutor who sent me corrections and additions. I also let people mirror the document, provided they linked back to the original.

Even these generous conditions weren’t enough for some people. Some of the worst abusers of my generosity were tenured academics. A particularly bold example was a professor in the US who not only cut-and-pasted large chunks of the FAQ into the slides of his introductory bioinformatics lecture without citing his source, but even passed off my lame jokes as his own. Elsewhere on his academic homepage, he had the nerve to warn his students against plagiarism.

I thought about this as I read the BBC Website’s report last week on the General Medical Council finding Raj Persaud guilty of borrowing of others’ work for his own publications without attribution. Given some of the things I’ve seen going on academic biomedical research departments, this quote also brought a smile to my face:

Jeremy Donne QC, GMC counsel, accused Dr Persaud of enhancing his own reputation at the expense of the hard work and scholarship of other people.

Blimey. Next thing you know they’ll be hauling medics up before the GMC for sticking needles in people.

In related news, it seems:

Degrees are being awarded to overseas students who speak almost no English, claims a whistleblowing academic.

The academic, at a world-famous UK university, says postgraduate degrees are awarded to students lacking in the most basic language skills.

It’s a disgrace!

[UPDATE: Having read this back and winced at the possibility that it might be interpreted otherwise, I should point out that I referred to my employment in the Golden Triangle to show that the rot (such as it is) goes to the top, not to big myself up. It will continue to be a running theme of PooterGeek that I am both a failed medic and a failed scientist.]