Combating Fake News

Fake news…it’s a big problem. So what can we do to combat it?

I’m brought back to high school English class when we first learned about the three artistic proofs: ethos, pathos, and logos. You may have a sense for what they are even if you can’t recall high school English class. Think ethic (ethos), pathetic (pathos) and logic (logos). The first method of persuasion, ethos, focuses on convincing an audience by using the author’s credibility and/or character. The emotional appeal, pathos, persuades using an audience’s emotion. Finally, the appeal to logic, logos, draws on an audience’s logic and/or reason. Now if you ask me, we seem to be ranking pathos, then ethos, then logos when it should be logos, then ethos, then pathos. You get the idea. We are reading the click-bait, emotionally-appealing headline and sometimes stopping there. On a good day, we are looking at the name of the website, journal, etc., searching for some credibility. Rarely are we investigating the research, let alone reading the whole article. Yes, I say we because I too have been overwhelmed and overcome with fake news online, in the news, and on social media.

I think we all have a part to play in disrupting and combating fake news, but it won’t necessarily be easy. I’ve been enjoying blogging as an opportunity to research topics in higher education that interest me, but at the same time I have found it very stressful and time-consuming to research the topics and sources of information. Above all, I believe we have a duty to not perpetuate and not distribute false information. Given the abundance of information online this is not easy. Even true data can be manipulated to tell different stories. One thing we can all do is ask questions. This is a skill that I have developed over the course of my education but didn’t fully appreciate until grad school. I read the occasional scientific paper in undergrad but viewed them more like I would a textbook (not that textbooks can’t be biased and/or incorrect), correct, definite, and final sources of information. It wasn’t until I started grad school that I started to understand the true meaning and value of the peer review process. Not all science is created equal and we must read papers with a critical eye because they are not always correct and/or ethical. Check out my other blog post on research integrity.

I’ve mostly been talking about fake news through the lens of a scientist. Of course, not all fake news revolves around science. However, I think we can all take a more scientific approach, using logos, to evaluate news. That’s not to say ethos and pathos aren’t important, too. It is critical to know the credibility of the author, not just to accept or reject the information completely, but to understand subtle spins on the data that may be due to bias. Overall, combating fake news starts with one rule: think before you share.


Costs of Higher Education in the U.S.

Higher education comes at a high price in the U.S. How high you might ask? From College Board for the 2018-2019 academic year the price of tuition and fees for in-state public 4-year institutions (undergraduate) averaged $10,230. That’s a pretty penny and that’s only one semester! As shown in the figure below, public 2-year institutions offer a cheaper alternative. Private nonprofit 4-year institutions, on the other hand, are on the opposite end of the spectrum with an average of $35,830 per semester. College Board also notes, “The increases in the net prices that students actually pay, after taking grant aid and tax benefits into consideration, have been smaller over the long term than increases in published prices.”


On top of tuition and fees, students have to pay for boarding. From the College Board Trends in College Pricing report, the percentage of students that live on and off campus and with their parents vary by institution type. As shown in the figure below, a majority, 51%, of students at public two-year institutions live with their parents. From my personal experience, on campus housing has been more expensive that off campus housing. Of course off campus housing cost can vary widely depending on the cost of living for the college town. There are also important considerations such as the length of the lease. If you won’t be living in your off campus housing during the summer, finding a sublet can help lighten the financial load.


Overall, the costs of higher education in the U.S. are astonishing. And as the first figure shows, tuition has increased substantially over the past 30 years. Will these trends continue? Time will tell.

Specialization vs Interdisciplinarity

Jack (or Jill) of all trades…master of none? I’ve struggled with this concept for a long time now. I’ve always loved learning lots of different things and initially feared that grad school would mean super specialization. And to an extent this is true. To earn a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree, a student must demonstrate a superior knowledge in an area of study. A dissertation should be research on a new area and the PhD should be the resident expert. I’ve heard that as a PhD student you go from “scared to death to worked to death to bored to death”. While this is clearly hyperbole, it demonstrates the initial nervousness, intermediate workload, and final expertise of the PhD process. In the end, you’ll know your problem area and data better than anyone else, including your adviser. At this point you are specialized. You’re deep in the rabbit hole and have a unique view of your work…and it’s exciting because it’s new and ground-breaking, however specific it might be.

That being said, I don’t think this means interdisciplinarity is out the door. (Not sure that interdisciplinarity is a word but you know what I mean.) More than likely you used skills and expertise from a variety of disciplines in your PhD problem solving approach. Considering I’m a biomedical engineer, and biomedical engineering is an inherently interdisciplinary major, I may have some bias. My classes have always integrated fundamental engineering with biology. Now my PhD research involves lots of coding and data analytics in conjunction with knowledge of human cognition and physiology.  So maybe interdisciplinarity is more difficult to find in other majors, but I bet it’s there. And it’s becoming even more commonplace in university settings, which I think is great. Working with an interdisciplinary team means more and different perspectives on the same problem which leads to innovative solutions.

I wonder, has this value on interdisciplinarity reached K-12 education? My classes throughout high school were mostly segmented and independent. Granted I’ve mostly been talking about interdisciplinarity in research rather than teaching, but I imagine similar principles would apply to learning. Making connections between classes was and is one of my favorite things. Realizing that acceleration is the derivative of velocity in calculus class one day (right across the hall from physics) was mind-blowing! How can we integrate (pun intended) more of these moments into education? Technology education seems like a good, and relatively easy, place to start. It’s not hard to imagine an art or drama class merging with instruction on 3D CAD modeling and computer programming. Check out the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech and see some of the exciting ways VT students and faculty are combining knowledge across disciplines.

My other thought is whether or not this value on interdisciplinarity is predominately American? Many other countries have students choose a specific path early on in their education. While these streams are present, to a certain extent, in American high schools (I’m thinking about the Governor’s School for Science and Technology and School of the Arts offered to students in my high school), the system is not as centralized. Are our primary and secondary education systems discouraging interdisciplinarity and does this vary by country? These are my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours. Comment below.

Coming to the US to Study

As a domestic student it is easy to take for granted the premier higher education available in the United States. I have recently learned more about the challenging and complicated process of coming to the US to study from my international colleagues.

First, a few statistics. In 2017-2018, a total of 1,094,792 international students enrolled in U.S. institutions from the 2018 Open Doors Report. As shown in the figure below, a majority of international students come to the US from China, followed by India and South Korea. Compared to 2016-2017, new international enrollment of undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree students is down by 6.6%. In part, this may be due to political and social factors such as “more restrictive policies on visas coupled with the Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigration”, described further in this Inside Higher Ed article.

higher ed
2018 Open Doors Report

From the American Society for Engineering Education 2017 Engineering by the Numbers, the percentages of foreign residency students in engineering by degree are as follows:

  • Bachelor’s: 10.1%
  • Master’s: 59.2%
  • Doctoral: 55.7%

International enrollment is mostly paid for by personal and family sources of funding followed by U.S. Colleges or Universities and Foreign Government or Universities. The higher percentage of international students in graduate engineering programs, compared to undergraduate, may reflect financial opportunity provided by graduate teaching and research assistantships.

Now, what about the visas? First of all, I learned that, technically speaking, having a visa does not guarantee entry to the US. From the US Department of State, “it does indicate a consular officer at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad has determined you are eligible to seek entry for that specific purpose.”

There are 3 types of student visas:

  1. F Student Visa:  to study at a university or college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory, or another academic institution, including a language training program
  2. M Student Visa: to study at a vocational or other recognized nonacademic institution, other than a language training program
  3. J Exchange Visitor Visa: to participate in an approved exchange program

Further, there are:

  • F-1 visas: full-time students.
  • F-2 visas: spouses and children of F-1 visa holders – these are technically called “dependents.”
  • F-3 visas: “border commuters” who reside in their country of origin while attending school in the United States

A visa allows a student to enter the US at most 30 days before the start date. I imagine that makes finding housing in a college town quite difficult…And students must leave the US within 60 days after the program end date on the paperwork. Additionally, on the visa, there is a number indicating the number of times students may apply for entry. In some cases, instead of a number there is a “M” which means a student can seek entry into the US multiple times. The expiration date is the last day a student can use the visa to seek entry in to the US. It has nothing to do with how long the student may stay in the US. The significance of this multiple or single entry is that depending on the visa, a student can or can not leave the country to visit family abroad, travel to other countries for conferences, etc. While I do not have personal experience with the struggles of obtaining and maintaining a visa to study in the US, I have a much greater appreciation for the difficulty and complexity my international colleagues face. Your thoughts are welcome…comment below!


Faculty Diversity in Higher Education

What is one thing that I believe should change in higher education? Faculty diversity. Now since I’m an engineer, I like to see the numbers. Let’s take a look at the current state of faculty diversity in higher education.

As shown below in the 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), faculty positions, in total, are dominated (76%) by white males and females. This representation in part reflects the large, non-Hispanic white population in America. However, U.S. Census Bureau data has shown an increasingly diverse America (including 3% growths among the Asian population and people who identify as being two or more races). The universities of the future must embody this diversity.

Figure 1. 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)


Interestingly, faculty positions, in total, have an about equal split of males and females as shown in Figure 1 (41% male and 35% female for white faculty). This initially came as a surprise to me, because it does not at all represent my personal experience. And then I realized, the NCES data includes all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions…from all disciplines. The data tells a different story in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines. For engineering specifically, only 16.9% of tenure/tenure-track faculty is female, according to the 2017 report from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).

Figure 2. 2017 report from the American Society for Engineering Education

That makes more sense to me. For my undergraduate coursework, out of the 18 Biomedical Engineering (BME) classes I took, only 2 were taught by women, and for general engineering only 4 out of 14 (2 math and 2 science, technology, and society classes). That’s astounding to me! Especially considering biomedical and environmental engineering, have the highest percentages of female faculty across all the engineering disciplines as shown below.

Figure 3. 2017 report from the American Society for Engineering Education

Another important consideration is the academic rank. As with many fields, there is a hierarchy among faculty in academia. This hierarchy generally followers the following ranks (highest to lowest):

  • Titles of Special Distinction
    • distinguished, endowed, or university professor
  • Tenure/Tenure-Track
    • (full) professor: tenured
    • associate professor
    • assistant professor
  • Non-Tenure-Track
    • research associate, lecturer, instructor, and visiting professor

Some other titles that don’t necessarily fight into this scheme are adjunct professors, clinical professors, professors of practice, and research professors.

As shown in Figure 1, the percentage of female full professors is even lower (11.8%), with higher female representation in the lower ranked (and subsequently, lower paid) associate and assistant professor positions. This disparity across senior (associate and full professors) and junior (assistant professors) is shown in STEM and non-STEM fields, according to a 2017 study.

So has faculty diversity improved over the years? Are we on an upward trend? Optimistically, I would say yes. As shown in Figure 4, the numbers are improving for women and minority faculty members, but we still have a long way to go.


In my view, enrolling (and retaining) female and minority students in engineering is key to creating a more diverse engineering faculty. From ASEE, the percentages of engineering degrees awarded to women hover around 20-25%:

  • Bachelor’s: 21.3%
  • Master’s: 25.7%
  • Doctorate: 23.5%

While these numbers represent a 2-3% increase compared to 2008 stats, we once again have a long way to go. And I believe it’s never too early to inspire the next generation of female engineers (check out Ladies in the Lab at UVA)!

I look forward to seeing gender and race/ethnicity diversification in higher education and remind us that we all have a part to play in inclusion.


New VT BME Undergrad!

It’s finally here! Virginia Tech’s Biomedical Engineering (BME) undergraudate degree was approved by the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) in September! As a graduate student in BME at VT, I am very excited to see the major expand and for future opportunities to teach, mentor, and work with undergraduate students in the field…on VT’s campus. There are now 4 universities in Virginia offering 4-year bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering/biomedical engineering, including my alma mater:

  • Virginia Tech
  • University of Virginia (wahoowa!)
  • George Mason University
  • Virginia Commonwealth University

I am extremely happy with my choice to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in BME. The field is interdisciplinary by nature and I found that in undergrad I particularly enjoyed the core engineering, technology, and design classes over the biology- and chemistry-heavy courses. I think it’s great that Virginia Tech has designed the BME undergrad around the university’s strengths in engineering. From Virginia Tech’s website:

Unlike other programs of its kind, which tend to concentrate instruction in biology and pre-medicine, Virginia Tech’s program requires six core courses in fundamental engineering principles. This approach means students will gain a more comprehensive understanding of broader engineering practice and cross-disciplinary teambuilding, which are both perceived as an advantage in industry.

The template schedule online shows that the program will utilize course offerings in other engineering departments including Engineering Science and Mechanics (ESM), Materials Science Engineering (MSE), and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).

So what does it take to get a new degree going? First, in Virginia, SCHEV must approve a new degree. Check! The approval for VT BME undergrad has been years in the making and required extensive planning.

In addition to approval, there is accreditation. Accreditation is a process of validation for higher education, providing assurance that a institution or a program meets certain standards. Employers, particularly government employers, may look specifically for “individuals who have graduated from an accredited educational institution,” just check out the qualifications section on USA Jobs postings. According to the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs by the U. S. Department of Education (USDE), VT has been accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) since January 1, 1923 and the next review date will be December 10, 2019. SACSCOC is a regional accrediting organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the USDE. It oversees the Southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Programs can also be accredited. ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization that accredits associate, bachelor, and master degree levels for applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology. ABET accreditation is voluntary, but many programs take part because ABET accreditation is important to engineering employers. UVA BME was undergoing ABET accreditation review when I was there, and what this meant for me as a student was a couple extra deliverables for my Capstone Senior Design class. Interestingly, ABET is recognized by CHEA but is not currently (but was formerly) recognized by the USDE. What’s the significance of this? Basically, this means no access to government Title IV funds, but also no other government strings attached. As the ABET President wrote, “Public commentary has also obscured differences between accrediting groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as Title IV “gatekeepers,” and others—like ABET—who choose not to be subject to DoE oversight, since we have no role in monitoring an institution’s compliance with federal student loan program requirements.”

Bottom line, understanding approval and accreditation for a new engineering degree entails a lot of acronyms and politics but it is important to have an awareness of the standards expected from employers. Now that VT has received approval for the BME undergrad degree it will be interesting to watch ABET accreditation unfold. To be eligible for ABET accreditation assessment, a program must have a least one graduate, which means it will be at least 3 or 4 years until assessment for the VT BME undergrad. And then it’s an 18-month accreditation process. Not to mention, I’ve only talked about ABET accreditation here, but universities also have internal approval and accreditation processes to ensure quality education. Basically, it’s a long road to introduce a new degree at an institution for higher education. The VT BME undergrad major has been anxiously awaited and I look forward to seeing the interdisciplinary degree grow and mature in Blacksburg!


Scholarly Publishing with Open Access

Scholarly publishing is an important part of research. Not only does the peer-review process of publishing add a level of scrutiny to your work, scholarly publishing allows you to share your work with the field…and the world. Or does it? We’ll get to that. First, let me provide some background. There are three options for scholarly publishing:

  1. Toll Access: Traditional journals offer a subscription model in which readers pay for access. In addition, authors may pay a fee per page or per color figure.
  2. Open Access: Authors pay a flat Article Processing Charge (APC) and readers have free access.
  3. Hybrid: The journal offers Toll Access or Open Access and the author chooses.

A subscription model sounds good, right? We pay subscriptions for everything these days, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, you name it. Here’s the problem, they are expensive, especially considering their limited value-added in the digital era. Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year financing the scholarly publishing companies. It turns out there are 5 main companies (namely Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis) that control the market and they make bank! From a 2015 article on PLoS One (a peer-reviewed, open access journal by the way), “Combined, the top five most prolific publishers account for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013.” And as the Virginia Tech Open Access website points out, the subscription model does not cater to everyone that needs access:

Who Needs Access?

  • Faculty, because no institution can afford to subscribe to all of the peer-reviewed research faculty need.
  • Students, because they lose access upon graduation, after having learned about the importance of peer reviewed research and how to cite it.
  • Taxpayers, who fund research through federal agencies, and support public land-grant institutions like Virginia Tech.
  • Researchers in the developing world, whose institutions cannot afford expensive subscriptions, which poses a barrier to producing their own research.

So are we really sharing our work with the world when we publish? I would say it depends on how we publish, and I encourage researchers to publish Open Access. There are often resources and financial aid available to help cover APCs. I recently published an article in Sensors, a peer-reviewed open access journal by MDPI. MDPI is based out of Basel, Switzerland and includes 203 journals, all peer-reviewed and open access. Sensors focuses on the science and technology of sensors and biosensors and my work was on Non-Invasive Detection of Respiration and Heart Rate with a Vehicle Seat Sensor.  For publishing in Sensors, my article went through multiple rounds of peer-review and I had to pay the APC of  1800 CHF (Swiss Francs) or $1803.61. I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw the cost! Who knew publishing was so expensive?! (I guess that’s something you learn on the job as a graduate student.) Luckily, through Virginia Tech I received a discount and the Institutional Open Access Program (IOAP) at Virginia Tech covered the balance. To be honest, I didn’t have a good understanding of what it meant to be Open Access prior to my publishing experience, and really prior to this past week of Virginia Tech’s Open Access Week. Now I see the benefit of publishing OA and paying that APC. OA allows a wider audience to see my work and my university offers a lot of support to make it happen. Unfortunately, I also have to mention, my inbox, more specifically my spam, has been flooded ever since publishing with Sensors with invitations and offers from random, possibly fake, journals. Turns out there’s a name for this: predatory publishing. I’ve learned the OA publishing business model can be exploited and that assessing the legitimacy of journals comes with the territory.

The Toll Access model no longer makes sense in our digital age, and we, as researchers, have literally bought into the system for too long. We are the ones producing, reviewing, and editing the content, so why are we (and our universities) still paying so much? While yes, OA still comes with the APCs I mentioned, they are nothing compared to the amount our universities pay each year for subscriptions to Toll Access journals. I encourage young researchers to help facilitate the movement towards Open Assess by choosing OA scholarly publishing. While there seems to be a cost to prestige, I think that this is beginning to change and can only progress further with the backing of researchers. More senior reviewers and editors in OA journals will increase their quality and prestige over time. Finally as I learned this past week through VT’s OA Week, the “Open” concept extends far beyond scholarly publishing with Open Source, Open Data, Open Education, Open Pedagogy, etc. If we are really interested in our research and our teaching having a positive impact on the world, I believe we should strive to share our knowledge and be Open.

Educational Equality Online?

Have you ever taken a free course on the Internet? Perhaps through Coursera, Udacity, or Khan Academy? These avenues of education are referred to as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and have received increasing public attention. Join one of these online classes and you could learn about anything from machine learning in Python to photography basics. Could these “disruptive technologies” hold the key to equality in education? To begin to answer this question I’d like to reference an article by Dr. Kentaro Toyama, Why Technology Will Never Fix Education. As I began researching the topic, I realized the debate on MOOCs struck closer to home than I first realized. My first semester at UVA followed the dramatic ousting and then reinstating of President Sullivan. I didn’t comprehend at the time but the “philosophical differences” that arose between President Sullivan and Rector Dragas largely revolved around expanding online education. So what’s the big debate?

Before I get into more about MOOCs, I’d like to give a quick background of how I was introduced to Dr. Toyama’s thoughts on technology. I just returned from the Ubicomp/ISWC 2018 conference in Singapore focusing on ubiquitous, pervasive, and wearable computing and was enlightened by Dr. Toyama’s keynote address entitled Iniquitous Computing?. To be honest, I had to look up the word iniquitous. Here’s what I found. Iniquitous means grossly unfair and morally wrong. Wow! Imagine telling a room full of scientists and researchers interested in making computers ubiquitous (present, appearing, or found everywhere) that technology is not the answer. Or at least technology alone is not the answer. Dr. Toyama explains further in his 2015 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Just for example, how is it that during the last four decades we have seen an explosion of incredible technologies, but America’s poverty rate hasn’t decreased and inequality has skyrocketed? Any idea that more technology in and of itself cures social ills is obviously flawed. Yet without a good framework for thinking about technology and society, it’s easy to get caught up in hype about new gadgets.

He argues that the Law of Amplification applies and that “technological effects follow underlying social currents.” While it is difficult for a technologist like myself to accept at first, I strongly agree that technology is not a cure-all and that we must look towards social solutions for social problems. However, I believe that with the proper consideration and design, technology can assist social change. Of course, this training is not often included in an engineering education and the effects of science, technology, and society can easily be overlooked. In this way, Dr. Toyama’s words were a call to action for me, a challenge to find meaningful purpose in the technological work that I do.

This brings me back to MOOCs. Do they live up to their potential to “disrupt” education in a positive manner? In his previous article, MOOCs and Reforming Higher Education, Dr. Toyama details what he considers the 3 types of MOOCs and provides reasons for why he thinks they are over hyped. I’ll briefly summarize.

  • Type 1 MOOCs consist of content and technology only. Their impact is minimal as student motivation is a grander challenge than accessible educational content. Once again, demonstrating the idea that social currents are amplified by technology. The highly motivated student may benefit from MOOCs, but in general students are limited by their underlying intent and capacity.
  • Type 3 MOOCs are regular online courses that employ real educators but use virtual means to interact. The impact is “as good as the institutions behind them”. While MOOCs help with cost-cutting, Dr. Toyama argues that the online courses will never be better than the real thing with face-to-face interactions, feelings of responsibility, camaraderie, and networking. I agree here and have avoided taking online classes throughout my undergraduate and graduate career for these reasons.
  • Type 2 MOOCs are somewhere in between Type 1 and Type 3 with a little more than content and technology. Maybe an added component such as real-time online chat or proctored exams takes them a step above Type 1 but not quite Type 3. Dr. Toyama predicts these MOOCs will tend towards Type 1 or 3 over time, largely dependent on cost.

Using the amplification framework mentioned earlier, Dr. Toyama explains that intent and capacity are amplified by technology. “In education, human intent and capacity includes both pedagogical intent and capacity of teachers and administrators, and individual intent and capacity of students.” I strongly agree that the real investment in education is the people, both the students and the teachers. In order to see benefit from Type 1 MOOCs there must be serious consideration for the people using the technology. In reality, when it comes to MOOCs, student intent and capacity are complex and are influenced by social problems as Dr. Toyama details:

Students with poor high-school preparation will always find it hard to learn things their prep-school peers can ace. Low-income families will struggle to pay registration fees that wealthy households barely notice. Blue-collar workers doing hard manual labor may not have the energy to take evening courses that white-collar professionals think of as a hobby.

If we as scientists and researchers can carefully consider the intended audience and design our technology accordingly, then I believe technology in education could have a positive impact. This reminds me of one of the positive examples Dr. Toyama mentioned in his keynote talk. Digital Green uses technology to connect farmers and improve their practices using grassroots-level partnerships. To this point, technology in education is not a lost cause, but we must carefully consider the audience’s intent and capacity from a social perspective. How can we amplify positive social currents with technology in education? How can we increase enrollment in MOOCs for lower-income young adults? Considering these questions could set us on a path towards educational equality.


Research In-teg-ri-ty: Find out what it means to me

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) is within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and oversees and directs Public Health Service (PHS) research integrity. My first question: What is the PHS? The PHS consists of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just to name a few. Basically if you are conducting biomedical or behavioral science research at a university or research institute there’s a good chance you are funded by the PHS, at least $30 billion was awarded for health research and development in 2004. Now my second question: What is research integrity? This question is a little harder to answer. The ORI has defined research integrity and here’s the part that stands out to me, “While science encourages (no, requires) vigorous defense of one’s ideas and work, ultimately research integrity means examining the data with objectivity and being guided by the results rather than by preconceived notions.” I especially like the “(no, requires)” part, gives it a real colonial proclamation feel. On a serious note, scientists battling confirmation bias is an issue. The scientific method requires experimenters to construct a hypothesis, or educated guess, before testing. This can make it very difficult to interpret the results without bias. Fortunately, we can use techniques like blinding and statistics to keep observations objective and to make inferences. However, research misconduct is a slippery slope. What could start as data manipulation for clarification can turn into intentional, knowing, or reckless falsification and/or fabrication of data. It’s hard to believe, but it happens. In fact, the ORI publishes case summaries for misconduct involving PHS research.

One of the most recent cases involves a researcher from the NIH by the name of Dr. Skau. Is it lying if you don’t tell the whole truth? Well for research, the whole truth is pretty important, and lying by omission to foster misconception is a serious offense. In this case, the researcher was “selectively reporting by inappropriate inclusion/omission or alteration of data points in 10 figures and falsely reporting the statistical significance based on the falsified data.” One thing I found particularly interesting in the case summary was that the researcher reported that the error bars in one of the figures represented standard deviation when they actually represented standard error of the mean. To understand why this is an issue, we have to go into a little statistics. The example plot below shows the mean (M), standard deviation (SD), 95% confidence interval (CI), and standard error (SE) for three different sample sizes (n = 3, 10, 30). You can see the SE is always smaller than the SD, not to mention the SE gets smaller as the sample size gets larger, SE = SD/root(sample size). Tying it back to the case summary, Dr. Skau made it appear as though the error in her figure was smaller than it actually was.

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Credit: Error bars in experimental biology

For these serious allegations, the ORI conducts rigorous investigations and uses a variety of tools. From a 2013 article, the ORI uses forensic imaging tools including forensic droplets, Adobe Bridge, and ImageJ to detect fraud. These tools can do things like compare images, detect lighting adjustments, and organize images by date or file size to trace an image’s history. I expect that there are even more advanced tools today, 5 years later. Of course, that means there are more advanced manipulation tools available to researchers as well. It’s astonishing to read about some of the other ORI cases in 2018 with researchers falsely reusing and relabeling images and falsifying and/or fabricating data published in Nature (With an impact factor of 40.137, Nature is one of the most cited scientific journals).

In the end, it doesn’t end well for the researchers found guilty of research misconduct. Dr. Skau entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement with consisted of:

  • Research supervision for 3 years
  • Confirmation from her employer regarding the legitimacy of her data (if she were to work for a PHS-funded institution within the 3-year period)
  • Exclusion for a PHS advisory position
  • Retraction of her 2 fraudulent papers

And I’d imagine having research misconduct on your resume makes it awfully difficult to find future work…

My takeaway: Researchers have a responsibility to present their data honestly and clearly. To me, misconception can begin long before blatant falsification and/or fabrication of data. While many of the offenses listed by the ORI seem to be deliberate actions from the researchers to deceive the readers (i.e. mislabeling multiple images), some things, such as referring to the error bars as standard deviation instead of standard error, could foreseeably be unintentional. For Dr. Skau, given the long list of other offenses, along with her admission, the incorrect error bars don’t seem to be an honest mistake. This gets back to the ORI’s assessment of “intentional, knowing, or reckless” behavior. Even when unintentional, misconception is dangerous in scientific publishing. Whether you know or not that the SE error bars would be smaller than the SD error bars, you have a responsibility as a researcher to do your scientific due diligence and report your data honestly and clearly. Honesty should be a relatively easy first step. Don’t change the data or if there is data processing involved, be explicit about your process. The second step, clarity, is a bit harder and is especially important for visualizations. This involves more than double checking that your error bars are in fact standard deviation. There are plenty of other more subtle ways to lie with visualizations. I took an awesome class last semester called Information Visualization and learned all about good (and bad) visualizations and how to leverage human intuition when designing a visualization. You may have heard about how to lie with statistics, similar story for visualization. Be on the lookout for easy-to-spot red flags in visualizations. In my opinion, an individual’s research integrity is largely reflected in his/her visualizations. Beyond the basics of adhering to the ethical principles and professional standards of research, I challenge researchers to step up to challenge of visualizing their information clearly and give their visualizations a little more attention and R-E-S-P-E-C-T.


Hokie Hoo

What’s a hokie? I am. Hoo? Yes, that’s me, too. Yes, I know, very confusing. I’m part of the rare breed of individuals that has made a home of both Virginia Tech (VT) and the University of Virginia (UVA). After completing my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering at UVA, I decided to pursue my PhD in Biomedical Engineering at VT. I can honestly say that I love both schools (and cities). I’m often asked to compare the two universities and that’s a very difficult task.  If I had to describe VT, or at least my personal experience at VT, in two words they would be engineering and service. Likewise for UVA, I would say honor and tradition. These descriptors may not come as much of a surprise if you are at all familiar with VT or UVA. Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim, That I May Serve, emphasizes the university’s commitment to service, not to mention the uniformed Corps of Cadets roaming campus. As for engineering, the shear size of VT’s College of Engineering speaks for itself with over 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled during the 2016-2017 academic year. For comparison, during the 2017-2018 academic year there were just over 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. At UVA, my experience was largely defined by honor and tradition. I appreciated the Honor Code and cherished the traditions, everything from “Guys in ties and girls in pearls” to Student Self-Governance. In addition, I enjoyed tasting the tradition through my elective liberal arts classes, including Commercial Law and Theology, Ethics, and Medicine. That’s my take, in four words: engineering & service and honor & tradition. Now, how does my perception align with the universities’ mission statements?

Considering both institutions are public Virginia universities, I would expect the mission statements to have a number of similarities. However, I would also expect the mission statements to be unique as they reflect different histories and foundations. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, a.k.a. Virginia Tech, was founded in 1872 and grounded in Blacksburg, VA as a land-grant university. Defined in U.S. Code Title 7 Chapter 13 Subchapter I Section 304, land-grant universities historically focus on practical education including engineering, agriculture, and military science:

…where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

I would say Virginia Tech generally fits this mold with strong engineering and agriculture programs and a massive military presence. Of course, a university’s history is only part of the story. The Virginia Tech Mission Statement was last adapted in 2006:

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

Generally,  research and teaching are two major focuses of higher education. I never thought about this much as an undergrad. However, as a grad student these two pillars become more defined, if for no other reason than to distinguish funding. Grad students are often paid as GTA’s (graduate teaching assistants) or GRA’s (graduate research assistants). In addition to these staples of higher education, VT’s mission statement includes outreach as a focus. To me, this echos the land-grant mission. Interestingly these three pillars are each listed with a pair; teaching & learning, research & discovery, and outreach & engagement. The language of learning, discovering, and engaging comes with a certain call to action, which seems appropriate for the 21st century land-grant university.

In contrast, the University of Virginia was established in 1819 in Charlottesville, VA by Thomas Jefferson. The flagship public university last adapted it’s mission statement in 2013:

The University of Virginia is a public institution of higher learning guided by a founding vision of discovery, innovation, and development of the full potential of talented students from all walks of life. It serves the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world by developing responsible citizen leaders and professionals; advancing, preserving, and disseminating knowledge; and providing world-class patient care.

We are defined by:

  • Our enduring commitment to a vibrant and unique residential learning environment marked by the free and collegial exchange of ideas;
  • Our unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by distinctive foundational values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect;
  • Our universal dedication to excellence and affordable access.

The visions of discovery, innovation, and development offer some variation from the three pillars of teaching, research, and outreach, with a heavy research focus as expected from the research university. We can also compare the language used to discuss knowledge. For UVA, we read about advancing, preserving, and disseminating knowledge in contrast to VT’s statement with creating, conveying, and applying knowledge. Preserving knowledge and responsible citizen leaders, align with my earlier observations of tradition and honor at UVA. The mention of patient care also stands out to me. As a biomedical engineer, I was able to experience firsthand the close association with the UVA Health System and be apart of the ongoing medical research. Finally,  with a history dating back to nearly colonial times, UVA has battled inclusion and diversity. Originally only open to white men, the university has come a long way. The commitment to creating a diverse Academical Village is stated multiple times in the mission statement.

Analyzing the mission statements from two of Virginia’s premier institutions for higher education provides glimpses of unique characters. I believe it is important to understand each school’s distinctive history. Moving forward, I hope we as a Commonwealth can learn from each school’s strengths and weaknesses. So yes, I’m proudly a hokie and a hoo. Some say House Divided (did I mention both my siblings are hokies) but I prefer Virginia Strong.