White coats, white lies? Or black marks?

August 7, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders what one should do about students who are ‘economical with the actualité’.

——————————————————————————-

One of my scientific internet friends, Steve Caplan, was blogging a week to two back about a student in a lab he worked in who was, shall we say, less than truthful about their actions.

Steve says at one point, recounting what he said to the lab boss about the student:

“Imagine if s/he lied about little things like salt buffers [experimental reagents], what kind of data s/he might have fabricated later on,”

Which caught my attention – partly because research misconduct, and what should be done about it, is in the news at the moment.

But also partly because it deals with a regular part of University life - that problematic character, the student whose habits give cause for concern.

Much of the debate about student conduct recently has tended to focus on plagiarism, but here I am not talking about that, or even what one might call “academic misconduct’. I am talking about the more subtle things to do with how people behave, and how they interact with their colleagues.

Apart from in the lab, another place this turns up  - and perhaps a slightly special setting – is medical school. There is a long-standing debate about how sub-standard conduct should be dealt with, and what behaviours students should be ‘pulled up’ for – especially for students in the pre-clinical years where we have historically tended to take a more relaxed view of how students should behave than our clinical colleagues.

[The main point was that in the past students did not see patients until their third year of medical school. Nowadays in many courses they are around hospitals and GP clinics from the very start of their student career. So they are under the microscope rather more than was formerly the case.]

One argument for what one might call a “Zero tolerance” policy is studies like this one, in the New England Journal of Medicine a few years back.

Of course, the counter-argument, which also has force, is the ‘youthful high jinks’ one – that is, that everyone does daft, or even idiotic, things, and behaves like a plonker, when young, and mostly people grow out of it. For some medical examples you could try many a medical memoir – or for a recent political example you could try Louise Mensch MP’s robust riposte to the Daily Mail a couple of weeks back. There has even been a discussion in the medical literature of whether previous criminal convictions – which one could call an extreme example of idiotic behaviour – should be an absolute bar to entering medical school.

On the whole, when we hear about misbehaviour by students, we tend to try and distinguish between “stupid stuff” (they really don’t know);  and “worrying stuff” (they know, but do it anyway) - of which the most worrying is usually “dishonest stuff”.

A couple of examples of the latter.

In our lab classes for medical students we teach them stuff that they are later tested on, like using peak flow meters and spirometers, and measuring blood pressure. The test they get on this later is in the form of a what is called an OSCE, a kind of practical exam in which students pass through a series of “stations’ where they have typically 5 or 6 minutes to do a task – like measure a volunteer subject’s blood pressure.

As well as teaching students these skills in scheduled classes, we run revision classes a couple of weeks before the OSCE takes place.

Now, the people who teach these revision class are adamant that these classes are for revision – NOT for teaching the skills from scratch to students who couldn’t be arsed to turn up to the regular scheduled sessions earlier in the semester. So the rule for students is that, if you have missed more than 20% of the semester’s scheduled lab classes without explanation, you cannot come into the revision session,

Though this is well publicised, it sometimes seems to come as a shock to less, errm, organised students.

A good few years ago now, a couple of my colleagues were checking the students in at the door on such a revision class when a student appeared who the records showed had exceeded the allowed number of absences. They pointed this out to him and said he would not be allowed in.

“Oh no” said the student “I gave in notes explaining that absence and that absence” (this would get him into the revision class, as ‘excused for something you couldn’t help’, like a doctor’s appointment or illness, or some other stuff, usually doesn’t count as ‘absent without reason’).

Now, one of my colleagues was a touch suspicious, trotted off to the Faculty Office that ‘logs’ such notes, and checked what the student had said.

The student had handed in nothing for the dates in question. No notes. No reasons for the absences.

The student was told to leave the class, and was, I am pretty sure, reported to the Course Director for what in the old days would have been called ‘a right bollocking’.

It was not the being absent from the earlier classes that was the most worrying thing, but rather that the student had flatly and directly fibbed (about the notes for his absences) to a member of the academic teaching staff.

I am curious to know what my readers, especially the medical ones, make of this.

Now, Mrs Dr Aust, the family’s medical expert, has little (read: “no”) sympathy for the student in this story. She is suspicious as to whether leopards change their spots, for one thing. And she says that people who will lie, or even just bend the truth a bit, to get themselves off the hook are a flat-out liability in medicine, full stop. The standard scenario she tends to give is one like this:

In an urgent diagnostic discussion about patient Mr X, gets-by-on-charm-but-a bit-of-an-idler junior doctor Dr Y is asked by a more senior colleague about the result of test Z that he, Dr Y, was supposed to have ordered yesterday. Dr Y had forgotten to order the test. However, fearing a public kicking, he does not admit this but says instead ‘ Errm… the result’s not back yet’.

Of course, you can argue that that latter scenario is unrealistic. But Mrs Dr Aust says that this happened sufficiently frequently to her over the years that eventually she took to phoning the lab herself when she heard this line – to be told, on more than one occasion: “Nope, there’s no sample”.  She also says that there were junior doctors who, when confronted about this, would respond with anger rather than holding their hands up. She says one even called her ‘A Fascist’.

You can also argue that this kind of behaviour is a long way from the skiving student-in-the-lab-class example that I gave above.  But, and this is the crux of the matter,  there is always a suspicion that people who are prepared to lie about one thing are more likely to be prepared to lie about other stuff too.

And there is also a sense that, the more they get away with it, the more they will carry on doing it.

So where should we draw the line? 

———————————————————————————-

The day after I wrote the first version of the above, I was reminded by a discussion on Twitter about something else in a similar vein (artery?).

In our practical tests of measuring blood pressure, which is one of the skills we teach to students, the examiner almost always listens to the same Korotkoff sounds that the student hears via a dual stethoscope.

One of the things you regularly experience as an examiner for this is the student who, when no sounds whatsoever have been audible – typically because the stethoscope bell is in the wrong place – announces:

“One twenty over eighty”

(i.e. a blood pressure of 120/80 mm Hg, which is normal and thus a good random guess for an adult – though it is usually a little high for a fit younger adult, like most of our volunteer subjects tend to be. Of course, we take their BP at the start of the day and periodically thereafter, so we know what their BP is really likely to be).

We were talking about this today, and the thought occurred to me: is offering that answer, when you could not possibly have got a reading of blood pressure, actually – or at least arguably – an attempt to deceive?

And – it would be a pretty draconian way to do it, but should we automatically fail anyone who says it?  

——————————————————————————–

Postscript:

Just to expand on this a bit:

There is always a kind of tension in professional degrees between the need of students repeatedly to pass exams to progress on the course, and the ultimate need for them to learn to do certain things (like measuring blood pressure). One is regularly told (and it is a reasonable axiom) that ‘assessment drives learning’. So if you have a test where there is no downside to guessing (apart from not getting the mark you would get for getting the right answer), students will guess.  [Many University multiple choice exams use what is called 'negative marking' specifically to give students a downside to guessing at random when they don't know the answer].

But in the setting I have described, there are several problems with this.

One is the problem described above – you could say we are allowing the students to assume it is OK to make up an answer, when really it shouldn’t be.

Two is that it is of course important to be able to measure blood pressure accurately; the students should, in turn, be able to see that it is important that they learn to do it properly. If you are being really earnest, you might say they should be able to see that ‘fronting it’ (doing a third rate version but trying to look super-confident) is not really on.

Three is that you could say this represents a lost opportunity – perhaps the students should be pulled up straight away and asked to expand on why they had trotted out a number when there were no sounds.

The point there being to get them to think about why there might be problems with what they had just done that might make it more than just the equivalent of a random guess in a multiple choice exam.

After all, if behaviours that are not acceptable are not identified and challenged, how do the students actually learn…. that the behaviours are not acceptable?

Or – am I just being a hopelessly crusty old git? Highly possible, after all. I am undeniably middle-aged. And famously curmudgeonly.

Anyway – opinions, anyone?  I know it’s a bit cheeky asking for views when it’s been so long since the last post, but I would be interested in what the readers, young and old(er), think.

 

PS - I should also say that, though I’ve been around medical schools a long time, I don’t pretend to claim any great expertise in assessment. Far greater minds than mine etc etc.

If I were a cartoonist

July 1, 2011

From 2001... Plus ca change... (PS Click cartoon for slightly better image)

In which Dr Aust wishes he could draw, and muses on the changing appearance of the British “-ologist”.

A recent conversation with one of my twitter readers, postdoctoral researcher, occasional blogger and one-time co-worker dbaptista, chanced upon the topic of cartoons.

Dr Aust has always been fond of cartoons, and I have (another)  long backburner-ed book idea involving a compilation of scientific ones. Sadly, my favourite modern cartoonist, the inimitably black / bleak John Callahan, passed away last year, but his cartoons are still with us, and many remain all-time classics. Though I can’t find it online, a series he did on ‘The Hill of Evolution’ stand out for me. Perhaps I will post a couple here if I can find them in book form.

Callahan’s special gift was to offend pretty much everybody. He once quipped about what happened when he started cartoon-ing:

“Very shortly I was to be identified as a sexist, racist, ageist, fascist communist – in fact, I’m merely cartoonist”

As I said on twitter, if I’d actually been able to draw worth a damn, and had been better at thinking up funny lines, I might have fancied being a cartoonist.

Which explains, I guess, both my avatar, and the one cartoon that I have published. Though ‘published’ is probably  too grand a word; the magazine that printed it is a membership one for the Physiological Society, and the then editor was a friend of mine. And of course I didn’t get a fee.

But anyway, in response to dbaptista’s request, I dug it out of the archives – or rather, found it online – and have reproduced it above*. To my amazement, and even rather worryingly, it is a full ten years old.

Anyway, a few comments on the cartoon, starting with the top panel:

If you look back at photographs of scientists of the 1920s (a nice example can be found in the group photo here),  you will indeed find that tweed suits – usually three-piece ones, with a waistcoat to keep one’s shirt and tie away from the smellier or messier bits of the experiment – were pretty much de rigeur. Though for me personally, this panel was an hommage to Woody Allen, whose early movie Sleeper contained the immortal line:

‘Science is… guys in tweed suits cutting up frogs’

The 1970s scientist is more like the sort of people that I remember seeing around the Oxford University science areas when I was a teenager, and were still common in Universities when I was a student in the 80s (though many of them had trimmed their beards somewhat by then). In the Physiology Department where I did my PhDs in the mid-80s, most of the 40-ish male academics could be seen in older departmental photographs sporting heroically luxuriant 70s facial fuzz. Sir John Sulston is one notable British scientist who keeps this tradition alive.

The 1990s figure probably resembles my own generation of cell physiology people, though it would only actually have been me during a rather abortive Sabbatical year doing molecular biology in the late 90s. Most of my experimental work, back when I still used to do some, was with large microscopes in small dark rooms. These bolt-holes had the added advantage of being good for dozing, and for hiding from the students, or from the Head of Department when he wanted to sign you up for his latest scheme. One thing that was (and remains) characteristic of science academics, at least in the North of England, is the triumph of new fabric Polar-fleece type outdoorwear over the traditional woolly jumper; the latter is now only seen on the most old-fashioned among us.

Finally, the 2001 picture is doubtless pretty self-explanatory. Though a question arises:

If this was how we all felt about the amount of bureaucratic bullsh*t we had to put up with a full ten years ago… how big would that pile of papers be now?

—————————————————————————————————————-

*Sorry the image is so poor, but I originally drew the cartoon with the stylus on the drawing programme of the old Psion 5mx palmtop computer (anyone remember those?). Couldn’t find a digital version so I’ve had to cut ‘n’ paste it (with a bit of fiddling) from the online PDF version (see p 22 here).

Be Careful What You Wish For – Even in Jest

June 25, 2011

As we never tire of repeating here, one of the problems with satire is that you regularly find yourself dealing with reality so surreal that a satirical take on it would be … indistinguishable from the real thing.

I think I would like to christen this ‘Lehrer’s Paradox’*.

There is also a sub-category of this, which might go by the title of this post, namely:

“Be careful what you wish for – even in jest”

This came back to me this week because, at a Skeptics in the Pub social night I trotted along to, we got talking about ‘Electrosensitivity’. The topic has, of course, been back in the news recently with the kerfuffle over the WHO’s comments on mobile phone use.

Now, I recalled that, back in the far-off days before I had a blog of my own, we had had some lively discussions of ‘Electrosensitivity’ over at Ben Goldacre’s Badscience site. So I went to have a look at them.

I spotted that, in one particular thread from early June 2007, I posted the following comment:

—————————————————————————————

“BTW, I have come up with an invention for any electrosmog-sensitive who might need to carry a mobile phone: the NoWavePouch™

- this will look just like a mobile phone holder but will be fully lined with special copper mesh, to prevent those nasty waves getting out.

Combined with the not-conductive earphones the ElectroSmog Nuts are already selling, this will provide TOTAL RADIOSMOG SAFETY.

Well, not quite. For that you will need my patented

Mobile EarthGuard™

- which connects a wire from the NoWavePouch™ down the inside of your trouserleg to a special conductive pad which glues to the bottom of your shoe. Then the evil waves can be properly earthed at all times.

Can you spot the snags with these inventions? (Apart from the obvious ones that they are fictitious and useless, at least until some ElectroSmog Nut starts flogging them online.)”

————————————————————————————–

Well – be very careful what you wish for.

For there are numerous mobile phone pouches for sale on electrosensitivity sites that claim to ‘protect you from cell phone radiation’. Indeed, they now seem to be a pretty common item on all sorts of ‘natural living’ websites.  Some examples can be found here and here.  For a further taster, quite a detailed site for one particular product can be found here, which also links to a Youtube demonstration video, and has a Factsheet and even  - I kid you not – a full Tester’s Technical Report.

And some of these sites also sell – you guessed it – all kinds of earthing paraphernalia. Though thus far I have not found a specific down-the-trouser-leg earthing wire and grounding-to-earth-whist-in-motion footpad.

The question, I guess, is whether I should patent that idea and start selling it – after all, there is clearly a market, with entire websites devoted to, quote, ‘cellphone defence’, unquote.  And the way things are going in the UK Universities, I may soon be in need of a new source of income and employment.

Finally, I wonder if any of my medical friends have had any patients turning up in their surgeries or clinics recently reporting unexplained symptoms that the patients are attributing to their mobile phones?

After all, if the People’s Medical Journal Daily Mail says so, then it must be true.

———————————————————————————

PS:   Down in Dr Aust’s department at the University of Grumbleton we do, of course, have lots of things to block stray electrical signals…  They are called Faraday cages, and look a bit like this.

An EMF repeller - you could probably sleep in it, but it might be a bit cramped.

If you put your mobile phone in one of these, I dare say it will be totally harmless. Of course, it probably won’t receive any phone calls either.

———————————————————————————-

* The reference is to the great Tom Lehrer, one of my heroes, who famously commented that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete (for an introduction to why, start here).

Wanted – dedicated or alive

June 18, 2011

In which we ponder the language of advertisements for University science jobs..

I was amused recently to see a Tweet from one of my friends in the scientific blogosphere, Stephen Curry (do check out his excellent Reciprocal Space blog), saying that he was:

‘arguing’ – I presume with his HR Department – ‘to be allowed to ask for someone ‘enthusiastic’ in a job advert’.

Now, this struck me as a little surprising. As I tweeted back:

For, as anyone who regularly scans the academic job ads in (e.g.) the Times Higher will know, language tending to the hyperbolic has become such a regular feature of advertisements for jobs in British Universities that it no longer seems even slightly remarkable. I remembered that I had once written a short satirical piece on this, so I headed off to my archive (the pile of mouldering papers in the corner of my spare room) to try and find it. Turns out it was a full six – yes, six – years ago. I have reproduced it, with minor amendments, updates and hyperlinks, below.

I leave you, dear reader, to judge if you think anything has changed in academic job-ad-speak in the meantime.

——————————————————————————————————

You used to know where you were with advertisements for academic jobs in science.

‘The Something-logy department of the University of Grumbleton requires a lecturer. Duties will be teaching, supervision of graduate students, and conducting research in something-ology.’

Of course, these adverts often concealed a whole raft of hidden agendas, and more often than not some research areas would be ‘preferred’, but at least the language in the advertisement was to the point.

Not any more.

Nowadays most academic job advertisements in the UK give the impression of having been written by a committee consisting of a Head of Department with messianic delusions, one or more human resources ‘professionals’ (the inverted commas are mine), and a public relations flack in the grip of a Prozac frenzy. And all of them seem to have been on some special course in mangling English.

These adverts now have a language all of their own. The odd thing, though, is that they are all so similar – despite the hyperbole and obscurantist/coded vocabulary – that they could practically have been written by a computer programme.

The simplest change is the proliferation of superfluous adjectives, or, to be more precise, Obligatory Adjectival Qualifiers (OAQs for short). An OAQ is an adjective that must automatically precede a noun every time that particular noun appears. Some examples:

‘world-class’ (institution, or research)

‘outstanding’ (individual) [also ‘exceptional’, ‘pro-active’, ‘committed’, ‘energetic’]

‘exciting’ (opportunity)

‘state-of-the-art’ (facilities, buildings)

‘leading’ (centre) [also ‘world-leading’]

‘proven’ (ability)

Then there are the phrases that have both a literal and a shorthand, or parallel, meaning. Examples:

The institution:

‘An exciting, vibrant, research-led academic community’: Research-intensive ‘old’ University / Russell Group.

‘Progressive and innovative’ (also ‘modern and innovative’): Former polytechnic / ‘post-92′.

‘High-quality student-centred learning environment’: We have a new building and are desperately trying to enrol enough students to fill it.

‘Committed to anticipating and satisfying students’, employers’ and clients’ needs’: Staff will work for food.

‘One of the countries most popular student destinations’: Nothing stands out about our University, but thank heaven the night-life and the cheap booze still brings in the punters.

‘Offering opportunities to work with leading international academics whose visions are shaping tomorrow’s world’: I don’t think they’ve got my antidepressant dose quite right at the moment.

You:

‘A committed and work-focused individual’: Prepared to work 50+ hrs a week for little money on a fixed-term contract.

‘A high-calibre and driven individual’: You should be unashamed, or at least unaware, of your Borderline Personality Disorder.

The job, and department:

‘We are committed to personal development’: We have a widely loathed staff appraisal scheme.

‘An innovative, challenging work environment’: You might get a desk.

‘We have pursued a focused strategy of appointing world-class researchers’: In: Professors with 5-year (Programme) grant funding; Out: Teaching staff over 50.

‘Staff are integrated into cross-cutting, multi-disciplinary themes’: Our senior management believe strongly in putting their oar in.

‘We aim for the highest levels of research excellence’: Five-star in the next Research Assessment, or early retirements all round.

I should say that all the above examples are real: you couldn’t make this stuff up. And this is only a starter pack. Anyone got any more particularly choice examples?

Finally, to end on a positive note (sort of) – the observant among you will have noticed that, should you ever need to, you can now write your own University job advert simply by selecting the appropriate phrases from the lists above. Think of the time you’ll save!

Assuming, of course, that HR will let you.

Enjoy.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,991 other followers