Thursday, December 2, 2010

how to spot an academic con artist

If you've been to college, you were taught how to scrutinize research sources at some point. Let's test your skills, shall we? Imagine you run across a popularized article and the author promotes his own expertise using the following:
  • "Ph.D" after his name.
  • Referencing his multiple books.
  • Noting his academic appointments.
  • You look at his personal web page list of publications and you see dozens of articles and books going back several decades.
Must be an expert, right? Must be legit, right? This is what I saw for John Medina, Ph.D., author of the HuffPo article 'Parentese': Can Speaking To Your Baby This Way Make Her Smarter? But I quickly became suspicious about this man's credentials. Why? Let's look more closely at those bullet points:
  • "Ph.D" after his name.
  • I recall a professor once saying something like "Once you've been to grad school, everyone you know has a Ph.D. It's just not that special." This may sound elitist, but the truth is, most people with Ph.Ds don't use the alphabet to promote themselves. They use their body of work. I'm almost always suspicious of people who promote themselves using their degrees. Plus, nowhere on his own site does he list a CV or even where he got his Ph.D. I had to find this at the UW web page, listing "PhD, Molecular Biology, Washington State University, 1988" and impressive degree, no doubt, but why hide this? It has become common practice for serious academics to provide their full CV on their web page. Medina fails to follow this practice.
  • Referencing his multiple books.
  • All of his books are aimed at non-academics. There's nothing wrong with trying to explain your expertise to a lay audience, but at some point you should also be trying to explain your expertise top other experts.
  • Noting his academic appointments.
  • Here, Medina does seem to have some impressive qualifications. He is an "Affiliate Professor, Bioengineering" at The University of Washington. As well as director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University (which, as far as I can tell, is a house and has exactly two members, the director and his assistant).
  • You look at his personal web page list of publications and you see dozens of articles and books going back several decades.
  • This is the most suspicious by far. Yes he lists dozens of publications, but almost all of them are short, 2-4 page articles IN THE SAME MAGAZINE, Psychiatric Times, a dubious looking magazine at best. The only others are in the equally dubious looking Geriatric Times. His publications page does list a REFEREED PAPERS section with some more legitimate academic articles, but he's second or third author on almost all.
Add to this the fact that his recommendations seem to be little more than common sense (i.e., talk to your kids duh!). I have no problem with someone making money off their education, but this seems to be an example of trying to con people into believing he has more to say than he really does simply because of the letters P-h-D after his name.

Despite writing this, I don't feel terribly comfortable casting aspersions on someone who may indeed be a serious, legitimate academic. If I have made mistakes in this critique, I will apologize. But then again it is incumbent upon Medina to do a better job of representing his credentials. And it is incumbent upon us as us a lay readers (hey, I ain't no molecular biologists either) to scrutinize supposed experts who are asking us to pay for their expertise (in the form of book prices and speaking fees).


Matthew Sullivan said...

If you are going to write an article criticizing the professionalism of another article writer's public facade, for God's sake, run a spelling check.

lynneguist said...

I think you're right to be suspicious when you see such signs, but...

There are lots of PhDs out there trying to carve out non-university-based careers that don't involve cab-driving. And when interacting with the non-academic public, the PhD designation can be helpful (I use it on my blog-related email account, but not on my university-related one).

I'm thinking of a friend who's making a career (out of necessity as much as choice) as a consultant in cognitive psychology. She works on funded research projects at a couple of universities (but is faculty at neither), provides product/marketing-testing services for certain kinds of manufacturers, does public speaking engagements on things that are interesting to the general public. She's essentially an academic without an academy, doing both the research and teaching aspects of the job. And she is an excellent researcher, thinker, teacher, etc.--so not to be automatically dismissed, I'd hope!

Myself, I'm most suspicious of people with self-published books from vanity presses (or near-vanity ones). But you need to know a fair bit about academic publishing to identify them. Oh, and non-linguists commenting on language. :)

Chris said...

Mathew, yep, I'm also a lousy speller, hehe.

Lynn, of course you are right, and I respect people who use their expertise to compete in the free market. I'm a capitalist pig at heart, hehe. But when people use their credentials to sell an inferior product, it irks me (like doctors who promote supplements and exercise equipment on late night TV infomercials).

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