Friday, June 30, 2006

End of the Road ... for Now

Official trip statistics (Dublin, Ohio to Lubbock, Texas):

Distance driving: 1,302 miles
Distance as the crow flies: 1,134 miles
Average Speed: 66.5 mph
Maximum Speed: 88.9 mph
Ending Altitude: 3,315 feet


Monday, June 26, 2006

Absent Minded Professors Next?

It seems that those so-called senior-moments may actually be signs of Alzheimer's disease after all.

An Associated Press story on reports on research published today in the scientific journal Neurology.

The researchers autopsied the brains of 134 older people who appeared normal but suffered from occasional forgetfulness. Fully 1/3 of them showed the characteristic signs of the degenerative brain disease.

Furthermore, these people's brains appeared equally as affected as those seriously debilitated by the disease.

Luckily, one of the authors speculated that higher education and greater levels of social connectedness may stave off symptoms.

Let me say, dear reader, that I feel socially connected to you!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sex Packs Powerful Media Effect

Updated: 10:12 a.m., June 23, 2006 (typos fixed)


That's all I can say, really.

Five days ago I wrote here about an Austin public school teacher ousted for the presence of artistic topless photos of her on the Web.

Then someone linked to the post.

Since then, hundreds and hundreds of visitors have shown up on this Weblog. This site has had more visitors in five days than it gets in a typical month. Dozens of states. Nations, too. Greece. Malaysia. Canada. U.S. military bases.

Being a media scholar who studies emotion and attention, I'm betting that they're looking for the pictures. They're not here. That traffic would probably shut the server down.

Many people want to take sex off of the Internet and television. It just will not happen. The lure is too strong. Appetitive motivation usually wins.

I'd like to think that people (on both sides of the issue) are passionately involved with this issue, and they want to be better citizens. But, no, they're surfing for the topless pictures.

You can read about the popularity of Tamera Hoover here.

You can donate to her legal defense fund here.

If you think Hoover should have been fired, you can spend money on what I predict will be a losing fight against sex here.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Internet Does Blur Mass Media Divide

It's an interesting world. In fewer than five minutes, I can:

  • Read a story on about "Teacher in trouble over topless shots, but is it art?"
  • Google the ousted teacher's name, Tamara Hoover
  • Read Hoover's Myspace page and get her side of the story
  • Read some random blogger's posting that Hoover is a lesbian
  • Look at Hoover's alleged girlfriend's Flickr site
  • Realize that Celesta Danger is a talented photographer
  • Realize that Hoover's sexual identity probably has too much to do with the dismissal
  • Briefly ponder my own keep-out-politics policy about this Weblog
  • Wonder why so many people care so much about other people's sex lives
  • Become sad that a teacher loved by her students is treated like this
  • Realize that I will be a Texas voter in 10 days, thus gaining some minute influence

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beware the Self-Report

File this under "I" for "I couldn't have said it better myself."

In the letters to the editor of the June 12, 2006, Advertising Age, under the headline, "Self-reporting not a reliable indicator," Ronald LaMorte, of Darien, Conn., offers the following truth.

LaMorte writes, "Maybe someone will do a survey asking people is they are ugly or overweight, and we can report the end of homeliness and obesity."

Well said, sir.

Thanks to master's student Tim Laubacher for drawing this to my attention.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Data Crunching Continues

I have been busy working on packing the office and helping master's student David Hutchinson work on his thesis data. I must say, David's thesis is one of the most internally consistent studies with which I have been involved. The data go together to tell a nice story. I am looking forward to reading the write up!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Numbers Chasing Sullies Science

It seems that the phenomenon of scholars whoring themselves for numbers is gaining more widespread attention.

My colleague, Dr. Matthew Nisbet, just forwarded an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal regarding the active manipulation of journal impact factors. Most people outside of academe are familiar with the "publish or perish" label. Although I find this characterization to be terribly misleading, the need to demonstrate an active research program does come with drawbacks.

As professors at research universities, we are expected to publish the results of our research in academic journals. In order to have one's work published, it is "blind" reviewed by other "peer" researchers in the area. Since research specializations are often quite small, the degree to which these reviews are actually blind varies. That is, I know who does what in studying emotional, attention, and media.

Some journals are better than others. However, calling one journal "better" than another is somewhat akin to calling chocolate ice cream better than vanilla ice cream. So there are quantitative indicators. One of these indicators is the impact factor. This statistic is kept by ISI Thompson, and it provides an index of how often a journal is referenced by other journal articles.

The thought is that if your work is important, then other people will cite it. The more that work in a particular journal is cited, the higher its impact factor climbs. Some journals are not tracked by ISI. Thus, they have no impact factors. They are the lepers of science.

Keep in mind that I am a quantitative scientist. All of my research involves numbers. I love numbers. In this respect, I am like the Count from Sesame Street. "I love to count. Ah Ah Ah." However, when you introduce quantitative indicators to science, you immediately pervert the process.

The Wall Street Journal article (Begley, 2006) provides evidence that some journals are actively trying to manipulate their impact factors. That is, after an article is basically accepted, the WSJ reports that the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine asks every author to cite more papers from that journal before publication.

This is as blatant of a manipulation of the process as I can imagine. But impact factor perversion is just the tip of the iceberg. As I have written before, numbers chasing threatens science at every level.

Take the NFL sack record as an analogy. New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan set the all-time single season sack record in January 2002 when he took down Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre in the fourth quarter. But the play looked suspicious. It looked like a "gimme." Everybody in that stadium knew Strahan needed one sack for the record, and the takedown looked as if it could have been completed by a punter. Favre denied handing Strahan the sack, but few people who see the footage believe it. The record is tainted.

Allow me to give you a few more examples of how we are counting ourselves stupid in American science.

The very notion of impact factors has, I argue, a chilling effect. It is difficult to get truly "new" work published. For instance, I have two papers that won top paper awards from an academic society that are awaiting journal homes. They are difficult to publish. They are new. They are not trendy. They do no fit high impact journals. So they are published in a journal also known as my desk drawer.

So you run a risk as a young scholar. Ground-breaking work runs the risk of slow or no acceptance. Better to tow the line. Do menial work and cite the big names in the field. Imagine if all of science behaved this way.

Budding linguist Noam Chomsky published Syntactic structures in 1957. Chomsky has gone on to be one of the most cited scholars of his generation, and no one can deny the influence of the 1957 volume on modern linguistics. But Syntactic structures was not published by the biggest or best publisher. Instead it was published by Mouton in the Hague, Netherlands. Today, publishing in such an obscure outlet may cost someone tenure.

There is no denying the clear separation between the top and bottom journals in a field. But the finer gradations are far more subjective. Take, for instance, the emphasis on flagship journals by my outgoing employer, The Ohio State University.

In the school's pattern of administration (available online), it states, "Faculty of the School of Communication strive to become known for high quality research programs. Thus, tenure track faculty are expected to engage in a rigorous program of research that contributes to the advancement of the field of communication and to the prestige of the School." Later on the same page, it defines three "flagship" journals in communication, Communication Research, Human Communication Research, and the Journal of Communication.

Herein lies the rub: OSU's School of Communication has approximately 27 tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Although numbers expectations are very "hand wavy," to be considered successful, one is usually publishing 2-3 peer reviewed journal articles per year. And the communication faculty at just one university may easily be flooding these three journals with more than 50 submissions per year -- perhaps more than 100.

Although this may not directly inflate the impact factor, it does inflate another statistic, the rejection rate. The top journals all have high rejection rates. Like the best universities, the best journals are "hard to get into." And we are single-handedly increasing these journals' positions as high rent districts.

I do not point this out to fault OSU. To be clear, the system is driving this problem, not this individual school. However, just a few like-minded programs with large research faculties can unintentionally drive the field. Furthermore, we give three editors the power to decide what "matters" in communication.

If Chomsky had been held to this model (imagine him forced to publish in journals edited by behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner), stimulus-response models of cognition might still win the day.

This impact factor phenomenon also colors the process at the individual level. Just as with journals, it is popular to think that the more an individual is cited, the more important that individual's work is to the field. However, this assumes that no one is "working" the process.

It has been my observation -- and that of others, although I will not hold them accountable here -- that citation circles have developed within our field. That is, a group of 8-10 like-minded individuals have the capability to completely skew the process if they so desire.

It goes like, this: These 8-10 individuals publish in a common area. So they cite each other ... a lot. And they co-author papers together, but not all at once. So they submit their articles to the journals, and the editor is most often not an expert in that particular sub-field. So the editor looks at the citations, and invites reviews from authors cited heavily within the paper.

But wait! That is within the circle. So there is no blind review. And even if the other circle members do not know the paper's authors with certainty, the paper is well within their scientific paradigm, and it cites them a lot. This means that if it gets published, it makes the reviewer look good. So Henry Ford is proud, and the assembly line is pumping.

The papers have all the trappings of science. They look like science. They "quack" like science, if you will. But they are nothing like programmatic science. They are simple regurgitations of a handful of meager ideas.

I'm not alleging any smoke filled rooms or Roswell-esque conspiracies. Read about flattery. It's hard to be "mean" to people who are kissing your butt. Even if the reviewers are trying to be impartial, the social psychology literature suggests that they cannot.

So, there go the numbers like a runaway train. If you confuse success with visibility, you will then seek to be visible. And if you narrowly quantify success and then do everything in your power to light up that scoreboard, then the numbers will follow. What happens to a baseball team when its players begin chasing individual stats?

Science will suffer. Sure, progress will be made. But it will be made in spite of most of the research being done, rather than on the backs of most of the research being done. It's sad, really. It's a sad day when a leading newspaper can publish an admission by a journal editor that they send out a boilerplate letter urging more citations, and it is not a national scandal.

But the fact that it was reported is a sign that the runaway train had better watch out ... there might just be light at the end of the tunnel.


Begley, S. (2006, June 5). Science journals artfully try to boost their rankings. Wall Street Journal, pp. B-1.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

Grades Are the Devil

Yup. That about covers it.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

There's Something Special about Finals Week

Ohio State uses a quarter system, so finals week comes almost a month late. But it's still a great time to be on campus. The mood is lighter, and everyone seems happy. We're still getting a lot of work done, but there's still time to trek down to Oxley's cafe for a late afternoon refreshment with two hard working lab members.

There are a lot of great reasons to be a professor. Finals week is among them. The good feeling -- especially in the spring -- outweighs all of the insane and illogical begging about grades that goes on.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Graphic War Images in TV News

As promised, I spent the day with my nose in the data for David Hutchinson's master's thesis. His study investigates the presence of graphic visuals in television news coverage of war.

Since it's David's thesis, I will not scoop him here. But I will foreshadow that his data tell a very nice story. The data add to the body of evidence suggesting a limited capacity cognitive system with a single pool of attentional resources that are divided among the senses. When visual recognition goes up, audio recognition goes down.

More fun with data tomorrow, as David and I will begin work on the skin conductance data.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Results Week Is Finally Here

It has been a rough month. My students are working like crazy, and I have been, too. But starting on Monday, we will start to see some payoff! We can start crunching the numbers. To me, this is the thing that makes this whole lifestyle worthwhile.

I see two reasons to be an academic researcher. The first reason is that one has figured out a way to set one's own schedule, and one has come up with some algorithm for churning out papers. Numbers beget success in this business, and many people with various inferiority complexes learn how to produce numbers without ever producing a single interesting idea or approaching anything akin to advancing science. They learn the churn without having even a vague notion of what it really means to do science. Sadly, I know far, far too many people like this.

The other reason to be an academic researcher is that you are driven by a passion to answer questions. People of this latter ilk can hardly think of anything else when it comes close to time to analyze their data and find out the "answers." It has killed me to be away from the lab this weekend when I could have been helping my graduate students analyze data.

You see, I have this relentless, unyielding drive to know the answer. We spend months designing studies, negotiating IRB Hades, and running participants. In the end sits the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: a bunch of raw data waiting for analysis.

Patience never having been a strong suit, I tear through this like a lion tears through a speed challenged zebra. Most of our (and by our, I mean the Indiana group) research involves within-subjects analysis. Without being overly technical, this means that each participant sees a variety of conditions, and therein serves as their "own" control.

It also means that inferential statistics cannot simply be "run" on the data. Lots of coding and recoding must take place before the "answers" can be had. And if nothing else, I am good at the single minded pursuit of this recoding. More times than I can recount, I have stared at an SPSS monitor typing things such as:

if (order eq 1) pa_a_1 = sam_a_1.

Because, in the end, answers come out. Tomorrow will mark a lot of this kind of coding. But by the time I go to bed tomorrow, I will have some answers. If time allows, I will mention them here.

This all started on a September 2000 evening in the office of my master's advisor, Dr. Robert Meeds. We were working on a study at breakneck pace to make a conference deadline. I was introduced to Unix, repeated-measures ANOVA, and SPSS in the same evening. That night launched something great. The next night, my colleague Manish Gupta and I left the bar early to go enter more data. That never happened (read that study here if you agree to follow copyright laws).

I do research because I cannot possible imagine spending my life any other way. I'm still downright giddy that I get paid to do this. I sit at my desk and try to explain how the human mind processes mediated messages. I derive hypotheses and design experiments to test those hypotheses. And in the end I get evidence about whether I was on the right track. Then I start with the next study.

Eventually these experiments are published in academic journals (read some here and here). We do this with some frequency, and this frequency provides good exposure for the universities that hire us. It makes them happy with us. But this frequency is never, ever the grail we seek. Instead, it is a byproduct of the process that we love. It is part of the process that drives us. But it is always the science and never the numbers in the driver's seat.

As my colleague and good friend Dr. Paul Bolls is often quoted as saying, "Trust us. We're scientists."

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Third Experiment Nears Launch

Yes, the pace continues. Friday evening was spent prepping our third thesis experiment to begin on Monday morning. This study is an investigation of interactive ads by undergraduate honor's student Kristen Coffaro.

Approximately 120 participants have run through the lab in the past month. Whew! But the end is in sight.