One of my readers asked if he could use my site to tell a story of a small American university, its dishonest mathematics professor who patrons predatory journals and conferences (aka scamferences) while boasing over half a million dollar of funding from untraceable or imaginary sources, and the presidential award this professor now received from this university.
I of course am always happy about guest posts. The author chose to remain anonymous and goes under a pseudonym of “Samuel Pickwick”. In case you wonder why: he will give you a related case as an example.
Also, how can I not publish this story when the university’s Vice President for Research specifically ordered me not to stick my nose into it.
“Original, interesting and advances mathematical and other scientific knowledge”
By “Samuel Pickwick”
Although the setting and scale of this story which took place at a small state university in rural Midwestern USA is unglamorous, I believe that there are important insights to be gained. The dishonest acts are predatory publishing and other false claims to gain academic benefit. Of these, predatory publishing is best known: publishing articles in journal-like entities (usually online) without peer-review and in exchange for a publishing fee, thus generating a citation to a possibly nonsensical article which is outwardly indistinguishable from a genuine scholarly citation. The author can then use the citation to pad their CV, gain jobs, promotions, salary raises and for similar career advancements.
It is not difficult to detect predatory publications (and other false academic claims), armed with common sense and standard databases. Given this fact, it may come as a surprise that predatory publishing is undergoing explosive growth. The reason is the complicity of shabby academic institutions and their corrupt administrators. For universities which are short of resources and lack a culture of rigorous enquiry, but which still aspire to show the public that they are active in research, pseudo-publications by faculty provide a cheap way to create an illusion of research productivity. The authorities of these universities therefore piously intone good intentions of promoting academic integrity, but look the other way when faculty use dishonest means to gain tenure or promotion, and even award them prizes.
This phenomenon was studied in a very interesting 2017 paper by Derek Pyne, a Canadian economist, who concluded that for the faculty in his university, having predatory publications was positively correlated with salary. [Pyne was “rewarded” for exactly this study by his Thompson Rivers University with a forced psychiatric examination, a ban from campus, and charges of research misconduct and even harassment. – LS]
Now on to our story. En-Bing Lin is professor is professor of mathematics at Central Michigan University, a public university in Mt Pleasant, Michigan, USA, situated in the middle of a vast thinly populated rural region. On one hand, the university is facing financial problems due to drop of enrolment (caused by declining college-age population in the region), and on the other hand, it is trying to encourage research and creative activities, as befits an institution recently promoted to the status of an R2. Prof. Lin is apparently contributing enormously to the growth of research at CMU, because in recognition of this, the university’s office of research has awarded him the 2020 President’s for research excellence. Announcing the “President’s Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity” on their website, the university authorities noted that:
“He has published more than 80 peer-reviewed articles, received over $535,000 in grant funding and given 74 external presentations, including 14 keynote speeches at international mathematic conferences. His progressive knowledge and ongoing research of advanced wavelet-based computational methods, bioinformatics, rough set theory and data analysis has been widely recognized by the mathematics and scientific community. […]
“Regarding the quality of Professor Lin’s scholarly work, I can say that it is original, interesting and advances mathematical and other scientific knowledge,” a colleague said in his nomination letter.
A little skepticism and a few hours of work with the internet will cast serious doubt on the veracity of many of the statements made above, which most likely come from the material submitted by Lin while applying for the prize, or from supporting letters by referees nominated by him.
Of Lin’s 80+ publications noted in the university announcement, only 48 appear in the commercial database Scopus. Since journals listed in Scopus undergo some basic checking to make sure that they have some kind of peer review, it immediately raises the question of the nature of the remaining 32+.
Some of these are predatory publications, which show up on Google Scholar and ResearchGate. A cursory search shows many publications in venues classified as predatory by Beall’s or Cabell’s blacklists. For example here, here, here, here, and here. The last one is in a conference proceeding by a predatory conference organizer. Dr Lin also has three papers (in 2004, 2008 and 2011) in journals published by a publisher on Beall’s blacklist, which publishes printed journals rather than open access ones. Feel free to track down all of the remaining 23+ non-Scopus publications.
However, looking at his oeuvre at MathSciNet, the indexing and review service maintained by the American Mathematical Society reveals three publications which appear in very interesting and unconventional venues. (Till a few years ago, MathSciNet or its predecessor Mathematical Reviews did not check journals for quality). These three publications are
- Lin, En Bing; Geometric quantization of particles with isotopic spin. Hadronic J. 5 (1981/82), no. 6, 2041–2068. (This seems to be based on his PhD thesis).
- Lin, En Bing; Hadronic quantization. Hadronic J. 11 (1988), no. 2, 81–83.
- Lin, E. B.; Multiscale analysis and mechanics. Algebras Groups Geom. 26 (2009), no. 1, 109–124. (Published by Hadronic press, Florida).
The name “Hadronic” should be able to given away the nature of these journals to readers of this blog: these are private journals of Italian-American nuclear physicist and propagator of fringe pseudoscience, Ruggiero Maria Santilli. I have not been able to look at the papers, but a summary of the second paper can be found in MathSciNet, and it is based on Santilli’s crackpot theory of mathematical physics. While Lin certainly has the right to consider seriously any idea he pleases, even those of R.M. Santilli, it does not follow that we should take seriously people who publish papers about crank theories in crank journals.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Lin, as outlined in the University Announcement, is that he received $535,000 in grant funding, a handsome amount for any researcher, and certainly for a mathematician.
Since the announcement itself does not explain the sources of these grants, and what research was funded by them, I tried to find out myself. First of all, there are a limited number of sources in the US for grant funding for the mathematical sciences. Among US government bodies, the NSF (National Science Foundation) and the NSA (National Security Agency) are leading funders of mathematics, and there are a few private foundations, such as the Simons foundation, which also provide funding for such research. The NSF and NSA are agencies of the federal government, and their records of grants are publicly accessible on the internet. Since neither of these two bodies have awarded a grant to En-Bing Lin, I tried the websites of several private foundations, but could not find any mention of a grant to him.
I therefore tried to find a reference to the grants in Lin’s papers, since it is customary for funding agencies to require that publications arising from the grant should acknowledge it. Instead of combing through 80+ publications, I decided to look at one publication per year, and check if there is mention of a grant. The reasoning is as follows — usually the grants last for several years, and several publications result from them, so looking at a representative sample spread through the years would suffice to detect any mention of grants.
And, I did find exactly one publication by Lin that refers to a gran, this is published with the low-quality outlet World Scientific:
Syau, Y.-R., Lin, E.-B., \& Liau, C.-J. (2020). Fuzzy Binary Rough Set. International Journal of Uncertainty, Fuzziness and Knowledge-Based Systems, 28(02), 317–329. doi: 10.1142/s0218488520500130
which contains the announcement that
“This work was partially supported by a grant from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan, No. MOST 106-2221-E-150-040.“
Therefore, this is almost certainly a grant to Lin’s Taiwanese co-authors, and not to Central Michigan University through him.
I have not been able to find any evidence of an external grant for Lin from the standard US sources of external research funding. Of course, I may have missed precisely those publications which mention the grants during my limited sample collection, or it may be these are secret grants for research into defense-related matters. But the preponderance of evidence we have at this time suggests that these grants do not exist.
Now we come to the “international mathematic conferences” (sic). One can find a list of some of these conferences under the tab “Selected Publications” in Lin’s university web-page. Now unlike for the predatory journals, there is no central resource to clearly identify the analogous “predatory/fraudulent conferences”. One thing that we can be sure about is that the conferences which Lin attended are not typical mathematics conferences, which are held either by learned societies (AMS or SIAM in the US) or by university departments, and do not feature “keynote” speakers. I looked at a few random conferences in Lin’s list at his webpage, where he was keynote speaker. For example, we have the following:
- 8th International Conference on Computer Technology and Science, Hong Kong, December 8, 2019.
On visiting the webpage it seems that Lin is the organizer of this conference! Another one:
- 4th International Conference on Applied Mathematics and Data Science, Xi’an, China, May 29-31, 2019.
has a webpage where one can apply to be a keynote speaker. Another conference where Lin was a keynote speaker
- 4th International Conference on Database and Data Mining, Chicago, USA, July 2-3, 2015.
is organized by the “Asia Society of Researchers”. According to its website
“The Asia Society of Researchers (ASR) is one of the world’s scientific research union, which is for holistic professionals that provide a forum where members may exchange ideas, information, techniques and methodologies.“
But in fact the Asia Society of Researchers is an organizer of predatory conferences.
By the time the reader has reached this point, it should have become clear that either there has been a serious mistake, or else there is a deliberate attempt by the university to encourage academic dishonesty. It is natural to ask why all the clearly visible signals of dubiousness were ignored. Here I would like use Hanlon’s razor, i.e. the principle that we should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In fact, the material submitted in support of Lin’s prize application was carefully designed to deceive the gullible, and it served its purpose. The prize-winner is selected by the vice-president of research as the head of a chaotic committee of clueless faculty from across the CMU departments (such as Parks and Recreation Studies). Often, they base their judgement on the nominating letter, which in En-Bing’s case seems to have been written by a fellow scammer friendly with him.
Moreover, the material submitted in support of the application contained all the buzzwords that would attract the attention of the non-specialist: “advanced wavelet-based computational methods, bioinformatics, rough set theory and data analysis“. Compared with these dazzling displays, honest hard work looks much less appealing. In particular, serious mathematics published in “traditional” non-predatory journals usually deals with technical incremental advances in the solution of intricate problems, and has little appeal for the non-specialist. The committee also must have been very impressed by the (almost certainly false) claim of half a million dollars in grants.
There is also a larger moral of this story. Academic dishonesty by researchers flourishes in an ecosystem of perverse incentives. The commercialization of academia has opened up such perverse incentives at many levels, and researchers at each level respond to it with the goal of obtaining resources by showing “productivity”. At the level of the provincial R2 university like Central Michigan, dishonest people can simply create many citations to fake publications by publishing stuff in predatory journals. At a higher level, where the administrations are more knowledgeable and the amount of resources involved more substantial, researchers produce papers in real journals with faked data, the kind of fraud that this blog so elegantly exposes on a regular basis.
Finally, I would like to invite mathematics experts to comment on the last point made in the announcement from the university, i.e. “Lin’s scholarly work …. is original, interesting and advances mathematical and other scientific knowledge.” The few people I asked did not agree there was any originality in the work or that it advanced mathematics in any way.
Lin didn’t reply to emails, but the university’s Vice President for Research and Innovation David C. Weindorf, did. He ordered me (LS) to drop the case (“No further actions are required on your part“), when pressed to clarify, Weindorf added:
“It is an internal matter and thus no external comments will be made. I will simply say that the matter is being reviewed appropriately.“
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). One of these days, I might also visit an OMICS scamference!