Cheating in Universities: Symptoms of a Sick System

On Friday (May 4) the evening current affairs show, The Project (7 pm weeknights on +HR=E) ran an illuminating segment on one facet of cheating at universities: ghostwritten essays. Ghostwriters are authors who agree to write an item while passing it off as another’s work. Within the commercial publishing industry, ghostwriting is viewed as acceptable to meet consumer demand, to ensure high quality content, or to protect the identity of the author.

Within academia however, ghostwriting is unacceptable. While not identical to plagiarism, the intent is similar as the client seeks to pass the work off as their own. In order to protect the value of qualifications, it is essential that all graduates meet the academic requirements of a degree. Ghostwriting undermines our confidence in universities as we cannot be certain that graduates are actually competent. There’s also the ethical dimension where dishonesty is not permitted.

Academic ghostwriters like predatory publishers stridently promote themselves through unsolicited emails. The Project investigation revealed that ghostwriting agencies have turned to social media “influencers” to promote their brands. These influencers may have a fan base of several hundred thousand people, a massive potential client base for ghostwriters.

Speaking as someone who has graded undergraduate reports, we can find plagiarism quite easily. The Turnitin software is helpful, but if the marker happens to have two plaigiarised reports in the pile, the features are easy to pick up. Usually the reports will share errors in figures or the overall structure, upon closer inspection entire paragraphs are identical.

I’m not aware of ghostwriting being an issue in engineering and physical sciences where reports are usually on a very specific area that requires intimate knowledge of the course, laboratory equipment and procedures. I can imagine that it is a serious issue for the humanities where essays are more open in terms of possible content (i.e. analysing well-known literature).

This experience leads me to suspect that ghostwriting is much harder to identify than plagiarism, indeed I’ve never marked a report that I suspected was ghostwritten. I would need to know the student’s proficiency in English and match it up with the quality of the grammar in their report. Engineers don’t get to know the students that they tutor well enough to build up such familiarity.

Luckily we may not need to look for ghostwriting, thanks to ghostwriting agencies who have identified a new revenue stream: blackmail their clients after they submit the “work”! That’s right, pay the ghostwriter more money or they’ll report you to the university. Isn’t capitalism great?

That brings me to the point of this post, two questions that I have. (1) Why do students employ ghostwriters? (2) Why do ghostwriters ghostwrite? Since 1980, enrolments have more than trebled, outstripping population growth. Universities have gone from zero fees to student loans, from rectors to overpaid vice-chancellors, from blue-skies research to clickbait, the university sector’s volte-face over the past 30 years can answer these questions.

Why do students employ ghostwriters?

University entrance requirements are hilariously low which makes university accessible to many high-schoolers who lack the drive or the competence to succeed at tertiary study. With 42 Level 3 credits in the right places, you can get in even though you would have failed NCEA Level 3! As another example, VUW has a metric to determine if a student has guaranteed entry. My score was nearly double the minimum requirement.

The low entry standards situation is perfectly acceptable for universities. This is because New Zealand universities are expected to generate surpluses, which means that there is an incentive to enrol as many students as possible, even if they don’t have what it takes to complete the coursework.

More students means more revenue for universities, in the form of government funding, and tuition fees. This funding model has turned students into consumers who are determined to get a return on their investment. Failure has gone from no big deal (ask Steven Joyce) to becoming a very expensive problem.

With the stresses of struggling to keep up with a difficult workload, familial pressure and the burden of student debt, a student in such a situation may turn to a ghostwriter just to keep the wolves at bay. Less charitable scenarios may be conjured up too. An arrogant, entitled student with wealthy parents can’t be arsed doing any work hires a ghostwriter to keep up pretenses while they live it up.

Now that tertiary education has been turned into a commodity, can we really be surprised that integrity goes out the window as students seek to get value for money? An investment which is viewed as a stepping stone to a lucrative career instead of an intellectually enriching experience in itself.

The solution lies in the past. Remove the absurd corporatist models that universities need to follow, reduce intakes to the capable and committed (while providing more suitable training opportunities outside of university), and remove the spectre of financial expense. If people aren’t pushed to the point of desperation, they will not feel the need to hire ghostwriters.

Why do ghostwriters ghostwrite?

Another big problem with high student numbers is what happens once they graduate. Are there enough vacancies in their chosen field? What if there aren’t enough jobs for their cohort? What educational background does a ghostwriter have? Yes, academic ghostwriters are university graduates! I wonder if it was the dream job they had in mind when they turned up to their first lecture?

Ideally students would choose to study subjects and career paths that they are passionate about. One would only abandon that to become a ghostwriter out of necessity. It should come as no surprise that increasing the number of graduates means that some will miss out on jobs in their chosen field since there is no shortage of workers. Which suits industry just fine since they seek to suppress wages.

Most of us need to make money to survive, if a graduate can’t work in their chosen sector, then they may as well put their skills to use elsewhere. Why not capitalise on the anxieties and desperation of current undergraduates and become a ghostwriter? I can even imagine that dobbing in clients would be a satisfying exercise, a mockery of an economic model that failed the ghostwriter.

Once again, this is a charitable interpretation, a graduate might get work in their field, but find themselves unsatisfied with their earnings (in many cases, rightly so). Ghostwriting may offer better pay and conditions, which makes it an attractive line of work. Testimonies from ghostwriters confirm my suspicions.

The solution from this side of the problem also requires a reduction in enrolments, ignoring claims that we have skill shortages so that all graduates can find work in their chosen field. Correspondingly, we require better funding models for academic research, well-paid and secure career opportunities for early career researchers.

Dick Wilkins’ account of the old Department of Agriculture gives a brilliant insight into how a supposedly inefficient government research department was able to generate enormous wealth for New Zealand. The corporatisation of government science by the National Party in the 1990s produced AgResearch, which is ineffective and in a slow death spiral. It’s obvious which model is better to follow.

New Zealand is near the bottom of the OECD in terms of spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP. Just look at the countries that top the list, there are the secure societies of Scandanavia and Japan, the rapid rise in living standards of South Korea, and the military developments made by Israel. R&D is one of those areas where throwing money at it gets results, in terms of new knowledge and prosperous societies.

Summary

The problem of academic ghostwriting is a problem exacerbated by the nature of today’s university sector. Management has developed an obsession with enrolling as many students as possible with the aim of getting as much money out of them as possible. Entry standards are inadequate, and no consideration is given to the matter of whether all graduates can gain relevant employment or not.

The combination of desperate students and embittered, underutilised graduates has created a “willing buyer, willing seller” market for ghostwriting services. A market so large, that social media stars are now shilling for ghostwriting agencies.

The most effective way to stop this problem is to change the university sector. Abolish tuition fees, implement a universal student allowance, increase the entry requirements so that all entrants have a good chance of success and are not in a race to the bottom against other graduates in the job market. Increase funding for research to make it a rewarding career path from which society will benefit. In doing so, the demand and supply for academic ghostwriting will vanish.

The malaise in the university sector today is responsible for the proliferation in academic misconduct, only by ending the disastrous neo-liberal experiment with our universities will we see an end to cheating.

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Elite Dangerous: Doing the Second Ram Tah Guardians Mission

The latest update to Elite Dangerous (3.0: Beyond Q1) has been active for a while now. One of the marquee features was another Guardian ruins mission. I have been able to complete it at the cost of considerable joy and anguish.

But first, I’ll briefly mention that I like the changes 3.0 brought to the Engineers. I have been able to max out the jump ranges for my Asp Explorer and Anaconda for a reasonable material cost. However, for me the real standout change has been with material storage. In the past, players were limited to 1000 items, now there are limits for each material type. This means that players don’t need to delete items to make room for others, which can hinder the desire to go and pick up materials. I am now actually choosing to jump into signal sources and drive around on planets to pick up materials knowing that I have room for them. It’s amazing that such a small change has improved the gameplay dynamics so much. It demonstrates that getting the basics right is so important and should not be overlooked in favour of aesthetics or monetisation opportunities.

As the second Guardians mission shows, getting the basics right is not something that Frontier Developments is good at.

In the game lore, the Guardians are a mysterious extinct ancient species. The only trace left of them are derelict obelisk networks clustered on airless worlds away from human inhabited space. The Engineer Ram Tah has a quest for intrepid CMDRs seeking to learn more about our long-gone galactic neighbours.

Recap of the First Ram Tah Guardians Mission

A mission from the Horizons expansion had players scan these obelisks while carrying a combination of artifacts in their SRV in order to unlock tidbits of information about the Guardians. The mission was badly implemented in several technical ways:

(1) Obelisks were supposed to flash with symbols indicating which artifacts needed to be carried in order to unlock so information. Instead, incoherent noise was shown, giving no indication about what artifacts were needed. The playerbase used trial and error to produce a guide about what combination was needed for each obelisk. When 3.0 was released, the symbol issue had been fixed. All of the obsessive speculation about secret messages in the obelisk patterns was all bunk, yet Frontier never had the courtesy to tell players to find a better use of their time.

(2) Players in multiplayer modes with multiple CMDRs present reported getting random bits of information. Indeed to complete the mission in its entirety required getting some pieces of information this way. Tough luck for people like me with no friends in weird timezones :'(.

(3) AMD graphics card players reported a bug where the dirt mounds were enlarged, blocking access to the obelisks.

From a design perspective, the mission is also poor. We started out knowing one ruins site which only had enough obelisks to partially complete the mission. More ruins existed, but they had to be found manually! Elite Dangerous purports to be a full-scale replica of the Milky way (with faster than light travel to allow you to go places). That means there are a lot of places to look. To complete the mission, players had to look through spreadsheets to find the sites that gave out the data they wanted. There really should be a simple in-game way to elucidate all of this information. I didn’t complete this mission in full, I only got 60/101 data items. Did Frontier learn from their mistakes with the second mission in 3.0?

Getting Started on the Second Mission

Players can dock at any station in the Meene system that isn’t Felice Dock. They don’t need to unlock Ram Tah (I haven’t), or have done the other Guardians mission. When landing, they get a mission from Ram Tah inviting them to “Decrypt the Guardian Logs”. Like the first mission, the player is to scan obelisks, this time at “Guardian Structures” which are a new installation for 3.0. There are 28 pieces of information to find, with a reward of 1 million credits per item. A 30 million credit bonus is added if you get all 28 items. Before you run off to the Guardian sites, you will need the following artifacts:

2× Ancient Orb, 1× Ancient Urn, 1× Ancient Casket, 1× Ancient Tablet,  1× Ancient Totem, 1× Ancient Relic. I would advise picking these up from the seminal ancient ruins site in the Synuefe XR-H d11-102 system, planet 1 B. Orbs can be hard to find at other sites.

1× Thargoid Sensor, 1× Thargoid Probe, 1× Thargoid Link, 1× Thargoid Cyclops Tissue, 1× Thargoid Basilisk Tissue, 1× Thargoid Medusa Tissue. Get the Sensor from an alien crash site, the Probe from a threat 2 NHSS around an ammonia world, and the Link from a Thargoid Structure.

Note that Thargoid artifacts damage your ship, so you’ll need a corrosion resistant cargo rack beforehand. How to get one? Unlock it at the tech broker. All you need to do is hand in an absurd amount of items! This is where Frontier made their first fuck-up. Neofabric insulation is only available as a mission reward, but for a while, it wasn’t given out as a mission reward! Instead players could earn limpets, scrap, or biowaste; which is like a neighbour giving you a handful of Werther’s Originals for mowing their lawn. Following a playerbase uproar, the game was fixed, and I was able to get my special cargo rack.

Getting the tissue samples turned out to be great fun. Players had to encounter Thargoid ships which are incredibly powerful and aggressive, and use a research limpet to pinch a tissue sample from their organic ships. I used the cold running strategy by engineering my DBX to put out less heat (subsequently, I named the ship after the ELO song Latitude 88 North).

To encounter a Thargoid, I jumped in and out of an instance with the attacked megaship around Electra 6 until I had one of each sample. This strategy is not ideal as it is immersion breaking and repetitive. A deterministic way to encounter each Thargoid type would be great. The best parts were the heart-pounding moments evading an angry Thargoid ship, then cowering out of view behind the stricken megaship waiting for the limpet to collect the sample. This was great fun and kudos to the developers for getting this right.

Shopping Around for Data

With all my artifacts, I headed out for Guardian space. While Guardian structures show up on the navigation panel when you’re in-system, there’s very little in-game information to find the right systems. Fortunately, a Galnet article offers up three locations, which will give you a good chunk of the data required, but to collect the rest will involve either lots of searching, or a third-party guide. My advice: keep your sanity, follow a guide.

Once at the site, hop in the SRV and start looking for ancient obelisks. I made an embargo on spoiler videos, so it was a fresh experience for me. The sense of atmosphere was impressive. I felt like I was snooping through an alien graveyard. Out of the blue, I was attacked by a hidden autonomous Guardian sentinel. What a surprise! Some of the sites are perched on hillsides, so also have the whole mysterious Himalayan temple vibe about them. The symbols on the obelisks are easy to understand, but if you get the wrong combination of artifacts, you can try again without re-logging. Overall, these parts of the mission were very well done. The information is given as audio logs by Ram Tah, which is a nice touch.

Waiting Outside the Bank

Admittedly, it gets quite dreary travelling to sites to scan a particular obelisk while getting harried by sentinels. Once I was done, I returned to Weber Dock in Meene to hand the mission in. But nothing showed up on the mission board for me to hand in! It turns out that the station has been UA bombed. This is when Thargoid Sensors are sold at black markets and cause damage to stations that limit the services on hand. The lockdown at Weber Dock could be the result of griefing (in-game trolling), or just other commanders selling Thargoid items on the black market once they’ve handed in the Guardians mission (it’s what I would have done if I had the chance).

It reminds me of the economic crisis in Cyprus, where people were prohibited from making withdrawals from their accounts while the banks pilfered their savings. Players go and complete the mission tasks, but are blocked from collecting their mission rewards when the mission issuing station enters lockdown and the mission expires. This is a deeply unjust situation that must be rectified.

The solution to this problem could be one of many things. I don’t think UA bombing is particularly interesting, so I would like to see it removed altogether, or black markets could be removed from Meene stations. If we must have UA bombing, then we should also have the ability to divert to different unaffected stations and hand in missions there.

Since I was running out of time to submit the mission, I raised a ticket with support who kindly gave me the credits using their god-powers and let the mission expire. I think this counts as a moral victory. That I had to go to these lengths because of the negligent design of the game mechanics is outrageous.

At Frontier, Every Hour is Amateur Hour!

Another Frontier fuck-up that I have kept away from is the Guardian based items from Technology Brokers. These faced criticism on two fronts. (1) Collecting the required materials is a tiresome activity involving charging 6 pylons around a Guardian Structure while fending off annoying sentinels. This activity has to be repeated far too often to get the necessary items. (2) The FSD booster item that was added to the game was broken! The booster will be fixed and returned to players who had unlocked it, along with a refund in their materials. All very generous, but it entrenches an inequality induced by yet another Frontier fuck-up:

Redoing the pylon puzzle multiple times wasn’t the only way to get the required materials. There was a bug where the materials were given by obelisks, a much easier way to get them. I contend that many of the players who unlocked the FSD booster were beneficiaries of this bug. It’s not just enough to fix the broken modules, the path to unlocking it should be less exasperating and equal for all players.

In summary, the second Guardians mission had some great elements to it, collecting Thargoid tissues was scarily exciting and the eerie atmosphere of the Guardian structures was brilliant. However, these great elements are sullied by technical and design mishaps that added to the frustration of getting ready to do the mission, and collect the reward. Like many players, my patience with the developers is running short. I’ll be sticking to exploring and short missions until quality control is improved.

The Tax Working Group Wants to Hear From Me

I hate internet advertisements, I hold them responsible for the low quality trivia that passes as news from the corporatised mainstream media. Ads motivate fake news pushers keen to make money. I am also disturbed that social media, internet browsing and loyalty cards are monitored to produce targeted ads. Frankly, it’s insulting that I am reduced to a cog in a consumerist juggernaut, I’m expected to blindly purchase items recommended by a snooping algorithm to fill the voids within my disempowered existence. Sod that.

Anyway, I saw a useful ad on the internet from the new Government’s Tax Working Group (TWG). They are scouting for input on tax reform in New Zealand. Given that tax reform is an area I’m interested in, I thought that I would check it out.

The TWG is asking five (5) questions of New Zealanders, with multiple choice answers.

1: How much does our tax system need to change to be ready for the future?

My answer: Major reform needed.

I didn’t go more extreme since there are things I like such as taxes on petrol and tobacco, and a progressive income tax system.

2: What is the purpose of tax?

My answer: Support those in New Zealand who need help.

While this answer is paternalistic, it indicates the importance of wealth redistribution to maintain social stability.

3: Are we taxing the right things?

My answer: Most things.

4: Should the tax system make housing more affordable?

My answer: Yes, help make housing more affordable

This question is presumably targeted towards a capital gains tax. Some other initiatives such as taxing unoccupied properties and restricting ownership to those physically in NZ would also help suppress speculative demand (aka, the wrong type of demand).

5: What tax issues matter most for you?

My answer: protecting the environment.

Of course, maintaining and reinstating the social contract is important too, but I had to choose one.

There are some specific changes that I would like to see to the tax system which I shall outline below. Some of these are out of the scope of the TWG due to the Labour Party’s backpedalling during the election campaign (driven by National Party fake news tactics), but dammit, I’ll talk about them anyway.

GST reform

GST is a 15% tax on all goods and services. At best, it’s a flat tax. At worst, it’s a regressive tax that eats up a larger proportion of low income earners’ wages compared to the wealthy. This situation could be rectified in two ways. (1) reduce or abolish GST altogether, (2) introduce a progressive GST system, where the rate depends on the cost of the item. The latter option has the advantage of discouraging expensive and tasteless purchases such as expensive clothing, electronics, and luxury automobiles.

Inheritance Tax

I am strongly supportive of an inheritance tax. Like many others, I consider myself meritocratic in outlook. Unfortunately, many self-identified meritocrats aren’t actually meritocratic. Instead, they are guilty of the just world fallacy by believing the wealthy are wealthy for legitimate reasons. The truth could not be more different.

Many wealthy individuals are the beneficiaries of their ancestors who passed down money and assets to their descendants. The trouble is that people have no control over the circumstances they were born into, any financial inequality that arises due to birth is unjustified. Much like a monarchy, inheritances are unearned and therefore undeserved. Defenders of the status quo will argue that individuals have the right to dictate their inheritances, but such an argument is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Considering how talentless many children of the wealthy are, the state should have no qualm depriving them of their parent’s wealth. If they are so deserving of such wealth, then they can go try to earn it themselves!

My preferred inheritance tax structure would be 100% on everything over $500,000. This system would not disadvantage middle class citizens who inherit the family home, which does not warrant the contempt that I reserve for the super-rich. Similarly, we could include a negative tax rate so that those in line to receive little to no inheritance aren’t left out.

A more progressive income tax system

I’ve spoken to some centre-right accountants and accounting students, it came as a surprise that they defended progressive taxation as a necessity to keep the state properly funded. Instead, any serious debate is over where the brackets should be located.

The top bracket is 33% for all income over $70,000. As far as I’m concerned, there should be more brackets above this one. Such proposals have been made by the Labour and Green parties in previous elections (usually ~40% above $150,000). I support going further, let’s not forget that at the height of McCarthyism the USA had a bracket of 91% above ~$3,000,000 in today’s dollars.

Such a rate (say 90% on income above $500,000) would discourage exorbitant CEO salaries. Contrary to fake claims that income taxation disincentivises work, curbing CEO pay would make our society more meritocratic.

Income threshold

As part of increasing the progressiveness of the tax system, in addition to ramping up marginal rates on very high incomes, we can reduce rates on low to middle incomes. In particular, a tax-free threshold should be introduced to improve the prospects of those particularly on low incomes. For example, Australia has a threshold of 18,200 $AUD. This policy is a common platform for smaller political parties in New Zealand, It would be great to see the government get on board with it.

Removing tax-free status from religious groups

Under the Charites Act, an organisation may register as a charity if it has a charitable purpose. The definition of “charitable purpose” is important, since a registered charity is exempt from taxation. Alarmingly, the “advancement of religion” is seen as constituting charitable purpose. I fail to see how the advancement of religion squares with one of the other definitions of charitable purpose (Other purposes beneficial to the community).

A community doesn’t benefit from extreme ideologies such as Quiverfull, Wahhabism, and Hindutva (to name just three) being allowed to advance themselves. The state should not help religious organisations advance their toxic messages by giving them a free pass on taxation.

Some of the already existing exemptions make a mockery of the current law, consider Destiny Church, which is just a scam to enrich Brian Tamaki, or Sanitarium, a corporation owned by the Seventh Day Adventists that enjoys a massive advantage over its competitors since it doesn’t pay tax on its profits. Besides benefiting extremists, tax exemption for the religious also rewards exploitation of the vulnerable and distorts the market to the detriment of secular honest brokers. Hence it has no place in our society.

Summary

Tax reform is required, the current system is too generous to high income individuals, too generous to the feckless children of the wealthy, and too generous for religious groups. I’ve outlined some policy changes that I would like the TWG to consider. There are other issues to consider that I haven’t touched on, such as pollution taxes, taxing foreign corporations that operate in NZ, or levelling the playing field between physical and online retailers.

My attitudes will not be popular with the greedy and their right-wing apologists, but it is simply common sense that those with the highest ability to pay should be those who pay the highest amount of tax. We all benefit from the civilising effects of state spending for healthcare, education, infrastructure, social security, law enforcement, research, arts, and conservation. Such a society is safer for everybody, where no citizen should feel the need to turn to crime, terrorism, or militarism.

Paying tax is the highest form of patriotism. What better way is there to express your love for your country and fellow residents than to pay what you can to ensure that the state is adequately funded?

Submissions to the TWG close on April 30. I’ll be doing my best to send something in.

 

 

On the Green Party’s Curious Strategy Move

While reading the news while eating breakfast this morning, I was surprised to discover that the Green Party is set to hand over many of their parliamentary questions to the opposition National Party.

Speaking from experience, Question Time is a guilty pleasure of many undergraduate students who happen to be at home on Tuesday-Thursday afternoons with nothing better to do. Question time should be all about obtaining information and keeping ministers accountable. It’s also when Parliament is at its most theatrical, mostly due to the antics of Winston Peters (my favourite being an insult directed at Gerry Brownlee in 2012).

One curiosity is that the questions are allocated based upon the number of seats a party has. Given that more than half of MPs form a government, more than half of the questions are allocated to the government. Since the government has all the information at its fingertips and is not interested in holding itself to account, it has no real need for these questions. Subsequently half of Question Time is so-called “patsy” questions where government MPs ask each other softball questions that allow them to talk up the government’s performance.

While I haven’t watched a Question Time session for the new Labour/NZF government, the patsy questions by the National/ACT/UF/MP government were dull and misinforming. The Green Party also sees patsy questions as pointless, as cited for their decision to hand their questions over to the National Party.

While I agree that patsy questions are a waste of time, I have two objections to giving the questions to the National Party:

Firstly, James Shaw was quoted as saying:

“We think patsy questions are a waste of time, and New Zealanders have not put us in Parliament to do that; we’re there to make positive change for our people and our environment.

The National Party will not use these questions to improve peoples’ lives or the environment. They will use them to oppose the Government’s agenda in favour of corporatist, anti-environmentalist conservatism and not for positive change. Shaw has naively assumed that all MPs are as decent, honest, and compassionate as he is.

Secondly, the Green MPs support the government in a confidence and supply deal that allows them considerable freedom to criticise much of the Government’s agenda for not going far enough. For example, the government is betraying its voters by pushing ahead with the terrible CPTPP “trade” deal despite wide opposition from the public. The Greens could use their questions not to ask softballs to their own ministers, but to hold Labour and NZF ministers to account instead.

I suspect the dimwitted mouthpieces in the media will soon praise the Greens for their “maturity”. The vapid blue-greens now have another reason to feel good about themselves while remaining disconnected from reality. Meanwhile, the National Party will have more scope to resist the slight semblances of progress that our “centre-left” government is willing to make.

This abdication of responsibility by the Greens is bad for democracy, bad for the environment, and bad for the quality of life of the New Zealand people. I expected more from the Greens, the logic behind this move beggars belief. The Greens should be using their influence to drag the government further left and not allow the National Party to call the shots. I hope they see sense and call off this ridiculous decision.

Academia Milestones: My First Invite from a Predatory Journal

This post is a follow-up to my similarly titled post Academia Milestones: My First Invite from a Predatory Conference. Here I document another pitfall of academia where predatory companies mislead researchers into paying to publish work in a low-quality journal.

Last year, I was invited to speak at a real conference as part of the young investigator contest. It was a great opportunity to share some of the details of my research with other academics. It also proved to be valuable in the sense that we were able to glean more ideas about future directions that the work may take from the talks given by other researchers. By contrast, my liver is thankful that the conference is over!

There are no proceedings associated with the conference. For any internet user who is interested, the book of abstracts* is publicly available for download. In principle, open access of scholarly work is an excellent initiative in terms of fostering innovation where research is accessible to individuals and organisations regardless of their financial situation. However, it is also important that only high quality work is published in order to maintain public confidence in science. Thus many legitimate open-access publishers will charge publication fees as part of keeping the lights on.

Where things get tricky is that charging researchers for publication changes the dynamics of academia completely. It has been in the best interests of academics to publish as many articles as possible since career progression has been heavily metricised** by the administrative dullards in charge of academic institutions and funding bodies. It is now also in the self-interest of open-access publishers to publish as many articles as possible in order to maximise profits. This is done at the expense of the review process that should ensure all accepted work is of sufficient quality. Legitimate publishers can avoid this temptation since: (1) it is an illegitimate and unethical practice, and (2) they’re already making massive profits. However, there is now room for predatory publishers to step in.

Without peer-review, anything could make it into the academic literature, truthfulness be damned! Hence open-access journals produced by predatory publishers are of no academic value due to the uncertainty surrounding the fidelity of the work that they publish. The predatory publishers themselves know this, which is why they make up fake impact factor scores for their “journals”.

In terms of strategies predatory publishers use, I’ve already talked about the OMICS corporation that uses a scatter-gun type approach to snare researchers. But following last year’s conference, I found out that other companies are much more sinister. In my spam filter was an email from David Publishing who were inviting me to publish my talk in one of their “journals”. This one was more convincing as it included the title from the talk that I gave at the conference (view email at this link).

Given the unsolicited nature of the email and the poor grammar, it was still clearly a scam email. But it’s a much more advanced scam than the one OMICS puts out. The attempt at personalising the email makes it much more likely to successfully mislead a researcher. Of course, all the sender would have done was trawl the book of abstracts and sent out emails to everyone who had an abstract in there.

It would have been nice if the conference organisers had emailed all authors to warn against this danger. If any of the work at the conference was published in a low quality journal, the authors would not be able to publish it in a real journal since double submission is frowned upon. That would be a shame.

A cursory search on the Google revealed that David Publishing is a predatory publisher. Amusingly, there was once a message on their front page claiming:

Recently, some authors have been cheated by another company (who told sent the emails in the name of our company but in fact it is not). In case more authors are cheated, please send your paper to us via the submission link as following: …

Understandably they are outraged by another company cheating authors, that’s supposed to be their job!

How do you avoid get sucked in? By doing your research. The very fact that a publisher is emailing you should be a sign of concern. Notice how all of the top journals don’t invite you to submit papers? That’s because they don’t need to. You should check the background of a journal that you are considering submitting to. Ask your supervisor and colleagues what they think. A whole raft of lists exists such as DOAJ, Publons, Think, Check and Submit and Open Access Journal Quality Indicators. Normally I would include Beall’s list, but it has been taken down and I discovered that he holds some un-nuanced views about open access:

Beall published an article arguing against the whole of open access publishing and not just predatory open access, claiming it to be an “anti-corporatist” [sic], “collectivist”, “cooperative” movement which wishes to “replace a free market with an artificial and highly regulated one”.

Beall has it backwards: predatory publishers are the inevitable result of the corporatist free market where self-interested individuals seek enrichment at any cost. Academic publishing is supposed to be cooperative and highly regulated. Articles usually have multiple authors, while peer reviewers voluntarily and anonymously scrutinise articles for quality. Legitimate open-access publishers should and do have these same basic features as closed-access publishers.

So long as predatory publishers are allowed to exist, researchers will continue to get caught out and the public will continue to lose confidence in science. Predatory publishers enable policy makers to use false information to make decisions or to validate their false ideologies. It is critical that all predatory publishers are named, shamed and denied our submissions. Governments and regulatory agencies must decisively try to shut them down for the good of society.

*Unfortunately, an abstract contains nowhere near enough information to give a complete picture of the work, let alone how to replicate it.
**The metrication of research is also responsible for other fraudulent practices like p-hacking, salami slicing, and fake peer reviews.

Aspire Scholarships Represented What is Wrong With Conservatism

The government has announced that the Aspire scholarships scheme is to end. This scheme was set up by the previous administration, where students from low-income backgrounds would have fees paid to attend private schools. National Party apologists have decried the end of the scheme, saying that low income children will be denied opportunities as a consequence.

From the start there is one glaring problem: The assumption that a private education is a viable pathway to improve the circumstances of low-income children. I reject such a concept, for I myself disprove it. My education was done entirely in state schools, yet I am a high achiever: NCEA level 3 with Excellence, a first class honours degree in engineering and postgraduate study to boot. I outclassed most of my privately schooled peers at university. I even worked as an after-school tutor for privately educated students. That’s because private education confers no real academic advantage over state schooling. I had mathematics, chemistry, and physics teachers who had doctorates, and there were plenty of sporting and cultural activities for student participation.

Furthermore, the scholarship makes no difference on a nationwide level. A select few get to go to private schools and penetrate the pervasive networks that have more influence than they should; everybody else left behind in low decile schools can go hang as far as the National Party is concerned. Only up to 250 students per year were funded when there are currently about 300,000 students at high school. What about the many dedicated, hard working, high achieving school students that will never get a dollar in scholarship money (I was one of them)? A stable, cohesive society requires that opportunities are available for us too.

In brief, the Aspire scholarships are based on insulting assumptions about the alleged superiority of private schools, benefit a small number of students and cost twice as much per child as state schooling. Why then are right-wingers so upset about their cessation? Because this is their way of virtue-signalling out of both sides of their mouth. To ordinary voters they use the policy to claim that they care about those on low incomes, and to their swivel-eyed base they show their distaste for state schooling and teaching unions. Education outcomes be damned, it is always about politics for National.

This posturing is so valuable that the National government was prepared to waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money on Aspire scholarships, and the obscene charter schools. Fortunately, that time has come to an end. Public education has its problems (many caused by the National Party), the solution is to make class sizes smaller, train/pay teachers better, and to foster a culture of sceptical inquiry and academic freedom. Siphoning top achievers into elitist institutions will not make New Zealand a better place to live. Right wingers: get over your precious scholarships and learn to make the best of our state schools, it certainly didn’t do me any harm!

Elite Dangerous Engineers Revamp: Many Steps in the Right Direction

Beta testing is now open (and free for all Horizons owners) for the first update in the Elite Dangerous: Beyond series. For me, the headline feature of this update was a revision of the much maligned Engineers which wasted player time with insulting random changes to module performance. I have had the chance to do some testing of the new system, and I am generally very positive about it. The changes are as follows:

Module Generation

When a module is modified at a certain grade, the negative effects are only added on the first roll, while the positive effect is still randomly generated. Subsequent rolls compound on the previous result until you reach the maximum positive effect possible. There is also the option to progress to a higher grade modification once the positive effect is large enough. Typically, one would need to only do a few rolls at each level.

The user experience was very different compared to the old mode. All you see is a blue ring gradually filling up, the oscillating sliders are gone. One could argue that this has removed any sense of occasion from using the Engineers. And they’d be right: going out to the casino for an evening of debauchery is a much grander affair than putting money in a vending machine, selecting a chocolate bar and picking it out from the tray at the bottom*. I don’t see this as a problem, after all Engineers is supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Progression

The new system has received criticism since it is now mandatory to progress through all of the grades. One starts engineering a fresh module at Grade 1 and must have achieved most of the possible effect before progressing to Grade 2 and so on. For the second beta test, I engineered some 3A enhanced thrusters (for an 880 m/s Imperial Courier) starting at Grade 2. It took 11 rolls to reach Grade 5. I think this is a reasonable progression that’s not instant, but achievable with a small amount of work.

Secondary Effects

These used to cut both ways; a roll could be further improved, or the roll could be ruined by random secondary effects. Now secondary effects have been decoupled from the modifications. They may be obtained by additional materials.

I see two main uses for secondary effects: (1) Additional gain to a specific aspect of module performance, (2) Reducing the mass of modules for a higher jump range. And now that they’re a bolt-on feature, players won’t need to waste so many materials trying to get the perfect roll.

Materials Trading and Storage

These features are very useful, instead of storing a maximum of 1000 materials and 500 data (which fill up very quickly), each item has a limit of 100. Players can now collect and stockpile materials without agonising over whether they should pick one thing up and discard another.

If a particular material is hard to get, then players may use material traders to swap items they have for items they want. I have found this to be quite useful, particularly since I have no interest in grinding on the beta which is going to be wiped in a few days. The buy:sell ratios are a bit excessive and don’t scale the same if you are selling high grade items or buying low grade items (kind of like how the buy and sell prices for foreign currency aren’t the same). I think a ratio of 3:1 between adjacent grades in both directions would be ideal.

Irrational Playerbase Responses

There are two main ways to play Engineers: (1) briefly, where you do a few Grade 5 rolls (having ranked up to this level beforehand) and accept whatever results you get; or (2) obsessively, where you keep rolling until you get an amazing modification. Users may roll hundreds of times to achieve this. I’m somewhere in the middle, I want a powerful roll, but I refuse to collect enough materials to do hundreds of rolls. I would typically do 20 at the most before running out of materials and giving up in exasperation.

Group 1 are upset that they may need to do more rolls by having to start from Grade 1 for all new modules. Now players need to do 10-15 rolls to get to a full Grade 5 modification for every module, where they may have only chose to do one or two in the old system. I don’t agree with this assessment since low grade rolls were required in the old system to build reputation to reach Grade 5 in the first place. The clearer outcomes may encourage such players to get more involved than in the past if uncertainty was a big disincentive to use the Engineers.

Meanwhile, some who fit the category of Group 2 are affronted that their misguided past efforts are going to be supplanted by the availability of better modifications for less work. These players can go take a running jump. The RNG based system is incredibly unfair and puts optimal results out of the reach of casual players. I for one, am glad to see the back of it.

Power Creep

By changing the system to become deterministic while preserving outcomes from the old system, it is necessary to ensure that old modifications don’t have an advantage that is unobtainable under the new system. Hence the maximum effects in beta 2 are quite a bit higher than in the old system.

While power creep is viewed by some as a distortion, as an explorer I see it as positive and necessary. There are still systems that are inaccessible due to the distance between systems exceeding the jump ranges achievable. Sooner or later, there will have to be some mechanic to enable access to these systems (dockable megaships that can jump up to 550 LY are already available but not currently used for this purpose). Power creep means more opportunities for explorers** and thus should be encouraged.

Criticism

Ship statistics are still missing. This was most problematic when I was deciding between the increased FSD range modification secondary effects. Would a higher max fuel per jump or extra optimised mass give a higher jump range?*** There is no in-game display for this information before the modification is applied, which is unconscionable when third party websites such as E:D shipyard and Coriolis.io are able to provide ship stats for any hypothetical ship build.

The progress made in reaching the upper limit of a modification is still dictated by RNG. Sometimes the gain made during a roll may be marginal, which is as much of an insult to the player as the old system which would waste materials on poor modifications. A minimum gain should be achieved by a roll that is substantial enough that players don’t get discouraged.

Conclusions

The revised engineers system is a great deal fairer and more accessible than the old system. A clear path towards optimal results makes the grind for materials worthwhile and the new storage and trading helps address RNG-based difficulties associated with spawning materials. The power creep should be viewed positively as it will allow for better ship performance.

It’s a bit disconcerting to see a roll sometimes give minuscule gains, I think this should be tweaked. There is also still no way to tell in-game how the ship performance is altered prior to applying modifications. Presenting this information is not difficult, it should be in the game.

I have always seen the Engineers as a means to an end; enjoyment should come from the improved experience of having a fast ship, or a longer jump range, or more powerful weapons. The changes made by Frontier serve to make engineers better suited to this purpose (although I don’t think this is their intent). The game will be more enjoyable because of these changes for the better.

*assuming it doesn’t get stuck on the end of the rack!
**Better exploration mechanics are part of the Q4 update and are desperately needed.
***More fuel is better for class 4 FSDs and lower, more optimised mass is better for class 5 FSDs and higher, as outlined by a superb forum post.