Fraud fighters wanted in the Middle East

Scientific misconduct and research fraud are tolerated in the Middle East and North Africa region. What is the impact? How do we move forward?
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I recently interacted with a scholar from the American University of Sharjah (UAE). The person asked me to edit a draft research paper of his which needed “rephrasing and unifying.” Such a request is common with non-native English speakers before submission in a peer-reviewed journal.

Having agreed on fee and timeline, I edited and returned the paper. The scholar’s response was astounding: “when I checked your rephrased document on a plagiarism detection site, it indicated that 87% is copied…the aim is to reach 10% at most”. His expectation, as it turns out, was for me to rewrite the paper, concealing plagiarised chunks of text. Though I had noticed entire paragraphs in faultless English, I had assumed co-authorship, not academic theft. I responded that I was not to devote my time to “forging research papers.” As expected, payment never came through.

This all happened while news made the headlines of a miracle cure developed by the Egyptian army for HIV and hepatitis C. That ‘cure’ today remains in the anthology as ‘KoftaGate’. I felt the need to address this culture of unethical scientific behaviour.

Forgery, plagiarism and other plagues

Plagiarism is one of the most widespread manifestations of scientific misconduct: it happens everywhere. When misconduct occurs, the publication is generally retracted. An independent watchdog launched in August 2010, Retraction Watch, has become the go-to institution for remarkable work in this field.

In 2012, a close examination of more than 2,000 retracted biomedical and life-science research articles showed that two-thirds were removed because of proven or suspected misconduct. Plagiarism accounted for nearly 10 per cent of retractions. Fraud or suspected fraud, e.g. photoshopping images and “arranging data” to support one’s claims are other types of forgery. Last but not least, there are also scientists so fond of their work that they practice duplicate publishing.

Follow-up studies make it clear that misconduct can happen at any stage of a career, from the trainee to the senior researcher. Some blame the “publish or perish” rules that govern research. Others explain it by limited resources. If a lab does not have enough money to sustain its projects, then it might resort to crafting what is ‘necessary’ to publish the study and hope for better funding. Whatever the reason, however, lies and copy-paste habits are unethical and harm science as they influence research trends, waste public funds and can have a direct impact on people’s lives.

Misconduct also spans across all scientific domains. Some experts even believe that as much as 90 per cent “of all [archaeological] artefacts and coins sold on internet auctions as genuine are nothing but fakes.” Among antiquities forgery cases fall the largely overlooked traffic of real but stolen artefacts, a long-lived practice found to occur in many countries across the Middle East, including embattled Syria.

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Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Conditions apply)

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[First published on openDemocracy.]

12 March marked the World Day against online censorship. Reporters Without Borders remained faithful to their habits and announced this year’s ‘Enemies of the Internet’. Repressive governments in the Middle East also remained faithful to their habits; they continued to crack down on free speech, both online and offline.

The Algerian government, for instance, marked this day in a special way: by taking Jordanian Noorsat satellite TV channel Al-Atlas completely off-air. Addressing each and every event of suppressed free speech is impossible. I believe, however, that the few examples below will suffice to highlight the unconditional disrespect for freedom of expression citizens encounter every day across the MENA region.

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Bulgaria’s ‘chilly welcome’ to Syrian refugees

Bulgaria's chilly welcome to Syrian refugees
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[First published on openDemocracy.]

Over two million people have fled the havoc in Syria and sought refuge in bordering countries; at least one million of them are children, estimated the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) back in August 2013. Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq are the top five countries where most have resettled. Over the past several months, however, the exodus has shifted to Europe. For the majority of Syrians searching for a safe EU haven, the journey starts in Turkey where refugee smuggling blossoms. Today, Bulgaria counts over 10,000 refugees, an atypical surge this European border country was unprepared for.

Despite financial help from the EU, the Bulgarian government has consistently preferred to engage in exacerbating the situation. Intensifying influx of refugees in the country prompted the opening of more camps to host the newcomers. These hellholes are in incredibly squalid conditions, but this is where the Bulgarian government welcomes asylum seekers. In October 2013, Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev played the tough guy and sacked the head of Bulgaria’s Refugee Agency for “failing to handle the influx.” Yet, reception centres continue to be overcrowded, Syrians undergo an administrative hassle for weeks; food, clothing and medicine are largely funded by donations from ordinary citizens.

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Technology for Better Governance in MENA

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SafirLab brings together young people with media and civil society initiatives from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). SafirLab is a joint effort by l’Institut Français and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its media cooperation branch, CFI. SafirLab sees itself as an accelerator for projects that youth from the MENA region aims to drive forward.

The 2013 SafirLab edition was its second one, taking place 18-29 November 2013 in Paris.

I was invited by to mentor, with a focus on technology for transparency and better governance. Other mentors, we were happy to interact with include Tariq Krim, the founder of Netvibes and JoliDrive, and Morgane Tual, a blogger and journalist at Le Monde interested in ‘ethical tech’.

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Egypt: Draft Law on Internet Terrorism

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Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) has published a transcript of the draft law on combattling terrorism on the internet in Egypt. From what I’ve been told, anti-terror law has been on the table for many years  and the battle against it was that it will inscribe the emergency laws in the criminal code. It seems here that the internet is given a significant attention, at least at the first reading. Whatever the provisions, the draft law aims at legalizing pervasive surveillance and and will be a very convenient tool for jailing bloggers and all kinds of people estimated as junta-noncompliant.

Here are the most notable excerpts after a quick read-through. My comments are in blue.

The draft law contains four chapters: Chapter One is on the general provisions; Chapter Two is on punishment; Chapter Three is on procedural provisions; and Chapter Four deals with international judicial cooperation.

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Open Data Index 2013: Fundamental Public Sector Data Still Unavailable in MENA

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Rayna Stamboliyska, the founder of RS Strategy and Open MENA, served as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Editor for the Open Data Index.

The Index ranks countries based on the availability and accessibility of information in ten key areas, including government spending, election results, transport timetables, and pollution levels, and reveals that whilst some good progress is being made, much remains to be done.

The Open Data Index 2013 is the first assessment of openness of fundamental government data in the Middle East and North Africa, including full scorecards for six countries (Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen). The six countries from the Middle East, featured in the Index, globally show very low openness.

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Syria’s vanishing history

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[This was first published on Nature Middle East.]

The war in Syria is laying waste to ancient monuments and artefacts, while archaeologists and citizens scramble to protect what they can.

Syria’s rich cultural heritage, which stretches back to the beginnings of human history, is at risk as fighting ravages the country.

Gathering accurate information is a challenge, but despite the violence, archaeologists and citizens have been trying to document the destruction of historical sites in the wake of all international archaeological missions leaving Syria.

From Babylonians to Arabs and the Crusaders, numerous civilisations have left their mark on Syria. Six of the country’s sites appear on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list: Damascus, Aleppo, the Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Bosra and the Ancient Villages in Northern Syria. Hundreds of monuments are on UNESCO’s Tentative List, and the national heritage register also boasts a wealth of treasures.

Since the unrest began in March 2011, the destruction of cultural sites has often been reported. The cause of damage ranges from shelling and gunfire to army occupation and bombing. Rampant looting and illegal developments on unguarded archaeological sites is also rife.

Syria’s Directorate-General of the Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) is the authority in charge of the maintaining, safeguarding and preserving the country’s heritage, but the ongoing conflict makes DGAM’s remit increasingly difficult.

Before the violence started, about 180 national and international archaeological missions were represented in Syria, but they all left the country in 2011.

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Losing Egyptian heritage: losing tidbits of humankind history

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[This was originally published on Nature Middle East.]

As political unrest continues in Egypt, thieves have attacked a museum in the country’s south, stealing or burning evidence of thousands of years of history.

While Egypt focused on violent outbreaks in the rest of the country, raiders broke into the halls of the Malawi National Museum and ransacked its collections on two consecutive nights, stealing or destroying almost all of its artefacts.

The museum, 300 Km sound of Cairo in the Upper Egypt city of Minya, is a little-known cultural centre, but is home to a rich and diverse collection that spans Egyptian history from Greco-Roman to the 18th Dynasty eras. Many of the antiquities housed in the museum date back to the eras of the pharaoh Akhenaten and Nefertiti; some are animal mummies and statues dedicated to the worship of the Egyptian god Thoth, a deity represented with the head of an ibis.

Looters are widely believed to be supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. But Monica Hanna, an Egyptian archaeologist at Humboldt University of Berlin, closely following the events, blamed the looting on “people’s greed under political and religious cover.”

Archaeologists and museum workers have started to identify and list the stolen objects, believed to number around 1,040. According to preliminary evaluations, 1040 of the 1089 artefacts that the museum housed have so far been reported missing. The Facebook page “Egypt’s Heritage Task Force”, launched by Hanna in June in response to a growing number of thefts from Egyptian heritage sites, has an updated album of images of the stolen items.

“All small pieces of the Malawi museum are completely looted, and all of them are from the Amarna Period,” says Hanna. The Amarna Period art is distinctive from more conventional Egyptian art styles, with artists of the era opting for a more relaxed, realistic portrayal than the traditional stylized and rigid formality of previous dynasties.

According to reports, in the second raid, the museum was set alight and objects not stolen on the first night were badly burnt. Objects too heavy to carry out of the museum, such as wooden and stone sarcophagi, have been severely damaged. “Two mummies were burnt down, but fortunately two others could be saved as well as a huge number of fragments,” says Hanna.

Yesterday, curators from the Malawi National Museum confirmed that five painted wooden sarcophagi, two mummies and a papyrus handwritten in Demotic, as well as a collection of broken ancient statues, have been sent for restoration.

Once archaeologists complete the investigations and finalize a list of stolen objects, it will be distributed to all Egyptian ports to thwart any smuggling attempts. All missing artefacts will be put on UNESCO’s red list to avoid being smuggled and sold on the international antiquities market. “Egypt’s Heritage Task Force contacted INTERPOL immediately, independently of the Ministry of Antiquities, and alerted the International Council of Museums and the International Committee for Egyptology,” adds Hanna.

The Ministry of Antiquities also announced a campaign to retrieve stolen objects, offering compensation for those who will return the artefacts. The al-Ashmounein storehouse near the museum is receiving the returned antiquities, but so far, only two objects have been returned, according to Hanna.

Vandalism of museums is frequently reported in times of major political disturbances. Additionally, looting of Egyptian archaeological sites has been on the rise as the black market for antiquities grows.

Egypt: Attacks on Churches Continue Amidst Nationwide Violence

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The list below sums up continuing sectarian violence nationwide for Friday, August 16. I have started to collect images separately in a dedicated gallery. This is an ongoing work, so please ping us on Twitter (myself or @moftasa) or leave a comment below to let me know if I have missed something or if I need to fix anything below.

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#EgyChurch: Sectarian Violence Wrap-up

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Ongoing work, regularly updated. List curated by @moftasa and @MaliciaRogue.

Yesterday was a tough day that saw bloodbath and destruction everywhere. We tried to document and curate things, but I’m realizing some parts 1/ need better focus; and 2/ the current description may be a bit confusing as it mixes updates, different languages and final estimations. Yes, there is life outside Cairo, and while all eyes were on the capital, bloodthirst useless insidious events were taking place elsewhere in the country.

So, below is a (thus far) verified list of Christian churches, schools and institutions having undergone attacks yesterday. I truly hope there won’t be more to add. Don’t forget to label reports with the hashtag #EgyChurch. A dedicated gallery is available here. If you hear of other religious minorities being attacked (Shi’a, Baha’a, etc.), let me know either through a comment below or through Twitter.

Amira Mikhail, Mai El-Sadani and Amir Beshay have independently done high-quality curation as well. Info is available on Amira’s blog.

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