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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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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Nature Middle East’s weekly science dose (Oct 4 — Oct 10)

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Have you heard of reptiles that swim? Such animals used to exist back in the Late Cretaceous period (that is, 98–66 million years ago). Mosasaurs were discovered back in 1764; it quickly became clear that they were marine predators, but the debate still continues on how exactly they swam. A part of the scientific community argues they moved like snakes. Bringing robust analysis and proofs, a recent study demonstrates that Mosasaurs were skilled swimmers, achieving swim speed comparable to sharks.

On a different and more to-the-ground note, researchers have identified a better curative approach for acute leukaemia. The latter is the blood cancer that claims hundreds of lives every year. A comparison between more than 1,000 samples revealed that a drug treatment gives much better remission results. It thus improves survival rates than total body irradiation.

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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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[UPDATED] Wrapping Up: Egyptian Security Disperse Muslim Brotherhood Sit-ins

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Content below curated by @moftasa & @MaliciaRogue. Translations in French and Arabic coming shortly. Content is regularly updated.

Egypt presidency declared a 30-day long state of emergency starting August 14, 4pm, and orders the Armed Forces to work closely with police to “do what is needed for the calm to return.” Curfew to be instaured after 7pm every evening except today (starting from 9pm); journalists announced to be exempt from curfew. State of emergency gives the state the following extraordinary powers (non-exhaustive):

– Censorship over any texting, media

– Assigning individuals with specific tasks

– Frisking, inspecting and searching any place or individual without court order

– Arrest under suspicion.

– Limiting individual’s transportation, gathering and residency

– Confiscating any prints, flyers and shutting down the publishing source

Mohamed El-Baradei has resigned in the end of the afternoon. The National Salvation Front (NSF) has allegedly issued a statement on the situation. His full resignation letter translated into English is below.

Announcement: For security reasons, the Biblioteca Alexandrina will be closed tomorrow, Aug 15. Reports about hooded armed men inside the building have been denied, but such individuals remain outside of the building and some of the outside glasses have been broken.

The hashtag #EgyChurch is used to curate information on Twitter about attacked churches nationwide.

Comprehensive Wrap-Up of the Events

Map of the pro-Morsi sit-ins from Al-Jazeera English:

Map of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo. Image from AJE. Click to see full size.

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MENA Infographic Roundup: Education, Tech, Work Dynamics

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I was feeling like wrapping up a few interesting tidbits I stumbled upon earlier. These are all infographics, some are in Arabic. Enjoy 🙂

Tech

Wamda publishes a nice and comprehensive infographic (full size) summing up the ways Jordanians use the Internet. For Arabic-impared, here are a few highlights:

  • internet penetration in Jordan is only around 48%;
  • of the 1.5 million internet users in Jordan, 90% of women and 87% of men use social networks;
  • the vast majority of internet users are men between 20 and 30 years old;
  • men spend more time on social networks than women (one hour 37 min vs. 50 min, respectively), but streaming websites — amongst the most popular in Jordan — have equal visit rates;
  • Internet users aged above 40 represent 11% of the total number of all internet users in the country.

Internet Use in Jordan, by Y2D and Ipsos.

I have previously written on Jordan (and spoke on radio about it). The most recent piece is here: Jordan Starts Blocking ‘Unlicensed Websites’ (published in Jadaliyya).

Education

I stumbled upon an interesting infographic by the Worldbank, entitled “What Will It Take to Achieve Education for All?”. The infographic doesn’t focus on the Middle East specifically but wraps up global trends. It was published back in April 2013, preparing for the ‘Learning for All’ Ministerial Meeting. The Worldbank Blog published excerpts from the associated social media campaign that I recommed you have a look at.

  • إنفوجرافيك: ما المطلوب لتحقيق هدف التعليم للجميع؟ (full size)
  • “What Will It Take to Achieve Education for All?” (full size)

infographic-educ-ar

I have recently written on more Middle East-targeted education topics: Information Technologies and Education in the Arab World (published in Nature Middle East).

Workplace

Bayt.com, the famous online job search platform, has conducted a poll which saw 9,845 respondents covering the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. The results are presented in a comprehensive infographic (full size); highlights:

  • 20% of job seekers blame the educational system for being ill-prepared for the current job market;
  • 54% of professionals are active job seekers who apply regularly (vs. 46% who are passive job seekers, that is they wait for employers to find them);
  • 30% of professionals feel the biggest turn-off in a manager is the lack of vision;
  • top industries perceived to be employing the most talent are Oil and Gas, & IT and Telecom.

Workplace Dynamics in MENA

From Bahrain to Bulgaria: Creating Pleasant Online Space for LGBTQ-related Discussions

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What do Bahrain and Bulgaria have in common? No, it’s not the B…

Bahraini entrepreuner and activist Esra’a Al-Shaffei launched Ahwaa.org back in 2011 as an online space for LGBTQ-related discussions in the Middle East. Today, Bulgarian Kilera.org kicked off.

Kilera.org is an online forum dedicated to the LGBTQ community in Bulgaria. It was built after Ahwaa.org, in conjunction with Bulgarian LGBTQ NGO Deystvie (‘action’). Kilera (‘closet’) in Bulgarian is the slang word used to describe the period of time when LGBTQ people hide their sexual orientations and/or identity: ‘locked in the closet’. Kilera.org thus comes at a very timely moment, and I am sure it’ll really make a difference.

The situation with the LGBTQ community in Bulgaria is worrisome as homophobia is rampant and hate speech is prevalent. Thus, a 25-year old medical student was beaten to death by other young people because “he looked gay” and the young men were trying to “clean up” a famous park in the capital city of Sofia from gays. Such dreadful crackdown is one of the manifest signs of homophobia in the country: in 2009 and 2011, Bulgaria was the most homophobic EU Member State as reported by dedicated studies from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

The International Day Against Homophobia (May 17) was marked by new worrying studies showing that more than 1/4 of LGBTQ people have sufferred some type of physical violence in the last five years, attacks generally led by small groups of male aggressors and occurring in public places. Despite the high frequency of attacks, complaints are rarely filed as people don’t consider the police and the judiciary to be anyway willing to do something.

Although the situation seems to improve in 2012 — Bulgaria is “just” among the most homophobic EU states, not the most homophobic — 53% of the LGBTQ community members have undergone some kind of harassment or retaliation for their sexual orientation and/or identity in the last 12 months preceeding the study. Gay pride marches are also welcomed with obvious hostility.

MENA Nukes

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Some time ago, I created the infographic below. It looks at the transparency of nuclear power across the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) countries.

Now that I have a look at it, it is pretty much Q&D thingy, but the important is there: data is correct, proof-checked and properly introduced. I thus decided to anyway publish it.

Nuclear power in the Middle East. Click to zoom in. Ask me for the .svg source
Nuclear power in the Middle East. Click to zoom in. Ask me for the .svg source

Data source