Sunday, January 5, 2020

Some suggestions for better psychology in Ecuador

I have been a full-time professor of Psychology in Ecuador for six years (and before that as an adjunct professor). But that is about to end, as I am relocating to Kazakhstan.

Over the years I have worked hard to improve the situation of Psychology in the country. The problems with Ecuadorian psychology that I'm thinking of stem mainly from the low level of training. Most practicing psychologists, including 'clinical psychologists', have only an undergraduate degree, and this limited training can at times be questionable, e.g. a professor I knew of teaching Cognitive Psychology from a psychoanalysis book. A consequence of the low training level is widespread use of pseudoscientific practices, and frequent unethical behavior, such as psychologists making sexual advances on their students or clients, a professor praising the holocaust, etc. Of course, there are good psychologists working in Ecuador, I don't mean to suggest that all are so unprofessional, but there are enough for it to be a major problem for Ecuadorian psychology.

I am sure I’ve had some success in improving things, for example via my students who have been to postgraduate study abroad and are now back in Ecuador. But in some aspects, I’ve had less success. Here in this final post, is some advice to psychology students and psychologists in Ecuador. These might help you understand psychology a little better, and maybe to be better psychologists. 

1. Psychology is the science of mind and behavior.
You can treat it as an art if you wish. You can analyze books from a Jungian perspective. You can write poems about the mind. But if you do, don’t pretend it’s anything more that, prose. Poetry and literature analysis are art, or maybe just entertainment.

If you want to look for truths about the mind, you have to use scientific reasoning. And all that means is analyzing things logically. As an example, if you have a client and you give them psychotherapy, and they appear better afterwards, you cannot logically conclude that you fixed them. After all, many people with mental illness improve over time anyway. Perhaps that client improved spontaneously. If that sound strange consider this: after psychotherapy about 68% of patients with major depression are recovered. But of similarly depressed patients who are not given any psychotherapy, about 48% recover anyway over the same time period (Cuijpers et al., 2014). Consequently, individual psychotherapists can't judge their effectiveness just by giving therapy to their clients.

However, if in a clinical trial, clients are randomized to either psychotherapy or 'care as usual', and only the ones who received psychotherapy improve, you can logically conclude that the addition of psychotherapy worked. This is scientific reasoning. Clinical trials are experiments, and experiments form the basis of scientific investigation in psychology, because you can reach logical conclusions from them. They allow psychologists to be evidence-based. 

2. Psychology is the study of the mind, the normal mind.
Too many psychologists in Ecuador only want to learn about affective disorders such as anxiety and depression. Clinical psychology is an application of psychology: you have to get a good understanding of the basics first. You therefore need to study psychology (i.e. the normal mind) before you can hope to develop a good understanding of the mind in pathology.

3. Try to think beyond one-to-one psychotherapy.
One-to-one work is great for professional practice, as you can charge by the hour, but is it the best way to improve mental health?

4. Cognitive psychology is the core paradigm in psychology.
It has been since the 1960s. You have to know some cognitive psychology to be a modern psychologist. As an example, for decades it has been known by well-trained psychologists that human memory is very unreliable and can be easily distorted (see e.g. the classic study by Loftus & Palmer, 1974). There is plenty of evidence that during psychotherapy some people start to 'remember'  traumatic events  that can be proven not to have ever happened (for a good review of this see Loftus & Davis, 2006).

These false memories are often created by therapists making suggestions to their clients about childhood abuse. The accidental implanting of false memories by psychotherapists has led to false-memory syndrome, an iatrogenic illness, i.e. one that is caused by therapy. This is a real tragedy and results in psychologists traumatizing their clients. If psychologists were properly trained in how minds work, i.e. cognitive psychology, this wouldn’t happen.

If nothing else, remember that memory is very sensitive to distortion and always avoid leading or influencing the recall of past events by clients. 
Learn basic psychology, particularly cognitive, so as not to cause iatrogenic illnesses such as false-memory syndrome.

5. Facts not idols.
If you believe me that psychology should be approached scientifically, then you should be interested in the facts, not who said them. Scientists don’t follow leaders, they follow facts. Too many psychologists describe themselves as being a Jungian or a Freudian, or a follower of Maslow etc. Psychologists sound like they are sheep when they say things like that. That attitude makes them blind to criticism and to advancing their understanding. It also prevents them from expanding their knowledge, their evidence base, if they only follow the teachings of a particular 'master'.
Be a scientist, not a sheep. Don't follow leaders.

6. Freud and Jung were never accepted in mainstream psychology.
Most psychologists around the world think of their versions of psychology as being irrelevant, and essentially incorrect. They are certainly considered pseudoscience. In the good universities around the world psychoanalysis and related topics are rarely taught. Psychoanalysis, analytic psychology etc. is early to mid-20th century stuff, only of interest in the History of Psychology.

7. Avoid pseudoscience.
Other pseudoscience that you should avoid, but that is surprisingly popular with Ecuadorian psychologists: homeopathy (and Bach flowers), graphology, horoscopes, reiki, and tarot. Some other pseudosciences which are less obvious are neurolinguistic programming, and hypnotherapy for the majority of disorders (particularly if it involves regression). If in doubt about a treatment of procedure, do some research on it to check whether it’s considered to be pseudoscience. If it is a recognized pseudoscience and you continue to us it in clinical practice, you are not just wasting yours and your clients’ time, but you are acting unethically, as the client is expecting you to do something that is known to be effective. You should try to only use methods that are known to be evidence based.

8. Take qualifications seriously.
Many psychologists in Ecuador lie about their qualifications, such as using the title ‘Dr’ without having a real doctorate qualification. This is partly because there is no psychological society enforcing standards, but also because such deception is widely tolerated. It shouldn't be, a psychologist who lies about their qualifications is being grossly unethical. Be skeptical of others’ qualifications and be honest about your own. You can check a psychologist’s qualifications on the SENESCYT website. It’s also worth Googling the name of the university that awarded the qualification to check if it’s legitimate. There are some psychologists in Ecuador with doctorates from diploma mills such as Pacific Western University.

Also note that PhD(c) isn’t acceptable (the ‘c’ means ‘candidate’). Ethically, a psychologist can only use a title after it has been officially awarded by a recognized educational institute. The use of PhD(c) or worse, Dr, based on having registered for a course that hasn’t yet been passed, is considered a form of misrepresentation in professional psychology. While this kind of unethical behavior continues, the public will have good reason to be suspicious of the ethics of psychologists, and that harms Ecuadorian psychology in general, and your career.
PhD certificates can be purchased online, for example at this website that offers doctorates in 10 days. It is worth checking whether the Dr you are dealing with is real or fake. 

9. Be careful of paying to see experts.
Workshops by 'experts' can be very expensive, and of short duration (e.g. one weekend), yet result in a certificate in some form of therapy or assessment. The qualification may be meaningless and the training low-quality or insufficient. At the least, Google these people and find out if they really are experts. Usually real psychology experts will have published books or journal articles, and will have qualifications from well-reputed institutions. Professional academics usually give their science away, with free presentations, open to all.

10. Be critical of the sources of information.
Textbooks about psychology are full of exaggerations and complete errors (see e.g. Steuer  & Ham, 2008). They are OK for learning the basics in the early years of academic study, but if you practice as a psychologist you should be getting your information from journal articles. Although not perfect, the peer-review process used by journals ensures that they are the most reliable source of information. To be a good psychologist you need to continually update, as psychology is a fast-developing field. The best way to do that is to regularly read journal articles. Or at least if you are using a particular therapy or assessment, read recent articles about it, you may find that some things you thought were effective or valid really aren’t. Almost any journal article can be downloaded without charge from Sci-hub, so there is no longer a problem of journals being inaccessible in developing countries such as Ecuador. 

11. Try not to do psychology in an Ecuadorian way.
There is no need to have a parochial version of psychology, we all live on the same planet. Try to be more global in your approach, more third culture. I’m often told that this is the Ecuadorian way of treatment, or way of referencing, or even tolerance of dishonesty. It doesn’t make sense to do Ecuadorian psychology, or British psychology, or any national version. As one extreme example, prolonged sleep therapy, where patients are put into extend sleep for several days by the use of sedatives, is still practiced as a mental health treatment in Ecuador. For decades it has been known that this treatment is both ineffective and dangerous; many patients have been killed. Following several governmental inquiries and scandals concerning prolonged sleep therapy, particularly in Australia, its practice has been discontinued in most countries (for a review see Walton, 2013). If psychologists defend practices because 'this is the Ecuadorian way', they can't benefit from lessons learnt in other countries. Similarly for, gay-conversion therapy. Hugely harmful and ethically indefensible, yet their are Ecuadorian psychologists involved with it.

Sure, you can adapt treatment and assessment procedures to the local conditions, but academic honesty, and ethical behavior with clients should be universal. In terms of how to practice, look for what seems to be true, what seems to work in Psychology, what is safe, based on evidence. That’s a better approach. You can be both culturally sensitive and evidence based. 

12. Know the enemy, and rebel.
If this all sound patronizing, then my apologies. Although some people may have a problem with being told about psychology and professional practice by a foreigner (I’ve only lived in Ecuador for eight years), at the time of writing I am the most experienced academic psychologist in the country, with degrees from universities ranked within the top 100 globally, and over 50 psychology publications in peer-reviewed journals. All I’m saying is that psychology in Ecuador would be better if psychologists in general strove to be more critical, scientific, professional, and honest. There is nothing imperialistic about that.

I may appear like a neocolonialist, a foreigner telling you what’s best, but think about it. Firstly, discounting information because it's from foreigners is simply racist. Secondly, in the university psychology departments where many of you studied there are professors from the wealthy families of Ecuador, the literal inheritors of the colonization of America. Many of those same professors idolize upper-class European theorists such as Freud, Adler, and Jung, and teach those theories as if they were true, not telling you that such theories are widely discredited. Theories that are in reality based on European mythology. Those professors are the real neocolonialists, descendants of the original European land owners, uncritically presenting you with archaic European dogma.

I’m just trying to convince you to rebel against that and approach psychology logically and critically, to evaluate evidence and sources. This will allow you to become evidence based, which is better for everybody, particularly clients receiving therapy.


Be a psychologist, but be a rebel too.


References
Cuijpers, P., Karyotaki, E., Weitz, E., Andersson, G., Hollon, S. D., & van Straten, A. (2014). The effects of psychotherapies for major depression in adults on remission, recovery and improvement: a meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 159, 118-126.

Loftus, E. F., & Davis, D. (2006). Recovered memories. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 2, 469-498.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13(5), 585-589.

Steuer, F. B., & Ham, K. W. (2008). Psychology textbooks: Examining their accuracy. Teaching of Psychology, 35(3), 160-168.

Walton, M. (2013). Deep sleep therapy and Chelmsford Private Hospital: have we learnt anything?. Australasian Psychiatry, 21(3), 206-212.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Psychology Research

I’ve lived for almost eight years in Ecuador, and directed a research group at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ). Originally known as the Quito Brain and Behavior Lab, it more recently developed into the USFQ Institute of Neurosciences. Over that time, I’ve collaborated with many academics and clinicians in Ecuador and together we have conducted several research studies, resulting in lots of publications in journals. In fact, we have been the most productive psychology research group in the country. Here is a summary of that research, and an opportunity for me to acknowledge the collaborators, students and assistants. Although I wrote all the papers, all the data was collected by the research assistants and collaborators, and without them there wouldn’t have been a lab, or any research conducted.

Street-children, and foster care
A project on trauma and neuropsychological function of Quito street children was the very first project we undertook. Without a research grant, I had to pay all costs myself. I couldn’t even find help with the cost of photocopying. But I did manage to enlist three unpaid volunteers: Daniel Banda Cruz, Victoria Andrade, and Sofia Ricaurte. These three were all undergraduate students at the time, in my Health Psychology Class at USFQ. Fundeporte, a center for very poor children in south Quito, agreed to help us with this research, under the condition that we participate with their center. So, for several days Daniel, Vicky, Sofia and I attended and played with the kids, joined them at meal times, and attended their sports day competitions.

When the staff and kids were familiar with us, then we were able to start the data collection. We also attended a Quito school and collected the same data on their kids as a control sample. Overall, the street kids project was a great success, resulting in two data papers (Pluck et al., 2015; Pluck et al., 2018) and also a review article published in the Psychologist magazine (Pluck, 2015a), and an invited opinion piece on the Favelas Blog at the London School of Economics (Pluck 2015b). And most recently, an invited chapter in a book on Homelessness and Mental Illness to be published by Oxford University Press. USFQ even made a short promotional video about the research, which is available on YouTube.

We also performed a similar study on children living in foster care in Quito. These were compared with a control group from two schools in the city. This research was conducted by Cris Hugo, and assisted by Isa Lara and Mario Martínez among others. One manuscript has been prepared on that project, but not yet accepted for publication. Isa is working on a second manuscript.


Sofia Ricaurte being interviewed about the street children research in the promotional video (left), our research on the front cover of the Psychologist magazine in January 2015 (center). Isa Lara and Cris Hugo working on the foster care project (right).

Binaural beats
The next main project happened because a biophysics student at the Escuela Superior Politécnica de Chimborazo (ESPOCH) contacted me about project supervision. The student, Marco López, wanted to do an electroencephalography (EEG) study, and that wasn’t available at his university. In fact, I didn’t have the equipment either, but I offered to support a behavioral study. Marco wanted to examine binaural beats, the illusory acoustic phenomenon that occur when pure tones of different frequencies are delivered dichotically through headphones. We did the study, discovering that stimulation at 6Hz produced a mild fear response, and it was published in Psychology & Neuroscience (Pluck & López-Águila, 2019). This publication helped Marco to get a full scholarship for postgraduate study at Tianjin University in China.

More recently, I have collaborated with Dr Diego Benítez in the USFQ Colegio de Ciencias e Ingenierías. Diego provided us with EEG equipment, and we repeated our original study, but this time with neurophysiological recordings. This project was assisted by an intern from the UK, Emma McFadden, and an exchange student from Tulane University in the USA, Rachel Maue. We successfully replicated the induction of fear with 6Hz stimulation, but the EEG data has not been fully analysed yet. Hopefully when it is, we will detect the 6Hz in the brain electrophysiological signal.

The original behavioral data collection by Marco Lopez from ESPOCH for the binaural beats study (left), practicing EEG for the later study with Dr Diego Benítez and his assistant (center), and Emma McFadden measuring the head of a participant in order to position the EEG electrodes (right). 

Cognitive test development
One of the first research problems that I encountered here in Ecuador, is that there is a doubt over the validity of cognitive tests. This makes it hard to publish research (such as the foster care study). So, as a long-term goal, I started reliability and validity of studies of common cognitive tests. First was the Word Accentuation Test (WAT), assisted by Andrea Gonzales and Rafa Muñoz. This test allows psychologists to estimate premorbid ability of participants/clients, even if they have current cognitive impairments (Pluck et al., 2017). A couple of related tests, the Word Accentuation Test-Sentences and the Stem Completion Implicit Reading Test (SCIRT) were also validated (Pluck, 2018). I also produced another test that previously wasn’t available in Spanish. The Spot-the-Word test is a popular assessment in English to measure verbal knowledge. My Spanish language version (Spanish Lexical Decision Task) is valid and reliable (Pluck, in press), the tests can be downloaded from my website: www.gpluck.co.uk

I also realized that even common tests such as the Wechsler intelligence assessments are not valid in developing countries such as Ecuador, and even if you ignore that fact and use them in research, they are very expensive. My solution was to produce a free-to-use, simple intelligence test, that could be used for research anywhere in the World. Overall this was more difficult to achieve than I anticipated, but the Matrix Matching Test was eventually published (Pluck, 2019). A benefit of this test in Ecuador is that it was specifically validated there, unlike all the other intelligence tests. This can also be downloaded from my website: www.gpluck.co.uk

Nevertheless, we have also collected data to normalize the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IV (WAIS-IV) in Ecuador. To do this Andrea Gonzales and I collected data in Quito, while Jose Hernandez collected data in Manta, Dr Patricia Bravo collected data in Rio Bamba and Dr Mayorga Amalín collected data in Guayaquil. This data has not been published yet, but should allow us to establish the normal mean point for Ecuador. This will aid in clinical and research work.

Me (Dr Graham Pluck) training Mayorga Amalín of Universidad de Guayaquil in cognitive test administration. This is part of the effort to norm the WAIS-IV.
A further test that we examined the psychometric properties of was the Tower Test. This is a commonly used assessment of executive function. However, executive function tests are rarely assessed for reliability or validity. With Doenya Amraoui (intern from the University of Amsterdam) and Isabella Fornell Villalobos (USFQ student) I examined the Tower Test in Ecuadorian youth, and found that it performed quite poorly, with only one performance measure found to be sufficiently reliable, the time-per-move ratio (Pluck et al., 2019, in press). That measure is probably the best for clinical or research use, in Ecuador, and worldwide.

Executive functioning
The next project that we undertook was to predict academic achievement of university students with executive function tests. To start the research, I recruited a research assistant, Jaime Vintimilla, who I rapidly replaced with Bernardo Ruales. Also assisting with administration was Karla Haro. We collected data on 64 undergraduate students, using a range of executive function tests. This allowed us to show that one test in particular, the Hayling Test of verbal response suppression, was a better predictor of student achievement than intelligence (Pluck et al., 2016).

In fact, later on a student from the USFQ master’s program in Mind, Brain, and Education, David Villagómez, started his graduation thesis with me. As did Maria Isabel Karolys, who was doing her masters at the Universidad International de la Rioja, in Spain, but I provided local supervision. They performed similar studies, using the Hayling verbal suppression test, assisted by two USFQ undergraduates, Pamela Almeida and Emilia Montaño. This time we included high school children in the sample. Together, we were able to replicate and extend the results, showing the verbal response suppression really is a good, perhaps the best, predictor of grades, and that working memory is a predictor of classroom misbehavior (Pluck, Villagomez-Pacheco, et al., 2019). This provides real-life validation for the role of response suppression in intelligent goal-directed behavior. The modified Hayling test that we developed is available to download from my website at www.gpluck.co.uk


Some of the researchers who have worked in the lab at USFQ, from left to right: Brittany Barajas, Doenya Amraoui, Nergiz Turgut, Alejandra Martínez, Sarahí Pontón, Rachel Maue, Christine Bock, Marco Cordova, Emma McFadden.

Most recently, with Dr Cris Crespo and Patricia Parreño at USFQ, we performed a similar study, attempting to predict real-life success with executive function tests. However, this time we recruited 90 car sales personnel, and we looked at how many cars they sold. This involved a research team (including Karla Haro and Alejandra Martínez) travelling around Quito to different showrooms, and administering a battery of executive function tests. We again found that verbal response suppression measured by the Hayling test was the best predictor of success of salesmen. However, it wasn’t predictive for saleswomen, for whom a different form of response suppression ability predicted sales. Interesting, in this research we also found a dissociation between intelligence and multi-tasking between men and women. Salesmen had higher intelligence test scores than saleswomen, but worse multi-tasking ability (Pluck, Crespo-Andrade et al., in press).

Neuroscience of education
I was also approached by Dr Patricia Bravo Mancero, a professor at Universidad Nacional de Chimborazo (Unach), who wanted to conduct a neuroscience of education research study at her institution. I designed for her a study in which several different cognitive tests, and a set of neurobehavioral questionnaires were applied to psychology and engineering students at Unach. At this point Isabela Lara joined the team, helping to produce the tests, and eventually Isa and I went to Unach to train their professors there on how to apply them. This turned out to be a very productive collaboration resulting in two good research papers. One on cognition and academic achievement, suggesting that procedural memory is more important than declarative memory (Pluck et al., 2019), the other on neurobehavioral traits, suggesting that schizotypy and mixed handedness are important to academic achievement (Pluck, Bravo Mancero, et al., 2020). For that latter paper, Paola Chacon assisted with a psychometric study of scale reliability.


Isa Lara and I went to Unach in Riobamba to train Dr Patricia Bravo and other professors on test administration for the neuroscience of education project.

Homelessness
I had already conduced some studies of homelessness and neuropsychological function in the UK and Japan, but had not had the opportunity in Ecuador. Then came along Brittany Barajas, a student of Speech and Language Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was spending a year in Quito and wanted to do a study of language ability of homeless adults. We put together a project, and Brittany was able to receive funding from her university. With a team of Ecuadorian psychologists including Jose Hernandez, Gonzalo Villa, Alejandra Martínez, and Sarahí Pontón, we interviewed a group of homeless people at a charitable center in Quito. We also interviewed a control group of adults with similar educational backgrounds to the homeless participants. All were assessed with the Boston Diagnostic Aphasia Examination and several other tests. We were able to show that the homeless sample had pathologically poor oral expression and comprehension. That paper has been accepted for publication in International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders (Pluck, Barajas, et al. in press).

Alejandra and Brittany assessing language skills in the homeless research study

Other studies, other researchers
There were other studies too, e.g. a study of socioeconomic deprivation and cognitive skill, a study of smart phone addiction, but these projects have not been analysed and published yet. I should also mention Dr Ana Trueba who provided general support to several of the projects. Some of the other researchers that have contributed are Nicole Schmidt, Pablo Barrera, Wilmary Rodriguez, Allison Loaiza, Brenda Guerrero, Edgar Paucar-Guerra, and Marco Cordoba. Sorry of I’ve missed anybody out. Looking back it’s hard to recall all the people who have worked in the lab, and allowed us to be the most successful psychology research group in Ecuador.

References
Pluck, G. (in press). A lexical decision task for measuring crystallized-verbal ability in Spanish. Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología.

Pluck, G. (2019). Preliminary validation of a free-to-use, brief assessment of adult intelligence for research purposes: The Matrix Matching Test. Psychological Reports. 122(2), 709-730. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033294118762589

Pluck, G . (2018). Lexical reading ability predicts academic achievement at university level. Cognition, Brain, Behavior. An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22(3), 175-196. https://doi.org/10.24193/cbb.2018.22.12

Pluck, G. (2015a). The 'street children' of Latin America. The Psychologist, 28(1), 20-23. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/january-2015/street-children-latin-america

Pluck, G. (2015b). Challenges and strengths, thinking about´ street children´. Favelas@LSE. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/63058/1/Challenges%20and%20strengths%2C%20thinking%20about%20%C2%B4street%20children%C2%B4%20_%20Favelas%20at%20LSE.pdf

Pluck, G., Almeida-Meza, P., Gonzales-Lorza, A., Muñoz-Ycaza, R., & Trueba, A. (2017). Estimación de la función cognitiva premorbida con el Test de Acentuación de Palabras. Revista Ecuatoriana de Neurología, 26(3), 226-234. http://scielo.senescyt.gob.ec/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2631-25812017000200226

Pluck, G., Amraoui, D., & Fornell-Villalobos, I. (2019, in press). Brief Communication: Reliability of the D-KEFS Tower Test in samples of children and adolescents in Ecuador. Applied Neuropsychology: Child. https://doi.org/10.1080/21622965.2019.1629922

Pluck, G., Barajas, B. M., Hernandez-Rodriguez, J. L., Martínez, M. A. (in press). Language ability and adult homelessness. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12521

Pluck, G., Bravo Mancero,P., Maldonado Gavilanez, C. E. Urquizo Alcívar, A .M., Ortíz Encalada, P. A.,Tello Carrasco, E. …Trueba, A. F. (2019). Modulation of striatum based non-declarative and medial temporal lobe based declarative memory predicts academic achievement at university level. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 14, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2018.11.002

Pluck, G., Bravo Mancero, P., Ortíz Encalada, P.A., Urquizo Alcívar, A. M., Maldonado Gavilanez, C. E., & Chacon, P. (2020). Differential associations of neurobehavioral traits and cognitive ability to academic achievement in higher education. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2019.100124

Pluck, G., Banda-Cruz, D. R., Andrade-Guimaraes, M. V., Ricaurte-Diaz, S., & Borja-Alvarez, T. (2015). Post-traumatic stress disorder and intellectual function of socioeconomically deprived ‘street children’ in Quito, Ecuador. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13(2), 215-224. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-014-9523-0

Pluck, G., Banda-Cruz, D. R., Andrade-Guimaraes, M. V., & Trueba, A. F. (2018). Socioeconomic deprivation and the development of neuropsychological functions: A study with “street children” in Ecuador. Child Neuropsychology, 24(4), 510-523. https://doi.org/10.1080/09297049.2017.1294150

Pluck, G., Crespo-Andrade, C., Parreño, P, Haro, K. I., Martínez, M. A. & Pontón, S. C. (in press). Executive functions and intelligent goal-directed behavior: A neuropsychological approach to understanding success using professional sales as a real-life measure. Psychology & Neuroscience. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pne0000195

Pluck, G. & López-Águila, M. A. (2019). Induction of fear but no effects on cognitive fluency by theta frequency auditory binaural beat stimulation. Psychology & Neuroscience 12(1), 53-64. https://doi.org/10.1037/pne0000166

Pluck, G., Ruales-Chieruzzi, C. B., Paucar-Guerra, E. J., Andrade-Guimaraes, M. V., & Trueba, A. F. (2016). Separate contributions of general intelligence and right prefrontal neurocognitive functions to academic achievement at university level. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 5(4), 178-185. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2016.07.002

Pluck, G., Villagomez-Pacheco, D., Karolys, M. I., Montaño-Córdova, M. E. & Almeida-Meza, P. (2019). Response suppression, strategy application, and working memory in the prediction of academic performance and classroom misbehavior: A neuropsychological approach. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 17, 100121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2019.100121

Monday, July 1, 2019

Psychology Professors and PhDs


A PhD is a ‘Doctorate in Philosophy’, it is the highest commonly awarded academic qualification. In fact, a person who has a PhD is a true doctor. The medical use of the word 'doctor' is usually an honorary title. The PhD is basically an apprenticeship in how to be an academic, and in most countries, it is taken as the qualification required to get a job in a university as a professional academic, i.e. a professor. Psychologists sometimes also have PsyD qualifications, that is a Doctor of Psychology, and is training more intended for practice than for academic purposes.

As academics have two main functions, investigation and education, you would think that PhDs would be focused on those aspects. Unfortunately, they are not, PhD training is almost completely focused on research. It probably should include how to teach, but usually it doesn’t.

As an example, my doctoral study was in the late 1990’s at the Institute of Neurology, part of University College London. At the time, there were no classes at all in a PhD program. I had just a desk, a PC, and a supervisor (the Clinical Psychologist Dr Richard Brown), and the job of conducting enough research to form a coherent thesis. As is normal for such a thesis, it was based on multiple research studies. It is assessed in a face-to-face viva voce examination, which takes several hours. Two academics not involved with your thesis ask you to defend it, going into detail and trying to find flaws. My examiners were Dr Jane Powell and Dr Jane Riddoch. The oral examination is a tough process, it’s not uncommon for the candidate to take a bathroom break, cry for a while, and then go back in. The examiners’ decision is at best, ‘minor revisions needed’, but they can decide on ‘fail’. Some students do fail at that point, a friend of mine failed at the viva voce exam. A few others never made it that far. The whole process in the UK, if successful, takes about 4 years.

My final accepted thesis, about 80,000 words long (317 pages), titled ‘Neuropsychological Aspects of Apathy in Parkinson’s Disease’ 

In this kind of doctorate, the learning is through the research, but also from being within an academic research culture full-time for several years. The student learns how academics think, how they solve problems, as well as practical issues such as manuscript writing and conference presenting. It is therefore important where one studies, doing a PhD with world-renowned experts, will be different to doing one with relatively inexperienced or low performing academics.

In the USA, PhD programs often have lots of classes, and take much longer, often six or more years. Despite the length of time taken, in some cases the thesis may be quite minor, compared to a European thesis. Some USA PhD theses include only one study, and may be as short as 10,000 words. Others are equivalent in size and quality to European theses. Nevertheless, an important part of the PhD is still research, and the contextual learning that takes place from being in an academic environment.

In Ecuador there is a problem: there are lots of psychology students, and therefore many psychology professors. There is an expectation that the psychology professors will have PhDs, but there are few options for PhD study for people living in Ecuador. Some Ecuadorians go to Europe, Australia, the USA etc. for doctoral study. But of course, that is expensive, and realistically, grants are needed. A popular option is to take a PhD with distance study. But of course, this may not be as good an academic training as study in an actual research department. As a minimum, a reasonable quality PhD will be recognised in Ecuador by SENESCYT, and included in their online database.

Regrettably, a third option for some professors is simply to lie about having a PhD. It is not uncommon for people to simply claim to be a ‘Dr’ without any qualification to back it up. Needless to say, it is a gross violation on professional ethics for professors to deceive people in this way. If there is any doubt, then check the SENESCYT online system. That’s what it’s there for, to make life difficult for the cheats.

Not as serious, but still problematic, is the use of the post-nominal letters ‘PhD(c)’ i.e. ‘Doctorate of Philosophy, candidate’. People using these letters could be one week into a seven-year study, and still put PhD(c) after their name. Even if academics understand that a PhD(c) indicates a doctoral student, not an actual doctor, the public, and undergraduate students, probably won’t. Consequently, the use of PhD(c) is considered as being deceptive by the American Psychological Association, and actually violates their official ethics code. In other countries, such as the UK, where I studied, it would be completely unacceptable to imply that you had a PhD when in fact you did not. Even after my viva voce examination (i.e. the oral ‘defensa’) it was still many corrections and several months before the thesis was confirmed as accepted, only then could I use PhD after my name.

So, a PhD is important, but not are all equal. In my opinion, PhDs that were studied directly with a strong department, full of world experts, with a world-expert thesis supervisor are much better than most distance studied PhDs. Particularly if they are distance studied at poorly recognised institutions or with not particularly impressive thesis supervisors. Nevertheless, there are some good distance programmes, and many do include time attending the actual institute. The point is, don’t consider all PhDs equal, they are really not.

However, as I started this blog, a PhD is basically an academic apprenticeship. It matters more what the person has done since receiving the PhD. After it’s awarded, the professor should be doing something with the doctoral training, and that basically means research. And the research needs to be published in academic journals. In fact, as a rule of thumb, a good PhD should directly lead to two or three journal articles. Ten years after the PhD is completed, a professor will be defined by what they have achieved in that ten years, not by the PhD. The PhD itself should become irrelevant.

Rather than focus on the quality of academic qualifications, if you want to assess a professor, a better way is simply to Google them. This should turn up lists of their research works on sites such as ResearchGate, Academia.edu, Google Scholar, or their institutional webpage. Not all professors provide such information, so an absence of lists doesn’t tell you much. However, all publications in reasonable and better journals are indexed in Scopus. You can search for any professor on the Scopus free look-up service and see their publication history. A professor’s publication history is more important than their academic qualifications anyway. It doesn’t matter if a professor doesn’t have a PhD, or has one from a dubious institution, if they have proven themselves through their published research.

In summary, what Ecuador needs to improve psychology education is to get more professors who can do and publish research, i.e. academically active professors. The PhD is just the most common route that people take to become competent researchers and academics, but it is not necessarily the only route.

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This post has been about academic psychologists, i.e. those employed as professors. For a good review of issues around clinical psychologists in Ecuador, see the blog post by Dr Fergus Kane: How to Choose a Psychologist in Ecuador.

Friday, June 21, 2019

For, and against, cultural imperialism in psychology teaching


As a Europe-born professor teaching in a Latin American country I am always at risk of being a twenty-first century cultural imperialist, i.e. forcing my culture onto another. After all, a professor is there to teach, to affect a change in the abilities and behaviour of the students. That is what learning is. The learning itself is desirable of course, but the content of the learning is the crux of the issue. Professors come from specific cultures and have their own blind spots and biases. It is a real risk; one can easily assume that what one is familiar with is the correct way of doing things.

In fact, many psychologists are acutely aware that adaptions need to be made for teaching in different cultures. As a particular example, forms of psychopathology vary across cultures. Simply teaching about DSM disorders in Ecuador, without examining local manifestations of mental illness would be inappropriate. DSM is really only a classification of mental disorders based on signs and symptoms commonly seen in the USA. Much of that will transfer across cultures, but some will not.

However, here I argue that adaption of teaching to different cultures is not necessarily the big issue that some psychologists make it. I am talking here from the perspective of a British psychologist teaching in Ecuador. I teach more or less the same ideas and concepts whatever country I am in. This is not out of laziness; it is out of belief. In this blog post I explain why I believe in a general, global education for psychologists, rather than parochial, local-style psychology, which may appear more culturally appropriate, but ultimately does not serve the students well. These are my reasons:

1. Good psychology is science. Science does not change from culture to culture. The way to advance psychology is to produce and interpret data logically. That’s basically what science is: Sensible, intelligent interpretation of data. It’s a clear way of thinking, not a topic. That way of thinking is the same in Ecuador as it is in my home country (England), or in Kazakhstan, or anywhere. It is my job as an educator to encourage the scientific way of thinking. It is true that there are inter-cultural differences in the matter of psychology, i.e. the mind. For example, there are cognitive processing differences between people in individualist and collectivist cultures. We know this because quantitative, scientific psychologists have done research on it. Good psychology teaching is about teaching good science.

2. Psychology is international. Psychologists move around the world, particularly those from countries such as Ecuador, where postgraduate study opportunities are limited. To continue one’s studies one often has to move to a different country. That’s good. However, if the students only study a version of psychology considered suitable for the Ecuadorian context, then they will be at a disadvantage when they go abroad, and that’s not fair. Good psychology education prepares people to use their training globally. This is particularly important in regards to information literacy and research methodology. Such skills are currently not emphasised in Ecuadorian psychology training. Nevertheless, they are essential for one to succeed in one’s studies in many other countries.

There is admittedly a bias for psychology literature, particularly journal articles, to come from a small number of English-speaking countries. And journal articles are the number one source of information for good psychologists. The way to address that imbalance is for psychologists in countries such as Ecuador to gain the skills to be able to publish their own research. That will ultimately serve Ecuadorian psychology better than making unnecessary distinctions between the local psychology and gringo psychology. Again, this will be achieved by international-standard research skills being emphasized in Ecuador, as they are in the countries publishing most of the research.

3. Universities are special. Whereas most people in their working lives are focused on producing profits for somebody, good professors are in the business of truth (the ultimate goal of research) and forming better people (the ultimate goal of education). That’s the same around the world. I think of universities as being like embassies, they are both insulated to a large extent from the environments that they are physically located in. There are ways of doing things, in universities or in embassies, which are the same wherever you are, in Quito, Washington or Moscow. In academia at least, these are generally virtuous ways of doing things. For example, attitudes to cheating may vary between cultures, but there is a common belief amongst university-people that one should not present as one’s own, work that was produced by another, i.e. plagiarism. Students may have to learn that, but that is part of their education in how to be academic. That special, high-minded feature of universities globally is something that should be celebrated. Adapting academic ways to local cultures risks that specialness of higher education.

4. Much of the ‘Ecuadorian psychology’ that I come across is nothing that needs to be preserved anyway. In fact, it shouldn’t even be taught at universities. If there was a rich cultural tradition of thinking about the mind espoused by modern Ecuadorian psychologists, derived from their history, perhaps of Amerindian origin, then I would be all for teaching that, alongside internationally-accepted psychology material. But the psychologists who resist my teaching of psychology, and suggest that I’m imposing my academic cultural background, are generally involved with highly dubious fields anyway. These include hypnotherapy, dream analysis, graphology, tarot cards, Bach flower remedies, etc. These are all European, nineteenth and twentieth-century pseudosciences. Think about it. The damaging cultural imperialism has already been done. I’m in fact one of the people fighting against it. It is the responsibility of good psychology professors, from whatever background, to train psychologists who can tell the difference between pseudoscience and psychology. That means not only teaching up-to-date and accepted knowledge, but even more importantly, the scientific skills and the information literacy needed to recognize and reject pseudoscience.

Finally, if students are trained well in the core of globally recognised psychology, and have the information literacy and research skills they will become good psychologists. From those foundations they can develop a psychology for Ecuador.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Quito Brain and Behavior Lab


Did you know that there is an international standard research lab in Ecuador, focused on scientific psychology and neuroscience, e.g. neuropsychology and psychophysiology? It’s called the Quito Brain and Behavior Lab and is based at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. In fact, I think it is the only psychology/neuroscience research lab in the country. There are quite a few other groups who put ‘neuro’ in their names, but they all simply using it as a marketing move, selling educational or psychotherapeutic services etc. We are the only ones who have been doing and publishing academic research.
The official logo of the Quito Brain and Behavior Lab. This was created by the first student to do a thesis in the lab, Marco Lopez of Escuela Superior Politécnica de Chimborazo.
The lab is run by me, Dr. Graham Pluck. I am British but have lived in Ecuador for several years. As an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Birmingham (UK) I was lucky enough to study with two great neuropsychologists- Jane Riddoch and Glyn Humphreys. Jane and Glyn were famous for their work on vision and action (they later moved to the University of Oxford and set up The Oxford Cognitive Neuropsychology Centre, and Glyn became the Watts Professor of Experimental Psychology). I did my undergraduate thesis with Jane on limb praxis, the data was eventually published in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology (Riddoch et al., 2004). After graduating in Psychology I went to the Institute of Neurology, part of University College London, to do a doctorate on Parkinson’s disease with Dr. Richard Brown, also a very successful neuropsychologist. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m passionate about neuropsychology research. My own research generally involves application of neuropsychological principles to understand real-life issues. For example, cognitive studies of homeless adults (e.g. Pluck et al., 2011; Pluck et al., 2012; Pluck et al., 2015a) or street children (e.g. Pluck et al., 2015b; Pluck et al., 2018). But I have also done some more clinical-neuroscientific work, such as an fMRI study of schizophrenia (Lee et al., 2015).
They say you can judge an academic by the size of their office, true academics don't pursue flash offices because they are about the research, not the image. I hope so, my office is tiny. 
The lab is co-directed by Dr Ana Trueba. She has a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Trinity University and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Southern Methodist University, both in Texas, the USA. In addition to being a Clinical Psychologist, and director of the University’s Master’s in Clinical Psychology Program, Ana is active in research, particularly on psychophysiology (e.g. Trueba et al., 2016a; Trueba et al., 2016b; Ritz et al., 2018). 

Ana in her office in the lab, demonstrating her unique filing system
We maintain international and national research links. I am an honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield (UK) and Ana has ongoing research with colleagues in the USA, particularly Dr. Thomas Ritz at the Department of Psychology, Southern Methodist University. We also currently have national research collaborations with the University of Guayaquil and Universidad Nacional de Chimborazo, in Riobamba.
 
The Lab's Christmas pizza party
Apart from Ana and me here at the lab, we always have a few international visitors doing research here too. Recently a master’s student from the University of Amsterdam did a 3-month research placement here, and another comes from Osnabrück University in Germany in late August. Currently a speech therapy student from the University of Illinois in the USA is doing a research project with us.
Some of the students working with the lab
In addition to actual research, we also run a series of research seminars at the University. These are called the Brain Meetings. Roughly every two weeks during the teaching semesters we have guest scientists present their work on psychological and neuroscientific topics. The Brain Meetings are free to attend and open to all. If you want to keep informed of these meetings, then ‘join’ the lab on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PluckLab/

Post Script, the Quito Brain and Behavior Lab has now become Pluck Lab, within the wider USFQ Institute of Neurosciences. You can find out more about the work of the lab/Institute on the blog (Spanish): https://neurocienciasusfq.blogspot.com/

References

     Lee, K. H., Pluck, G., Lekka, N., Horton, A., Wilkinson, I. D., & Woodruff, P. W. (2015). Self-harm in schizophrenia is associated with dorsolateral prefrontal and posterior cingulate activity. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 61, 18-23.
     Pluck, G., Lee, K. H., David, R., Macleod, D. C., Spence, S. A., & Parks, R. W. (2011). Neurobehavioural and cognitive function is linked to childhood trauma in homeless adults. British Journal of Clinical Psychology ,50(1), 33-45.
     Pluck, G., Lee, K. H., David, R., Spence, S. A., & Parks, R. W. (2012). Neuropsychological and cognitive performance of homeless adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 44(1), 9-15.
     Pluck, G., Nakakarumai, M., & Sato, Y. (2015a). Homelessness and cognitive impairment: An exploratory study in Tokyo, Japan. East Asian Archives of Psychiatry, 25(3), 122-127.
     Pluck, G., Banda-Cruz, D. R., Andrade-Guimaraes, M. V., Ricaurte-Diaz, S., & Borja-Alvarez, T. (2015b). Post-traumatic stress disorder and intellectual function of socioeconomically deprived ‘street children’ in Quito, Ecuador. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13(2), 215-224.
     Pluck, G., Banda-Cruz, D. R., Andrade-Guimaraes, M. V., & Trueba, A. F. (2018). Socioeconomic deprivation and the development of neuropsychological functions: A study with “street children” in Ecuador. Child Neuropsychology, 24, 510-523.
     Riddoch, M. J., Humphreys, G. W., Jacobson, S., Pluck, G., Bateman, A., & Edwards, M. (2004). Impaired orientation discrimination and localization following parietal damage: On the interplay between dorsal and ventral processes in visual perception. Cognitive Neuropsychology ,21(6), 597-623.
     Ritz, T., Trueba, A. F., Vogel, P. D., Auchus, R. J., & Rosenfield, D. (2018). Exhaled nitric oxide and vascular endothelial growth factor as predictors of cold symptoms after stress. Biological Psychology, 132, 116-124.
     Trueba, A., Ryan, M. W., Vogel, P. D., & Ritz, T. (2016). Effects of academic exam stress on nasal leukotriene B4 and vascular endothelial growth factor in asthma and health. Biological Psychology, 118, 44-51.
     Trueba, A. F., Simon, E., Auchus, R. J., & Ritz, T. (2016). Cortisol response to acute stress in asthma: Moderation by depressive mood. Physiology & Behavior, 159, 20-26.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Research and Publishing. 2: Where to Publish


In the previous post I wrote about why psychologists should be doing research. That post was particularly aimed at students so that they learn the proper way to be professional psychologists. This post is about where to publish research, and so may be of more interest to already qualified psychologists who are planning investigations, or are already doing it.

The issue of where to publish is an important consideration. Research that is never published is likely to be of very limited impact. Research that is published could be influencing practice not just in Ecuador, but globally, for many years. So research should be published. And by publishing I am mainly talking here of journal articles. Working with other media is OK, but it has to be carefully managed, and undertaken responsibly. Newspapers and magazines are about entertainment not truth, and journalists don’t care whether the person they are quoting is an expert on not, they just want a ‘Dr’ to say something interesting. I know, I’ve been there. Whether or not you work with the popular media, that can’t be all you do. The fact is that to be considered internationally relevant as a psychologist you have to be producing data-based journal articles.

It is best to think of where your research may be published very early in the research process. You can then tailor the research to the outlet. For example, the Journal of Adolescence has a special section for research from developing countries, these are very brief reports of up to 1000 words. Knowing that, Ecuadorian researchers could plan their investigation to nicely fit the requirement of the journal, thus maximizing the chance that the research will eventually be published. And if the research is already complete, you still need to find a very appropriate journal for it. You’ll waste everybody’s time by sending manuscripts to inappropriate journals.

In general, it is also good to think about the international outlook of the journal. Some journals are, shamefully, very euro- or gringo-centric and prefer not to publish work from countries such as Ecuador. On the other hand, some journals are proudly international. Obviously, being Ecuador-based, we will have better chances of success if we submit to journals that specifically describe themselves as being internationally focused, or at least have a history of publishing work from around the world.

Nowadays we don’t need to worry much about the impact factors of the journals. This is because the impact factor is an old metric that just tells you how successful, on average, papers in a journal have been in the past. The most basic calculation is the number of citations to the published works each year divided by the number of papers published each year. For example, on average, any paper in a journal with an impact factor of 3 will be cited about 3 times per year. However, these days we have article-level metrics, it is now more important that your work actually gets cited, regardless of the average success of the journal. Getting your work cited is the number one issue.

To do this you should try and publish in journals which are widely indexed. for example, if you publish in a journal that is indexed in Medline, PsychINFO and Scopus, it will be very accessible by other people. This will maximize the chances that your research becomes popular, is cited, and doesn’t just disappear. For researchers in Ecuador, publishing in journals that are at least indexed in Scopus is important, as this criterion is used across the country to define ‘good’ research. If you want to impress your bosses, the work must be in a Scopus-indexed journal. Good journals will list the databases that they are indexed in on their websites. And you can check some of the main database journal lists, you can download the lists of journals indexed in Scopus and in PsychINFO. So ignore the impact factors and just aim to publish in a journal which is well-indexed.

The other main issue to consider is whether your research will be locked behind a paywall. It may surprise some people, but the authors of journal articles never receive any payment for their writing. The fees charged are profits for the publishing companies. In fact, some journals now charge the authors a fee to publish, and this can be as much as $3000. These pay-to-publish journals then give away the research as free PDF downloads. So although it’s very expensive, it will help your research to get cited if it is freely distributed in this way. This method of charging the authors for the costs, not the consumers, is better for people in less-developed countries who want to access research information, as they get free access to science. Anybody with computer access can get it.

However, for the researchers in less-developed countries, such as Ecuador, this model can be a problem. In the rich countries researchers often have large research grants, and they budget in advance for these publication costs. Then their research benefits from being open-access. In Ecuador such large grants are rare so there is usually no money available to pay the publication fees. The publishing companies are somewhat sympathetic to this, and will often waive the fees for researchers based in low-income countries. However, Ecuador is considered upper-middle income, so waivers are not available. Nevertheless, if you can find ways to publish in open-access journals, this will help to get your research used and cited.

But be careful about which pay-to-publish journal you submit to. Since this publishing model began, many fake journals have appeared. They look (somewhat) like real academic journals but have very low or no publication standards, they exist mainly to take fees and care nothing about quality. These are called predatory journals, they exploit the vane and the naive, and they distort science. They get business by spam emailing people and requesting manuscripts quickly. Sometimes they don’t even read the material before publishing it. Take the example shown below, an article accepted by the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. The article consists of these words repeated over and over “Get me off your fucking mailing list”.

This paper was accepted by a predatory journal. Also shown is one of the figures from the paper. Avoid predatory journals at all costs. If in doubt Google the journal name with the word 'predatory'.

Not all pay journals are predatory, in fact some of the best journals either use this economic model solely are partially. It is now an essential skill that psychologist be able to distinguish the real from the predatory journals, and the best universities are now incorporating this training into their degrees.

It's important to learn to distinguish between real and dubious quality journals. One obvious clue is usually in the quality of the presentation. Good journals will have professional looking layout. Avoid journals that look like they were DTPed by your mum. 
Ollie is a Staffordshire terrier owned by Mike Daube, a public health expert in Perth, Australia. With Mike's help Ollie has been accepted as an editor on several predatory journals, such as Global Journal of Addiction and Rehabilitation Medicine.

Other than predatory journals, there are other places you shouldn’t be considering. As I said above, the primary route for psychological research publication is academic journals, not newspapers, magazines etc. Books are of course useful, and may be essential to have on your resume if you want to gain tenure in the USA. If you do want to publish a book, it must be with a reputable academic publisher. These are often associated with universities. Don’t be tempted into vanity publishing. Anybody can publish a book with a vanity publisher. They take a fee and they publish your book. There is nothing particularly wrong with that. Lots of very niche works are published in this way, autobiographies of people who are not at all famous, guides to restoring mid-twentieth-century rocking chairs etc. But it is not appropriate for academic work. If you do vanity publish academic work It might impress your friends and naive colleagues. But well-educated and reputable psychologists will not be fooled, and will see it as a form of charlatanism. It’s better to have no books on your academic resume than vanity published books. The problem is that vanity publishing doesn’t really need any peer reviewing. It is this peer-review process which maintains standards.

That is why journal articles, whether pay-to-publish or not, are considered so highly. They are very selective, if the research is not good, or not well analysed, or not well written, it will be rejected. The peer reviews will be done be anonymous experts, and these are generally very strict and very critical. But it is this quality control that makes them generally trustworthy, considerably more trustworthy than journalism. They form the basis of evidence-based practice. Which is what all psychologists should be striving for.

Which leads me to my final point. Getting published in academic journals is very difficult, the work must be very well produced, and even then you can expect rejections. The best scientists in the world receive lots of rejections. You just have to persevere. But the good news is that every time it gets a little easier. Though it never gets easy. Do it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Research and Publishing. 1: Why Research, Why Publish?

Psychology is a very young science and there is much still to be learnt, in fact most of psychology is not well understood yet. And progress towards better understanding is made through research. This is not simply an academic affair, better understanding of psychology will ultimately improve lives, as trauma, depression etc. become better understood, and better treated.

By research I mean collection of new information, this is not simply the research that one might do for an essay, searching Google, but collecting new information from the real world with surveys, experiments etc. This is why research skills are so important to psychologists. To be a good psychologist one must, at the very least, be able to understand research. Ideally, good psychologists would also be skilled at doing it. Without such research skills it is impossible to be truly evidence based, and if psychologists are not evidence based then they are at serious risks of falling into quackery and pseudoscience. This, unfortunately, characterizes much of current Ecuadorian psychology.

It is therefore imperative for Ecuadorian psychologists to become research active. This is not easy, as many undergraduate psychology degrees in Ecuador lack the capacity to offer strong training in research skills, and there are few postgraduate options. This is unfortunate, as in other counties, such as the UK, psychology graduates are usually the most research-skilled graduates of all. But the situation here in Ecuador will not improve unless we push for it. And the fact is that there are some psychologists here with strong research skills. At the Quito Brain and Behavior Lab we have lots of collaborations with professors both within and without Universidad San Francisco de Quito. We also have lots of research assistants and interns, mainly doing unpaid work. But by collaborating and assisting they are all learning about research and developing skills. The message is that you don’t necessarily need formal training to get into research.

Research when it is performed, must then be published. Research that is not published to a global audience is not of much use. And publication should be in journal articles. I’ll discuss the issues of where, e.g. which journals, in the next blog post. But the for the moment it is important to understand that journal articles are the basic method of transmitting high-level research. Research published  by the London School of Economics suggested that in their survey of social scientists, about 63% or all publications are journal articles, and only about 17% are books. The other 20% is made of various other outputs such as ‘Working and Discussion’ papers. For scientists, including psychologists, I suspect the percentage for journal articles would be even higher. Psychology students should be reading journal articles, and professional psychologists should be writing journal articles.

Academic journals are the most important source of information for academics, including psychologists.

Journals are the basic source because they are peer-reviewed. That means they go through a tough process, being reviewed by anonymous experts from around the world. The majority of articles that are submitted to journals are rejected. And those that are accepted are usually only accepted after being revised based on the anonymous experts’ criticisms, sometimes with several rounds of revisions. It is the strict checking process that means journal articles are more reliable than any other sources of academic information. Newspapers and magazines are written for entertainment not information, and books in general are less trustworthy than many people realize. It is now recognized for example that many, many psychology textbooks contain grossly incorrect descriptions of basic psychological studies and phenomena.

Journals are therefore the basic vehicle of academic research. And researchers are judged mainly on their journal articles. I did my PhD at the Institute of Neurology in London. At the time I was there, the head of the Institute was Professor David Marsden. He was a remarkable scientist-practitioner. and it is said that from the date he graduated as a doctor to his death at age 60, he published 740 journal articles, 208 book chapters, 76 reviews and 100 research letters. An average of one publication every 12 days. This is a truly exceptional research output. Some academics never publish anything in their entire careers. It is notable too that David Marsden was also a clinician. He provides a fine example that clinical and academic are not polar. It may be that clinicians working solely in clinical practice don’t need to research, but those clinicians that also work at a University are also consequently academics. And academics should be involved in research. The point is that academics, whether clinical or not, are judged on their research output, mainly concerning their journal articles.

I have a book on Behavioral Neurology that was presented to David Marsden when winning the American Academy of Neurology Norman Geshwind Award. This is the inscription in the book that is also signed by many leading neuroscientists. An inspirational scientist-practitioner, David Marsden died suddenly just six months after receiving this award. 

So how do we judge research output? People used to talk about impact factors of journals, as a proxy measure for the quality of publications. But really the academic world has moved on from impact factors anyway. Nowadays individual journal articles are all digitally linked together on the internet via their reference lists. It’s easy to see how many times an article has been cited by other journal articles or books. Several different databases calculate this data and display it publicly. The most obvious example is Google Scholar. So rather than look at the impact factor of a journal where a piece of research was published, we can actually see how useful the individual article in question has been. And there is a lot of variation. Some journal articles never, ever, get cited by anybody. Some fly and are cited hundreds of times each year.

Google Scholar shows how many cites every article or book has. We can see in this example that the article by K. Anders Ericsson and Herb Simon was very successful, having been cited 5,688 times since it was published in 1980, which is more useful than knowing the impact factor of the journal. 
So, the real measure of an article’s success, and hence the author’s success, is how many times it has been cited. This is much better than simply looking at the number of articles published, or the impact factors of the journals, or the related metric of whether it’s Q1, Q2 etc. Now we can get a decent estimate of the quality of any individual academic’s research output.

We can look at how many times an academic has been cited. That is a good indication of their success in research. An interesting and commonly used metric is the h-index. This is a single number that captures both the number of articles somebody has published, and how well cited they have been. It is calculated as the highest number of articles that have been cited that same number of times. For example, at the time of writing, I have about 45 published journal articles. Some are highly cited and some are not, overall, I’ve been cited 1,661 times, but I have 18 articles that have all been cited at least 18 times each. My h-index is therefore 18.

This h-index is now a common way to evaluate academics. I’ve been to international conferences in which when the next guest speaker is introduced, their h-index score is publicly announced. By this metric, the most success psychologist in the world has been Herb Simon, who, at the time of writing this, has been cited 323,706 times. He has an h-index of 172. Puts my h-index of 18 into perspective. The research described above from the London School of Economics suggested that in social sciences in general the h-indices of university professors are quite low, ranging from an average of about 2.2 for Law professors to 7.6 for Economics professors. No data was given for Psychology Professors but I’d guess that it may be higher, given the significant research culture in Psychology.

Herb Simon was a truly remarkable academic. A leader in psychology, economics and artificial intelligence, he received a Nobel Prize in 1978 and is the most cited psychologist ever based on his h-index. I attended  the Cognitive Science Society meeting in Edinburgh six months after his death.  Several delegates there were in tears when talking about him. 
So why research and publish? Because it makes psychology better and makes us better psychologists. And it's what academics do. It's that simple.

In the next blog post I'll deal with the issue of where to publish.