I had gotten the impression that a fatally-flawed Eye Tracking study I blogged about below–the one written by Dan Willingham’s colleague at UVA that supposedly showed support for a form of facilitated communication in autism–was published in the prestigious journal Nature.
It turns out this article was instead published in a completely different publication under the Nature.com umbrella: a publication called “Scientific Reports.”
I found this out when I tried to submit a letter to Nature. Nature wrote back saying that they don’t accept letters about articles in publications other than Nature. It took me a while to figure out that there are three separate entities all involving the name Nature.
There’s Nature.com the journal; Nature.com the publisher of dozens of distinct journals, and Nature.com > Scientific Reports.
And, as it turns out, there are lots of differences between Nature and Scientific Reports. Scientific Reports accepts 56% of submissions; Nature accepts 8%. Scientific Reports charges authors thousands of dollars to publish ($5380 for US authors), and allows them input on who should and shouldn’t review their work.
Scientific Reports has a history of retractions, including, so far in 2020, of a paper claiming the sun causes global warming, one claiming that cell-phone-induced neck-bending causes people to grow horns, and one that was plagiarized from the BA thesis of a Hungarian mathematician.
I’m not sure how much Scientific Reports charges to publish letters to the editor, so as far as the letter I mistakenly wrote to Nature (as in the journal Nature) goes, I’ll do what I did with the one I wrote to the Chicago Tribune on its pro- Rapid Prompting Method piece from early January, which also went unpublished, and post it publicly
To the Editors,
I’m writing with concerns about your article “Eye-tracking reveals agency in assisted autistic communication” (Jaswal, V.K., Wayne, A. & Golino, H. Sci Rep 10, 7882 (2020).
One concern relates to the authors’ justifications for testing the agency of what they call “assisted communication” indirectly, via eye movements, rather than directly, via a message-passing test—the gold standard for establishing authorship.
In a message-passing test, the researcher prompts the subject and/or asks him a question while the assistant, or facilitator, is out of the room. The facilitator then returns and facilitates the subject’s response. If the response is appropriate, message-passing has succeeded.
The authors suggest that, in the case of non-speaking children, message-passing may fail for reasons that have nothing to do with agency. Their claim:
“Children who can talk receive years of prompting and feedback from adults on how to report information their interlocutor does not know, the essence of a message passing test.”
There are several problems with this statement. First, message-passing involves information that is unknown to the facilitator, not to the interlocutor (the researcher). Second, the statement suggests that typical three-year-olds don’t yet know how to talk with people about things that happened while they were out of the room. Third, as the study itself reports, while no participant “was reported to be able to have a ‘to and fro’ spoken conversation involving turn-taking or building on what a conversational partner had said earlier,” all but one “was reported to be able to speak using short phrases or sentences.” (What would cause these individuals to become more conversational when typing on a letter board with an index finger is left unexplored).
My other concern is the letter board, which could have been placed on a stationary stand, but instead is held up by the assistant. As we see in the article’s videos, the board shifts around significantly during typing.
A shifting board makes it hard to draw reliable conclusions about intentional eye fixations or about intentional letter selection—regardless of how high tech the head-mounted eye tracker and video processing software are.
Of course, as far as the authors go, if what you’re after is publicity for, say, an un-disclosed for-profit operation, all that matters is that you get the word out to lots of potential customers before you get scrutinized by actual peer review and ultimately retracted. It could be that spending over $5000 dollars to promote Rapid Prompting Method is a very worthwhile investment.
Especially given how much money desperate parents are willing to pay for anything that appears to boost the communicative potential of their autistic children to the degree promised by RPM.