Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Don’t steal, don’t lift: Thoughts on the consequences of plagiarism


Regular readers of this blog will be aware that a little while back I got into a tussle with a number of senior staff members at University College London and Plymouth University. The short version is that Andrew Bevan, Sue Colledge, Dorian Fuller, Ralph Fyfe, Stephen Shennan, and Chris Stevens (all at UCL) along with Ralph Fyfe (PU) published a paper called Holocene fluctuations in human population demonstrate repeated links to food production and climate in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Unfortunately for me, they neglected to give due credit to the fact that they’d made use of my IR&DD Radiocarbon dates resource (the Catalogue of Radiocarbon Determinations & Dendrochronology Dates). Unfortunately for them, Andrew Bevan told me about it. I was initially annoyed at what I thought was an oversight, but this was as nothing when I found that Bevan did not believe he’s done anything wrong. My work was simply not of sufficient import to warrant mention. I complained to their respective establishments and to the publishing journal.

I was ill-prepared for the events as they unfolded. Both universities, rather than acknowledging a wrong and seeking to put it right, attempted to delay, obfuscate, and downright gaslight me to defend the reputations of their employees. Both universities referred to their internal guidelines on plagiarism that offered a markedly more restrictive view of the term than that which they would apply to their own students and happily announced their employees cleared of all charges. Only the PNAS journal acknowledged that wrongdoing had occurred and eventually published a revised version of the paper with a front-page correction that acknowledged plagiarism not just against my work but, by my count, catalogued some 18 separate counts of plagiarism against 26 researchers.

That’s the short version. Seriously.


The other point I’d note is that in assessing how I might avoid such a situation in the future, I decided to add a section to the Radiocarbon catalogue detailing the expected form of acknowledgment. I also took the step of listing the authors of the PNAS paper individually and stating that they are banned from making any use of my research in the future. To be on the safe side, knowing how their universities will protect plagiarists, I also banned all UCL and UP staff members from using it and, just for good measure, anyone publishing in PNAS. To the best of my knowledge, such an action is unprecedented in academic publishing. In a blog post supporting this updated version of the Catalogue [here] I noted that I had no particular expectation that these unprincipled individuals would be deterred by a simple ban. Afterall, “plagiarisers gonna plagiarise”. My only real hope was that having their names so prominently called out would alert other scholars to their nefarious practices and give them a wide berth.

I published the Three Billboards post in May 2018 and, after quite a bit of social media discussion, things went rather quiet. Sure, I’d repost it every once in a while, when I got angry at hearing about another case of a researcher (usually female) having their work plagiarised by another (usually older, tenured, & male). But I’d not exactly heard anything from this little Gang of Six.

Until recently …

Screenshot of text (Shennan et al. 2017, np)

One evening last week I was made aware of a paper called Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in NW Europe (NEOMINE) by none other than the redoubtable Stephen Shennan and Andy Bevan, among others (Shennan et al. 2017). It’s published by the journal Archaeology International. I’m sure that the paper has many fine qualities, deserving of a reader’s time. I, however, was drawn to the enigmatic Publisher’s note that merely read “The acknowledgement was updated after the print version of this paper had been distributed.” Intrigued, dear reader, I headed to those very Acknowledgments and found what appears to be a hastily inserted link to the IR&DD project website. I may be over estimating my importance in this, but my work is the only one graced with a URL, so it may not be terribly unreasonable to imagine that this is the ‘update’ of which they speak. If anyone has a print version for comparison, I’d be grateful to see it.
Screenshot of text (Shennan et al. 2017, np)

Locations of the mines and quarries in the analysis and their 100km radius hinterlands, including areas of overlap (Shennan et al. 2017, Fig 1b)

There’s a lovely graphic representation of what those Irish dates added to this research in their map. Figure 1b (reproduced here) ‘shows the locations of the mines and quarries in the analysis and their 100km radius hinterlands, including areas of overlap’. There are areas of interest in various parts of England, Wales, and the north-eastern Scotland, as well as ones centred on sites in Northern Ireland and eastern Ireland.

Although there is no direct admission of their plagiarism, I am honestly grateful that they were spurred on to attempt to correct their deliberate omission. I’m prepared to overlook that the ‘update’ was to the Acknowledgments section and did not stretch to placing the citation in the References section where it belongs. I’m prepared to ignore the fact that my name is given as just ‘R’ rather than my preferred ‘R M’. Damnit, I’m even prepared to accept the fact that they couldn’t even be bothered to get the name of the resource right (The project is Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates. The published resource is Catalogue of Radiocarbon Determinations & Dendrochronology Dates. Is that so dashed hard to distinguish?).

One way or another, that’s the end of it. All goes quiet once again …

Thing is …

That’s not where the story ends.

In March 2019 the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology publishes ‘Supply and demand in prehistory? Economics of Neolithic mining in northwest Europe’. It’s practically the same title as the previous paper and has all the same authors as the previous paper. This time round there are two additional authors, one of which is Ralph Fyfe from University of Plymouth. You may remember him as a co-author of the PNAS paper that started this whole thing off.

Of course, the two papers have near identical titles as the 2019 one is a clear expansion of the 2017 one. All the English, Scottish, and Welsh areas of interest are there, now augmented with data from a large portion of northern France, as well as Denmark and southern Sweden. The other major change is that the Irish data has completely vanished. Poof! Gone! Goodbye! The 2019 paper never mentions the Irish sites. More than that, the 2019 paper never even mentions the 2017 one. It’s like 2017 never existed! Quite a few things happened in 2017 that I wish we could erase (Theresa May as PM, anyone?), but I'd not go quite so far as to delete the whole year!

Hinterland circles showing mines, dates and pollencore locations (Schaur et al. 2019, Fig 1)

Either way, speculation on Schaur et al.’s apparent wish to be disassociated from the Shennan et al. paper is not my central aim here. My first thought on seeing the Irish data excluded from this work was one of genuine sadness. I felt that although the ban on these authors from using my work was wholly justified, it was regrettable that the Irish material could not now play its fullest role in international-oriented work such as this. Had I done the right thing? Was my pig-headedness the reason that the Irish material wasn’t receiving due recognition?

I genuinely considered instantly lifting the ban so such a situation could never arise again. I find it difficult to articulate, but I was first angry at myself for having put these authors in the position that they couldn’t use the data. I was then angry at myself for, even after all this time, being able to rationalise that poor old Bevan and his cronies are the victims of this and not me.

I’ve thought it over and I came to the realisation that the ban is working. They had to revise the later edition of their work to exclude material that they knew they were no longer entitled. I’ve not given Bevan much credit for integrity, but maybe he has some here. Or, perhaps, this wasn’t his decision at all – who knows? To my mind, it reads as a quiet acknowledgment by the authors that they did wrong and feel that they must abide by the terms of the ban. It reaffirms my view that the ban was the right decision and one that I would heartily advocate to others who have seen their work plagiarised by other researchers.

It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. And there’s certainly no guarantee of formal success. But shouting out about it is the only way that any change will ever happen. Be prepared to be ignored by the authors, delayed and gaslighted by their universities. But know that you can still make your voice heard and warn others as to what’s in the characters of these people and how much both they and their published work is to be trusted.


References
Schauer, P., Shennan, S., Bevan, A., Cook, G., Edinborough, K., Fyfe, R., Kerig, T., & Pearson, M. P. 2019 Supply and demand in prehistory? Economics of Neolithic mining in northwest Europe. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 54, 149-160.

Shennan, S., Bevan, A., Edinborough, K., Kerig, T., Pearson, M. P., & Schauer, P., 2017. Supply and Demand in Prehistory? Economics of Neolithic Mining in NW Europe (NEOMINE). Archaeology International 20, 74-79.


Note
The first part of the title is taken from Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'. But, of couse, you knew that.

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