Devalue the Currency! Tackling the toxicity of academic plagiarists
Despite the fact that the PNAS ‘correction’ comprehensively and definitively proved the charges of plagiarism against Bevan and his co-authors (albeit without ever using the dreaded ‘P-word’), none of them have ever faced the slightest smidgen of an issue in their career. Bevan is still employed by UCL and continues to publish in rather nice, high-impact journals. From the publication list on his online CV, you’d never know that that there was a shadow of a doubt cast over his ability to deal fairly with the work of others. What are we to do in the face of such sanctioned and condoned theft? I was brought back to this question over the last while by the story of a Cambridge academic, William O’Reilly, who plagiarised original work by one of his students and passed it off as his own. As such an act would get one of his students kicked out of their course, he was, of course, sacked and will never hold an academic position again. Oh … wait … that’s not actually what happened! Although he was found guilty of plagiarism by his university he hasn’t been fired and will face not the least iota of a sanction. He’s free to go on plagiarising to his heart’s content because there are no consequences for their actions. From my, unfortunately, large correspondence on this topic with many academics (predominantly women), I am of the opinion that these outcomes are the norm and not the outliers. Predatory senior academics will use their power to abuse the rights of more junior researchers, safe in the knowledge that they will not be held to account by their employers. They are frequently also safe in the knowledge that their victims will be too scared to risk reputation and promotion prospects to make a fuss about it. That is truly unfortunate, because if the universities won’t and the victims can’t – who is to raise a voice against the situation? Even if someone wanted to, what could they even do in the face of such official indifference and active encouragement?
I’ve been thing about this, and I think I have an answer. Why do these academics plagiarise? At the simplest level it’s to get that nice publication on their CV. You don’t do the work, but you get the goodies – the reputation and respectability that the lovely paper in the respectable journal brings. Sure, these lead to further career advancement and milestones, but it’s first and foremost about the publication itself. These papers are currency to academics – both figuratively and literally. And therein lies the answer! I had it in the Three Billboards post, but didn’t recognise it: ‘We can but wonder how many more such instances lurk, unrecognised in Bevan's body of published work, as well as those of his co-authors?’ The can of worms is so much bigger that you could have imagined – the problem isn’t just one plagiarised paper (even if it does contain – say it with me - 18 separate counts of plagiarism against 26 researchers). The problem is that their plagiarism taints everything they have ever published or ever will publish. Unless these academics are made to realise that not only can they not get away with it, but that a proven charge of plagiarism will devalue their entire career output, rather than a single paper, nothing will change. To that end, I have decide to contact the publishing journals of every paper listed on Bevan’s CV to inform them of the ‘correction’ that had to be forcibly made to the PNAS paper and point out that this has potential implications for all his publications – both before and since. I also intend to ask that any online editions of Bevan's work be edited to contain a warning that he is a plagiarist and that the same be added to any future print editions too. By my reckoning that is 83 papers in 40 journals. To my knowledge, I am the only person who has ever publicly accused Bevan of plagiarism, but that one instance showed – you guessed it – 18 separate counts of plagiarism against 26 researchers. For this reason, it is wholly appropriate to imagine that, even if it never happened before, having faced zero consequences for the behaviour, he was only encouraged in the habit. That’s – potentially – 83 cans on that big old shelf, each one with the chewy possibility of an assortment of annelids, nematodes, platyhelminthes, and the like.
But what’s the point to all this? What am I hoping to achieve? In defining that, I must first point out that I have no personal animosity against Bevan and his co-authors – this is not retribution – it is not revenge! It is merely me trying to create a culture where it is acceptable and normal to speak out against plagiarists and that they, in turn, will know that their actions have the potential to devalue a lifetime’s research and scholarship. Unlike many I’ve spoken to who feel they can’t speak out – I’m not in academia and I don’t rely on that system of Feudal patronage for employment and advancement. It’s the closest thing to a superpower I possess! While it’s only a sample of one, the only group who acted with some form of honour and decency in the Bevan plagiarism issue were the journal publishers – PNAS. Maybe we can convince some of these journals to prohibit known plagiarists from publishing with them or even issue warnings on potentially problematic content that is already in the public domain. Maybe they’ll do nothing. But one thing I know for certain is that if I stay silent, there isn’t the slightest hope for change. That’s why I’m going to start with Bevan’s back catalogue. When I’ve exhausted that, I’ll do the same for the entire published papers of the remainder of the Gang of Six: Sue Colledge, Dorian Fuller, Ralph Fyfe, Stephen Shennan, and Chris Stevens. I will list the journals contacted and their responses, if any. I realise that few will be in a position to emulate my approach, but know that everyone who speaks out against plagiarism makes a difference!
Update: August 6th: emails sent to 39 journals asking that known plagiarists be tagged in all future publications as well as online editions of papers already published.