One plagiarized economics paper that won’t need to be retracted

s and bLate last year, we covered a paper wondering why there were so few retractions in business and economics journals. That post was on our minds as we read a fantastic piece of reporting by reporters at the Scarlet & Black, the Grinnell College student paper.

The story concerns Brian Swart, a Grinnell economics professor who “abruptly resigned in the middle of last semester,” reporters Peter Sullivan and Hayes Gardner note. As is unfortunately often the case, the university wouldn’t say why Swart was leaving. But Sullivan and Gardner didn’t leave it there. They talked to “professors from other institutions involved in the situation” and got the food of investigative reporters everywhere: Documents. Those interviews and documents showed that:

He plagiarized a total of four articles, including his entire dissertation. Indiana University, where he received his Ph.D. in 2011, has now rescinded the degree. Swart was finally caught in September after he submitted a plagiarized paper to the journal Theoretical Economics and a referee noticed similarities to another paper.

One of the researchers whose work Swart copied was Gilles Serra, of the Center for Economics Research and Teaching in Mexico City. Swart’s moves sound like something out of Whac-a-Mole:

As Serra details in his letter to Grinnell, it even appears that Swart followed the changes Serra made to a paper over time and mimicked them. A 2008 paper by Swart plagiarized a 2007 paper by Serra. Serra made changes to his 2007 work in a paper he wrote that was published in 2010. A 2012 paper by Swart then plagiarized Serra’s 2010 paper and reflected the changes. Swart mimicked changes down to word choice. Serra replaced the words “candidate selection method” with the word “effort,” which Swart also did. Serra deleted his welfare analysis. So did Swart. Serra added references to two more papers. Swart added references to the same ones.

So here’s a paper that won’t join the small number of economics retractions in the literature, because it was caught before being published. Read the rest of the Scarlet & Black story for all of the details.

Hat tip: Micahel McBriarty

  • chirality February 11, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Not very smart of Swart. But I wonder how one defends his PhD in 2011 and resigns from his professorship in 2012. Did he win his professorship at demo Forex?

    • Marco February 11, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      I think this is a misunderstanding. Teachers (lecturers/instructors) are often referred to as “professors” in the US, even though their official title is different. For example, Obama has been referred to as “Professor of Law”, although his official title at UoC was “Senior Lecturer”.

      • conradseitz February 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm

        Does anyone recall that Jimmy Carter was mis-characterized as a “nuclear physicist” in the presidential campaign when in fact, in the Navy, he had worked on the engines of a nuclear-powered submarine…? The retraction was more news-worthy than the original mis-characterization. Somehow, to his enemies, the description of Obama as a “Professor of Law” is juicier than calling him a “Senior Lecturer” (just one better than a “Junior Lecturer.”)

        To get back on topic, I would like to introduce a resolution calling for plagiarism software to be used on every dissertation. As computing cycles get cheaper and faster, running the software will be more and more attractive.

        • Deidentified February 11, 2013 at 8:36 pm

          The one issue is standard databases. If Elsevier and other publishers hide their work behind separate paywalls, then one simply submits to journals that are excluded from each other by plagarism scanning software.

          With one central database of academic research, it would be that much easier to mine and detect plagarists.

        • ramblingwreck88 February 12, 2013 at 9:03 pm

          To be fair to President Carter, he never claimed he was a Nuclear Physicist, and he did far more than change the spark plugs on reactors. The field of Nuclear Engineering hardly existed when he attended Georgia Tech (studying Mathematics) or the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned his B.S. degree. Nevertheless, Mr. Carter embarked on a distinguished career in the field, including graduate coursework in nuclear physics at Union College, and an appointment as Engineering Officer on the Seawolf, the second nuclear submarine in the US Navy.

          Mr. Carter was no mere “nuclear physicist,” rather his hands-on experience included being lowered into a damaged nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ontario.

          I suspect that Niels Bohr never saw much beyond chalk dust.

      • Average PI February 12, 2013 at 4:31 am

        That is not true… in the US, professor means Assistant Professor or above at a University. In some European countries, on the other hand, “professor” can even mean “high school teacher”.

        • Marco February 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm

          First, the rank of “professor” exists not just at universities in the US, but also at colleges. Second, I should have made it more clear that I did not mean *any* teacher or instructor, but only those at academic institutions.

    • Aaron February 12, 2013 at 9:57 am

      It’s quite possible he got his job while ABD, and finished the dissertation during his first year. This is not too uncommon for a candidate who is deemed impressive enough and is far enough along in their dissertation that it will not greatly interfere with their work.

  • BennyC February 12, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    So here’s a paper that won’t join the small number of economics retractions in the literature, because it was caught before being published.

    They caught some very obvious instances of outright plagiarism — after the author of the papers Swart stole from happened to compare his work with Swart’s published work. But how do you account for the fact that Swart plagarized his doctoral thesis and nobody happened to notice. He received his doctorate in 2011 and the university revoked it when the plagiarism was discovered around a year later but really guys, why was the degree granted in the first place.

    I’d be very interested in what his thesis committee has to say in regards to the fact that they approved and granted a doctoral degree to a person who was basically faking it all along. And they didn’t notice.

    • Akhlesh February 13, 2013 at 8:27 am

      Thesis committees in the US generally comprise four members, one of whom is the student’s advisor, two are other members of the department (or program), and the fourth is from some other department in the same university. 75% of the committee must vote in favor of accepting the thesis. This is an easy requirement to satisfy. The fourth member is usually picked by the student on the advice of the advisor and therefore votes in favor (which will be reciprocated when his/her won student submits a thesis). So, if even one of the two members from the student’s department votes in favor, the student’s thesis is accepted.

      In other words, thesis committees can be packed.

      • BennyC February 13, 2013 at 7:40 pm

        So what you are saying is that thesis approval is generally a matter of you approve my paper and I’ll approve your paper when the time comes. And who cares if the whole thing has been directly lifted from someone else’s work.

        I thought we called places that have very low, or no, standards and allow just about anything to be approved for a degree a Diploma Mill and derided them because of their practices.

        Now come to find out it’s more common than not. Guess I learned something new today.

        • Dan S February 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm

          I take issue with this characterization. My experience is that most committee members take their responsibilities of holding the student’s feet to fire quite seriously. While there may be some exceptions to this, and a thesis commitee could be “packed” and spurn their responsibilities, these cases are certainly few and far between. However, incidents like this could happen without a “packed” thesis committee because committee members are generally expected only to evaluate the quality of the science presented by the candidate – not to ensure that the student has not committed any misconduct when conducting the research (or not conducting it, in this case . . .). Similarly, peer reviewers often do not look extensively for evidence of misconduct when reviewing submitted articles unless something strikes them as suspicious. Perhaps committee members/reviewers should take a more proactive role here, though for detecting plagiarism I prefer the idea of automated searches of all submitted dissertations/manuscripts against the literature as suggested by a previous poster.

          Anyway, my main point is that evaluating PhD candidates effectively and in a time-efficient manner is a difficult problem and some bad apples unfortunately will get through. Though there is always room for improvement, I don’t think it is right to jump to the conclusion that major universities are “Diploma Mills.”

    • S February 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      I agree, the strangest part of this is that the university was able to establish that the dissertation was plagiarized. I have a PhD in econ and committee members typically ask for revisions from the beginning of the process to the end.

      Typically, the adviser continues to work with the student if the student is in a tenure-track position. There is no mention of co-authors. Very odd.

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