Climate science critic Wegman reprimanded by one university committee while another finds no misconduct

The author of a controversial and now-retracted paper questioning the science of climate change has been reprimanded by his university for plagiarism. According to USA Today’s Dan Vergano, who broke the news:

[Edward] Wegman was the senior author of a 2006 report to Congress that criticized climate scientists as excessively collaborative, and found fault with a statistical technique used in two climate studies. Portions of the report analysis were published in the journal, Computational Statistics & Data Analysis, in a 2008 study.

University of Massachusetts professor Raymond Bradley filed a complaint against Wegman in 2010, noting that portions of the report and the CSDA study appeared lifted from one of his textbooks and from other sources, including Wikipedia. CSDA later retracted the study, noting the plagiarism, last year.

Here’s the explicit retraction notice:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and co-Editors, as it contain portions of other authors’ writings on the same topic in other publications, without sufficient attribution to these earlier works being given. The principal authors of the paper acknowledged that text from background sources was mistakenly used in the Introduction without proper reference to the original source. Specifically, the first page and a half of the article (pp. 2177–2178) contain together excerpts from Wikipedia (first paragraph), Wasserman and Faust’s “Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications” (pp. 17–20) ISBN 10: 0-521-38707-8; ISBN 13: 978-0-521-38707-1. Publication Date: 1994, and W. de Nooy, A. Mrvar and V. Bategelj’s “Exploratory Social Network Analysis with Pajek”” (pp. 31, 36, 123, and 133) ISBN 10: 0-521-60262-9; ISBN 13: 978-0-521-60262-4. Publication Date: 2005.

The scientific community takes a strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.

One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. The re-use of material, without appropriate reference, even if not known to the authors at the time of submission, breaches our publishing policies.

That constituted misconduct, according to one George Mason committee. From a letter signed by provost Peter Stearns:

Concerning the Computational Statistics article, the relevant committee did find that plagiarism occurred in contextual sections of the article, as a result of poor judgment for which Professor Wegman, as team leader, must bear responsibility. This also was a unanimous finding. As sanction, Professor Wegman has been asked to apologize to the journal involved, while retracting the article; and I am placing an official letter of reprimand in his file. Finally, because of the nature of the offense and its impact on the University, I am issuing this public statement. I believe that given the details in the committee report, these sanctions are appropriate to the nature and level of misconduct involved.

However, the work on the Congressional report did not constitute misconduct, according to Stearns’ letter: 

The committee investigating the congressional report has concluded that no scientific misconduct was involved. Extensive paraphrasing of another work did occur, in a background section, but the work was repeatedly referenced and the committee found that the paraphrasing did not constitute misconduct. This was a unanimous finding.

You can read more at USA Today, including comments from Bradley, who filed the complaint.

Something else in Stearns’ letter caught our eye. He writes:

While University actions to this point have been confidential, as our policy properly stipulates, the case has received wide publicity from other sources, however inappropriately. The University has been publicly criticized for its failure to render judgment and even for not caring much about the charges. While our procedure is indeed prolonged, in part because of federal requirements and in part to assure due process, any implication of lack of concern is entirely misplaced.

We are, of course, always pushing for universities to release the full results of their investigations, particularly when taxpayer dollars are involved, as they are here. So we’d urge George Mason to reconsider.

It’s worth looking at the actual rules that govern misconduct proceedings, however, something we’ve been meaning to do anyway. From our point of view, they’re a bit ambiguous. Here’s that section:

Sec.  93.108  Confidentiality.    

(a) Disclosure of the identity of respondents and complainants in research misconduct proceedings is limited, to the extent possible, to those who need to know, consistent with a thorough, competent, objective and fair research misconduct proceeding, and as allowed by law. Provided, however, that:   

(1) The institution must disclose the identity of respondents and complainants to ORI pursuant to an ORI review of research misconduct proceedings under Sec.  93.403.   

(2) Under Sec.  93.517(g), HHS administrative hearings must be open to the public.   

(b) Except as may otherwise be prescribed by applicable law, confidentiality must be maintained for any records or evidence from which research subjects might be identified. Disclosure is limited to those who have a need to know to carry out a research misconduct proceeding

Institutions that receive federal funding are required to submit what is known as an “assurance agreement,” which details how they will deal with misconduct allegations and investigations. When it comes to confidentiality, that agreement has to comply with the section above, at the very least. But how institutions define those who “need to know” is, by our read, left up to them. So if an institution doesn’t want to disclose much, which seems to be the case at George Mason, they can craft an assurance agreement that prohibits them from releasing their reports, and then call it a “federal requirement.”

Is that transparent? We’d welcome input from specialists in this area — it’s something we’ll be looking at more closely.

Hat tips: William Connolley, John Mashey, whose annotations of Stearns’ letter you can see here

13 thoughts on “Climate science critic Wegman reprimanded by one university committee while another finds no misconduct”

  1. See discussion at GMU contradictory decisions on Wegman: Plagiarism in CSDA, but not in 2006 congressional report, the Deep Climate blog where all this started.

    For a really quick reality check, see Deep Climate’s side-by side comparisons, cyan for identical, in-order text, yellow for trivial changes. Without knowing anything about the topics, I suspect most readers can from an opinion in 5 minutes by just opening each PDF and flipping through the pages.
    A: tree rings plus
    B: <a href=""<social networks

    Those are from the Wegman Report, which GMU decided had no plagiarism.
    The Computational Statistics and Data Analysis article, which is a1/3 subset of B and had already been retracted by Elsevier, over Wegman’s objections.

    Finally, for those familiar with VA AG Ken Cuccinelli’s efforts against U VA (raelted to the hockey stick which was the reason for the original Wegman Report), Wegman’s lawyer is a GMU J.D. who was Cuccinelli’s law partner. He assured everyone his clients had never engaged in plagiarism.

    On the other hand, see Chronology of alleged plagiarisms by Wegman and/or students.
    Basically, GMU agreed to [n], as already found by Elsevier.

  2. It is interesting, because according to GMU, Wegman as senior author was responsible for the plagiarism, but he is not judged to have committed plagiarism himself

    “plagiarism occurred in contextual sections of the (CSDA) article, as a result of poor judgment for which Professor Wegman, as team leader, must bear responsibility.” ”

    which raises the point of who did. Something that ORI or someone needs to clear up.

  3. I pointed out to GMU 3 other instances of plagiarism.

    A 1997 paper by Wegman et al. had taken a 200 words excerpt almost verbatim from a GMU PhD thesis – neither the thesis nor any other work by the PhD student was cited.

    A recent PhD thesis supervised by Wegman which had 20+ pages taken almost verbatim from other sources.

    A 2010 paper by Said, Wegman& Sharabati which contain slabs of text copies from several sources including Wikipedia. At least they managed to cut-and-paste Wikipedia correctly unlike the 2009 Said&Wegman paper which Andrew Gelman mocked for mangling a simple formula when cut-and-pasting text from Wikipedia.

    I gather from the USA Today report GMU will not take action in any of these cases. I can see minor issues with a forgotten 1997 paper aren’t worth pursuing. I doubt anyone cares much about the recent papers either – at least judging from theirlack of citations – but I thought cut-and-pasting from Wikipedia was sufficiently embarrassing that’d they follow up. I am really surprised that they apparently won’t do anything about Phd thesis with many copied pages – at least get a rewrite and resubmit.

    Wiley seems to have a similarly relaxed view of plagiarism, Wegman & Said are apparently still editors of WIREs Computational Statistics even though they published a paper in WIREs CS which not only copied Wikipedia but couldn’t even do it right.

  4. Ivan: At least for public institutions in states with strong public records laws, the reports pertaining to actual findings of scientific misconduct by investigators are readily available under those laws. Of course, adhering to federal regulations, the institution cannot release such reports until after the close of the investigation, which means that the findings must be concurred with by the federal Office of Research Integrity. If ORI does not concur, that means the investigation is ongoing and documents are withheld until its conclusion. The bottom line is that in cases where misconduct was found to occur, for these public institutions at least, the documents eventually become public. However, the process is usually very lengthy and the patience of both the media and the public is usually worn quite thin. But that is the price of due process.

  5. Wiley coverup: The great Wegman and Said “redo” to hide plagiarism and errors

    But in a shocking new development, it turns out that two problematic overview articles by Wegman and his protege and congressional report co-author Yasmin Said in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Computational Statistics (WIREs CS), have been completely revised. Those revisions saw the removal or rewriting of massive swathes of copy-and-paste scholarship, as well as correction of many errors identified by myself and others. In each case, the comprehensive revisions came “at the request of the Editors-in-Chief and the Publisher”, following complaints to Wiley alleging wholesale plagiarism. But Wegman and Said also happen to be two of the three chief editors of WIREs CompStat, thus raising compelling concerns of conflict of interest, to say the least.

    In fact, it is very clear that Wiley’s own process for handling misconduct cases was egregiously abused in favour of a face-saving “redo” manoeuvre. And this latest episode raises disturbing new questions about the role of the third WIREs CS editor-in-chief (and “hockey stick” congressional report co-author) David Scott, and indeed Wiley management itself, in enabling the serial misconduct of Wegman and Said.

  6. > citing articles in Computational Statistics

    A quite serious question — is there a way to cite the original vs. the changed papers?

    I see the journal has given up paper printed publication entirely as of this year, which facilitates such post-publiation revision.

    A proper way to refer to text in the original vs. the revised paper, for academic purposes, is needed for the original to be distinguished — years or decades from now, when memory has faded.

    How would a history of science paper discuss this, say if Dr. Weart were writing about the events?

  7. For a counterpoint:

    It appears the the plagiarized introduction/overview/boilerplate was not willful, merely lazy.

    To a disinterested third-party the solution would be to properly attribute the immaterial material thru an addendum.

    The reason for the retraction is puzzling. Being climate science, my guess is politics.

    Oh well, it’s just a matter of time. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

  8. I see nothing that says the content of Wegman’s report was wrong. Pure ad hominem smear. People focus on the use of text – which was well cited in the report – so that you won’t notice the content. Very typical in politics, and sadly, climate science has become all about politics.

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