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This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief and co-Editors, as it contain portions of other authors’ writings on the same topic in other publications, without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