A Private Matter Goes Public

Dispute over alleged plagiarism between 2 Penn scholars, settled quietly over the summer, is aired anew.
October 6, 2005

A few months ago, a publishing dispute between two sociologists at the University of Pennsylvania was settled the way many such disagreements are in academe: internally and quietly. But an e-mail sent last week by a retired professor in the sociology department has thrust the dispute over alleged plagiarism into the public eye, much to the dismay of Penn administrators and those involved.

Recreating exactly what happened, and why, is difficult, because most of the parties are reluctant to talk about it -- and in fact agreed not to as part of the mediated settlement reached over the summer. But it went something like this:

Last March, the University of California Press published Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin, an assistant professor of sociology at Penn, and Maria Kefales, an assistant professor at Saint Joseph's University. 

Some time soon after that, Elijah Anderson, a senior sociologist and fellow researcher on poverty at Penn, approached her with what the chairman of the sociology department, Paul D. Allison, describes as a "disagreement" about her book, reportedly citing concerns that its ideas bore a strong resemblance to those in two of Anderson's previous works.

"Over the summer," Allison said in a prepared statement, "they repeatedly discussed the issues that separated them and they eventually resolved their differences privately. Although not a direct participant in their discussions, I was in frequent contact with Edin and Anderson during that time, and I know that they worked very hard to reach an amicable resolution of the issues. At the time, all parties expressed full satisfaction with their agreement."

In an interview Wednesday, the dean of Penn's School of Arts and Sciences, Rebecca Bushnell, said that the department had followed the procedures laid out publicly in Penn's faculty handbook for resolving disputes that, as she put it, "fall into the broad category of [alleged] misconduct in research."

Bushnell and Allison both emphasized that no formal complaints were filed, which would have resulted in a more formal process involving the Faculty Senate. The deliberations were mediated, Bushnell said, although "I can't discuss who was there," but "it was very conscientiously and thoroughly handled, and, as far as I was concerned, settled."

But apparently not as far as Harold Bershady was concerned. Bershady, an emeritus professor who retired in 2002, sent an e-mail last week on an internal listserv for the sociology department, in which, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian -- which first reported on the situation -- he accused Edin of taking ideas and concepts from Anderson's work "practically wholesale."

The Daily Pennsylvanian, which received a copy of Bershady's memo, quoted him as calling for a "full and frank public accounting" of the dispute. Anything less, he said, will "serve to heighten suspicion over and cast further doubt on the scholarly integrity of the department and the University." 

It was not clear how much Bershady knows or knew about the mediated agreement reached between Edin and Anderson, and he did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages seeking comment. Anderson also could not be reached, and Edin, when contacted, declined to comment. (The agreement between the two scholars included a confidentiality clause.)

In the statement he released Wednesday, Allison, the department chair, said that "after sending his e-mail message, Professor Bershady told me that he knew about the agreement but decided, for reasons that are unclear to me, to make his charges anyway."

Allison added: "The Department of Sociology stands behind the scholarship of Professor Edin and Professor Anderson, both of whom we regard as extremely valuable colleagues. We hope that they can look past the unwarranted and unnecessary attention that has been devoted to this issue and will remain at Penn for many years to come."

Bushnell, who said she learned that the dispute had reemerged only when she read the student newspaper on Monday, said the question of whether it is appropriate for cases of alleged plagiarism and other disputes to be resolved in private depends largely on "what is at stake," and "whether it's a matter of public issue or a private one." This case, Bushnell said, seemed to be a private dispute, not an issue of public moment.

She said she was surprised and distressed that a matter that seemed to have settled out of the public eye -- and to everyone's satisfaction -- had been thrust back into it with the sending of one e-mail. "I had felt this was a case in which we saw the system work in resolving the issue," she said. "I'm sorry that it had to come out this way. It's unfortunate."


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