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Publicizing (Alleged) Plagiarism

October 22, 2012

The varied effects of the Internet age on the world of academic research are well-documented, but a website devoted solely to highlighting one researcher’s alleged plagiarism has put a new spin on the matter.

The University of California at Berkeley has begun an investigation into allegations of plagiarism in professor Terrence Deacon’s book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, largely in response to the website created about the supposed problems with Deacon’s book. In Incomplete Nature, Deacon, the chair of Berkeley's anthropology department, melds science and philosophy to explain how mental processes, the stuff that makes us human, emerged from the physical world.

The allegations are not of direct, copy-and-paste plagiarism, but of using ideas without proper citation. In a June review in The New York Review of Books, Colin McGinn, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, writes that ideas in Deacon’s book draw heavily on ideas in works by Alicia Juarrero, professor emerita of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College who earned her Ph.D. at Miami, and Evan Thompson, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, though neither scholar is cited, as Thompson also notes in his own review in Nature.

McGinn writes: “I have no way of knowing whether Deacon was aware of these books when he was writing his: if he was, he should have cited them; if he was not, a simple literature search would have easily turned them up (both appear from prominent presses).”

That is an argument Juarrero and her colleagues Carl Rubino and Michael Lissack have pursued forcefully and publicly. Rubino, a classics professor at Hamilton College, published a book with Juarrero that he claims Deacon misappropriated, and that book was published by Lissack’s Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence. Juarrero, who declined to comment for this article because of the continuing investigation, is also a fellow of the institute.

Lissack, who has a history of whistle-blowing and of pursuing “justice” through electronic, vocal and sometimes off-putting means, has made himself an advocate for Juarrero, Rubino and others whose work he feels Deacon inappropriately used. He has created a website detailing every alleged instance of plagiarism and documenting e-mail correspondence among the involved parties, including Juarrero, Rubino, Deacon and the university. He has also launched a vigorous e-mail campaign, and has sent fervent e-mails to, he says, more than 1,500 faculty members at Berkeley. Staff members, students, administrators and state legislators have also received the e-mails.

His strategy comes off to some as a form of harassment, an issue that has gotten Lissack into legal trouble in the past, but it seems it has been effective, at least in pushing Berkeley to pursue the plagiarism claims. (Note: This article has been updated from a previous version to clarify the nature of Lissack's court history.)

Included in Lissack’s comprehensive record of the incident is an official letter from Berkeley to Juarrero, dated June 2012, announcing the opening of an official investigation into the plagiarism allegations. In the letter (meant to be confidential, per university policy in academic misconduct investigations), Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Price writes that Juarrero’s spreadsheet detailing overlaps between her book, Dynamics in Action, and Deacon’s book would not usually be sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation. But, he adds, “the continuing public dispute that your claims have generated lead me to believe that such an investigation is necessary in order to ‘clear the air.’ ”

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Price emphasized that the formation of an investigatory committee “does not in any way suggest that we have granted any validity to the claim.”

He noted, though, that in six years handling research misconduct accusations, he has never seen this kind of campaign, and he worries that the lack of confidentiality, normally a condition of these investigations, could in some way affect the process.

“Nobody has ever taken to the Internet to try and make a public issue of it,” he said.

Lissack, however, sees it as the only way to spark action.

“Academia has to be dragged over hot coals and left there to burn for a while before they’ll do anything,” he said.

Deacon is not too worried about the investigation; he says he was unaware of Juarrero’s work before he wrote his book (she contends the two of them met at a conference, and Lissack’s website features what he says is a picture of the two of them in the same place years prior to the publication of Incomplete Nature) and attributes the similarities to parallel thinking. What he’s more worried about is the way the allegations are being pursued.

“It’s a new kind of way to prosecute academic issues,” he said. “One way to get somebody’s work ignored or not studied would be to make a claim like this and make it incredibly public.”

The public nature of this whole ordeal has drawn out critics and supporters on both sides. There are those like McGinn who argue that the overlapping ideas cannot be mere coincidence, particularly since Juarrero presented many of the ideas at the conference where Deacon was said to have been in the audience. Then there are those like Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, whose ideas largely conflict with Deacon’s but who says the plagiarism charge “strikes me as completely bogus.”

“Every year thousands of academic books are published, and no one can be aware of everything that has been previously published relevant to one’s interests,” Pinker wrote in an e-mailed response to Inside Higher Ed. “Also, many ideas, when stated at a high level of generality, will inevitably occur to several people independently, and usually in different forms. The devil is in the details, and in this case it is clear that Deacon has worked out a theory that in no way is derivative of others’ approaches.”

The best way for the academic community to get to the heart of the matter, Deacon said, is to read the two books. He said he thinks the whole affair raises the chance for important academic discussion, but that Lissack’s methods have preempted attempts at civil discourse.

Lissack, meanwhile, is calling for a symposium on "emergence," the topic Juarrero, Rubino, and Deacon all study, albeit from different disciplines, as a way to rectify Deacon’s alleged mistakes. He insists that this is an opportunity for scholarly conversation, and acknowledges that what Deacon does with the allegedly borrowed ideas is new, but says the ideas themselves should have been cited and a symposium would be a way for the greater academic community to be exposed to all those concepts.

“I’m far more interested in having the symposium occur and the record fixed,” he said. “Professors should welcome the exchanges of ideas.”

Lissack contends this is not a personal vendetta or a way of advancing his own institute and journal, and notes he has received e-mails from scholars and from others at Berkeley supporting his cause and vilifying Deacon. The goal, he insists, is not an attack on one person, but to be sure academe is holding researchers to a high enough standard.

“Why is Berkeley giving a senior professor a pass? It sets a terrible example for students,” he said.

Berkeley’s investigative committee, made up of two people who are experts in fields related to Deacon’s and Juarrero’s books, has 120 days to review the evidence and generate a report.

 

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