The Cost of Whistle Blowing

A graduate student brings charges of bogus citations and plagiarism against a professor, and guess who loses her job?
April 4, 2005

Always check your research before you submit it to win an award.

Had a North Dakota State University professor done so, she might not be facing a messy misconduct investigation -- and the graduate student who first thought something was wrong with the professor's book might still have her job.

Instead, the university is currently reviewing an outside report it commissioned that found 14 instances of bogus citations and 5 instances of plagiarism in Profiting From the Plains: The Great Northern Railway and Corporate Development of the American West, published in 2003 by the University of Washington Press. The author of the book is Claire Strom, an assistant professor of history at North Dakota State and editor of the journal Agricultural History.

The journal has an annual prize, for which Suzzanne Kelley, a graduate student and then managing editor, was reviewing entries, including Strom's book. In an interview Sunday, Kelley said that she started to get an uneasy feeling about the book when a few citations didn't check out, and that led her to raise complaints with university officials.

Along the way, Kelley lost her job at the journal -- she says Strom forced her out, while university officials say that Kelley was moved to a comparable job elsewhere at the university because the two women were not getting along. (Kelley says that the pay and benefits are the same, but she lost a job with "an international journal in my field," for one without such prestige, or even an office.)

Craig Schnell, provost at North Dakota State, said that officials there decided to seek outside help in evaluating the allegations when it became clear that they were serious. The review was done by John R. Wunder, an expert on the American West who is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Wunder applied standards set by the American Historical Association.

Schnell said that a faculty committee is now reviewing Wunder's report and that it could recommend sanctions against Strom, up to dismissal. "When allegations such as this are made, it behooves us to do what we need to do to protect the integrity of all of the individuals involved," Schnell said.

Strom could not be reached for comment and did not return an e-mail message. She also did not return calls made to her by a local reporter who wrote about the situation. Schnell said he did not feel comfortable summarizing what Strom has told the university about the allegations, but he said that she has disputed the idea that she did anything wrong.

Pat Soden, director of the University of Washington Press, said Sunday that he had not heard about the allegations about Profiting From the Plains, and that he wasn't sure how the press would respond. He said that he would probably seek Strom's response and then consider what actions to take, but he said that in 34 years at the press, he couldn't think of a similar case.

The controversy about the book wouldn't be public at all, except for an unusual series of events. As part of her investigation, Kelley filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the university for some of Strom's e-mail messages. The university narrowed her search and also charged her for it, prompting Kelley to complain to the state's attorney general.

Wayne Stenehjem, the attorney general, issued an opinion last week backing Kelley, and his decision was posted on his Web site, alerting the news media to the controversy. An article in the Fargo Forum (free registration required) followed, in turn prompting commentary in University Diaries.


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