“Our colleagues … will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity …” A note on a retraction notice

The editors of Vivarium, a leading journal in the history of philosophy, recently published a notice on the retraction of several articles. It comes as no surprise that there was much discussion of the case on social media. Alongside the shock about the incident, it was the retraction notice itself that drew attention of blogs and individual commenters. The gist was that they had done a good job in conscientiously documenting instances of alleged plagiarism and describing the “cut throat nature of academic life”, as Eric Schliesser put it in a timely post on the issue. In what follows, I want to confine myself to the nature of the retraction notice.

What struck me in this notice is an aspect that I would like to call the moral framing of the editorial work in opposition to much of the rest of academia. Here is the passage I have in mind:

“We do not enjoy performing our duty. For marginal fields such as those served by Vivarium, we have seen from experience that the damage wreaked by plagiarism extends to institutions, bringing vulnerable positions, departments, and institutes to the attention of administrators eager to let the rationale of collective punishment direct the evisceration of budgets in Social Sciences and the Humanities. Our colleagues in adjacent fields will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity to reallocate scarce resources in their favor, thereby ensuring that those who previously lost out to plagiarists in competition for fellowships and positions lose out once again.” (C. Schabel / W. Duba, Notice, Vivarium 2020, 257; italics mine)

What is contrasted here is the unpleasant “duty” of the editors with the, shall we say, moral recklessness of administrators and colleagues. Of course, we are familiar with tirades about academia. But this is a formal notice about the reasons for retraction, in a top journal of the discipline. The conscientious listing of passages that follows makes for a strange contrast to the allusions (“we have seen from experience”) and unverified accusations expressed here. For a journal that rightly prides itself on standards of scholarly evidence, this is not a good look. Let me point out two aspects:

  • Firstly, it might indeed be the case that there are “administrators” who could be quoted as having used measures of “collective punishment” in such cases. But do we have evidence about this? And is this really evidence about the “eagerness” of administrators or are we looking at an even more structural issue? Most importantly, what is the reason to point this out in the given context? Does it serve to heighten the blameworthiness of what is being documented?
  • Secondly, I wonder about the reference to “our colleagues”. Since I am a specialist in the pertinent “marginal field”, the expression “our colleagues” should extend to my colleagues. The phrasing according to which they “will seize upon public cases” amounts to a prediction of their behaviour. Have my academic colleagues done such things? Are they likely to do such things? I know that people say all sorts of bad things on Twitter and I know that academia is competitive, but nothing I heard about such cases would bear testimony to the supposed behaviour. Again, would it not be apt to provide at least some evidence for this prediction?

Thus, we might say that the notice has a twofold structure: on the one hand, it outlines the passages and reasons for retraction; on the other hand, it frames this outline in a wider context of academic practices and moral standards. But while the outline fulfils good scholarly standards, the adjacent framing appeals to undocumented experience or hearsay. It is especially this latter part that strikes me as problematic, not least because it treats sociological assumptions about the current academic context as something that does not require reliable evidence.  

2 thoughts on ““Our colleagues … will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity …” A note on a retraction notice

  1. You demand scientific rigor and evidence for the claims made. In principle I would agree with these demands. But the sad reality is that the academic system is very good at stifling such research . Who is going to do it, when grant agencies don’t incentivise it, and when researchers themselves are kept too occupied due to the publish-or-perish mentality, and when universities simply refuse to cooperate with the few studies that are being done?

    Heck, precisely *your* university has been refusing to cooperate with a large study on scientific misconduct vis a vis the publish-or-perish mentality. Isn’t that exactly the research you are demanding? I don’t think it’s fair to criticize others for the lack of evidence, when your own university is undermining such research from taking place.

    And given all these constraints:
    How fair is it to demand rigorous evidence, when the system is set up to make it near impossible for anyone inside of it to perform the research you demand? Not just with this specific topic, but also when it comes to mental wellbeing, scientific misconduct, hiring practices, etc.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s true that it’s difficult to conduct such research. While this doesn’t mean that there is no such research, it is true that work lending itself to criticism often seems to be discouraged.

      That said, lack of pertinent evidence does not free anyone from the need of giving reasons or at least *some* evidence for claims, especially when these claims concern the behaviour of groups of people. Otherwise one could start spreading all sorts of abuse and justify oneself by pointing to lack of proper evidence.

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