Changing the Climate of Authorship

The following paper was my midterm exam for a class on contested authorship. I thought the subject (which my professor chose) was fascinating. I usually try to avoid posting controversial things about people who are still “out there,” but I thought this was a worthwhile endeavor in thinking about why we cast blame where we do and how we might think differently.

***

When the story of a climate science plagiarism scandal recently broke into mainstream media via USA Today’s ScienceFair blog, it did so under the headline “University investigating prominent science climate critic” (Vergano). This story refers to the offending document as the “Wegman report” throughout, as do other sites reporting on the incident (Vergano; Littlemore; “Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up”; Grinzo). In fact, this document—officially titled the Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘Hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction—is uniformly referred to as the Wegman report, and all the sources I reviewed attributed the authorship of the piece to Dr. Edward Wegman of George Mason University. All this, despite the fact that “This report was authored by Edward J. Wegman, George Mason University, David W. Scott, Rice University, and Yasmin H. Said, The Johns Hopkins University” (Wegman, Scott, Said 1). Thus, the contested nature of the authorship of this document is clear upon even a cursory examination. (It is worth noting that I will refer to the document that spawned this controversy as Wegman, Scott, and Said’s report, in order to acknowledge all listed authors.)  In the following pages, I will demonstrate how this text has been taken up in terms of originality, autonomy, ownership, morality, credit, and identity. I will also show how these tenets, in relation to authorship, are moving issues of plagiarism from institutional and disciplinary arenas to cultural and legal ones, which has implications for the larger scope of how we think about authorship today.

As our course readings have suggested, the historical trend of Western societies in the last few centuries has been toward individual authorship rights that equate texts to property (Rose; Woodmansee and Jaszi; Howard). In addition, we have seen that plagiarism is often described within the framework of a theft metaphor (Robillard). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that one of the comments recorded by Vergano in the USA Today story comes from Raymond Bradley, who wrote the book (Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary) that Wegman is accused of plagiarizing. Bradley said—twice, in the space of just three sentences—that his work had been “lifted.” Lifting, in the context Bradley is using it, stands in for stealing, as in shoplifting. Stealing is a moral issue, and Bradley is appealing to the general public, making this an issue of what a particular culture deems acceptable. In other words, Bradley is appealing to a cultural sense of ownership of texts; he is telling readers of USA Today that Wegman stole his intellectual property. (This point is mapped onto section D3 of the chart in Appendix A.)

Ownership goes hand-in-hand with credit. As discussed above, the credit for authorship of the report—as put forth by the report itself—should (based on standard scholarly convention) go to Wegman, Scott, and Said. Nevertheless, everyone talking about the report online seems to insist on calling the Wegman, Scott, and Said text “the Wegman report.” Even John R. Mashey, who authored the follow-up report that raised concerns of plagiarism in the Wegman, Scott, and Said report, refers to that document as the “Wegman Report” in his very first sentence. Mashey uses the term in quotation marks, clearly aware that Wegman is not the sole author—as evidenced by his naming all three authors before the end of the same sentence—but just as clearly aware of the importance of referring to the report by its name in popular culture. This evidences the importance, both in academic and popular culture, of attributing credit—authorship—in particular ways. (This point is mapped onto section D5 of the chart in Appendix A.)

In fact, credit is popularly seen as a moral issue. Bradley, along with reporters on the case, framed plagiarism as a situation with a transgressor and a victim; the transgressor, then, is the immoral criminal. Bradley wrote a letter to Wegman’s institution, George Mason University, “demanding an investigation” of the report in question. GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch and the university’s misconduct policy both affirmed this rhetoric in the USA Today article, using judicial terms including “inquiry,” “misconduct,” “allegation,” and “investigation.” The “Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up” article refers to “the depths to which Edward Wegman stooped,” “circumstantial evidence,” and “integrity.” Littlemore talks about “manipulation” and suggests that “it is reasonable to ask whether Barton, Wegman, et al., are guilty of misleading Congress, a felony offense” (emphasis mine). It is clear that Bradley and these reporters (I use the term loosely, to include independent and anonymous bloggers) are working within and capitalizing on an understanding of plagiarism as a moral issue, to the point of literally criminalizing it. This foregrounds a move from cultural condemnation to legal repercussions, shown especially by Littlemore’s reference to a possible felony offense as defined by the U.S. judicial system. (These points are mapped onto section D4 and E4 of the chart in Appendix A.)

But official sanctions in regard to Wegman’s plagiarism may also be taken at the institutional level. While it was Mashey who first suggested legal implications (33), it was George Mason University that took up this rhetoric and put the term “investigation” into the mainstream USA Today article. In the article, Walsch said the incident is “under a formal investigation by the university, and has moved past a preliminary ‘inquiry’ to a committee effort.” Walsch also explained that GMU is dealing with the situation under protocols from the school’s misconduct policy, which certainly frames the issue as a moral one. The implication, of course, is that GMU will pass a moral judgment and will subsequently either absolve or punish Wegman. (This point is mapped onto section B4 of the chart in Appendix A.)

Originality and autonomy are perhaps constituent pieces of anti-plagiarism arguments based on morality. Originality, especially, is an important part of the cultural makeup we assign to our identities as Americans. In the USA Today article, Bradley said, “Talk about irony. It just seems surreal (that) these authors could criticize my work when they are lifting my words.” In other words, Bradley finds it especially insulting to his own sense of authorship that others calling themselves authors would not only take his words, but use those words against him. Bradley is annoyed that someone who would so confrontationally criticize his work would also “lift” it—thereby paying it an inherent compliment—which, in Bradley’s eyes, undercuts the criticism. If another author is going to criticize Bradley’s work, he seems to say, they should at least possess the originality to do it in their own words. (This point is mapped onto section D1 of the chart in Appendix A.)

Furthermore, in reappropriating words without attribution, the plagiarist(s) complicated his/their “victim’s” autonomy. Bradley’s words were no longer saying what he intended them to say; his work was violently co-opted. This could be thought of as a sort of silencing; should this go unpunished, writers/scholars might fear that any words they write will be twisted back on themselves. This result of such a belief might be a cultural silencing of scholarship. Interestingly, the usual reaction to plagiarism is to reduce the autonomy of the accused plagiarist—in this case, Wegman—in an attempt to restore the autonomy of the “victims” of plagiarism. Historically, we have seen that charges of plagiarism can result in intellectuals losing tenure and other memberships in scholarly communities. This results in difficulty in publishing, speaking, and generally in being heard. It takes away the autonomy of the accused plagiarist. (This point is mapped onto section D2 of the chart in Appendix A.)

Scholarly and cultural identity arise as important issues when considering the implications of the scandal for Wegman’s career, whether or not he is ultimately found to be “guilty” by any official institutions. It quickly becomes clear that the use of hyperlinks in USA Today story cements Wegman as the “real” author. (This point is mapped onto section D6 of the chart in Appendix A.) The first time Wegman is mentioned is in this context: “In 2006, GMU statistics professor, Edward Wegman, spearheaded a Congressional committee report critical of scientists’ reconstructions of past climate conditions . . . ” (hyperlinks from original purposely maintained). The issue of eliding the report’s collective scholarship comes up again here, since both of the hyperlinks shown in the quote above lead to Wegman’s biography page. In fact, Scott and Said are not named in the story, and their names do not come up as a result of any of the hyperlinks in the story—with one exception. (Interestingly, the “Wegman report” itself is not hyperlinked to the story.)  That exception comes with the linked text “plagiarism and misconduct charge” in the story’s first sentence, which goes directly to a PDF file of Mashey’s critical report on the Wegman, Scott, and Said report. As mentioned above, it is clear that Mashey has a handle on the actual authorship of the piece. Other than this exception, the ways that hyperlinks are used in this article paints a picture of a lone scholar whose authorship is the only authorship being contested.

This hyperlink to Mashey’s report is also an important move because it essentially frames Mashey as the precipitator of the entire scandal. Since Mashey published this report on the anonymously authored Deep Climate blog, we can read that it was intended for a discinplinary audience. Not surprisingly, much of what Mashey does in the first few pages of his report depends on scholarly/disciplinary conventions of authorship. Indeed, Mashey makes some interesting rhetorical choices in terms of constructing authorship, and part of his analysis of the Wegman, Scott, and Said report puts a fascinating new spin on the entire situation. In the second paragraph of the 250-page Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report: A Façade for the Climate Anti-Science PR Campaign, Mashey gets to the heart of the authorship issue:

Much of the work was done by Said (then less than 1 year post-PhD) and by students several years pre-PhD. The (distinguished) 2nd author Scott wrote only a 3-page standard mathematical Appendix.  Some commenters were surprised to be later named as serious reviewers. Comments were often ignored anyway. People were misused. (Mashey 1)

Rather than forgetting or ignoring Scott and Said’s authorship, as does nearly everyone else discussing the case, Mashey delves right into directly addressing whose authorship is at stake. He also contests the authorship of others involved in the report in new ways. He begins by noting that Said had not had her PhD for very long at the time the report was published, with the unstated implication that this undermines the credibility of the report. He then says that a number of students who did not yet have PhDs were majorly involved in the writing of the report, again intimating that the report’s real authors were not excellent scholars. Mashey flips the usual scenario, contesting the authorship of the report by affirming the authorship—but not the credibility—of those who are unnamed or not named first in the report’s byline. (This point is mapped onto section C5 of the chart in Appendix A.)

Next, in an intriguing twist, Mashey goes on to somewhat absolve Scott by saying that Scott only wrote a small part of the offending report, and even describes Scott as “distinguished” in a parenthetical aside. Ironically, Mashey is contesting Scott’s authorship and, in so doing, promoting a view of Scott as moral, as innocent, as a victim of others’ failings. (This point is mapped onto section C4 of the chart in Appendix A.) In the same vein, Mashey points out that others were duped along with Scott; these people were not expecting to have their names attached to this report; they were not expecting to be invested with the responsibility that comes with authorship. The final, stark sentence in this paragraph—“People were misused”—makes it clear that Mashey is casting a moral judgment on those who flouted disciplinary convention and tricked Scott, the reviewers, and the readers of this report.

But Mashey is not the only one to address issues of authorship even within the primary texts associated with this scandal. In fact, Wegman, Scott, and Said were the first to contest the authorship of others, and they did so in the very text of the Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction. On page 5, the authors give four recommendations, the second of which includes a call for “a more comprehensive and concise policy on disclosure” related to federally funded research. (In an aside, they also reference “intellectual property” in this paragraph, thereby drawing upon the property/theft metaphor previously explored.) This may be intimating at bias on the parts of the scholars whose work Wegman, Scott, and Said are refuting.

The scholars Wegman, Scott, and Said are preparing to undermine most notably include Dr. Michael Mann, Dr. Raymond Bradley (the same Raymond Bradley from whose work this report allegedly plagiarized), and Dr. Malcolm Hughes. On page 7, Wegman, Scott, and Said explain that letters were sent to Mann, Bradley, and Hughes about their work prior to the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee. The content of these letters is not explained, but Wegman, Scott, and Said do note that Mann’s response demonstrated “a confrontational tone” (7). They go on to blatantly cast doubt on the credibility of Mann, Bradley, and Hughes by including in the report a section entitled “Requests to Drs. Mann, Bradley, and Hughes” (8). These “requests”—which include curriculum vitae, disclosures of financial support and political agreements, location of data, and explanation for refusing to admit study results to the public domain—are a clear attempt to suggest these authors were not qualified to do the work they did (8). The combination of Wegman, Scott, and Said’s attack on Mann’s tone in personal communications and attacks on the scholarly identities of all three researchers represents a rather violent case of contested authorship. (This point is mapped onto section C6 of the chart in Appendix A.) At this point, it has become extremely clear that layers upon layers of contested authorship are at work in the situation involving the so-called “Wegman report.”

In the opening of this essay, I described how popular culture has taken up the issue of plagiarism in the Wegman, Scott, and Said report as a reflection on the authorship and credibility of only the first-named author. This move to make Wegman responsible for authorship of the Wegman, Scott, and Said report is perhaps a reflection of a cultural desire to move toward authorship rights that make texts the same as property. Such a move would allow us, as a society, to firmly assign responsibility for texts—that responsibility being either praise or blame, as necessary—without worrying about the complications of remixing or of collaborative authorship that are, in reality, the way texts are composed.

Whatever the reason for the privileging of Wegman’s authorship over Scott and Said’s, this situation foregrounds an ironic reversal. To use the language of the popular metaphor, the authors of the report stole Bradley’s work so that they might receive more credit for being groundbreaking writers and researchers. Wegman allowed himself, as first author, to be invested with sole cultural authorship of the text. Now that the report has been exposed as a product of plagiarism, it’s entirely likely that Wegman would like a little less of the authorship he has been invested with. The very sense of authorship that once set him up as an authority now brands him as a plagiarist.

Another ironic reversal comes with the mainstreaming of this story. In “Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up,” the anonymous author notes that “the ScienceFair blog at USA Today has posted on it, so it’s probably going to reach ‘mainstream’ status soon.” This mainstream status adds another layer (or more) of authorship questions to the situation. For example, much of this essay has focused on how online reporters have taken up the issue. In addition, mainstreaming casts the entire event in a new light because of the additional effects of major public attention. I return to Bradley’s use of the theft metaphor, when he said his work had been “lifted,” as an example. If we think about this wording as a body metaphor, in the tradition of George Lakoff’s work, we find a new perspective. Lifting involves elevating something to a higher place, which, it seems, is what Wegman has done for Bradley’s work. In addition to invoking “lifting” as in stealing, Bradley may as well have meant it as in the bodily derived metaphor of elevating. Given the story’s growing cultural capital in national media now, one might think Wegman did Bradley a favor by gaining public attention for his work. Bradley will no doubt gain fame—and perhaps even fortune—as a result of the “Wegman report” scandal. Wegman, meanwhile, will likely carry the stigma of plagiarism, by himself—for no one except me is calling it the Wegman, Scott, and Said report—for the rest of his academic life. The shift that invests Wegman as sole author and the visible concentration (in the chart in Appendix A) of authorship issues in the cultural realm suggest a movement within modern Western society to a high valuing of individual authorship. I suggest that this movement begins in the public sphere and is now echoing in institutional and disciplinary areas, as shown by the Wegman scandal.

Works Cited

Bradley, Raymond S. Paleoclimatology Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary. Amsterdam, u.a.: Elsevier, 2008. Print.

Grinzo, Lou. “The Wegman Report.” The Cost of Energy. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://www.grinzo.com/energy/index.php/2010/10/08/the-wegman-report/&gt;.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex Pub., 1999. Print.

Lakoff, George. The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-century Politics with an 18th-century Brain. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.

Littlemore, Richard. “Wegman’s Report Highly Politicized – and Fatally Flawed.” DeSmogBlog | Clearing the PR Pollution That Clouds Climate Science. Kevin Grandia, 8 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <http://www.desmogblog.com/wegmans-report-highly-politicized-and-fatally-flawed&gt;.

Mashey, John R. Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report: A Façade for the Climate Anti-Science PR Campaign. Report. Vol. 1. Deep Climate: Exploring Climate Science Disinformation in Canada, Sept. 26 2010. < http://deepclimate.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/strange-scholarship-v1-02.pdf >.

Robillard, Amy. “Pass It On: Revising the Plagiarism Is Theft Metaphor.” JAC 29.1-2 (2009): 405-35. Print.

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: the Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Vergano, Dan. “University Investigating Prominent Climate Science Critic – Science Fair: Science and Space News – USATODAY.com.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2010. <http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2010/10/wegman-plagiarism-investigation-/1&gt;.

Wegman, Edward J., David W. Scott, and Yasmin H. Said. Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction. Washington, DC: United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2006. Print.

“Wegman Plagiarism Scandal Heating up.” The Way Things Break. 8 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/wegman-plagiarism-scandal-heating-up/&gt;.

Woodmansee, Martha, and Peter Jaszi. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.

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10 responses to “Changing the Climate of Authorship

  1. (Google Alerts brought me here).

    I am impressed by your exposition in a mid-term essay regarding a complex web of involved texts. I hope you got a good grade, as you did a fine analysis based on information plausibly available outside those involved in this more directly. Oddly, I suspect the whole mess will become the subject of additional scholarly studies.

    I do offer a few notes, including some additional notes on authorship. If you are not completely tired of this, most can be looked up in “Strange Scholarship…” (SSWR). In addition, this case has more information that is currently confidential, but will likely become public fairly soon.

    For example, one question no one seems to have asked is why I seemed so sure that Scott had relatively little to do with this document. Of the numerous claims, that is one of the few that is both firm and not clearly sourced. [Obviously, I knew something confidential, but this might have been a tipoff to those familiar with Sherlock Holmes’ dogs that did not bark in the night.]

    1) AUTHORSHIP
    a) I observe that 2-author papers are usually called “X and Y”, but 3+-author papers “X, Y< and Z" rapidly become "X, et al" or just X. The NRC2006 report is often called the "North report", despite the fact that many worked on it. The lead author often gets the label. At Bell Labs, we always listed authors alphabetically, a practice with plusses and minuses.

    b) The original paper was by Mann, Bradley, and Hughes, but most of the attacks in the Wegman report were directed to Mann. This selection of one person is a tactic, called Meme-d in SSWR. Similar attackees included Ben Santer from 1995- (IPPCC), and Phil Jones (2009-) for "climategate."

    The "requests" are the actual letters from Barton & Whitfield to MBH. From other experienced, these were designed to intimidate and harass people, not so much to denigrate them. This is akin to the current efforts of Virginia AG Ken Cuccinelli. In 2005, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) Pushed back very hard against Barton & Whitfield.

    c) However, Wegman was different. He was clearly the senior author, as well as the lead author, and the one who organized this effort. Yasmin Said (and Yasmin is she) was a young PhD with zero relevant experience in paleoclimate. In fact, no one involved had any such experience and they avoided talking to anyone who did.

    d) Wegman was the only one of the authors to testify of several days. Nobody even remembers seeing Scott in Washington. He followed up with other talks.

    e) As I said many times, the anonymous Deep Climate really found the original plagiarism problems.

    2) PLAGIARISM
    a) Plagiarism is merely the easiest of academic misconducts to see. SSWR alludes to fabrication as well, but that can be arguable and in particular, can sometimes be hard to distinguish versus serious incompetence. For simplicity, Bradley did not go into this. Much more effort and more domain expertise is required to judge fabrication.

    b) The potential felony issue is not that of the plagiarism itself, but that the Wegman Report was heavily promoted as "independent, unbiased, expert" work by a team of "eminent statisticians."

    The rampant plagiarism in this case was an attempt to establish expertise when none existed, as oppose to claiming credit for inventing something, i.e., it was undergrad-level mechanics. Scott was added on to make it look more credible. Given the pervasive problems in the report, it was an organized attempt to mislead Congress, which is where the felony allegations come from. (And yes, I had some lawyers comment.) Anyway, think of the plagiarism as the tip of the iceberg that caused us to go back and look harder. It turns out that there are many problems with the science and statistics as well, not all mentioned in SSWR.

    Had this been presented as a term paper by grad students unfamiliar with the field, I wouldn't have raised the felony issue. But constructing a sham for Congress is not a good idea if you get caught.

    c) If you check SSWR A.0, you will see the flow of plagiarisms. even experienced publishers say they haven't seen anything like it before. Academic misconduct experts I know say the same thing. As it happens, very senior academics are watching this very carefully, because George Mason University is handling this worse than I ever could have imagined, as will become clear in the near future, although Vergano's article alludes to it.

    3) LIFTING – here you are reaching, but you could not possibly have known so

    Ray Bradley was irked not just because they “lifted” his text, unattributed, but in fact, they often weakened his comments, and in several cases, actually directly contradicted his expert words. That is, they used his text to mimic expertise, but then changed it to say what they preferred. The mix of incompetence, misrepresentation and fabrication is arguable.)

    Actually Ray is quite famous in science circles and is happy just getting on with science and teaching, not the sort to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. His book is a classic text, really.

    You could not possibly have known this, but he actually kept this quiet for much longer than most people would have. He even offered not to pursue the issue if they would withdraw the paper.

    The original complaint was in March. Vergano printed a letter from July. As of last week, George Mason had seemingly not been able to complete the “inquiry” phase, which basically requires checking a few pages of side-by-side comparisons.

    Credible universities would finish that in a few days. GMU is now over 7 months, and when more letters and emails appear, people will find them hard to believe.

    Cheers and keep up the good work.

  2. Dr. Mashey,

    Thank you very much for your comments, and for your kindness with my work. I’m excited to see how this issue plays out, especially now that you’ve hinted at a couple of things that may come to light later and give me–and other scholars who, as you suggest, will no doubt take this up–new perspectives.

    Erin

    For the record: I edited the original post above to reflect the correct sex of Yasmin Said after Dr. Mashey observed my error.

  3. You are certainly welcome. Thoughtful, articulate students should always be encouraged.

  4. Just another small comment, part of the issue is that the words “inquiry,” “misconduct,” “allegation,” and “investigation.” have specific formal meanings in the context of research misconduct investigations. For example, an inquiry must be preliminary to an investigation, and may or may not result in the more serious investigation stage. Vergano used them with some precision, but perhaps not with enough explanation

  5. And one more: an example of how not to run a misconduct investigation:

    http://www.desmogblog.com/gmu-paralyzed-plagiarism-investigation

  6. Pingback: Questioning Teh Artistic Process 00-01 « how to play Big Science

  7. John Mashey

    Since I haven’t forgotten you nice essay…
    And finally (not quite), a Wegman paper is being retracted, as seen in USA Today, Wegman having tried to fight it by throwing an ex-student under the bus, where she refused to stay,.

    http://www.desmogblog.com/mashey-report-reveals-wegman-manipulations

    Put your coffee down and see a good counter-example of proper supervision of PhD students.

  8. Thanks, Dr. Mashey, for keeping me updated and for your pursuit of academic integrity. I have to agree with the commenter “Rob” in the link you posted … Where is the outrage in the wider public sphere?

    For those interested, here’s a bit from USA Today, including an interesting update at the end on the ex-student.

    http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2011/05/retracted-climate-critics-study-panned-by-expert-/1

  9. John Mashey

    We keep trying, it has been a hard slog, but progress happens.
    In this case (regarding student Denise Reeves), this is widely interpreted as Wegman trying to throw her under the bus, but she won’t go. Obviously, Elsevier didn’t buy this.

    You might want to see:
    http://deepclimate.org/2011/05/15/wegman-and-said-2011-part-2/
    but don’t worry about details (the 2 posts are long).

    There’s a long plagiarism chain from 2002, then in 2011, Wegman and Said turn the material into an article for a journal they edit.