Thursday, August 10, 2006

It was the best of things, and it was the worst.....

A rather large hand grenade was thrown into the tent of academic bloggers this spring. While the pin has been pulled, few have noticed. I refer to the Committee Report on charges of research misconduct against Ward Churchill, and Colorado's Interim Chancellor's decision to fire him.

Churchill, is not an academic blogger, following ancient paths of pamphleteer and protester, and the more recent ones of displaying his wares on radio, TV and public stage. He is a provocateur, who enraged the public and politicians with his judgements about those who died in the World Trade Center. When charges of research dishonesty were brought against Churchill an investigative committee was formed and forced to confront issues which will directly impact academic bloggers (full disclosure, I am one). Their report and the conclusions they reached were both trenchent and biting.

Although the charges were brought under a policy which relates to research dishonesty, academic bloggers will ignore them at their considerable peril. These findings appear to me to be most binding on postings in one's area of expertise and research. Moreover, the closer the blog is tied to the academic institution, the greater the care that will be demanded, as will also be the case for blogs and bloggers that rely on their links to academic institutions for validation. That is the best of things. Unfortunately, the committee was unable to reach a consensus recommendation on what Churchill's penalty should be. This provided cover for the Interim Chancellor to follow the wishes of his political bosses, and simply fire Churchill.

Update: In the comments Robert points out that there were two committees. I am only talking about the report of the specialist committee which investigated the charges in detail. There standing academic misconduct committee recommended discharge (see Robert's comments for details)

That is the precedent folks. If I were a blogger anywhere in the UColorado system, I would become extremely aware of the report and the penalty, and the limits that it, and the report set on me. I say this not because I have had a difficult relationship with one (or two) of them, but because it is out there, a huge stick with which you can be beaten. Academic bloggers in Colorado are living in a "honor system", with only one penalty, dismissal. The Churchill case is about to give rise to a very public lawsuit, and any backing off of the dismissal standard will be a bloody red flag that the plaintiff will waive in court to show predjudice against Churchill. Those of us elsewhere have to understand this report and its relationship to what we do and say.

This rather long post concerns itself with the implications of the Churchill Report for academic bloggers both directly, and in terms of the irregular origins of the investigation itself. Those interested in the charges against Churchill can look at the report itself, or a series of articles in the Rocky Mountain News. The primary source is going to be the report itself, so references such as p.2, etc. refer to the page of the report as downloaded on the web.

The committee itself was explicitly aware of the political origins of the charges it was to investigate and the irregular nature of bringing them.

p.4....the Investigative Committee (“Committee”) notes its concern regarding the timing and, perhaps, the motives for the University’s decision to initiate these charges at this time. While the history of this matter is not before the Committee, it is well known that these charges were commenced only after Professor Churchill had published some highly controversial essays dealing with, among other things, the 9/11 tragedy. While not endorsing either the tone or the contents of those essays, the Committee reaffirms, as the University has already acknowledged, that Professor Churchill had a protected right to publish his views. In the Committee’s opinion, his right to do so was protected by both the First and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of free speech. The aggressive pursuit of knowledge cannot proceed unless scientists, social scientists, and other researchers are permitted—and indeed encouraged—to present alternative and sometimes heretical positions and to seek to defend them in the court of academic opinion.
This leads directly to a discussion of the purpose of academic freedom, which contains good and bad news for academic bloggers.
p.4 ..“‘Academic freedom’ is defined as the freedom to inquire, discover, publish and teach truth as the faculty member sees it, subject to no control or authority save the control and authority of the rational methods by which truth is established.” Thus, in conformity with the Regents’ Laws, the Committee understands its role as limited to determining academic misconduct under scholarly norms of research and does not conceive itself as an ultimate arbiter of the truth or falsity of the claims made by Professor Churchill that sparked some of these charges.
Note carefully the distinction between something being true or false and it being academically dishonest. Paraphrasing, the former is to be decided in the public and scholarly marketplace of ideas, the later is conduct which seeks to dishonestly influence the former and can result in censure and exile. This becomes very important, both in the report and its future impact on academic blogging and will clearly be an issue that extends to academics' blogs as well as their scholarly work (which appears increasingly on the net and which is increasingly discussed by academics on the net
p.5 ... the Committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation. The Committee’s disquiet regarding the timing of these allegations is exacerbated by the fact that the formal complainant in the charges before us is the Interim Chancellor of the University, despite the express provision in the Laws of the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado that faculty members’ “efforts should not be subjected to direct or indirect pressures or interference from within the university, and the university will resist to the utmost such pressures or interference when exerted from without.”3

Nevertheless, serious claims of academic misconduct have been lodged and they require full investigation and responsible and fair treatment.
and in a very important point for academic bloggers, they deal with the issue of Churchill having been targeted
p. 6 Professor Churchill’s national visibility as a controversial speaker and writer may have contributed to the attention given to his prior scholarship, we observe that such attention stems in part from his voluntarily becoming a national public figure.
and in a discussion of the nature of ethnic studies they put forth an important point that must be dealt with by contrarians among the academic blogging community
p. 7 Scholars in ethnic studies can and often do offer revisionary reappraisals of conventionally accepted social events and interpretations, but not by violating accepted norms of veracity.
Later, in a discussion of Churchills activities and qualifications, they define a public intellectual in a way that fits the blogging community
p. 8 In addition to his work within an academic setting, Professor Churchill functions as what has been termed “a public intellectual.” Public intellectuals address issues of concern to the broader community, providing background or suggesting solutions to difficult contemporary problems and often taking a stand about policy debates.
and use a statement of Churchill's to define the limits defined for a public intellectual who is a member of the academic community
p. 9 “Tailoring the facts to fit one’s theory constitutes neither good science nor good journalism. Rather, it is intellectually dishonest and, when published for consumption by a mass audience, adds up to propaganda.”
Here, clearly the committee agrees that such activity constitutes serious academic misconduct and deals with such misconduct in popular accouts:
p12...our Committee’s immediate charge was to establish whether the works he cites support his account and whether his statements were appropriately and accurately referenced. (Problems of that kind can lead to a finding of falsification.) In cases where the sources he cites do not support his claims, he is open to the charge of fabrication.
Further on, they raise another issue with respect to footnotes (or linking).
p 24..Not only is his statement unsupported by his source, but also more significantly, he did not follow the referencing convention that a lawyer or historian citing a lengthy statute for a particular detail normally would follow, which is to pinpoint the precise section number of the multi-section statute that supported his claim. As one will see throughout this report, this general reference to an apparent independent source in its entirety constitutes an unconventional referencing style frequently employed by Professor Churchill to create the appearance of independent support for his claims, while simultaneously discouraging or, at least, making far more difficult, any effort by other researchers to check his claims by failing to pinpoint the precise location of his claimed support in an otherwise lengthy work. Standing alone, this referencing failure might constitute some level of sloppiness, but certainly would not constitute research misconduct. When it is combined with a pattern of other misconduct reflected in this and other allegations, however, the Committee is left with a firm impression, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it constituted part of a deliberate research stratagem to create the appearance of independent verifiable support for claims that could not be supported through existing primary and secondary sources. To put it most simply, it was part of a pattern and consistent research stratagem to cloak extreme, unsupportable, propaganda-like claims of fact that support Professor Churchill’s legal and political claims with the aura of authentic scholarly research by referencing apparently (but not actually) supportive independent third-party sources. The next problem discussed with these two footnotes makes this stratagem far clearer.
Among non-academic public intellectuals, this appears to be a very common practice, viz. Ann Coulter, but there are many others.
p 35 The cited source offers no support for any of the three claims outlined above. This is not a matter of incomplete footnoting or lack of footnoting, but of misleading footnoting. It is simply false to assert that the pages cited from Salisbury’s work support the claims made in the relevant passages by Professor Churchill.
p96 We have also observed several instances in Professor Churchill’s work of a willingness to make claims about legislation or historical events not supported by the evidence he cites or by any other evidence the Committee could locate
In this context the committee comes to the issue of sock puppets
p. 24 The other two apparently independent third-party sources cited in footnotes 63 and 64 are essays published in the same volume, The State of Native America, one under the name of a person named Rebecca Robbins and the other under the name of M. Annette Jaimes, the editor of the volume.33 Since both essays do contain statements of the type that Professor Churchill claims, that might have put an end to the matter of research misconduct regarding this allegation, except for the fact that in response to the separate allegation that he had plagiarized the Robbins essay in another later published piece, Professor Churchill said in Submission E that he had in fact ghostwritten both the Robbins and the Jaimes essays, in full.
p. 25 Through legal counsel, both Rebecca Robbins and M. Annette Jaimes declined to speak with this Committee and, therefore, the Committee has no reason to doubt Professor Churchill’s claims, suspected by Professor LaVelle, that he personally authored both the Robbins and the Jaimes papers in their entirety and it so finds by a preponderance of the evidence. That finding, however, constitutes a serious problem of research misconduct.

p. 25 Were Professor Churchill a scientist, rather than a researcher engaged in social science research in ethnic studies, the equivalent would be (1) the misstatement of some underlying data (i.e., his mischaracterization of the General Allotment Act) and (2) the total fabrication of other data to support his hypothesis (i.e., the ghostwriting and self-citation of the Robbins and Jaimes essays).
By this reading academic bloggers who use sock puppets to buttress their arguments are engaging in misconduct. The committee then goes on to draw an important distinction
p. 25 The Committee is not claiming that Professor Churchill fabricated his general conclusions; rather, he fabricated the underlying data employed to support the insupportable details bolstering those conclusions.
In a discussion of further misrepresentation, the committee states
p. 32 We conclude that this misrepresentation was not scholarly error but serious research misconduct and part of a general pattern of such misconduct in support of his political views.
and goes on to conclude that it is damning that Churchill did not modify his views on a particular point even after it was conclusively shown that he was wrong
p. 33 Professor Churchill has thus not taken advantage of scholarly debate to arrive at an accurate presentation of this matter.
This should be a matter of particular interest to academics who post on the internet.

Another point which runs through the report is
p. 46 Professor Churchill is entirely free to present his own reading of the evidence.Like scholars in all fields, however, he is expected to present an account that is built upon and supported by that evidence.98
This is often referred to on the net as you are free to have your own opinion, but you are not free to have your own facts. The important point here is that insertion of your own facts into an argument is academic misconduct.

A summary of the issues in the Churchill case is
p. 96 We have also observed several instances in Professor Churchill’s work of a willingness to make claims about legislation or historical events not supported by the evidence he cites or by any other evidence the Committee could locate.234 A related pattern is the employment of vague or obfuscating citation and reference practices. More serious still is the pattern of citing one’s own work, disguised by its attribution to another living scholar in the same field, as authority for assertions and claims that lack independent support.235
and then deals with the important (to bloggers) issue of how responsible is one for checking ones sources (note this is a different issue than the one about policing comments which is not dealt with directly or indirectly in the committee report)
p. 96 Professor Churchill has, on more than one occasion, claimed that certain acts that appear to have been his were instead the responsibility of some other actor: his editor or publisher, his assistant, or his former wife and collaborator. In some cases we have not found these claims credible; in others we were unable to arrive at a judgment about their veracity. But apart from their plausibility, we have come to see these claims as emblems of a recurrent refusal to take responsibility for errors (whether or not abetted by some other person’s act or omission), and a willingness to blame others for his troubles. In our view, this repeated behavior bears on a proper judgment about the seriousness of his misconduct.
This appears to me to require that if you link to another blog or source to support your argument you have some reason to believe that the information is correct. And finally we come to the end with these words
p. 96 If there is one crucial pattern that most affects our assessment, however, it is a pattern of failure to understand the difference between scholarship and polemic, or at least of behaving as though that difference does not matter.

p. 97 This conception of the obligations of the scholar is, to say the least, impoverished. It cannot be denied that each of us brings to the enterprise of scholarship certain pre-existing commitments and beliefs, as well as certain favored methodologies and organizing principles. It is impossible not to hope to find confirmation for what one has come to believe. But as a scholar, one must “look” not only to confirm one’s hopes, but also to face the possibility that the evidence may disconfirm them. And even if one finds more evidence for the truth of one’s beliefs than evidence against them, all of the evidence must be acknowledged and treated fairly. Some of the patterns of conduct discussed in this report represent significant departures from these bedrock principles of scholarship.

Of course, every scholar makes mistakes. No one is perfect, and few scholars have records free from an occasional error. The standards of our profession encourage the acknowledgement and correction of such errors (although, as Professor Churchill has pointed out to us, some scholars whose work has been exposed as erroneous have continued to write, teach, and work without much hindrance from their mistakes). But honest error is not the same as misconduct, and one of the factors that distinguish them is the intentions of the actor. As historian Ralph Luker has argued, “When every qualitative error in a book is an error in the direction of the book’s thesis, you have prima facie evidence of fraud.”239


Anonymous said...

Minor quibble: you've conflated the findings of two different committees, and in doing so you've made the Chancellor's decision seem rather more unilateral than it was. The University's Standing Committee on Research Misconduct (10 members, all CU faculty) appointed a specialist's panel (including faculty from CU and from other Universities, as well as legal counsel) to investigate the charges. This panel wrote the detailed report, but as you say came to no clear decision about what action to take. However, the Standing Committee subsequently did come to a decision - they voted 9-3 in favor of dismissal (one member was absent). That may not be a "consensus", but it's a pretty strong majority.

More significantly, I think you're stretching things in inferring that this would have much of an impact upon academic bloggers. IIRC, the Panel made a point of confining itself to Churchill's "Scholarly Work", which they defined as publications described as such in Churchill's C.V. While this is a larger category than peer-reviewed publications, I don't think it likely that anyone would extend it to include blog posts, any more than it would include newspaper Op-Eds or interviews on Fox News.


EliRabett said...

Sorry I gave that appearance, but I was only referring to the report of the specialist panel, which I found very impressive.