When a PI Plagiarizes

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

In the October 1, 2014 New York Times Magazine, celebrated author Marilynne Robinson paraphrases John Wycliffe as saying, “If you do not object strenuously to a superior’s bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens.” However, I can attest to the reasons why so few subordinates do this—or why you have not heard of them even though they may have tried. If you are not a Pulitzer Prize winning academic, things can go very badly for whistle-blowers and rarely badly for their superiors in the academy, protected as they are by university legal counsels whose job it is to prevent public disclosure and its consequences.

Based on my ethnographic research and publication history, I was hired as a research anthropologist on a large grant by a PI with a proven track record of co-authorship with prior junior colleagues in my position. Within six months of being hired to conduct research among a different population than that studied by the PI, I wrote my first article based on a paper I had given at a national anthropology conference. Since my paper described patterns that disagreed with the PI’s previous findings, she rightly asked for evidence, which I gave her from numerous examples in my research notes that I routinely uploaded to a shared folder online. As part of our employment agreement on co-authorship, I gave her multiple iterations of that first article and then other drafts with different emphases, but the PI never worked on them. She told me she was “burned out” from working for decades on this topic and was “having writer’s block.”

Yet, when I attended a university lecture given by the PI, I was taken aback that her talk incorporated without acknowledgement all of my new ideas. Perhaps a different person would have confronted her then. Instead, I excused her by imagining the pressure she must have been under to produce this talk, and by remembering the many high caliber co-authored papers she had written with previous junior colleagues. Yet the PI would never engage with my first authored draft articles I sent her, asking me instead to work on her draft articles where my name was prominently displayed as second author.

Fast forward three years spent working very happily with my research population while experiencing utter frustration that I had not been able to get a single one of my first-authored drafts onto the PI’s agenda for editing toward publication. She held me off by saying that my “ideas were brilliant, but [my] writing needed extensive editing” – precisely what co-authorship in research institutions is intended to help with. And, what I was doing for hers, I thought rather bitterly.

One day, while taking an EndNote workshop in the university library, I entered the PI’s name to get her previous publications into my grant reference section and was shocked to find that she had four recent publications that used my language word for word in some places, with paraphrases in others. In her publications, she claimed sole credit for my original findings and conceptual analyses taken from the draft articles I had given her, even though the data was from an entirely different population than she studied. Nowhere were my contributions cited or acknowledged in any way. I took my concerns to the dean, who contacted the PI. The PI immediately offered to contact the journals to give me first authorship on the first publication and second authorship on five others (as it happened, she had two more articles using my ideas under review). I agreed to these conditions.

But then the university’s chief counsel stepped in. Unfortunately, the scope of the ethical breach made it impossible for the dean to not involve the university’s legal team, given that it received numerous grants from the national funding agency that had sponsored the PI’s research. Six peer-reviewed articles published in as many journals would be far too much exposure: should the funders discover these “irregularities” the institution could be censured and its research programs jeopardized. The university’s senior counsel demanded that I sign a nondisclosure agreement with draconian consequences if I broke it, while stating that our previously brokered authorship agreement would not be legally binding. The PI, protected by the counsel, reneged on her proposal to transfer authorship. I requested “outside” mediation that would be legally binding on the PI, but it failed. I lost the authorship of my ideas as well as the possibility of continuing to work at this institution, along with the chance to receive a recommendation from anyone closely familiar with my contributions to the field from three and a half years of research and writing as a research faculty member there.

Because of past ethical breaches, anthropology has become attentive to the ethical protection of human subjects and the imperative to “cause no harm.” We teach our undergraduates how to cite the ideas of others to prevent plagiarism for which they may be expelled. However, graduate students and junior researchers have minimal or no protection when faculty superiors plagiarize their work. The enormous pressure on faculty to develop new ideas and innovative approaches makes creative and energetic graduate students and junior research associates vulnerable links in the professional chain. Given the hierarchical nature of the academy, the people who are dependent upon tenured faculty for their degrees and research employment have much in the way of intellectual and professional capital to lose. Yet, little or no institutional support exists to protect them against theft of their intellectual property or to ameliorate the professional consequences of its loss.

A Case of Collegial Bad Faith

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

In this post I describe a situation of collegial bad faith in which I believe four of the ethical guidelines of the AAA were violated: Do no harm; Be open and honest; Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties; and Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.

At the AAA meetings a few years ago, I presented a paper in an organized panel. Two years later, three of the four panel presentations were published in a respected journal. The excluded paper, mine, was a pointed critique of a theoretical position taken by the other three papers from a principled point of view. Thus, a carefully argued dissenting position was barred from published theoretical debate.

I use the word “excluded” advisedly, for I was not notified that any collective publication of the panel papers was underway, nor that mine was unwelcome among them. Immediately after the AAA panel, as the participants discussed the possibility of submitting their papers for publication, I asked whether, in the interest of open debate, they shouldn’t also include my dissenting views. The organizers indicated that my work “didn’t fit,” implying that they were not inclined to include it. But at that time the possibility of publishing the collected papers was only an idea. When I later discovered that the other papers had indeed been published, I submitted my original paper, with critiques of the three now published papers, to another journal. Not only did the other journal accept my paper, but the editor twice invited the authors of the other papers to respond to my critique of their work. Only the moderator of the original panel took the editor up on this invitation and contributed a response to the journal. My ten-point response to the moderator was also published in the same issue, rounding out the debate.

I read this exclusion as cowardly, unprofessional, self-interested, and inimical to the format of open debate by which scientific understanding of the world progresses. In considering ethical standards, it is tempting to look only at violations of commission. But there are also violations of omission, when someone does not do what they should have done in the interest of preventing harm, being open and honest, weighing ethical obligations toward colleagues, and maintaining respectful professional relationships.

In the present case, harm was done when the three panel papers were published together as if they were the only ones that had been presented. To fail to mention the very existence of a pointed dissenting voice was to imply that there was none: a patent untruth. The harm in question is the harm of failing to advance the discipline by allowing for the counter-position of multiple points of view.

The panel organizers were not being open and honest when they failed to notify me that the other papers were being published. Indeed, none of the other authors ever acknowledged that a debate was actually going on, that their position formed part of it, or that they had been invited to defend their work. In my view, they had an ethical obligation to consider the effect their actions had on their colleague’s career, and they impeded the progress of anthropological theory by ignoring my efforts to describe and explain humanness in all its manifestations simply because the approach I took to doing so differed from their own. It is not respectful, or honest, to ignore the constructive, relevant work of a colleague.

Necessary Permissions…From Whom?

Scott Hutson

A critical point in the beginning of archaeological field projects and a necessary one according to the AAA statement on ethics (see statement 3) is getting permission from landowners. Yet sometimes this step is not as clear as it may seem. In an instance from my own fieldwork where a community rift threw doubt into the question of who could rightfully give permission, backing off from doing part of the research seemed like the solution. Before getting to the details, I provide some background.

In Mexico, where I work, the ownership of ruins is already tricky because of a distinction between the archaeological remains themselves (artifacts, crumbled buildings, etc.) and the land in which they are embedded. The buildings and artifacts are cultural patrimony of the nation as a whole, administered by the federal government, but the ground on which these remains sit can pertain to communal land-holding groups (ejidos) or private individuals and companies. The ancient palace of Zaachila, located in the center of the town of Zaachila in the state of Oaxaca, presents an example of conflicts that the distinction between federal ruin and local land can create.  Two of the most decorated figures in Mexican archaeology, Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal, each initiated research at Zaachila under the authority of the federal government but could not reach an agreement with a vocal group of Zaachila residents. In 1947, these residents ran Caso off the ruin, throwing stones in his wake. In 1953, Ignacio Bernal needed the protection of the federal army to re-start work at the site.

Getting local approval in addition to federal permission is therefore indispensable, but identifying the critical local stakeholders can be problematic. In cases where land is communally held by an ejido, the most common strategy is to begin by consulting with the ejido’s elected president and the officials he or she appoints. Yet the elected official often does not reflect the voice of all the ejido members, and conflicts within ejidos are common.  For an outsider to such local politics, the best way to proceed may not be clear. The case I present from my own fieldwork in Yucatan (the Uci-Cansahcab Regional Integration Project) illustrates some of the contingencies that can come into play.

In the pseudonymous ejido of Chakche, most ejido members claim exclusive right of use to a small parcel of the ejido’s land. My goal as an archaeologist was to make a map of the ruins scattered across a rectangular block comprising more than a dozen of these parcels. My plans were presented and approved at an ejido meeting, but, as I found out the next week, one of the ejido members not present at the meeting—Jose—objected to the mapping. Soon afterward, Jose gave me a tour of the boundaries of his parcel so I would know where NOT to map. While walking with Jose I showed him some of the ruins we had mapped on adjacent parcels and talked to him about our goals, hoping he would change his mind about letting me on his land once he had a better sense of what we were up to. Jose finally suggested I could go on his land for a fee. As a counteroffer, I suggested I could hire him or a friend as part of the field crew. We could not reach an agreement.  The next day, both the current ejido president as well as a former ejido president wanted to know whether Jose had given me permission. When I told them he did not, they suggested that I could in fact enter Jose’s land without his permission because the real title-holder to that parcel of ejido land was Jose’s recently deceased father. Since the title had not been formally transferred to Jose, the ejido president could act as the final authority.

Amidst this lack of clarity over who was authorized to give permission, I chose to stay off the land claimed by Jose. Though this decision puzzled the past ejido president, it does not appear to have had a downside. Sure, it meant that my map would have a hole in the middle of it (see figure), but such a hole does not necessarily compromise the research. Richard Blanton and Stephen Kowalewski’s Valley of Oaxaca survey was a success even though it has a 40km2 hole in it, resulting from the ejido of Ocotlan’s refusal to let the archaeologists walk their land. To try to make up for Jose’s hole (as well as a divit in the north edge of the map boundary), my team surveyed some extra hectares in the northwest corner of the block, beyond the bounds of our original rectangle.  This proved successful since what we found significantly expanded our understanding of the survey area as a whole.

Principle 3 of the AAA Statement on Ethics holds that anthropologists working with cultural resources, such as ruins, “have an obligation to ensure that they have secured appropriate permissions or permits.” The situation described above shows that it is not always clear who has the authority to grant such permission (see also Daehnke 2007). I end with two questions. When people in a community have conflicting ideas over whether cultural resources should be documented, what should anthropologists do? When we choose not to document the resources in question, are there ways to continue the investigation without “inappropriately changing the purpose, focus or intended outcomes” (see principle 4)?

Figure caption: Map of a portion of the area surveyed by UCRIP, in Yucatan, Mexico. The grey polygon represents the area that was surveyed. The colored items represent ancient features documented. The white “hole” at lower left is the area that we left un-surveyed.

Figure caption: Map of a portion of the area surveyed by UCRIP, in Yucatan, Mexico. The grey polygon represents the area that was surveyed. The colored items represent ancient features documented. The white “hole” at lower left is the area that we left un-surveyed.


Daehnke, J. D.

2007       A ‘strange multiplicity’ of voices: Heritage stewardship, contested sites and colonial legacies on the Columbia River Journal of Social Archaeology 8:250-275.