Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself

That’s the advice on scandal management from former Clinton spinmaster Lanny Davis, who’s since applied his expertise to defending some of the least appealing clients imaginable. Whatever you think of Davis, his advice is pretty good, and lots of people have come to grief by doing the opposite. That certainly seems to be the case with George Mason University. In March 2010, they received an official complaint of plagiarism regarding the notorious Wegman report produced (at the request of Republican Congressman Joe Barton) to criticise the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph of global temperatures. Amazingly, GMU Professor Edward Wegman had lifted substantial blocks of text, without acknowledgement, from one of his targets, Raymond Bradley. When this was pointed out by bloggers John Mashey and Deep Climate, Bradley complained and asked for the report to be retracted.

Ignoring (or ignorant of) Davis’ advice, GMU took its time, perhaps hoping the problem would go away. Unfortunately for them, the opposite happened. Further research produced at least two more instances of plagiarism, one in another section of the Wegman report dealing with social networks and another in an unrelated paper on color vision. As I a mentioned a little while ago, the social networks analysis produced an academic paper, accepted by a Wegman mate with no peer review, which has now been retracted.

And now, Nature, which published the original hockey stick paper in 1999, has weighed in with an editorial calling for GMU to hurry up, and making mention of the Office of Research Integrity as an alternative process. That could make it a criminal matter.

At this point, GMU has no appealing options.

Under normal circumstances, faced with multiple instances of plagiarism from a senior academic with a previously distinguished record, GMU would probably arrange for Wegman to take responsibility and early retirement, retract the papers and the report, give his co-authors (mostly Wegman’s current and former graduate students) a stern warning, then move on.

But circumstances aren’t normal. A report to Congress can’t be retracted as easily as a journal article, and this one is a cause celebre for climate denialists[1] in their attacks on climate science. A particularly embarrassing case is that of GMU graduate and Virginia Attorney-General Cuccinelli, who’s relying on the Wegman report as part of his (so far fruitless) attempts to dig dirt on hockey stick lead author Michael Mann. But Cuccinelli’s reaction, if Wegman is forced to retract, will be mild compared to that of the delusional blogospheric right, and their allies among the faculty and financial backers of GMU.

It’s unsurprising that GMU has chosen delay, but time has now run out.

fn1. I stopped using this term, in favor of “delusionist” a while ago. But the fact that the political right is engaged in denialist practices on a whole range of issues, is something which even the most “balanced” of mainstream media outlets like USA Today and the Washington Post are now pointing out, and so I’ll use whichever term seems more appropriate from now on.

28 thoughts on “Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself

  1. I think you & Nature are unkind – my count is GMU needs to investigate plagiarism in 2 journal papers, 1 conference paper, 1 congressional report and 4 PhD student theses from Wegman’s group, some of which have come to light only recently. If it was me I’d also be reviewing other group publications for plagiarism rather have it discovered later. Caution about a high-profile case and general bureaucratic slowness would be my guess – rather than deliberate delay.

    Its even possible GMU is also investigating other aspects of the Congressional report – e.g distortion of Bradley’s work or the appearance that Wegman’s supposedly independent investigation was guided by a republican staffer. Wegman says his computer was seized as evidence – which seems overkill to investigate plagiarism.

  2. I suspect that GMU committee members may be in a state of panic – they don’t know how to avoid serious repercussions of some form or another, so they delay and hope…for something, anything, to get them off the hook. If the claims are true – if only I were a betting man – they potentially lose a whole team, several publications, and a truck load of credibility. Now that Nature has an editorial about it, I think GMU has no choice but to finish the assessment expeditiously.

  3. GMU is doing something, but it took them *5 months* before the first meeting of an *inquiry* committee, merely to decide if there was a reason to investigate. GMU VP Roger Stough’s explanations were “interesting.” Rice did it in 9 days.

    For the details, and the comparison of the GMU timeline with reality, see Strange Inquires at GMU.

    re: andrewt (a fine helper in this, one of several whose names I don’t even know)

    Appendix B.1 in Strange Tales and Emails has a chronology of documented Wegman-group plagiarism chains, starting in 1996. Sharp-eyed readers have noticed that letters k and l are missing (and actually there seems room on the chart for r).

    Bradley was astoundingly patient, and the original complaint was kept confidential a long time, but GMU didn’t help itself by its handling, especially of the CSDA paper, which cited 3 Federal agencies, including one covered by the Office of Research Integrity.

  4. A paper highly critical of the peer review process only gets published by dodging past peer review?

  5. Also in GMU’s defence, you’d expect authors confronted with the clear-cut plagiarism in Said&Wegman 2008 to take Larry Davis’ advice. Retract the paper themselves, explain as best they can (mistake by unnamed assistant …) but take responsibility and apologize and hope for just a slap on the wrist.

    Instead GMU has to deal with academics who refuse to do this and instead in Feb 2011 publish, in a journal edited by Wegman, more obvious plagiarism. Google the phrase “The disease is characterized either by the failure to synthesize pigment proteins” and you’ll see the apparent source ( and Said&Wegman’s 2011 paper. Deep Climate found more plagiarism and a howler where Wegman&Said completely mangled the meaning of material they didn’t understand when they copied it.

    Along with this recalcitrance & recidivism GMU has plagiarism in the theses of already graduated PhDs to deal with. They won’t have well-oiled procedures for this. There is also the question of inadequate supervision. How did Wegman allow a student to submit a thesis which plagarized multiple pages of material from one of Wegman’s own papers? Not to mention the awkwardness of penalizing a student for plagiarizing his supervisor when part of this material was itself plagiarized.

  6. Does anyone else find this bizarre? This kind of stuff gets clobbered in the lower grades of high school. Wegman isn’t in year 8 and GMU isn’t a high school.

  7. You would be amazed at how many cases of plagiarism get covered up. Too often those who ought to act take the easy course because acting always involves a lot of work and unpleasantness. Indeed acting, may result in questions asked why it and the other cases usually uncovered weren’t picked up earlier. Often, when it is possible and easier, as when someone junior makes a noise, it is the complainant who gets punished.

    Wegman is probably feeling a little hard done by. He may be thinking ‘I’ve been doing this for years, why are they picking on me now?’

  8. In the manner of the delusionists, I think this affair requires a neologism. The beat up they created based on misrepresenting a few emails they christened ‘Climategate’, surely we should all start referring to this as Weggate or G-mugate? Maybe some YouTube videos ought to be created as well?

  9. I think McIntyre tried “Copygate” as a way of downplaying it, but it didn’t take off.

  10. @Ken Fabos
    Nice attempt at misdirection Ken. But JQ is talking about plagiarism, not the peer review process.

    Correcting what you said: “a cheat dodges the peer review process in order to get a paper published.”

    Why are you surprised?

  11. Interestingly, my partner teaches at UWS in Sydney. There, the submission process for undergraduate papers includes the results of having it checked by software called Turnitin which works brute force like to match text strings with text strings on the web, and of course from other students who’ve gone through the same process either at that campus or at any campus using the same database. Some people find it useful for tracking down accurate original references for papers they are merely preparing.

    There are, unsurprisingly, a great many false positives, but it does catch out pretty much everyone who tries this caper.

  12. The plagiarism issue is complicated. All our brains are intellectually “syncretist” to some considerable extent. I can imagine a largely original work still repeating phrases and perhaps even some cliches at some points through the work. Originality might be in the big picture (new research, new findings, a new theory etc) rather than in the detail of phraseology. How would “Turnitin” handle that? I guess “Tintin” (as I like to call it) is just an early warning diagnostic. Real humans still would have to to assess plagiarism on more complex criteria.

  13. Ikonoclast:
    it is far more likely that an expert in the field, who has read and written widely, unconsciously picks up phrases and re-uses them, than a novice. Have you looked at the plagiarism inm this case?
    See the original (antecedents) to Wegman report comparison, cyan identical, yellow trivial edits.

    With that style of plagiarism, one could almost do it with software like the old UNIX diff, i.e., algorithmically. That wouldn’t catch sneakier plagiarists.

  14. @John Mashey

    Well, that is an open and shut case. Plagiarism 100%. Original work and original expression 0%.

    The Uni should just sack Wegman now for repeated gross plagiarism and bringing the institution into grave disrepute. Sack him and let the appeal processes (if any) roll. Can’t see Wegman winning any appeals.

  15. Ripoffgate?

    Hmm, this is harder than it looks…

  16. The trouble with unis is they move way too slowly… Wegman just says “sorry Im tied up” and the appeal process gets put back three months…of course “the good learned Professor is otherwise engaged”…

    However, Wegman has been using his students to write the works he takes credit for… something tells me this practice is more widespread than most imagine.

  17. Strictly speaking, it’s the fabrication of bogus evidence to deny AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) that is Climategate.

  18. It never ends.
    Andrewt finds another paper, start here and read next few posts.
    That one has (GMU, Purdue), support from 3 Federal contracts plus Newton Institute (Cambridge).
    it looks like much of paper is taken from Sharabati’s PhD, so it was nice that he’s there as 3rd author.

  19. @Ikonoclast

    You’re quite right. Turnitin works rather like the first line of defence, putting up flags for suspect stuff by doing the grunt work, so that individual students can reconsider their options, or failing that make a defence of the usage later when an academic considers the common portions in context. Plagiarism isn’t automatically found — a committee deals with each ostensible instance on a case by case basis.

    The certainty of students that they are not going to get away with this sort of cheating definitely improves the awarenes of ethical issues, and makes those who want to plagiarise have to work harder to get around the system, diminishing the relative advantage of cheating.

  20. so if those who insist the change is not happening/not fossil fuels fault are right,the effort put into bringing into existence renewable,low emission energy industries will virtually eliminate fossil fuel extraction (except for plastics etc).
    if the change is happening the effort to bring into existence renewable,low emission industries will virtually eliminate fossil fuel extraction(except for plastics etc).

    the fossil fuel,non renewable industries are on a hiding to nothing.

    and on public grid systems, the ones in existence at the moment are designed for large central point generation.(blackouts anyone?)

    no word yet on designing for systems that handle inputs from multiple sources.

  21. Greg, I wasn’t all that clear, sorry. I was just bemused by the irony; Wegman would have got a notice of rejection had his article critical of peer-review had it gone through it. And not because of group think, bias, conspiracy to undermine democracy but because it was so appallingly bad.

  22. It’s been proposed that “to Wegman” becomes a synonym for “to self-refute”, given that Wegman’s paper allegedly exposing corruption of the peer review process was only published by corruption of the peer review process.

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