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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Students aren't the only ones...

In the quiet Summer months you could be forgiven for missing this piece in the Guardian's education section.
It concerns the retraction of an article published in the British Journal of Sociology in March 2008 by a lecturer from City University because of "substantial overlap" with an article published a few years earlier in Sociology by two completely different authors. The British laws on liable being as they are let's leave it at that.
The sorry tale caught my eye because at the time the BJS article was published I was still its Editor in Chief (though I resigned a month later after, amongst other things, expressing a "difference of opinion" with the LSE's minders - the London School of Economics owns the title - about the proper way to run an academic journal). Though the article in question came out in an issue under my name it had, to the best of my recollection, been accepted by the previous Editor and my only part in the affair was to schedule its publication. However, I should say that there but for the Grace of God go I, for I doubt very much that I would have spotted the "substantial overlap" if it had arrived during my watch and I don't think my predecessor can reasonably be blamed for being asleep on the job.
The problem is that the editors of a general sociology journal like the BJS are almost completely in the hands of their referees. They know next to nothing about the subject matter of most of the articles they receive, the purported author or authors or indeed about the "experts" they ask to referee for them. Sociology is a completely balkanized discipline not only in terms of subject matter but more crucially in terms of what counts as good scientific standards. Add to that the well known reluctance of senior established people to spend their time writing referees' reports and it is a wonder that there aren't more cases of "substantial overlap". How can you ensure that only work of the highest academic quality gets published when the content of what you receive is incomprehensible to all but a few insiders, you have never heard of the author(s) and after receiving your tenth refusal to referee all you can get are five illiterate sentences from the kind of person who will enter the refereeing they do for a journal like the BJS as one of their four RAE submissions? (OK, I exaggerate a bit - the most illiterate refereeing I've seen actually came from a "senior" academic who deigned to scribble a few sentences on what looked like the back of a napkin whilst en route to an international conference. He shares the prize for academic chutzpah with a "senior" member of an editorial board who expected a journal to publish his apparently randomly assembled bullet points as a serious article).
Students should note that plagiarism is unacceptable but their teachers should remember as the KJV puts it:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

1 comment:

stephen said...
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