October 31, 2002

BELLESILES UPDATE: The History News Network has an article arguing that although the Bellesiles affair is, mostly, over, the underlying problem remains:

Unfortunately, it seems that many senior academics still don’t understand that what has happened has happened in some measure to them. They are tainted by this failure to use their antique guild procedures strictly, fairly, and above all, promptly; in this they failed all of us. They don’t seem to grasp how easily it could happen again.

The main obstacle to dealing forthrightly with gross academic misconduct is the reflexive reaction that any disciplinary measure at all will forever destroy academic freedom, which is fully enjoyed only by tenured faculty, by the way. But this defense of academic freedom may simply mask the worship of academic privilege, that is, a remarkably complete freedom from accountability. The exercise of this privilege to commit scholarly fraud — rewarded by prizes, royalties, fellowships — is hard to distinguish from theft by deception. Most fraud, after all, is committed for gain. The long line of Bellesiles’s enablers will not be made to pay. . . .

The editor at Knopf is still in place, doubtless hoping to publish another bombshell soon. There is little cause for rejoicing in this outcome until the system is forced to change. Until then, the moral of this story will remain ‘tell them what they want to hear; lie as much as you dare; cash the checks.’ Doesn’t it sound like the nightly news?

Peer review is supposed to be an adequate protection against fraud, inaccuracy, and other scholarly shortcomings, that being its main reason for existing. There have been studies of how it really works. They do not make encouraging reading. Even if the built-in temptations for reviewers could be taken out of it, the official peer review system can’t possibly work as it needs to within the microscopically subdivided academic research system of today: often there are no true peers to be found. In practice, peer review is a compost that nourishes cronyism, conformism, and other abuses. Bellesiles was reviewed at least twice by Emory: once at hiring, and once for promotion, that time after his 1996 article, a preview of the book to follow, had appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. He passed all of those reviews. By now, the selection and performance of the referees for Bellesiles’ 1996 paper and for Arming America by Knopf, and of the panelists for the Bancroft Prize award, can also be seen to have worked out rather poorly, after all, just like the personnel actions at Emory. These are all examples of normal peer review, which is in effect a system of social promotion. Of course there are no official admissions of fault, few individual retractions, not even many excuses. And above all, there are no consequences for the many panelists. . . . Recent scandals among American historians, including revelations of habitual plagiarism and general sloppiness, underscore an urgent need for a better process than peer review in its current form.

The entire assessment is rather damning.

UPDATE: Some interesting stuff in the comments at the bottom, too.