Friday, September 04, 2009

Correcting the Literature

Peter Klein over at Organizations and Markets recently drew attention to Rick Trebino's account of his difficulties getting a "comment" published in a physics journal. It reminded me of the difficulties I face in my attempts to draw attention to elementary scholarly errors in the management literature. I don't want to jinx my efforts, and in some cases I haven't decided exactly how I want to proceed, so I thought I would follow Trebino's example and tell a story without using the real names of the people involved.

A few months ago I discovered that an article in a major journal had plagiarized an article in another journal. It was a pretty straightforward case. In 1992, Exeter had written a detailed book about a particular incident. In 1993, Wyman published a paper that reanalyzed Exeter's account, framing it in an organization-theoretical context. Then, in 2007, Zeeler used the incident as an example in another context. Her account of the incident condensed two pages of Wyman's paraphrase of Exeter into a single paragraph; though some of the details are left out, Wyman's sentences are used verbatim and in the same order. Zeeler cites Exeter, not Wyman, and even uses the page references to Exeter's book that are found in Wyman's paper. That is, Zeeler has probably not read Exeter (1992); she is relying on Wyman's (1993) account but gives no credit to Wyman, claiming the paraphrase as her own reading of Exeter. Wyman 1993 is not cited at all in Zeeler 2007; it does not even appear in the reference list.

I wrote to the journal that had published Zeeler 2007, attaching a brief comparison of the two texts. The journal's editor thanked me and said that Zeeler would be asked to write an erratum for an upcoming issue of the journal. I thought that would be the end of it. The error had probably been the result of poor note-taking and it would be sufficient to admit to the inadvertent plagiarism, explaining that the account had in fact been taken from Wyman 1993.

The erratum appeared in 2008. But it did not admit to plagiarism. In fact, it did not make clear that the paragraph in question had been produced by lifting selected sentences from Wyman (1993). It did not even provide a proper reference to Wyman's paper, nor to the pages from which the sentences had been taken. It was so poorly written, in fact, that it was hard to tell what error it was correcting. It did say that some quotation marks should perhaps have been used to "avoid confusion", but only around a "part" of the paragraph (all of which had been plagiarized). Exactly which part was not indicated. Moreover, she framed the problem as one of not citing a relevant treatment of the incident (i.e., leaving out an obligatory reference), not of failing to cite the real source of her prose.

So I wrote back to the journal, explaining my puzzlement. The editor essentially said that he did not understand even my original objection (he restated the issue as something other than plagiarism) and, strangely, suggested that Zeeler could write another erratum if I could convince her to do so. They would publish it as well. Though I found this very weird, I decided to write to Zeeler. I received no response. I queried her again a few months later but have still not heard from her. That's not surprising, of course.

As in the case described by Trebino, what should have been a simple matter of correcting a basic error in a journal article has become something much more complicated. Something needs to be done to change the editorial practices of journals to make it much easier to publish such simple corrections.


Presskorn said...

At one point in your fictitious narrative, you incorrectly cite Zeeland (2007) rather than Zeeler (2007)… (Which is perhaps ironic in a bad way…)

BTW, I think that “Zeelers” (if I am not mistaken) “erratum” (the scare-quotes are even more needed in this latter instance) was not even evasive, but downright bizarre if not perplexing funny.

Thomas said...

Thanks for catching that. I have fixed it. Yes, the correction is weird. Unfortunately, I think such "solutions" are quite common. What is odd is that the editor considered it adequate. My hunch is that editors in these cases don't want to come off like "pedants", which is ironic, too, I guess.