The Sins of Scholarship

Few academics would have slept through the long-running Australian history wars. Sparked by claims made by retired academic Keith Windshuttle that several prominent scholars – among them Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan – misrepresented or falsified data in order fabricate a version of Aboriginal history consistent with pre-existing political agendas, the debate threw a sharp and very public spotlight on the fallibility of scholars and scholarly methods.

Reynolds and Ryan, as well as multiple and eminent defenders, have done well to demolish the fabrication claim, and in doing so, provided the public with a rare and fascinating glimpse into fractious disagreement amongst historians about what constitutes valid historical method and interpretive truth.

However, less certainty surrounded the treatment of their errors of attribution and referencing. Errors that Windshuttle claimed were at the heart of his assault on the veracity of the two historians’ claims. Eminent historian Stuart Macintyre, for example, saw Windshuttle’s identification of sources that did not “support what the historians reported [and] others [that did] not even exist” as “damaging,” while prize-winning historian Inga Clendinnen ultimately dismissed what she described as Ryan’s “multiple and consequential” referencing errors as “few, explicable and trivial”.

The truth is that Reynolds and Ryan are human. This means that like all academics, it is likely they will err at some point in their career. That this is the case doesn’t necessarily make the consequences of such errors less serious, but it does go to motive, and thus critically bears on the way those mistakes should be judged and the legitimacy of proposed responses. The challenge for academics and those who judge them – usually other academics and the public at large – is to distinguish between honest mistakes, scholarly incompetence and various forms of academic criminality. Interestingly, while questions of motive are at the heart of public and institutional scrutiny of academic error, few professional codes or guidelines distinguish mistakes on the basis of intention or, indeed, anything else. Indeed, most discussions about proper academic conduct are addressed to students, with scholars seen as the enforcers – never the violators – of accepted codes.

Honest Mistakes

These are likely to be one-off errors, rather than part of a pattern. They also seem more explicable by human fallibility (a momentary lack of concentration, a transcription error in the publication process missed during the proofing process) than a deliberate attempt to deceive. An example might be a sole paragraph in an otherwise lengthy book lacking proper attribution by an academic with an otherwise unblemished record and a plausible story about how the footnote got lost.

Punishment: None. The public shaming and unavoidable damage to reputation more than adequate.

Scholarly Incompetence

Here a pattern may exist (of paraphrasing without proper attribution or of footnotes referring to incorrect sources) but intention to steal, lie or otherwise deceive appears lacking. Instead, a plausible story can be told of note-taking or attribution practices where such errors seem likely, if not inevitable. Academics are culpable for failings resulting from incompetence because their consequences are damaging and unacceptable. However, such errors must be distinguished from those that result from immoral motives.

Punishment: None, but remediation (retraining, counseling) necessary.

Academic Criminality

May be one-off, or part of a pattern of academic errors that includes plagiarism, falsification of experimental results or other data/sources and the use of knowingly false data to draw conclusions. Such wrongdoings may be compounded by the use of knowingly false results to earn rewards, like high-level publications or grants. What is shared by all academic acts of criminality is the intention by the scholar to commit them, or a post-haste knowledge they were committed without an attempt to rectify the error.

Punishment: In addition to shaming through exposure of the crime to colleagues and the wider public, the academic criminal should be expelled from the scholarly community, losing grants, jobs and other positions of respect and trust.

The bottom line is that not all academic mistakes are the same. Some are only human, with sympathy and forgiveness the only legitimate response. But when there is a pattern, evidence of intention to deceive or both, the public and the community of scholars must respond swiftly to rehabilitate the incompetent, and expel the incorrigible.