“It can involve an unreasonable amount of time, an unreasonable amount of work, and an unreasonably uphill struggle to obtain retractions of philosophy publications, no matter how blatant the plagiarism discovered and how indisputable the documentation.”
In the following guest post, Pernille Harsting and Michael V. Dougherty (Ohio Dominican University) recount their efforts to get a plagiarizing philosophy article retracted, discuss the challenges to getting such articles retracted, and comment on the responsibilities journal editors and publishers have in regard to retractions for plagiarism.
It’s All Too Hard to Get Plagiarizing Philosophy Publications Retracted
by Pernille Harsting and Michael V. Dougherty
It’s all too hard to get plagiarizing philosophy publications retracted.
Here’s a case in point:
In December 2022, the editors of Traditio: Studies in Ancient and Medieval History, Thought, and Religion published a retraction statement—both online and in the printed version of the journal’s 2022 issue (vol. 77, p. 465)—for this article:
M. W. F. Stone, “Adrian of Utrecht and the University of Louvain: Theology and the Discussion of Moral Problems in the Late Fifteenth Century”, Traditio 61 (2006), pp. 247-287.
Although the extensive plagiarism by Stone in the Traditio article had been publicly flagged since 2010, it took 11 years, a new publisher, a new editor-in-chief, and a complete mark-up with highlighting of all the plagiarizing passages to obtain the retraction of this 41-page article.
The plagiarism was initially documented in our co-researched dossier on 40 of the plagiarizing publications that had appeared under the former KULeuven philosophy professor’s name in the period 1998-2009, “40 Cases of Plagiarism” (by M.V. Dougherty, P. Harsting and R. L. Friedman, in Bulletin de philosophie médiévale 51/2009, Turnhout: Brepols, 2010, pp. 350-391).
As the 2010 dossier showed (“Case 28 (2006)”, p. 378), the main part of the Traditio article is a translation from German into English of passages from Chapter 4—“4. Adrian Florensz (Hadrian VI)”; “4.1 Biographische Einführung”; “4.2 Metaethische Analyse”—of this book:
Rudolf Branko Hein,“Gewissen” bei Adrian von Utrecht (Hadrian VI.), Erasmus von Rotterdam und Thomas More: Ein Beitrag zur systematischen Analyse des Gewissensbegriffs in der katholischen nordeuropäischen Renaissance (Studien der Moraltheologie 10; Münster: LIT Verlag, 1999).
We first contacted the editors of Traditio in October 2011 with a request for retraction of the article on account of plagiarism. At that point, the journal, which is still based at Fordham University, was published by Fordham University Press. In the email to Traditio we enclosed a copy of the “40 Cases of Plagiarism” dossier, which details, page for page, the overlap between the 2006 article and the previously published German source, and offers a representative example of the translation plagiarism.
The editor-in-chief didn’t reply to the email request; nor did we hear back from any other member of the journal’s editorial board.
In February 2012, Dougherty sent a follow-up email to the editors with a repeat request for retraction of the plagiarizing article. On 6 March 2012, the editor-in-chief replied that “the matter will be treated at the next meeting of the Board”, which was to take place “in March or April”. This sounded promising, but the email—and apparently also the discussion—was closed as follows:
“I also need to tell you, however, that the situation was already known to us. The vice rector for research at the K. U. Leuven wrote to us in March of 2010 providing details about the situation and leaving a decision about the status of the publication up to us. The matter is best handled, I believe, between the K. U. Leuven and Traditio. Sincerely […]”
A further follow-up email of 9 April 2015 from Dougherty to the editor-in-chief went unanswered. And still nothing happened—until six years later, in May 2021, when Harsting marked up all the plagiarizing passages in a PDF copy of the 41-page Traditio article and sent this 1:1 documentary material to the journal with yet another request for retraction. Among the co-signers of this renewed request was the author, Rudolf Branko Hein, whose 1999 book had been plagiarized in the Traditio article and whose own email complaints, addressed and sent to a member of the journal’s editorial board in the beginning of 2010, had been disregarded.
In the meantime, the publication of Traditio had been taken over by Cambridge University Press, and a new editor-in-chief had been appointed to head the journal and its editorial board (which, in 2021, still counted among its members some of those copied on our emails of 2011, 2012, and 2015, including the former editor-in-chief).
Finally things started to move: In the late autumn of 2021, the online version of the plagiarizing article was retracted and watermarked as such on the Cambridge University Press website. And in December 2022, this was followed up by the publication of the editors’ official retraction statement.
Obviously, we cannot know what motivated the former editor-in-chief’s inaction with regard to the problem of the plagiarizing Traditio article. But it is a fact that to many editors of journals, handbooks, conference proceedings, book series, etc., in philosophy and other humanities fields, receiving a request for retraction of one of their published items is ”a first”, and often they haven’t put guidelines and procedures in place to deal properly with such a request.
Unfortunately, it also seems to be the case that, to some editors (as well as their publishers), preserving the image of a faultless and “scandal-free” publishing practice is more important than contributing actively to the upholding of good research standards by unambiguously retracting plagiarizing and other fraudulent publications.
Whatever the reason for editors to ignore complaints about documented findings of plagiarism in the publications they are responsible for, this laxity has consequences beyond the harm it causes to the reputation of the journals, book series, etc.—and to their publishers. Most importantly, while editors are looking the other way or dragging their feet, the plagiarizing publications are still treated as if they were original contributions to scholarship.
Thus, for 15 years—from 2006, when the Traditio article was published, until the late autumn of 2021, when it was watermarked as retracted on Cambridge University Press’ online platform—readers have been misled about the article’s authorship and originality, first by the author-of-record and then, since 2010, by the inaction of the journal editors.
During the 11-year period from early 2010, when the editors first learned about the plagiarism problem, until late 2021, when the retraction for plagiarism was finally issued, scholarly writers have kept crediting the author-of-record for the findings and wordings he had stolen from Hein’s previously published work. There is no doubt that at least some of the positive downstream citations and quotations of the plagiarizing Traditio article could have been avoided, had the retraction been issued without delay.
To mention but a few recent examples of the continued positive citation:
- A 32-word quotation from the Traditio article appears in a book from 2016 with translation of and commentary on a work of Erasmus of Rotterdam. The original author of the quoted passage is Rudolf Branko Hein, but his book from 1999 is not mentioned at all—all credit is given to the plagiarizing author-of-record.
- A similar misattribution to the author-of-record for the Traditio article—and not to the genuine author—is found in a 2017 dissertation.
In 2019, the Traditio article was commended in these publications:
- A biography of Charles V, published by Yale University Press (and in the 2021 Italian translation of this biography).
- A sourcebook of primary texts from the Reformation period.
From 15 May 2016 until 11 October 2020, the Wikipedia entry for “Pope Adrian VI” contained a reference to the plagiarizing Traditio article. The reference was removed by an anonymous Wikipedia editor, who pointed out two PubPeer postings from early 2018 (1, 2) that discussed the plagiarism and authorship problems of the Traditio article.
The continued quoting from and citing of plagiarizing publications is troubling, for several reasons. First of all, and most obviously, plagiarism is an act of theft—of authorship, of research material, of research results—and stolen goods should be returned to the proper owner and not be further “handled”.
Furthermore, despite all their copying efforts, plagiarists are not necessarily good copyists. Nor are they necessarily good translators. In fact, not a few errors have occurred during the clandestine transfer of material from the original German-language source into the English-language Traditio text: errors have been inserted in the copied Latin quotations; in the copied page references; in the copied dates; in the copied names of authors of secondary literature; and other errors are the result of misunderstandings and mis-translations of the original German text (and the Latin words and sources quoted there).
In short: the Traditio article is in no way reliable and should not be further quoted or cited. Readers interested in the subject matter should consult Rudolf Branko Hein’s original German book as well as his English-language article, “Conscience: Dictator or Guide?—Meta-Ethical and Biographical Reflections in the Light of a Humanist Concept of Conscience”, in Bernard Hoose, Julie Clague and Gerard Mannion (eds.), Moral Theology for the Twenty-First Century: Essays in Celebration of Kevin Kelly (London, T&T Clark, 2008), pp. 34-50.
The saga of the plagiarizing Traditio article ended with an unambiguous retraction. We are grateful to the new editor-in-chief and the new publisher of the journal for issuing the much-needed retraction. According to Retraction Watch Database, the Traditio retraction is number 15—in addition to three “expressions of concern”—for the author-of-record. For a time, the retraction count even earned him an ignominious listing on the Retraction Watch Leaderboard.
But the Traditio case also demonstrates that it can involve an unreasonable amount of time, an unreasonable amount of work, and an unreasonably uphill struggle to obtain retractions of philosophy publications, no matter how blatant the plagiarism discovered and how indisputable the documentation. While there has been an increase, since 2010, in the discovery of cases of extensive (”serial”) plagiarism in the field, it has in the same period become increasingly hard to obtain retractions for plagiarizing philosophy publications. Incredibly enough, there are yet other plagiarizing items by the Traditio article’s author-of-record that still need to be retracted.
In our experience it is typically very difficult to secure retractions for plagiarizing publications from some of the most dominant commercial publishers of research literature: appeals to these big players to regard retractions as an act of accountability and a meaningful contribution to the upholding of academic integrity too often have no effect whatsoever. This means that some academic editors are left very much on their own, without support from their publisher, when confronted with requests for retraction of publications for which they as editors are ultimately responsible.
In philosophy, as in academia in general, we have entrusted journal and book editors with a key function: we have made them the major gatekeepers in the joint endeavor of ensuring and upholding the reliability and quality of published research. Accordingly, we must be able to rely on academic editors to respond with integrity to the trust placed in them—and we must be able to expect that these entrusted editors will not ignore, tolerate, or gloss over plagiarism and other results of academic misdoing that may be discovered in the publications for which they have ethical and legal responsibility.
It is a positive development that many of the traditional academic publishers have begun to set up research and publication ethics committees and have issued ethics guidelines for their publishing practice. When applied in practice, such measures improve the quality of publications, and they facilitate the work of academic journal and book editors who will know precisely what to do when presented with well-documented requests for retraction of publications on account of plagiarism or other academic fraud.
As integrity-based publishing standards are being implemented, it’s therefore to be hoped that philosophy (and other academic) editors will be more inclined to deal with well-founded complaints about plagiarism in their edited publications—and that more editors will see the issuance of timely retractions as a duty and as a service to their field.