(by Andrew Gelman)
Dan Vergano writes in USA Today:
Evidence of plagiarism and complaints about the peer-review process have led a statistics journal to retract a federally funded study that condemned scientific support for global warming. The study, which appeared in 2008 in the journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis, was headed by statistician Edward Wegman . . . The journal publisher’s legal team “has decided to retract the study,” said CSDA journal editor Stanley Azen . . . A November review by three plagiarism experts of the 2006 congressional report for USA TODAY also concluded that portions contained text from Wikipedia and textbooks. The journal study, co-authored by Wegman student Yasmin Said, detailed part of the congressional report’s analysis.
This sounds bad. Here’s the response:
“Neither Dr. Wegman nor Dr. Said has ever engaged in plagiarism,” says their attorney, Milton Johns, by e-mail. In a March 16 e-mail to the journal, Wegman blamed a student who “had basically copied and pasted” from others’ work into the 2006 congressional report, and said the text was lifted without acknowledgment and used in the journal study. “We would never knowingly publish plagiarized material” wrote Wegman, a former CSDA journal editor.
Wegman’s coauthor on the journal article was his student Yasmin Said, but their attorney said that neither had engaged in plagiarism. So the student they are blaming is someone else.
I did a quick Google scholar on Wegman Said CSDA and found Social networks of author–coauthor relationships, which I assume is the offending article. The authors are Yasmin H. Said, Edward J. Wegman, Wailid K. Sharabati, and John T. Rigsby.
So Wegman and Said are saying that either Sharabati or Rigsby is the plagiarist.
There was also some controversy because the paper was accepted by the journal after five days and apparently not the highest quality, according to CMU expert Kathleen Carley. Here’s what the journal editor wrote, five days after receiving the submission of the ill-fated Said, Wegman, Sharabati, and Rigsby article:
Dear Ed: I personally reviewed your very interesting (and unique) manuscript. I think the paper is very interesting, and I could not identify any errors. So, I am pleased to inform you and your colleagues that your paper “Social Networks of Author-Coauthor Relationships” has been accepted for publication in Computational Statistics and Data Analysis.
Your paper will now be forwarded to the Publisher who will contact you soon with full details. Thank you for submitting your work to this journal.
Azen says he must have overseen an earlier, more extensive review of the paper involving outside reviewers. But he says he has no records of this earlier review, because his records were destroyed in an office move. “I would never have done just a personal review,” he says.
As an author and editor of many scientific journals, I actually think it’s ok to just do a personal review. In retrospect, accepting this particular paper was a mistake–but review by a journal editor is a form of peer review. I once submitted a apaper accepted in the same day that I submitted it–and this was to a good journal. I think this is just fine. I don’t see what’s gained by dragging the process out. In this particular case it doesn’t make the journal editor look very good, but that’s a risk you have to take.
I guess what I’m saying is: If Azen really did an earlier review with outside reviewers, then I’m sorry that his records were destroyed because it wouldn’t look so bad to accept such an article if you’re backed up by outside experts. But if actually he actually just reviewed it himself, I think that’s ok as a general policy to occasionally accept excellent papers without wasting everyone’s time in a review process.
There was also another student involved, Denise Reeves; Vergano writes that Reeves was “the ‘most knowledgeable’ person about such analyses on Wegman’s team, according to a note that Wegman sent to CSDA in March.” But Reeves would not seem to be the person accused by Said and Wegman of plagiarism, as she was not a coauthor of the retracted paper. (It would be pretty odd to make a plagiarism accusation against someone who was not a coauthor, as the accusation would imply that a non-author wrote some of the paper, which is a no-no in itself.)
One thing that’s interesting to me is that Said and Wegman are so sure that either Sharabati or Rigsby is the culprit. Perhaps they have some email trail or some manuscript with version control that shows who added the offending material?
Beyond the details, the case is completely bizarre, as noted by John Timmer. In the now-retracted CSDA article, “certain styles of research were suggested to be prone to ‘groupthink, reduced creativity and the possibility of less-rigorous reviewing processes.’ . . . the paper was accepted five days after submission by an editor who was a personal friend of Wegman’s, an irony given that the study was about the nefarious influence of social networks.”
Edward Wegman received the Founders Award in 2002 from the American Statistical Association.