June 4, 2005

What's fair in love and academe

Noted by Erin O'Connor today is the first article in a Rocky Mountain News series this week on Ward Churchill. The reporters have been looking into the allegations that are now part of the internal research-misconduct investigation at Boulder. The allegations that are most troubling to an historian are the charges that Churchill plagiarized several other works and that he repeatedly mischaracterized the causes of a run of smallpox at Fort Clarke in 1837. I don't care whether you call the latter fabrication or willful incompetence, but it's serious misconduct if it repeatedly misconstrues the scholarship. (You're allowed to disagree with other scholars, but it's not kosher to claim that your colleagues support your argument when they don't.)

The question that may spring up from the series this week is whether the newspaper is trying to pressure the University of Colorado to fire Churchill. That's the wrong question. Is it proper for a newspaper to report on controversial events on campus and try to conduct an independent investigation? Absolutely. We call this a free press. Much to their credit, the article today focuses on the factual questions, and from the overview piece the reporters look to have contacted as many relevant sources as they could. (We'll see about the details in the rest of the series.) Several years ago, the local newspapers in the Tampa area had a field day with an ophthalmologist then at USF who had reportedly experimented with a new optical surgery device without either filing the correct paperwork to declare that he was doing so or to ask patients for informed consent to use the experimental device. They could not have replicated a professional investigation by medical researchers, but the story was legitimately newsworthy.

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Posted in Academic freedom on June 4, 2005 12:35 PM |