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The Terry Deacon Affair

Posted Sep 12 2012 12:00am

Terrence Deacon is a professor of anthropology at the University of California Berkeley at the moment, chair of the anthropology department. (Deacon, like me , is interested in the evolution of language.) How unfortunate for the department, especially his graduate students, that he has recently been accused of using vast amounts of other people’s work without giving them credit . It isn’t easy to see the overlap, maybe because Deacon is a terrible writer (“by far the most unreadable book I have ever encountered” said a reviewer of one of his books), but there appears to be no doubt of the similarity and Deacon’s exposure to the work he is accused of not citing. Deacon says he doesn’t remember it.

When I brought unquestionable examples of plagiarism by Leslie Iversen , an Oxford professor, to the attention of Julie Maxton, the Registrar of Oxford University, she dismissed them (“honest error” appearing to say that Iversen didn’t know that word-by-word copying is wrong). In this case there is no word-by-word copying but the failure to cite is far more upsetting to the persons not cited. What may have been copied is more abstract (“deeper”, you could say) and therefore more important.

At first, the complaint was dismissed. “I have concluded that the information available to me does not warrant appointment of an Investigative Officer under our campus faculty disciplinary procedures. The conduct you have alleged would not constitute a violation of the University of California’s Faculty Code of Conduct,” wrote Janet Broughton, Vice Provost, on May 27, 2011.

Later (December 12, 2011), Robert Price, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, responded, ” The fact that certain concepts or phrases used by Dr. Deacon in the article you provided are the same or similar to concepts that appear in chapters from your book is not evidence of plagiarism, as these concepts may not be unique to your work. Perhaps the way you use these concepts is unique, which then would constitute plagiarism.” This understates the evidence, which is a long series of similarities.

Finally, the fact that outsiders find the claims (of failure to give credit) credible appears to have convinced Price that something must be done. “The continuing public dispute that your claims have generated lead me to believe that such an investigation [of the claims] is necessary in order to “clear the air”", wrote Price . After being successfully pressured to investigate, Price, a political science professor, in a September 3, 2012 letter reveals a lack of understanding of social pressure:

I wish to make crystal clear to you, your associates, and to all those to whom you are communicating that the University of California, Berkeley has not found that Professor Deacon has engaged in any form of research misconduct. The sole reason for undertaking an investigation are the claims made by you and your associates. [Contradicting what he said earlier -- that the "continuing public dispute" led to the investigation.] . . . The idea that you would use my communications with you ["use" in the sense of posting on a website] and the ongoing examination of your allegations by UC Berkeley as part of what increasing strikes me as a vendetta against Professor Deacon is reprehensible.

My letter to Alicia Juarrero [who complained] ends with this paragraph: “Our University policy on research misconduct, as well as the federal regulation on which it is based, require that all stages in the research misconduct investigation procedure are treated as strictly confidential. (UCB “Research Misconduct: Policies, Definitions and Procedures,” item IC and Federal Regulation 45CFR93.108). I expect that you will adhere to this requirement.” Rather than adhere to the stated requirement of confidentiality, Dr. Juarrero shared the letter with you and you, in turn, posted it on your website. What purpose is being served other than to make it appear that Deacon is guilty of something before even a single one of your claims has been validated? This sort of tactic will be familiar to those who remember the history of Joe McCarthy.

“What purpose is being served”? Uh, making the accusations harder to ignore? As for McCarthy, he made accusations without supplying evidence (“In this envelope [which he didn't open] I have the names of 80 Communists in the State Department”). That is not happening here.

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