As Voltaire said when a fellow philosopher’s book was burned by the Paris authorities: “What a fuss about an omelette!” But this was 2016, not 1758.

Then again, it wasn’t 2019 either. That was the year the French Review reminded universities that academic freedom and free exchange are crucial to their work – even if someone important takes offence.

(Years later, I’d learn that as my own little thought crimes were being stifled here in Melbourne, a professor in Queensland was facing his first formal sanction for failing to “uphold respect” for his colleagues. His fight for the right to speak his mind ended his career. And led to two court cases, with a third to follow in 2021.)

The Journal editor’s email had landed early on Monday morning: Simon Marginson has requested that in the event that you do not retract the article, that I include a statement disassociating the Journal from “Sharrock’s breach of ethics”... I sighed. I hadn’t taken your paper is now out there and nothing will change that fact as a demand to make it disappear. Somehow last week’s “extraordinary attack” and “bile and bias” accusations had morphed into a back-channel call for a book-burning.

Portrait of Voltaire. Photo Erich Lessing. Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:D%27apr%C3%A8s_Nicolas_de_Largilli%C3%A8re,_portrait_de_Voltaire_(Institut_et_Mus%C3%A9e_Voltaire)_-001.jpg

And now I was sitting on a train, phone in hand, strains of Vivaldi infusing my brain. I pecked out a quick reply.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 14 March 2016 7:56 AM
To: Ian Dobson
Subject: Re: The paper 

Ian, I have heard from Simon on this … I will take advice and get back to you. Can you please forward exactly what has been alleged, verbatim? Thanks, Geoff

His reply landed two hours later. I was at my desk, preparing a couple of webinars to teach the next day. At the time I didn’t think twice about how vague his answer was. Geoff, I don’t think there’s anything other than what was circulated in earlier emails, but it is now a specific request to the editor… He suggested I soften my paper’s wording and alter the title: ‘Beautiful lies’ is part of the issue …

This advice made sense. I had some minor edits in the works for a week with the publisher’s production editor, Mia Yardley. Ian was in the loop on these. Ian, Something along the lines you suggest might well work. Had the title been ‘lies damned lies and OECD comparisons’ – a line I’ve used in media commentary before without anyone making a fuss – then perhaps more readers would more readily detect the irony. However, as I explained (at some length, on this and other points) to Simon and others in an email exchange … the reference to Twain’s ‘beautiful lies’ line is apt, since it is about an outsider’s observation of Australian realities which do not fit ‘normal’ categories of expectation or experience, from another culture’s point of view. Perhaps a footnote is neededFrom what you say, it appears to me that along with ‘bile and bias’ I am now being accused of a ‘breach of ethics’ in Simon’s own words, and that he is pushing for a full retraction. All correct? Cheers, Geoff

He replied an hour and a half later but couldn’t clarify the breach of ethics bit. Geoff, Simon would like you to retract the article, but given the difficulty with changing anything that T&F have ‘published’, I’m not sure how one would go about doing that … Seeing that none of us knows what ‘breach of ethics’ would mean, it is a bit hard to react to it … I suggest a paper that is deliberately bland in providing descriptions based on analysis of potentially variable figures … Regards, Ian

Our Institute part-owned the Journal. Part of my job was to help our Masters students convert their project reports into publishable academic papers. By 2015 I had guest-edited three special editions of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, each made up of our graduates’ work. So (in theory) there was good independent advice and support to hand. Those I knew on the editorial board included the Institute’s current and former Directors (Leo and Lynn Meek), and one of the peer reviewers who’d supported publication in the first place (Vin Massaro).

None of us knows what ‘breach of ethics’ would mean. At that point I didn’t assume that Leo had been in the loop, and was keeping his distance from any fallout by leaving this one on the editor’s doorstep. Later that day I sent Ian’s note on to Leo and Lynn: A new development … Any thoughts from past experience with this kind of scenario?

Leo replied that he and Lynn would see Ian about it the next day.

In the meantime, in between teaching the next day’s webinars from home, I emailed Bexley about the concerns she’d raised. This time I gave a more detailed explanation of the paper’s argument. I didn’t copy in Marginson, who had “unsubscribed” the week before. But since those who’d worked in the Centre for years (Richard, Sophie, Emmaline, Simon) all knew each other well, I assumed my note would be passed on. And I hoped he might reconsider his call to retract.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 15 March 2016 2:01 PM
To: Emmaline Bexley
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Emmaline, Sorry not to have replied sooner. The point you make about the “vested interests” line is a valid criticism. Please be assured, I did not have your commentary in mind when I wrote this. I know your concerns about under-funding, like my own, are primarily about their policy implication for student fees. Please accept my apologies for any distress caused. I will modify this passage along with other edits to the article. That said, I don’t understand why in 2015 you would want to claim that the public funding of Australian universities is “33rd out of 34” OECD countries. I know that other commentators echo or endorse this claim … (but) the common denominator for all comparisons is GDP … By 2014 our GDP had grown 46% since 2001, while that of Greece, now in negative growth, had fallen to 5% below its 2001 level … I do not think this kind of comparison does much to inform current debates about Australian university funding. It’s not that I don’t appreciate its rhetorical value. But I can’t see much rigour; or much relevance either, when presented in isolation. For the domestic debate, we have much more up to date and detailed information to go on. All the best, Geoff

Later that evening the Centre Director asked us not to copy the Vice-Chancellor into any further exchanges.

From: Richard James
Sent: Tuesday, 15 March 2016 7:45 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Emmaline Bexley
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Em, Geoff, Can I ask please for Glyn not to be copied into any further email you may choose to exchange (and as I’ve suggested before, a personal conversation might be more helpful). Richard 

Leo concurred: Can I second that. As did Bexley: I third that … I’d also quite like not to be included in these rants.

In reply I felt pressed to agree – but was not sure why they were so concerned. I went on to state what seemed obvious: I was responding to criticisms that Glyn had seen. I didn’t mention Marginson’s new complaint. But now it was clear that Richard and Leo both wanted the matter handled as quietly as possible, at the Centre level. And soon they’d let me know that they didn’t want me to respond to Hare’s media story either.

That same evening I followed up with the Journal editor about amending the online paper.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 15 March 2016 6:55 PM
To: Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: The paper

Ian, I’ve prepared some edits, and I believe you have discussed this with Leo and Lynn today. Can you advise me of the deadline for edits/corrigenda for the edition which is pending? Thanks, Geoff

Leo responded instead. Geoff, Will give you a call tomorrow after your morning webinar. But the upshot is no edits possible. What is out there is the Version of Record, which is the final and non-changeable version. So don’t spend more time on this as it won’t be worth it … Cheers, Leo

That was a surprise. For more than a week I’d been working with T&F people on minor edits, with Ian in the loop. Mia Yardley had confirmed for us that the VOR could be amended, with a footnote. Dear Geoff, The current version is the Version of Record (VOR) … it is not possible to alter the VOR without a corrigendum. Any proposed changes or corrections to the VOR must meet the criteria in the Taylor & Francis corrections policy (please see attached) … Mia. The T&F policy also seemed clear: If we and the Journal’s editors agree a correction is warranted, and your article has been published online only, we will correct the error online, linking to a notice of correction via a footnote …

On the phone the next day, Leo said that he and Lynn had met with Ian and the T&F publisher. Since he couldn’t explain why no edits were possible, I followed up with Mia’s advice.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 3:30 PM
To: Leo Christiaan Johannes Goedegebuure
Cc: Ian Dobson
Subject: FW: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Leo, thanks for the advice about your meeting. Here’s the advice from Mia that I mentioned. Looking back over it, I find it hard to reconcile with advice from your meeting that what’s out there online is the final and unalterable version … Perhaps one of the people you spoke with can contact me directly to explain the policy. With thanks, Geoff

I then followed up to put Mia in the loop.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 4:00 PM
To: Leo Christiaan Johannes Goedegebuure
Cc: Ian Dobson; Yardley, Mia
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions 

Leo, Ian, Mia … Below is the guidance I have from one of the documents from Mia. I was not at the meeting, but this guidance does appear to allow scope to amend. Regards, Geoff

Please note if your manuscript has already appeared in print we cannot make any changes to the online pdf version as the Scholarly Version of Record must remain intact.

Leo handballed this back to Ian. Then Mia, again out of the loop, reiterated the mechanics of online versus print publishing.

From: Leo Goedegebuure
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 4:04 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Ian Dobson
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions 

Ian, this one is for the editor. I conveyed the outcome of the discussion to Geoff, but this is an editor’s call according to the T&F guidelines. Cheers, Leo

From: Yardley, Mia
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 4:54 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Leo Goedegebuure
Cc: Ian Dobson
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Dear Geoff … If the Version of Record has been published online but has not yet appeared in print, it can be amended and then republished online with a corrigendum or erratum. The new version is then included in a print issue. Therefore, the VOR (even when amended) is the same online and in print. However, when an article has been published online and in print, it cannot be altered at all. In this case, we can issue a corrigendum/erratum (online and in the next available print issue), but the VOR remains unchanged … Kind regards, Mia

Ian followed up half an hour later to say that Issue 3 of the print edition wasn’t yet in production, and my paper wouldn’t appear in print until at least Issue 4. As I saw it, this confirmed that we could amend the VOR simply and quickly, without any spanner landing in the print production. But I then learned that Mia was not in the loop about the complaint.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 5:28 PM
To: Ian Dobson
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Thanks Ian, That implies plenty of time for the print edition. However once the edits and corrigenda are settled, then the online version can be replaced immediately, once approved, as Mia has advised already. Please confirm, and I’ll get onto it. Regards, Geoff

From: Yardley, Mia
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 5:50 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Dear Geoff, I understood that you had already approved the amended text and the corrigendum that I sent to you last week. Can you please use the proofs that I provided then if you have additional changes (see attached). Please note that I will only be able to proceed with the revisions and corrigendum when I have received approval from Taylor & Francis. Thank you. Kind regards, Mia

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 16 March 2016 6:03 PM
To: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions 

Thanks Mia, Some complaints have been made about who or what is implied here and there; some of these are worth accommodating with a bit of rephrasing. I will work from the same proofs and add to what was there before. Thanks again, Geoff

After Leo’s handball, there was no response from Ian. The reason became clear the next day when the publisher emailed us all from T&F’s Melbourne office. The real problem, it seemed, was not amendment policy but legal risk.

From: Pitt, Josh 
Sent: Thursday, 17 March 2016 10:27 AM
To: Yardley, Mia; Geoff Sharrock; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Hi all, As discussed with Leo and Ian earlier in the week, we are obtaining a legal reading before deciding how best to proceed. Please hold off on any further action until advised. Thanks, Josh

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 17 March 2016 10:42 AM
To: Pitt, Josh; Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Dear Josh, Thanks for confirming the advice on what’s happening at your end. As the edits I have prepared are likely to mitigate any concern arising from the legal reading, I think it makes sense to forward these to you as well as Mia so that the legal advice can be based on the amended version of what has appeared online. Despite the headline on Julie Hare’s reporting in The Australian, and the concerns that Simon Marginson has raised with myself and several others, the term ‘misuse’ is not used in the article, which focuses on common misinterpretations of OECD data, which in turn lead to misleading (inaccurate or meaningless) comparisons. Regards, Geoff

From: Pitt, Josh
Sent: Thursday, 17 March 2016 11:31 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Thanks Geoff, As you say there are unlikely to be problems, but from previous experience we are best to just cover off all bases with our legal team (and T&F may also be implicated). Ethical publishing guidelines state that we need are not able to edit a paper once it has been published as the official Version of Record, so we would need to fully retract the original paper and then publish again with an edited version (per your notes below). We would not recommend doing this under the circumstances, but will have some more specific advice shortly. Best wishes, Josh

To me it seemed that T&F had no firm VOR policy at all. As far as I could see, they were just over-reacting to an over-reaction to an online publication. I still didn’t appreciate how Kafkaesque this story would become. Without ever spelling it out, the later T&F advice kept implying that if I didn’t retract I faced a clear legal risk. (Under the contract I’d signed, if anyone took action against the journal/publisher for defamation, the author was liable for any T&F costs or damages.)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 17 March 2016 12:05 PM
To: Pitt, Josh; Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions 

Thanks Josh, It appears there is some differing guidance on this. It is surprising that a full retraction would be required for simple amendments to an online publication … I’ve attached the draft corrigendum anyway, as it may help your own consideration of the balance of risks here, beyond the strict legal risk. Also attached are the proposed amendments. These deal with the concerns raised quite simply; and without abandoning the points made in the original, albeit imprecisely. Looking forward to your further advice. Regards, Geoff

Walking past Leo’s office that day, I ran into Lynn Meek. He’d been in the Tuesday meeting with Leo and Ian and Josh. His take on the matter was simple: this was “a storm in a teacup”. Leo agreed.

I got back to my work. Over the past week, since our Master’s program had begun in University House, I’d been working with an Institute colleague, Heather Davis, on some course notes for an overseas program she and Leo were due to deliver in April.

Another week would pass before the legal gravity of my situation began to hit – like an Apple laptop dropped on Isaac Newton’s head. For now, I was concerned about the media report, the upset colleagues and, now, the confusing process for handling the call to retract.

Old Arts Building, University of Melbourne
Image source: https://learningspaces.unimelb.edu.au/building/149

I hit Send to circulate the latest draft of the course notes. Then I left the office for a quick walk around campus, to get some air. Detouring through the Old Arts building I saw a crowd of students settling in to the Public Lecture Theatre.

Decades earlier, I had sat in there as a first-year Arts student. A professor had talked us through the ideas of 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill. I reflected that perhaps these arcane collisions of mind with mind – in this case about lies, damned lies, and statistics – should have a philosopher to hand, to referee. Someone like Mill or Voltaire to act as a voice of sanity if the going got rough. Why is it that, on campuses these days, there’s never a philosopher around when you need one? I reflected that regardless of any misreading, my paper had caused distress, so a few clarifications were needed.

Over the weekend I went back through the email trail. Marginson had objected to the “beautiful lies” title and “selective quotation out of context”. While neither he nor Bexley were willing to concede the substantive case, some simple edits and an apologetic note still seemed like the best and fairest way to clear the air.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 21 March 2016 1:30 PM
To: Pitt, Josh
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Dear Josh, Mulling it further over the weekend, I think amendments are now necessary, whatever the process. I’ve had one valid criticism from a colleague, which I’ve apologised for, and indicated that I’m taking steps to address it … I’d like to take this approach with Marginson also, to calm things down in the interim; and also so that in his reply he won’t need to argue on points already conceded … Ian, I’ve been back through the feedback summary you sent, from the four peer reviews. No-one then took the title to imply academic fraud, so unless legal advice dictates otherwise, I’m inclined to stick with a footnote on this … Regards, Geoff

The next day I emailed Marginson to advise him that I’d rechecked the paper and planned some amendments. And to extend the apology I’d offered to Bexley the previous week. I confirmed that I stood by the paper’s analysis and conclusions, and that despite his call to retract, I expected that the Journal would offer him the usual right of reply. He didn’t reply.

As it turned out, my offer to amend and apologise would be taken by the publisher as an admission of guilt. What had looked like a storm in a teacup in Melbourne was seen in London as a legal threat.

From: Pitt, Josh
Sent: Thursday, 24 March 2016 4:53 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions

Dear all, We’ve been advised by T&F Legal that given the potential for allegation of defamation, and the author’s concession of error, a Corrigendum is not sufficient to eliminate the risk of litigation in this case.  We therefore recommend that: 1. The original article is removed from Taylor & Francis Online immediately, with the placeholder ‘Content withdrawn at the request of the author’; this is a matter of urgency given the coverage in the media (and social media); 2. We obtain written confirmation from Geoff that Simon Marginson finds the proposal to revise and repost a corrected version of the article to be acceptable (i.e., so we are assured there is no continuing threat of legal action); 3. Assuming [2] is confirmed, then a corrected version of the article can be posted … Please can Mia ensure step 1 is actioned as soon as possible, and Geoff please could you provide written confirmation per point 2 at your earliest convenience? Have a lovely Easter break all! Josh

From: Leo Goedegebuure
Sent: Thursday, 24 March 2016 6:13 PM
To: Pitt, Josh
Cc: Geoff Sharrock; Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson
Subject: Re: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions 

Dear all, Given the exchange of emails I have been privy to, I would think the chances of 2 happening are very slim indeed. Alternative strategy Josh? Cheers Leo A few minutes later Leo sent another message. To clarify previous email and avoid misinterpretation, I seriously doubt Simon to do this.

At the time I was more shocked than awed at the prospect of a legal threat. Seriously? Nothing I’d seen seemed to justify this. I assumed at the time that Leo was referring to my own exchange, the previous week, that he had been privy to. I asked Josh and Mia not to “withdraw at the request of the author” and said I’d come back to them with more detail. Late the next evening I sent a longer note, to say that this was “an offer I could refuse”. By then it was after midnight. Good Friday had begun. My Easter holiday was off to a weary start.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Friday, 25 March 2016 12:14 AM
To: Pitt, Josh
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions – legal advice

Josh, Thanks again for forwarding your legal advice … I do not wish to have the article formally withdrawn ‘at the author’s request’, or to have to seek permission from Marginson to revise and repost it. Without having seen any detail of Marginson’s complaint to the journal, if some kind of defamation action did arise, it seems to me some ready defences are available … I’d now also like to take some advice of my own on the ‘breach of ethics’ allegation that I understand has been made in Marginson’s complaint to the journal. To assist with this, Josh, I’d appreciate it if your office would forward to me a copy of this correspondence, or relevant excerpt, so that I can see the exact nature of the complaint…

The next day I followed up. I updated Josh on my clarification of the media misreporting, and my invitation to Marginson to identify his concerns.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Saturday, 26 March 2016 4:16 PM
To: Pitt, Josh 
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions – legal advice

Josh, Further to my response to you yesterday, today I’ve informed Marginson and other UM people who were parties to our earlier exchange of my efforts to clarify the article with The Australian, as set out below … My hope is that this approach will assuage some of his concerns about the intent of the paper, and what it does and does not claimI have undertaken to recheck all quotes during the Easter break while preparing my amendments; and I have invited Marginson to identify any misreading or misrepresentation of quotes taken from his own commentary … Regards, Geoff

From: Pitt, Josh
Sent: Tuesday, 29 March 2016 9:32 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure; Lazzari, Alexandra
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions – legal advice

Dear Geoff, Thanks very much for the extra information provided. I will need to go back to Legal now with preferred revised approach, which as I understand is your preference to simply amend and then republish the article online with attached corrigendum i.e. without written confirmation from Marginson … It is important to point out that both LH Martin and the Association for Tertiary Education Management, as copyright owners in the Journal, will also both be liable if a defamation case is sought … Best wishes, Josh

By then everyone must have known that the main legal risk here was to the author. (As Josh put it, the Institute and the Association would also be liable.) But no-one was saying so directly. Given how seriously they were taking this, I grew concerned that I wasn’t getting the full story. Beyond my own exchange and Ian’s note, there were few specifics about the complaint. And Marginson hadn’t responded to my messages on the steps I’d been taking to address his concerns. If my critique was so wrong-headed, why not just let it proceed, then publish a “point by point refutation”? Meanwhile, I reminded Josh that he still hadn’t sent me the details of what I was being asked to respond to.

From On Liberty (1859) Image source: https://www.kobo.com/au/en/ebook/on-liberty-2

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 29 March 2016 10:24 AM
To: Pitt, Josh 
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure; Lazzari, Alexandra
Subject: Re: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions – legal advice

Thanks Josh. I’m not in the office, in fact on family holiday in Tassie. On the road just now but I will send you a  detailed response this evening. I’ll revisit the edits, as I think there is a way to deal more explicitly with the concern raised regarding the title … While I have not heard back from Marginson yet, it is likely that the substantive analysis and its implications are now clearer to him. With the edits, I need more detail as to the complaint. Are you able to provide this? Thanks again for giving this prompt attention. Regards Geoff

Curiously, the legal advice Josh had to hand didn’t seem to include a copy of the complaint itself. Or any record of who it had been addressed to.

From: Pitt, Josh
Sent: Tuesday, 29 March 2016 10:46 AM
To: ‘Geoff Sharrock’
Cc: Yardley, Mia; Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure; Lazzari, Alexandra
Subject: RE: CJHE 1150231: Beautiful lies JHEPM online and print editions – legal advice

Thanks Geoff, As far as we are aware the complaint from Marginson to the Journal was not made via Taylor & Francis. Would Ian (cc’d) be able to confirm whether this was made directly to him as EiC? Safe travels. Thanks, Josh

There was no reply to this from Ian. A few hours later, Josh sent a follow-up email: Hi Geoff, Confirming that I’ve spoken with Ian just now, who has advised that there were no specific complaints made to him in writing about the article by Marginson. Josh

So, no more specifics – and a little bit cryptic. But no-one in the loop had anything to add.

It was now two weeks since Ian had told me that the complainant’s concerns were “now a specific request to the editor” echoing what had been “circulated in earlier emails”. At the time I inferred that Ian must have been on the receiving end of an angry phone call from London. In the weeks that followed, no-one advising me on this would suggest that the complaint came up in email exchanges with my Melbourne colleagues, that I wasn’t privy to. But as time went by with no resolution, I would wonder about the very careful language Josh used.

Later that day I heard from Leo on the latest from Josh. He didn’t confirm how the complaint had arisen, but implied that it was nothing to do with him: Geoff, Hope you are enjoying Tassie … I’ve seen the discussion with Josh unfold … As far as I see it there has been no formal approach to the Journal from Simon, so for me that means that one is a non-issue. He is not going to throw a case, so that’s the end of it for me

So, no formal complaint to the Journal. And (I inferred) nothing in writing that I hadn’t already seen. But T&F was far less relaxed than Leo seemed to be. We’d all just spent two weeks to-ing and fro-ing about legal risks and publishing procedures. Was this solely in response to a media story, my own email exchanges, and a phone call demanding a retraction, or a statement disassociating the Journal from “Sharrock’s breach of ethics”?

Leo’s other piece of advice was to be guided by the publisher on their amendments policy: I think you are intending to do the right thing in amending a couple of things in the article, but as I explained before it is up to T&F how much room they see for this given version of record issues; again, that’s their call …

As with the complaint, the amendment process would remain opaque. As clear as bloody mud by moonlight, my inner farmboy was telling me. By the end of May, there was still no resolution. Both the paper and its author remained in limbo. And those handling the matter had been consulting and deliberating and waiting for…what?

Part of the problem, I would later learn, was that my paper had been framed as a “personal vendetta”. And in the end, the early mix of legal/ ethical/ procedural roadblocks to the editor’s common-sense solution – amend with a note to say why the VOR had changed – would be quietly rewritten. By September the Journal’s rationale for the Unexplained Disappearance of the Peer-Reviewed Publication would be, in effect: “we didn’t retract your paper without your consent; in fact we didn’t really publish it in any formal sense”.

Despite this new version of its history, the VOR survived. As least to the extent that scholarly publishing software was still detecting it in 2017. By then I’d sent Beautiful lies, damned statistics to another journal, with updated OECD figures, a footnote about the title, and my text toned down in parts. But in this case the editor would decline even to send it out for peer review:

having had the chance to compare this submission to the paper you published in JHEPM last year … the current submission does not significantly differ from the earlier publication … As such the paper does not offer us new insights and hence … does not warrant publication. 

What an omelette, gentle reader. What an omelette!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s