“Simon, your reinforcement of Julie’s misrepresentation of my paper’s analysis, and its author’s views, has been most unfortunate...”

On a weekend in late June, sick in bed at home, I reflected that I’d had a good week. My new Conversation piece was on track to reach 2000 readers. And the substance had been discussed online by experts who’d read the full paper. Andrew Norton – who’d also commented on my 2015 Conversation piece on OECD data – had reached similar conclusions in his own work. And had tweeted a link to the Journal article before Hare’s report back in March: Geoff Sharrock exposes dubious Australia-OECD higher ed comparisons.

In the TC comment stream I recorded how the article had fared in the media. (At the time, I didn’t expect to be posting updates in 2017. But at this point there was some good news…)

June 2016 …the analysis here was presented in much more detail in my ‘Beautiful lies, damned statistics’ journal article, though its argument was misreported in The Australian back in March…

July 2016 … An update on the misreporting I mentioned, of my journal article by The Australian … Last week the newspaper removed that report from its website.

August 2016 … The Australian newspaper … acknowledges that my paper did not say that commentators knowingly misused OECD data … (and) publishes my own explanation of what the paper was about…

For now, in June, I was ready to explain to my students why I’d been so distracted while teaching them at University House (Chapter 4). All worked in the tertiary sector, mostly in Australia, many in middle management roles. At the start of that week in March, I’d briefed them on the government’s funding reform proposals, the Australian political debate about fee deregulation since 2014, and the international context for higher education funding. (This background was the basis for a class exercise. The group task was to devise course prices and institution revenue strategies in a fee deregulation scenario.)

Image source: Sharrock, The Conversation, November 2014

Then over the next few days we’d worked through other topics. Strategic management and the prospect of disruptive change to the way universities worked if MOOCs went mainstream. Aspects of university leadership and management, such as the question of governance: who makes what decisions?

Image: Doug Toma, 2010

(At the time none of us thought of a pandemic as a trigger for disruption and innovation. But at least we had that MOOCs debate to help map possible responses to the big shift online in 2020).

Image (adapted) from Jon Kudelka, Weekend Australian Review 1 June 2013.

Self-isolating in bed with a box of tissues and my laptop, I tapped out a quick message, then slumped back on my pillow.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Saturday, 18 June 2016 12:10 PM
Subject: Tertiary Education Policy and Management (MGMT90113_2016_SM1): Public funding and OECD data: traps for the unwary

Hello all, I trust those essays are coming along. This note is to offer a belated apology and explanation for the fact that at the March residential school, as some may have noticed, I was somewhat distracted during the Wednesday and Thursday sessions. The technical background relates to the material I presented on Day 1 about OECD data and domestic data in university funding debates. This week I have published a critique of how OECD metrics are often misinterpreted in Australia (link) … early on Wednesday 9 March I read a sensationalist report in the newspaper … in the background that day I was attempting to respond … The reporting was timed to coincide with Day 1 of the Universities Australia annual conference in Canberra. I’m told by those who were there that it was much discussed. And I’m glad I was not in Canberra this year, but here in Melbourne will all of you. In sum, a cautionary tale about the politics of media reporting and academic publishing. If anyone wants to read the full paper, drop me a line. Meanwhile you may find the Conversation article and discussion forum there of interest. All the best with the essays. Regards, Geoff

As it turned out, my Institute colleague Heather Davis had told the group about it. And now a small flurry of student responses made me feel better. As with the TC forum comments, I reflected how desperate for moral support I’d become.

Dear Geoff, I just read the piece in the Australian, such a sensationalist take on what is clearly intended as a discussion paper. How awful for you and good on you for keeping the residential uninterrupted and seamless on the day. Clearly none of us noticed 🙂 Would love to read the full piece … once I have finished this essay of course!

Thanks for your email, Geoff. Hoping to put the finishing touches on my essay today. No need to apologise, by the way. I really enjoyed the residential school, and Heather explained what was happening … Can you please send on the full paper? Really looking forward to reading it after I submit this assessment.

Thank you for this explanation Geoff. Heather actually mentioned to a group of us at the end of the week that you had been misreported and I am not surprised that this was distressing …

By the end of June, Hare’s March report (Chapter 9) had been removed. In July we’d settle the wording of the apology and confirm that I could publish a reply in the newspaper’s Higher Education Supplement.

Along the way I followed up with the senior people I’d contacted in March. Particularly one of the vice-chancellors, who I hadn’t heard from.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Saturday, 25 June 2016 5:51 PM
To: Stephen Parker
Subject: paper on OECD comparisons 

Dear Stephen I am writing to follow up a message I sent to you about the misreporting of my journal article in The Australian on 9 March (copy of reporting attached). I was not at the UA conference that day, but I’m told that the paper – or at least the reporting on it – was much discussed. Unfortunately the newspaper refused my request to publish a right of reply to clarify what my paper did and did not claim. I do hope that the reporting, which suggested that I ‘point the finger’ at you among others in accusation of wilful ‘misuse’ of OECD data, did not cause you distress at the conference; and that you did not then read my paper as suggesting wilful misuse of data on the part of those whose public commentary it criticises. Last week I published a Conversation article which reiterated key points from the journal article, and which has attracted comments which I have responded to in some detail (link). I hope this goes some way to addressing any concerns that you or others may have had about the journal article. Regards, Geoff

Thanks Geoff.  I didn’t have a particular problem, but I guess if you use “beautiful lies” in the title of an article you invite sensationalist coverage … Stephen

OK, should’ve footnoted that bloody title … but “damned statistics” does give a clue. I also updated Belinda Robinson, the CEO of Universities Australia, and another VC Hare’s report had mentioned, Ian Young (Chapter 4). To keep the Centre group in the loop, this time I cc’d Leo and Sophie as well.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 28 June 2016 10:42 AM
To: CEO Universities Australia; Stephen Parker; Ian Young; Glyn Davis; Richard James
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: paper on OECD comparisons – misreporting in The Australian 

Dear Belinda, Stephen, Ian, Glyn and Richard, Further to my note on 9 March, last week The Australian withdrew its report on my journal article from its website. You’ll recall that the report appeared during the Universities Australia conference … The newspaper now acknowledges that my paper did not claim that university sector commentators knowingly misused OECD data to present misleading views of government funding to the sector. Having refused my initial request for a right of reply in March the newspaper has offered to make amends, on terms which I am now considering. Regards, Geoff

(A year later, at a dinner in Canberra with a group of vice-chancellors, I’d learn how keen Belinda Robinson was to shut me up on this topic. The long arm of the folklore would make itself felt surprisingly directly that evening. But for now, there was no hint of any concern in her response later that day: Thanks Geoff I appreciate the update. Regards, Belinda Robinson

And now I was ready to dust off that reply Hare had rejected (Chapter 8). I could now refer to the new Conversation piece (Chapter 17). And to address Stephen Parker’s point, add background on the Beautiful Lies title (Chapter 5): On visiting Melbourne in 1895 Mark Twain wrote

The other piece of good news in June was that, later that year, the Journal would have new editors – Peter Bentley from our Institute, and Carroll Graham from the University of Technology Sydney. I had known Carroll and her work for a while. She was aware of the controversy. I dropped her a quick note.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 29 June 2016 10:33 AM
To: Carroll Graham
Subject: editing the journal in future? 

Hi Carroll, Congratulations on your coming role with the journal, that’s great to hear. I’ll forward you some info shortly as background on the problem I mentioned with my paper on OECD data. Cheers, Geoff

The reply was prompt.

From: Carroll Graham
Sent: Wednesday, 29 June 2016 10:42 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: editing the journal in future?

Thanks Geoff! I had a Skype meeting with Leo and Peter recently and, without naming names, I gather that Leo is addressing the matter with T&F. We’re all on the same page here 🙂 … Regards, Carroll

As I hadn’t heard back from Leo on his June discussions with the publisher, this was reassuring. I replied that I’d update Peter as well on The Australian reporting, then sent them both the details.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 29 June 2016 11:21 AM
To: Peter James Bentley; Carroll Graham
Subject: OECD paper and misreporting in The Australian – update 

Hi Peter and Carroll, Good to know your news re the journal. Just for info – Last week The Australian withdrew its report on my OECD article from its website – I’ve told Leo already. A copy from the print edition is attached, complete with misquote … Having refused my initial request for a right of reply in March the newspaper has offered to make amends … A cautionary tale about the politics of academic publishing… Regards, Geoff

That night I also followed up with Richard and Leo about the vendetta narrative. I assumed both were aware of the Conversation piece, and the comments flowing in.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 29 June 2016 10:01 PM
To: Richard James
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons 

Richard, Leo – Further to our exchange on 13 June: If the publisher has concerns that my paper is some kind of ‘personal vendetta’ it may help to refer them to my Conversation article of 14 June which you will have seen (link); and to the fact that, as you know, the Australian has withdrawn its report claiming that the paper was an ‘attack’ on all kinds of people for ‘misusing’ OECD data in order to mislead governments. Back in March the adverse media report was part of their stated rationale for withdrawing the paper. Aside from what the journal does about the paper, I have not yet had an answer to the question I raised in our exchange two weeks ago. In the period since this came up in mid-March, has Marginson been alleging some kind of academic misconduct on my part…? That is the impression I have; and if that is the case, I believe I have a right to know. If not, it would be good to have your clear reassurance that this is not the case, after all that has occurred in this matter. Please advise. Regards, Geoff

There was no response to this, from either of them. I inferred that they weren’t in a position to offer any reassurance. On the weekend I updated Marginson and Bexley on the latest Australian development. This time I hit reply all to that initial response from Marginson (Chapter 5), to keep Hare in the loop with the rest of the Centre group. While I didn’t expect either to respond, perhaps the journalist and the professor would now read my work again. With a bit more care, and a bit less bias.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Saturday, 2 July 2016 3:50 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Richard James; Glyn Davis; Sophia Arkoudis; Emmaline Bexley; Hare, Julie
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons 

Emmaline, Simon – Further to my note to you on 9 March, earlier this week The Australian advised me that it is now prepared to acknowledge that my paper did not claim what Julie Hare’s report said it claimed the report has been removed from its website. Simon, your reinforcement of Julie’s misrepresentation of my paper’s analysis, and its author’s views, has been most unfortunate. I am now taking steps to update those who sought explanations from me about this matter during the course of the past few months. Regards, Geoff

Most unfortunate was putting it fairly mildly, I thought. The next evening I updated the rest of the Journal group as well.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Sunday, 3 July 2016 10:57 PM
To: Leo Goedegebuure; Lazzari, Alexandra; Pitt, Josh
Cc: Ian Dobson
Subject: Re: paper on OECD data – update 

Dear all, Last week The Australian advised me that it is now prepared to acknowledge that my paper did not claim what their report said it claimed back in March, i.e. that commentators had knowingly misused OECD data … The newspaper has also advised me that the report has now been removed from its website. Regards, Geoff

There was no response. So the next afternoon I sent a further note.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 4 July 2016 3:16 PM
To: Pitt, Josh; Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: paper on OECD data – update 

Josh and Ian, I have not heard back from you on my previous emails from 22 May or 14 June. Can you please acknowledge that you received this latest update? Another point I should have added is that part of the Australian’s offer to make amends is a right of reply in its higher education section. If we can settle the details, this will probably appear in the next week or so. Obviously this would not focus on the misreporting, but on my paper’s substantive analysis, and responses from the sector. It would help me to know what the status of the paper is or will be, before publishing any opinion piece about it with the newspaper. Please advise. Regards, Geoff 

Again, no response. The weeks slipped by. By the end of July I still hadn’t settled everything with The Australian. And still no response from the Journal. Nor any update from Leo – despite that positive note from Carroll. I wondered if they were now waiting to see what my Australian piece would say about responses from the sector. Or had they decided already, but no-one wanted to tell me?

Meanwhile, I worried there might now be some kind of misconduct allegation brewing at the University, after all. One day I received a note from Peter Bentley, on a new University policy that might restrict what its scholars could say. I wasn’t sure how he’d heard about it. But it did seem relevant to my Conversation commentaries, which went back years.

From: Peter James Bentley
Sent: Thursday, 14 July 2016 2:06 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Asa Olsson
Subject: Careful what you write and say! 

Hi Geoff, Not sure how broad unimelb’s policy could be, but they are drafting a policy which will mean one can not “intentionally cause serious risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the University” (link). So, if you start writing that the university is not underfunded then you may be causing a risk to our profitability! Don’t even think about writing anything negative about deregulating tuition fees, think of the impact on our profitability … Also don’t talk about anything which may affect our ability to attract international students, certainly don’t start critiquing university world rankings or star professors who may attract international students. In fact, better just not criticise anyone or anything. I am only half-serious about this. Surely the university would not want to censor or punish academics through this policy, not that they really need to if they simply stop recruiting people on ongoing contracts. Peter

I recalled that my contract would end in early 2017. As with the Kylie Gould advice on a possible misconduct complaint (Chapter 10), it was another thing to worry about. And not my idea of how a university should operate, at all. How would the Centre explain such a policy to scholars who analysed and debated university sector funding? For a moment my inner farmboy imagined a list suddenly appearing on the staff notice-board: Thou shalt not diss the discourse on under-funding. Nor mess with our messaging. Nor knacker the narrative…

While waiting for news from the Journal, I followed up with my Conversation editor, to give them some background on the June piece.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 18 July 2016 12:54 PM
To: Claire Shaw; Andrew Jaspan
Subject: IN CONFIDENCE: background to my OECD article 

Dear Claire and Andrew, A quick note to say that for personal reasons I really appreciated being able to publish last month’s opinion piece on OECD statistics, and to discuss those issues with TC readers. The background is this: in March a long and technical academic journal article I’d published on this same topic was misreported in The Australian … after you published the article in June, the situation changed. The online version of the Australian report has now been removed from their website, and we’ve been discussing terms of redress such as a right of reply … I think the case illustrates well how The Conversation provides a platform which can shift the balance of power when scholars seek to redress misinterpretations of their work in other media. Thanks again. Best, Geoff

Claire came back later that afternoon: Dear Geoff, Thanks so much for your lovely email. It’s really important to us that we accurately represent research findings, so I’m really glad that we could help you to redress misinterpretations of your work. I look forward to working with you again. All the best, Claire 

In late July it became clear why there had been such a long radio silence. The news of the Journal decision came up indirectly. Lynn Meek was a retired professor, formerly our Institute director, and a member of the Journal‘s editorial board. Back in March, he’d gone with Leo to discuss the complaint with Josh and Ian. At the time his view was that this was a storm in a teacup (Chapter 7). He’d been away, and not involved at all, as far as I knew. Since he edited another higher education journal, I wondered if he might suggest a Plan B for my paper, if the Journal decided to retract after all.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 21 July 2016 4:11 PM
To: Lynn Meek
Subject: coffee next week? 

Hi Lynn, I’d like to catch up with you for a coffee, perhaps next week if you are on campus. I’m in and out of the MTEM capstone residential, which Heather is running … I am keen to have your advice on reactions to the OECD data paper I sent you back in March, which has been a bit of a saga. Let me know – Regards, Geoff

I forwarded a copy of the Hare report and a link to the Conversation piece. We met the following Thursday, at the Potter Espresso Bar on Swanston Street. I still hadn’t heard from the Journal. But Lynn – via Leo, I assumed – was in the know. He soon filled me in on the Realpolitik of my situation. My paper had been retracted; they weren’t going to republish it. And yes, Marginson was a troublemaker. As for the Journal‘s reasons, I might want to ask Ian if this was his decision or the publisher’s.

His advice was to cut my losses and submit to another journal. But (before I could even ask) not the one he edited. If I did that, he’d probably send it to Marginson for peer review. And I might have trouble finding another publisher, because word gets around. After all, my analysis was not rocket science. Those in the field knew all that already – it just hadn’t been given enough emphasis in expert commentary. As for the Australian, his advice was the same as for the Journal: you won’t get anywhere.

In other words: put this one down to experience, and move on. I wondered why he seemed so sure about the Australian. Perhaps Leo hadn’t updated him recently. But now our time was up. As we rose from the table I told him: The Australian will print my reply… He looked surprised, but didn’t ask for details. And so we parted, leaving it at that.

To clear my head I went for a quick walk around campus before returning to the Masters group. I headed for Wilson Hall, then south towards the John Medley building. And from there towards the Baillieu Library, aiming to end up at University House.

Lynn must have seen the look of surprise on my face at the news of the Journal decision. He’d mentioned it quite casually, as if I already knew. Perhaps I hadn’t heard anything because Leo’s governance concern about editorial independence had gone nowhere, back in June. Who makes what decisions?

So, Leo knew – but had left it to Ian to tell me. And for some reason, Ian hadn’t. The other surprise from Lynn was his comment that experts already knew about the flaws my paper had highlighted. If so, they’d been very quiet about it. No emphasis at all, that I could recall. As I walked, I did recall one response I’d had back in March that supported this. It was from an Office of Research director at Griffith University.

From: Tony Sheil
Sent: Thursday, 10 March 2016 11:43 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Beautiful lies, damned statistics: reframing Australian university funding 

Dear Geoff, Congratulations of such a well-crafted article in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. I shake my head in disbelief every time I see the OECD statistics misused for vested purposes by individuals – some who know better … I see the same occurring in the Innovation space where the OECD indicators are being misquoted to present a problem that is not nearly as extreme as presented. Granted we can do more in the innovation space but as your colleagues (Meek and Goedegebuure) point out, that debate is being played out only the context of research funding and ignores university graduates as the most fundamental contributor to knowledge transfer … Best regards, tony

By now, once again, I found myself at the door of the Mad Max underground car park. Should I abandon hope, as Lynn suggested? I decided not to enter this time. Wouldn’t want to meet Hal Holbrook down there, whispering Follow the money

I headed back to University House, where the residential school continued. That weekend I wondered when I’d be notified about the Journal decision. And what their reason would be. In May I’d sent the Journal group a list of our exchanges since March, in part to keep the advice trail clear with so many parties involved (Chapter 14). I went back through it.

Timeline to 11 May

… 9 March Geoff advises Ian and Mia of Julie Hare’s adverse media coverage

9 March Mia provides correction proofs and draft corrigendum

9 March Geoff revises draft corrigendum. Mia updates corrigendum

9 March Geoff seeks confirmation that online version has been updated.

11 March Geoff seeks confirmation that the online version will be updated as soon as possible given media reporting

11 March Mia advises that a formal application for a corrigendum must be made, which has been submitted with urgency

14 March Ian advises Geoff that Marginson has sought a retraction, etc.

14 March Ian advises modification of text and title

15 March Leo discusses with Josh and Ian, and advises Geoff VOR is out there and can’t be changed

16 March Geoff sends Leo Mia’s advice, which says otherwise. Leo says it is up to Ian as editor

16 March Mia advises that VOR can be modified with a corrigendum or erratum while online, but not once in print. Ian advises that Issue 3 is in production, and the print version of the paper would appear in Issue 4

16 March Mia advises that approval from the publisher is needed before revision is possible

16 March Geoff advises that complaints received can be accommodated with minor rephrasing

17 March Josh advises that the publisher is seeking legal advice and to hold off on any action; and that editing is not possible without full retraction

17 March Geoff provides draft edits and draft corrigendum to inform consideration by the publisher

18 March Geoff provides another minor edit to Mia, assuming edits will be made

21 March Geoff advises amendments seem necessary whatever the process, to tone down a passage that was criticised, which Geoff undertook to address for Bexley when simple edits looked possible. (Not a factual error, but an omission which if fixed would soothe hurt feelings). No material change to the corrigendum already provided.

22 March Geoff responds to Marginson about the edits already sought, the intention to fix the omission raised by Bexley, and rechecking of quotes from Marginson’s work. An apology for the omission is offered, noting that the author stands by the paper’s analysis and conclusions. Geoff objects to Marginson’s pressure on the journal to enforce retraction, and suggests the usual right of reply may be offered

24 March Josh advises that a corrigendum is not sufficient to eliminate legal risk; that full retraction at the request of the author is recommended as step 1, given media coverage; and that as step 2, it is recommended that Geoff obtain written consent from Marginson to revise and repost a corrected version, to ensure against continuing threat of legal action.

24 March Geoff requests no action on Step 1. Leo advises Step 2 is not likely. Geoff advises late that night that he does not wish to withdraw the article at the author’s request, or to have to seek Marginson’s permission to repost it; that the paper is defensible as is, though Geoff has no specifics re Marginson’s complaint; and that the media report (part of the rationale for withdrawal) was inaccurate, and had had input from Marginson.

24 March (?? day before Good Friday and Easter break) The article is withdrawn from the website, and marked ‘unavailable’.

29 March Josh advises he will go back to Legal with Geoff’s preferred approach, noting that LHMI and ATEM would also be liable in the event of a defamation case by Marginson

29 March Geoff seeks details of Marginson’s complaint

29 March Josh advises that Ian advises there were no specific complaints made to him in writing

29 March Geoff provides proposed edits and a revised corrigendum

30 March Geoff provides a more precise corrigendum

31 Josh advises baby due to arrive and Alex will pick this matter up

2 April Geoff forwards advice provided to Marginson on recheck of quotes, with queries re anomalies / inaccuracy in Marginson’s work

6 April Alex asks for an update if Marginson responds

6 April Geoff advises no response from Marginson, and forwards final recheck of quotes and advice provided to Marginson, with a further query about Marginson’s work. This recheck reaffirms that the paper’s analysis stands; and that it points to fallacy, not fraud. It suggests to Marginson that he reconsider his demand for a retraction and contact Ian directly.

10 April Geoff advises no response from Marginson, and suggests that once legal advice and next steps are clear, that Ian may approach Marginson to see if his stance has changed.

20 April Alex advises that legal advice is not to republish a revised version without consent from Marginson, and the publisher will seek this directly

20 April Geoff advises that Marginson has had opportunity to raise specifics; that the Australian has refused a right of reply; that Marginson had been in communication with the journalist; that Geoff is seeking legal advice on this, and will also take advice on Marginson’s accusations

25 April Geoff advises on further points that may be raised in any discussion with Marginson; and queries the approach adopted by the journal, which allows Marginson to determine if the paper can be published

29 April Alex advises that the journal will not approach Marginson after all; that the article has been withdrawn; and that any submission of a revised version would only be considered if Geoff obtains written approval from Marginson

29 April Leo advises that LHMI and ATEM do not believe that adverse reactions justify withdrawal of a paper that has been peer reviewed and published

8 May Geoff advises he supports Leo’s view re withdrawal, given the right of reply option. Also that he is preparing a further response to Marginson’s scholarly criticisms of the paper …

But in June the Journal‘s advice trail had gone cold. And now, at the end of July, I still hadn’t heard anything, directly. The mystery now was: who made what decision? And why?

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