“The decision to withdraw your paper was based on advice from the publisher, which in turn was based on advice it had received….”

In August, gentle reader, the going got woefully weird. It took weeks to discover who was behind the retraction decision. Then months to confirm what a ham-fisted, mealy-mouthed, chicken-livered dog’s breakfast they’d made of it. By September, perplexed at the Journal‘s refusal to discuss its decision, I called for an internal review.

After hearing the news in July (Chapter 20) I’d been waiting to hear what the Journal‘s official reason would be. Given T&F’s rules for even minor edits under ethical publishing guidelines once published as the official Version of Record (Chapter 7), I wanted to see how they’d word their retraction notice, at least.

On the other hand, my Australian problem was nearly fixed. To set the record straight, the newspaper agreed to publish an apology in early August; and my reply to the paper’s critics, if I kept it to 500 words or so.

As the Conversation piece didn’t seem to have swayed the Journal, I hoped the reply might still be a circuit-breaker. And here I had homework. A long-winded draft had sat in my bag for a week. Every so often I’d get it out to prune a clause here, sharpen a phrase there.

Its fellow-traveller was a dog-eared copy of the paper. It was replete with quotes and charts and graphs – and marginal edits for those once-imminent decisions on revisions. By now the shreds and patches of its time in limbo were writ large. Any amateur sleuth could readily detect the shadowy rings of endless caffe lattes. To these one could add, as a forensics lab would surely verify, the odd stains and whiffy smears of what once must have been (in a former, happier life) a chicken and avocado sandwich with mayonnaise.

On my way home from work one evening, feeling even more weary, stale and flat than usual, I was reading a dusty old paperback, snagged from a shelf as I’d left the house that morning. By the time the train left Richmond station, I’d got to the end of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman.

Image source: Penguin Classics

(The protagonist steals some papers from two dogs he overhears talking in the street. Their inane and elusive disdain soon loosens his faltering grip on reality. By the time he is taken off and locked up, he thinks he’s the King of Spain, being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition…)

What a bizarre story. Closing the book with a shiver, I decided not to start on The Nose or The Overcoat. Instead I plopped the battered Penguin back into my bag, and pulled out my dog-eared papers once again. If I could just cut my summary back to the bones, I’d send it on later that night.

With 500 words to work with, the task was a bit of an ask: restate the paper’s main case; explain its stirring title; affirm its diagnosis of fallacy, not fraud; highlight the range of responses thus far; and call for more scholarly debate to settle the complexities. All without confusing Oz readers who knew little and cared less about OECD statistics, or GDP growth disparities in a post-GFC global economy, or the arcane mechanics and parochial politics of Australian university funding debates.

Too easy! I thought. Keep it simple. Yet with context and nuance. Be insightful, but not inciteful. Try not to cause offence. But to thine own view be true. By all means hold a mirror up to culture… And now I felt like Hamlet staging an action research project: The reply’s the thing we’ll print to prick the conscience of our colleagues…

First, set the scene with a taste of cosmopolitan impressionism, to the effect that Australia sometimes seems a bit weird: On visiting Melbourne in 1895 Mark Twain wrote that Australian history was so strange it did not read like history but like “the most beautiful lies”… Then on to why those dipstick metrics weren’t really that reliable: High GDP growth will lower a nation’s ranking, and vice-versa… Then, a courteous caveat: Such cases of “lies, damned lies and statistics” do not mean that experts set out to deceive…

I’d lost track of our stops and starts – until my station drew into view. The carriage doors slid open. Grabbing my umbrella and bag in one hand, papers lightly gripped in the other, I shuffled off, still preoccupied: Unexpected flaws in the under-funding narrative…

The platform was dark that evening, and all but deserted. A huddle of passengers, heads bent against a brisk wind and random bursts of rain, had dispersed into the carpark. Fumbling with the umbrella on my way down the ramp, I stepped out and heard a sharp yelp. Then tripped and slipped and stumbled, losing my grip as a freak gust of wind whisked the papers away.

A small, black, floppy-eared dog, half-hidden in a shadowy corner, had bolted across my path. It capered after the papers along with another small, black, floppy-eared dog. In frazzled pursuit, umbrella aloft, I recognised them: the two Cavoodles from next door.

(I’d always had trouble telling Enigma and Dogma apart. Not exactly sheep-dog material, I recalled. More your dozy suburban lounge-lizard-rug-rat. Their nightly routine was to bark in performative outrage at any sign of trespass: a rat nosing a rubbish bin, or a possum crossing a roof. All without venturing beyond their front fence. Then they’d retreat indoors to their sofas for a well-earned nap – mission accomplished. Often, on summer evenings, their false alarms would be echoed up and down our street by other house-bound mutts, to create a common cry of curs.)

Why were they out here at night, no owner in sight? And now Enigma (?) had nabbed the paper as the wind slapped it wetly against the back wheel of a silver Honda Odyssey. Pinning it lightly with a damp paw, he sniffed at it suspiciously. Then riffled nosily through it, pausing now and then to stare back at its author in a way I found hard to interpret.

Meanwhile, Dogma (?) had snaffled the summary as it flip-flopped beneath the exhaust pipe of an old blue Volvo V70 station wagon. He gave it a dubious lick, head tilted and eyes aloft, like a connoisseur. Then chewed it into sodden fragments, spat out what was left and headed over to the Odyssey. Soon both dogs had settled into an extended, pointless tussle over the full paper – and were tearing my well-crafted prose into an indecipherable mishmash.

Gentle reader, I’d become quite attached to that paper. But whenever I drew near, they’d dodge out of reach with instinctive, insouciant dexterity. Now both were lying low, encamped beneath a black Range Rover Discovery. As Enigma gnawed on my Implications, Dogma was finding my Conclusions hard to swallow.

Perhaps it was the paper’s lack of taste that finally decided the matter. By tacit agreement they dropped what was left, backed away from the Discovery, and watched as the wind and rain erased all trace of what had happened. Mission accomplished. Then, with a surprising little backflip, they slipped off into the night through a hole in the carpark fence.

I looked around. Not a soul in sight to witness what had happened. And by now the streets were dark, the rain a steady downpour. Making my way home, I reflected that it had been a curious incident. Those skulking little rug-rats literally ate my homework! And for once, not a bark out of either of them.

As omens went, this did not bode well at all… Later that evening I dredged up another early draft, and spent an hour or so reworking it. Finally it felt fit to print, and I sent it off.

It had taken months to reach this point with the newspaper. If all went to plan, my reply and their apology would appear the following week…

Check the data, drop the dogma

On visiting Melbourne in 1895 Mark Twain wrote that Australian history was so strange it did not read like history but like “the most beautiful lies”: incredible, yet true. To modern cosmopolitans the way we finance universities is almost as strange. OECD statistics suggest that our rate of public spending is too low: second last in the OECD in 2011 and behind Spain in 2012. In 2013 a Greens policy said that compared to the OECD average of 1.1% of GDP, Australian universities were under-funded by $10.3 billion a year.

This narrative has gained wide acceptance. Education at a Glance reports are neutral. The statistics experts cite are usually accurate. At face value they bolster the case for better funding, and help dispel the dogma that user-pays policies are fairer when budgets are tight. But years of framing OECD data this way has created its own form of dogma: “see how under-funded we are by international standards”.

My journal article “Beautiful lies, damned statistics: reframing university funding in Australia” concluded that due to an odd mix of factors the most common comparisons don’t prove much at all. First, they measure spending as a share of each country’s GDP. Between 2000 and 2014 Australian GDP grew by 50%. In Italy, Greece and Portugal the figure was 1% or less; in Denmark, 8%; France, 16%; and Spain, 21%. In this type of metric, high GDP growth will lower a nation’s ranking, and vice-versa. Second, our Higher Education Loan Program is a major public financing instrument. Australian governments pay HELP money directly to universities on behalf of students, on generous terms. Since 2009 this revenue has been boosted by rising enrolments in our demand-driven system. Yet the OECD classes HELP loans as private spending; even if debts are never repaid. Third, the statistics in each new OECD report are always at least three years old. Our last few years of spending growth, writ large in the budget papers, have only begun to surface in Education at a Glance. Seen through an OECD lens, calls for future funding tend to fixate on a past already overtaken by the present: “once upon a time we were (sort of) second last”.

Such cases of “lies, damned lies and statistics” do not mean that experts set out to deceive. Like other true believers in plausible narratives, their dogma ate their homework. Since March my critique has had many reactions. To some it is rank heresy: so biased that any rational debate would be pointless. Rather than discuss it informally or exercise a right of reply, one angry expert promptly called on the journal to retract the offending article. To others it is old news: the experts knew all this already and took account of it, but perhaps not explicitly enough. For a third group it revealed unexpected flaws in the Australian funding narrative. For a fourth, it confirmed their long-held concern that OECD statistics have been misconstrued for years. Not all of the complexities can be settled simply. A summary of my analysis in The Conversation offers one forum for further debate.

As Lynn had said, it wasn’t rocket science. Nor even news: we already knew. But then, why such allergic reactions? As if diagnosing dogma was an act of unspeakable heresy?


Image: Cristiano Banti (1857) Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition (Wikimedia Commons)

As for the misreporting, the newspaper had labelled its correction a clarification.

“Clarification”

“On March 9, The Australian published an article by Julie Hare regarding a publication by Geoff Sharrock on OECD data and university funding. The Australian acknowledges that the publication did not claim that commentators knowingly misused OECD data to present misleading views of government funding to the higher education sector. The Australian withdraws any suggestion to the contrary. Dr Sharrock has accepted an apology for the error.”

On August 10 both pieces appeared together, as agreed. I sent out a few updates to my contacts and colleagues. From those in the loop at the Centre, there was no response that week. But the replies from others soon trickled in: Glad to hear this has been resolved… I admire your perseveranceAh, Geoff, it’s been a roughish voyage since I saw you last… I have been reflecting on this and my judgement is that what you have suffered is a form of bullying … Yes, I did (see your commentary) – and also noted the apology made to you by the Australian which looks like it was deserved...

However, at the Journal the plot had long since thickened: the dogs might not have barked, but already the caravan had moved on. After my latest carpark incident, I was having another night of broken sleep. At 3am, intent on not waking the kids, I crept downstairs with my iPad for a glass of water. On the kitchen table lay a half-eaten bag of jelly snakes. I unsnarled a few to bite off their Hydra-like heads as I browsed the news. In the Australian that week, Hare had just published Leo’s latest opinion piece. The Centre’s media strategy (Chapter 8) seemed to be on track.

Checking my email, I saw a new message from the Journal. The first from the editor in months! It affirmed what I’d heard informally, from Lynn; but as formal advice it was curiously vague. Not a hint of how they’d handle the formalities; and not copied to anyone else.

From: Ian Dobson
Sent: Thursday, 4 August 2016 3:10 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Your paper: Ref. 160127/29 ​

Dear Geoff, After reviewing the situation over recent months, we consider that the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management is not an appropriate forum for the kind of material it contains, nor the way it has been presented. We believe that an outlet such as The Conversation would offer a more appropriate medium for the particular context of your paper, and one moreover which could foster a debate on the issues outlined therein. I hope you are able to appreciate our situation, and that you find a publisher in due course. Regards, Ian

So…confine my view to The Conversation? Or try another journal? But not a T&F journal? With so few clues it was hard to appreciate their situation. Or even to know exactly who they were. The editor and the publisher? The editorial board? The editor, the Institute and ATEM? All of the above?

The Journal group must have known of my complaint to The Australian, from Leo. But none knew the imminent result. And since the details weren’t quite settled, any news of a Journal retraction now might even put that at risk…

I decided to ask Ian to keep this curiously enigmatic advice confidential until we’d had a chance to talk. And then sent the note on to Josh and Alex at T&F.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 4 August 2016 7:03 AM
To: Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: Your paper: Ref. 160127/29 

Ian, I would appreciate a phone conversation about this. Please keep your advice on this confidential for a few days … The Australian (will) publish an apology in the next week or so … Please confirm. Geoff

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 4 August 2016 7:19 AM
To: Lazzari, Alexandra
Cc: Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure; Pitt, Josh
Subject: Fw: Your paper: Ref. 160127/29 

Alexandra, As Josh is on leave I am forwarding my response to you below, for information. I would appreciate no immediate action to formalise the retraction. Clearly I need to discuss the wider implications of this with Ian. Regards, Geoff

Recalling his view back in April (Chapter 12), I’d copied Leo in each time. And wondered if he might respond at some point to offer some context. But no-one replied that day. That evening I tried the editor again.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 4 August 2016 6:56 PM
To: Ian Dobson
Subject: Re: Your paper: Ref. 160127/29 

Dear Ian, I trust you got my email this morning. I do appreciate that this has been a difficult situation for you as editor, and that you must be utterly weary of the whole saga. But I don’t believe it’s appropriate for you to make this decision without any discussion … I have not been a party to all the exchanges Leo has had with you and your colleagues at T&F, but you will be aware of his view of both the paper and the process. I’d appreciate a phone discussion … In the mean time I urge you not to formalise your decision. As the paper has been in limbo so long, another week or so won’t make any difference … Regards and take care, Geoff PS your email came to me at 3am – does that mean you are not in Melbourne?

The reply from Ian didn’t refer to Leo’s view. It wasn’t copied to him, or anyone at T&F. Nor did it indicate who was behind the decision, or how the formalities would be handled. But it implied that the editor was just the messenger.

From: Ian Dobson
Sent: Thursday, 4 August 2016 11:50 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: Your paper: Ref. 160127/29 

Dear Geoff, Yes, your earlier email arrived; and yes, I’m overseas. I’m not sure what a discussion could achieve. There won’t be any announcements from me about this, so your interactions with the Australian will not be affected by anything I’d be doing. Regards, Ian

In other words: nothing to see nor say. There were no other replies that week. I recalled the hint from Lynn that this was a publisher decision. As Josh was due back on Monday, on Tuesday I sent a note to see if T&F could shed any light. By now the Australian apology was due out the next day.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Tuesday, 9 August 2016 11:30 AM
To: Pitt, Josh 
Subject: OECD paper 

Dear Josh, Recently I have settled the (Australian) matter … a public apology and right of reply … will go some way to setting the record straight, I hope. This misreporting I believe has had an unfortunate bearing on events since March … I have had the following advice about the status of my paper from your editor Ian Dobson … “we consider that the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management is not an appropriate forum…” Ian also advises me that he does not intend to make any announcement about the status of the paper. As an author of several articles in the journal since 2000, a guest editor of three editions (and currently expected to guest edit a fourth), I do not accept that this matter can be resolved without any discussion at all … I have the impression that Ian does not regard this as his decision to make … I am aware of Leo’s general view of the matter and his advice to you and Ian and Alexandra on 29 April. Overall, I have concerns … no commentator named in the Australian report, or in the journal article itself, has sought to publish a critique … a number of expert commentators who have read the journal article (such as Gavin Moodie, Andrew Norton, Tim Pitman, Matt Brett, Peter Bentley) have also commented on the substance of its analysis in the Conversation … As it appears you have a direct role in reaching the decision Ian has flagged, I think that you should be made aware of all the views … in practical terms it is not clear to me who is making the decision, what the formality of such a decision would be, or on what basis any decision to retract will have been made … I would appreciate an opportunity to meet with you and anyone else directly involved … Regards, Geoff

Later that day I updated the VC on my progress with the newspaper.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Tuesday, 9 August 2016 at 2:30 PM
To: Glyn Davis
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons – misreporting in The Australian

Glyn, For information, further to my advice in June that the misreporting had been removed from their website, I have now settled the matter with The Australian. There is now no prospect of litigation. I expect an apology (“clarification”) to appear in the Higher Education section tomorrow; and also my right of reply, which will explain once more what the paper is about … Regards, Geoff

The contrast was stark that week. From those in the loop at the Journal and the Centre, a wall of silence. Elsewhere at the University, others were pleased to hear my news. Among those in the know since March, my main source of support was the VC.

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Tuesday, 9 August 2016 6:38:56 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons – misreporting in The Australian 

Geoff, Congratulations on your persistence, which has been impressive and contrary to much advice, yet clearly correct. To get The Australian to concede an error is a singular achievement, and I’m pleased the matter has been resolved without the need to engage expensive lawyers. I look forward to reading your rejoinder. Regards and thanks – Glyn 

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Tuesday, 9 August 2016 at 9:12 PM
To: Glyn Davis
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons – misreporting in The Australian

Thanks again for the moral support along the way Glyn. Personal humiliation and headache aside, I think this was a particularly outrageous example … calling the media to account for this kind of thing is almost a community service. It is also a cautionary tale for scholars as we are encouraged to use the media to promote our work … Regards, Geoff

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is misuse-headline2.png
From The Australian, 9 March 2016

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Wednesday, 10 August 2016 8:20 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons – misreporting in The Australian 

Thanks Geoff, and your graphic captures succinctly everything wrong with the report. I agree calling the media is a community service – and a lonely, difficult and often thankless one.  You deserve credit for insisting and for persevering.  It says much of credit to your character and ethics. Regards, Glyn

That day, while waiting for a taxi to the airport, I sent off a few more updates.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 10 August 2016 10:41 AM
To: Belinda Robinson; Stephen Parker; Ian Young; Glyn Davis; Richard James
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Sophia Arkoudis
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons – misreporting in The Australian

Dear all, A further update on this. You will probably have seen the “clarification” … Today’s edition also publishes my own explanation of what my paper was actually about, including the source of its ironic title … My apologies for any distress arising from this, particularly for those who were at the UA conference on 9 March, and who were named in the media report. Regards, Geoff

Recalling how it had been introduced as an attack on current and former colleagues (Chapter 9), I sent this on to Bexley with a note (Sorry this caused you distress…). And then posted that day’s media link in the Conversation comments. By evening I’d updated a few commenters directly; as well as Vin Massaro (a Centre fellow who’d peer-reviewed the paper); and Peter and Carroll, the incoming Journal editors.

The day brought its share of fresh surprises. One was the news that the publisher wasn’t blocking the publication.

From: Carroll Graham
Sent: Wednesday, 10 August 2016 5:44 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Peter James Bentley
Subject: Re: OECD paper and misreporting in The Australian – update 

Hi Geoff, Thanks for passing this on … Hopefully this “clarification” will encourage T&F to re-publish your paper. We will be pursuing this. Regards, Carroll

The support was reassuring. But the publisher hypothesis had become a red herring. Earlier that day I’d heard from T&F’s Regional Director. We’d had no prior contact. But like the editor, she copied no-one else in.

From: Blatchford, Sarah
Sent: Wednesday, 10 August 2016 1:03 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: RE: OECD paper 

Dear Geoff, Further to your email to Josh yesterday, Ian had already sent us a copy of his email to you by way of update. We understood the conclusion was that an outlet such as The Conversation would offer a more appropriate medium for the particular context of your paper. For all the journals we publish, it is given that Editor’s decision is final and there is nothing further we could add as publisher here. With kind regards, Sarah Blatchford

So, not the publisher; nothing on the formalities; and Josh as unwilling as Ian to discuss it. Nothing to see nor say.

Perhaps Leo would enlighten me, if we could find some time to talk… But that week was very busy at the Institute. We were hosting a two-day conference in Queensland. On that particular Wednesday, after a two-hour flight to Brisbane, Leo and Heather and our Institute colleague Melissa Hendicott checked into the Pullman Hotel. The conference would kick off the next morning.

Source: L H Martin Institute, 2016 program

Over dinner that evening, we spent our time making sure that all was in order. When the others had left, Leo and I sat in silence for a minute, checking our messages. He hadn’t said a word about the newspaper; or given any sign that he was getting updates from the Journal. To broach the topic I said: I’ve been getting some nice emails about The Australian… He looked disdainful for a moment, but offered no comment. Then abruptly stood up, said something about work to do, and left.

Nothing to see nor say. It was all very odd. There had to be more to the Journal‘s advice than not an appropriate forum. I left the restaurant, headed back to my room and stared out the window for a while. At this rate, I’d soon be nagging Colonel Mustard in the library… Later that evening I resolved to try the editor one last time. And to seek better advice, from further afield.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 10 August 2016 10:46 PM
To: Ian Dobson
Subject: Re: Your paper: Ref. 160127/29

Dear Ian, You may have seen my article online in today’s Australian, which explains once again what my paper’s argument is, and also explains what its title is about. You’ll also note a “clarification” … which acknowledges that my paper did not claim any knowing “misuse” of data … I believe the misreporting had an effect of framing the paper’s analysis in a misleading way at the time; and in turn on the way the various stakeholders viewed the matter when the complaint first arose. I also have some questions about the basis of a decision to retract my paper, and the formalities and wider implications of doing this. So again, I’d appreciate an opportunity to discuss these matters with you. Regards, Geoff

By the end of August I still hadn’t heard from the editor, or anyone else concerned at the Journal. The most helpful advice I’d receive that week came from Toronto. Gavin had a long history with the Journal, and had co-edited it for some years with Vin Massaro. On that Wednesday after dinner in the Pullman Hotel, I’d sent him a note.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Wed, 10 Aug 2016 at 21:17
Subject: Re: IN CONFIDENCE
To: Gavin Moodie

Hi Gavin, I expect you will have seen my opinion piece in The Australian today, and their clarification of the misreporting in March. I have been hoping that this will influence the journal to consider republishing the suspended article but the signs are not good: the editor does not wish to discuss it at all … In the event of formal retraction, do you have a view about the formal steps? I assume that there has to be a formal retraction notice giving the rationale; and that the publisher then formally hands copyright to the content of the article back to the author. The alternative would be for the item to just quietly disappear, but given the attention it has received, that does not seem appropriate. Regards, Geoff

Meanwhile, our work went on. The Brisbane conference went well. On Friday afternoon we were back at the airport, ready to fly back to Melbourne. As we sat in the departure lounge, I told Leo that I didn’t understand the Journal decision; and that Ian was overseas and wouldn’t discuss it. He shrugged as if he knew nothing. And offered to email Ian to ask him to explain the decision. As we joined the queue to board, I suggested we sit together on the flight back, to discuss it a bit more. He declined. As we found our row of seats, he told Melissa she should take the one between us. Once settled, he put on his headphones and spent the flight reading a Stephen King novel.

Weeks later it emerged that Leo had been in on the decision. So, the prospect of being strapped to a chair on a Friday night flight as I probed on the Journal‘s probity must have seemed about as inviting as a visit from the Spanish Inquisition.

However, that same day I did get some very helpful, detailed and considerate advice. It was from Gavin in Toronto.

From: Gavin Moodie
Date: Fri, 12 Aug 2016 at 09:12
Subject: Re: IN CONFIDENCE
To: Geoff Sharrock

Hi Geoff Thanx for the update. The Aus piece and clarification seemed satisfactory. It seems to me that there are 4 options to proceed with the article … One would be to approach the editorial board, which includes Leo Goedegebuure, Lynn Meek, Vin Massaro and presumably others who you know well … A second option would be to approach (ATEM or the Institute as Journal sponsors) … A third option would be to approach the publisher Taylor & Francis … A fourth option … would be to exercise the rights under the contract. The most recent I have is a ‘publishing agreement’ of 2014, which I attach …

‘2. If deemed acceptable by the Editors of the Journal, we shall prepare and publish your article in the Journal. We may post your accepted manuscript in advance of the formal publication of the VoR. We reserve the right to make such editorial changes as may be necessary to make the article suitable for publication, or as we reasonably consider necessary to avoid infringing third-party rights or breaching any laws…’

The party seeking to rely on a breach has the onus of proving the breach, and I gather the publisher has not established any breach by the author. One possibility would be to try to get the publisher to comply with its obligations under the agreement … I wish you well on the next stage of this journey. Regards Gavin

Gavin didn’t favour any formal approach to the Institute, on the view that there were obvious overlapping interests. Indeed, I mused. Quite a bag of jelly snakes… Over the weekend I checked The Australian online, to see if anyone had published a rejoinder. As I’d come to expect, there was silence. The dogma did not bark.

Image source: Sherlock Special: Official extended trailer – BBC One (2015)

One person I hadn’t yet closed the loop with was the complainant. If my substantive view was so wrong-headed, my Centre colleagues might like to spell out why. Not just moan about my uncollegial manner. (That same year, a Queensland university would formally sanction a professor on this basis. The dispute that ensued led to his dismissal. And then an expensive legal challenge. In the end, the High Court ruled that he should not have been sanctioned in the first place.)

On Sunday afternoon I sent Marginson an update, copied to the Centre group we’d started with in March.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Sunday, 14 August 2016 at 12:48 PM
To: Simon Marginson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure, Richard James, Glyn Davis, Sophia Arkoudis, Emmaline Bexley
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Simon, As you may know, last Wednesday The Australian published a “clarification” of its misreporting along with my own summary of my paper’s argument (link). You may want to respond in that forum with your own view. A surprising aspect of the misreporting was that Julie Hare made a point of adding my “MCSHE colleague Emmaline Bexley” to the list of the so-called “accused”. If that inclusion was prompted by your own response at the time, you may want to discuss it with Emmaline directly. Regards to all, Geoff

I didn’t expect a reply. But thought Leo and Richard might appreciate the fact that – while still unimpressed with the political tactics – with the misreporting settled, I was happy to see the substance debated further. There were no replies from the Centre group. But later that day, a note came back from Bexley.

From: Emmaline Bexley
Sent: Sunday, 14 August 2016 4:46:58 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Simon Marginson
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Hi Geoff, Just a note that the first either Simon or I knew about the article was when you emailed us your counter claim at 5:14am on the morning it was published. I think Julie was quite capable of making her own interpretations of the paper. Simon owes me no apology. Emmaline

Recalling my earlier inquiries, I was surprised. But I was done with the newspaper; our dealings were confidential; and I agreed that Hare had come to her own conclusions.

In a late follow-up on the misreporting, Bexley added: I do hope you are satisfied with the outcome.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 15 August 2016 10:08 AM
To: Emmaline Bexley
Subject: RE: paper on OECD comparisons

Thanks Emmaline. And yes, I’m glad to have this clarified in the newspaper, finally. The underlying premise of the Australian report – me accusing all these people of knowingly misusing data to mislead the government – would be a vast sector-wide conspiracy of scholars and vice-chancellors … I didn’t even consider the possibility that the paper would be read that way. I now know better. Take care, Geoff

Glyn had sent a brief note of acknowledgement. By now disillusioned with the Centre’s handling of all this, I briefed him on the Journal situation, and expressed interest in working somewhere else in the University.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Sunday, 14 August 2016 at 8:39 PM
To: Glyn Davis
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Thanks Glyn … I did receive quite a few nice congratulatory messages last week on the clarification in The Australian, though not from anyone in this group, other than you. No-one wants to talk about it … Meanwhile there have been some parallel developments affecting the status of the journal article … This now appears to be that the journal has finally retracted the article and is not willing to republish it; that this is the editor’s decision, but the editor is unwilling to discuss it with the author; that no-one else concerned wants to discuss it beyond confirming that this was an editor decision; and that the editor will be retiring from the role later in the year. In the meantime the formality of what has happened, and what it means, is unclear … I am unsure of the wider implications of all this, so will keep seeking clarification, and taking advice where I can find it. Thanks again for the very patient moral support … I am now interested in working somewhere else in the university for a time, if a suitable secondment or position becomes available … Meanwhile I’ll keep working on my other projects, and with my students. On a happier note, the service improvement and innovation conference in Brisbane last week was very good, and very well received. I worked with Leo and others in preparing the agenda for this, and chairing sessions at the event. Regards, Geoff

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Monday, 15 August 2016 9:02 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: paper on OECD comparisons

Thanks Geoff for the message. Share your perplexity at the actions of the editor, and the unwillingness (I assume) of the editorial board to ask questions about an action implemented in the name of the journal they oversee.  It does not bode well for processes or professionalism.  No doubt you have already sent a letter to the chair of the editorial board perhaps, seeking clarification.  Did they just fail to answer or hide behind the editor? On prospects elsewhere in the university, if you send a standard cv I will make some quiet inquiries.  As you would expect, vacancies in the academic policy arena are few but happy to explore … Regards, Glyn

Hiding behind the editor seemed quite possible. Not to mention hiding behind the publisher… Meanwhile, Gavin’s advice had sent me back to the contract I’d signed. I saw that mine didn’t allow for a paper to be posted online in advance of formal publication of the VOR.

From: Geoff Sharrock 
Date: Mon, 15 Aug 2016 at 17:58
Subject: Re: IN CONFIDENCE
To: Gavin Moodie

Gavin, Thanks very much for taking the time to set out this advice, which is very helpful indeed. Attached is a copy of the contract I signed in February … I have spoken about one aspect or another with most of the people you suggest over the last few weeks; and having failed to get a discussion with the editor, have approached the publisher who advises that this was an editor decision … I think the matter has become all too hard all round; and I’ve been advised informally to accept what has happened, cut my losses and submit the paper elsewhere. That does seem to be the sanest option. However I remain perplexed about the process … The print editor and I agreed initially that minor edits could address the complaint with a corrigendum …. But this approach was then overturned by the publisher who said “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…”

To me this suggests that formal publication has occurred (this later publishing agreement does not include an option to post the paper prior to VOR), and therefore the paper cannot be finally withdrawn without a formal retraction statement in the VOR; and presumably formal reassignment of copyright to the author. Publicly, all that has happened is that last week the online status altered from ‘not currently available on this site’ to ‘error’. The latest advice from the editor, since reaffirmed by the publisher, is this: “After reviewing the situation over recent months, we consider that the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management is not an appropriate forum…” This does not appear to fall within the meaning of “abusive, defamatory, fraudulent, etc” in S. 6 of the contract or the usual reasons for retraction, i.e. fatally flawed analysis, fabrication of data, defamation, etc … In sum, I think what I should do now is seek clarification from the editor about whether there is to be a formal retraction notice, and if so how it will be worded; and also seek formal reassignment of copyright, so that I can resubmit the paper. In retrospect, had retraction been immediate and final, at some point in the last 5 months I could have submitted a slightly modified version elsewhere. Thanks again for the advice which is much appreciated… Regards, Geoff

By Thursday evening I’d heard nothing further. Again I followed up with the editor, this time with Josh in the loop once more.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 18 August 2016 7:14 PM
To: Ian Dobson
Cc: Pitt, Josh
Subject: OECD paper retraction 

Dear Ian, You have advised me that: “After reviewing the situation over recent months, we consider that the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management is not an appropriate forum…” You have also advised me that you will not be making any announcement about the paper, after several months of uncertainty as to its status. I have sought to discuss this with you, and you have refused to do so. I have sought to discuss this with Josh, and have since been advised by the publisher that this is an editor decision which the publisher accepts as final, and so there is no point discussing the matter further with the publisher. So, accepting that your decision is now a formal and a final one, it makes sense for me to seek publication of the paper elsewhere … In order to proceed I do need some clarification about the formality of your decision, and any consequential steps that may be needed. I have copied Josh into this message, as it is likely you will need to consult with him before responding.

1. The publishing agreement I signed in February did not, as was the case in some earlier agreements, provide the publisher with the option of posting the article online before its formal publication. This, I assume, was the main reason why the simple amendments we contemplated making in March, prior to print publication, were not considered possible. If the article was formally published then as part of the VOR, does your final decision not to republish require a formal notice of retraction? And if so, how exactly will this be worded?

2. In February I assigned copyright of the material in my paper to the publisher/owner of the journal. In the event of non-acceptance and non-publication, copyright reverts to the author. But since the paper was in fact accepted and published before being suspended, and is now finally considered to be retracted, is it now necessary for copyright to be formally reassigned to the author?

I look forward to your advice. Regards, Geoff

Two weeks passed. No response from Ian or Josh. Recalling the responses from Gavin and Glyn, I decided to call for a review by the editorial board – those I knew who were aware of the complaint, one way or another. I sent a short note with a long letter attached:

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Friday, 2 September 2016 2:54 PM
To: Ian Dobson; Leo Goedegebuure; Lynn Meek; Vin Massaro; Carroll Graham; Gavin Moodie
Subject: OECD paper 

Dear Ian, Leo, Lynn, Vin, Carroll and Gavin, I am writing to you as editorial representatives of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management following exchanges with each of you in recent months. I seek a review of the journal’s decision to retract my paper, “Beautiful lies, damned statistics: reframing Australian university funding”, after it was published online in early 2016. I do not believe it can be good for the reputation of the journal or anyone associated with it for this decision to be supported by the editorial board. Attached is a letter setting out the issues and background in some detail. In view of the odd silences and evasive responses I have had in the course of my exchanges with some of those overseeing the journal recently, I would appreciate written advice on what the editorial board is prepared to do to address the concerns I have raised within seven days. This should allow a reasonable time for you to confer. I look forward to hearing back from you. Regards, Geoff Sharrock

I forwarded a copy to the VC for information.

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Saturday, 3 September 2016 8:42 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Thanks Geoff for sharing a copy of your letter.  It is tightly written, and the extensive quote from Kafka makes an eloquent point – as does the long enumerated list of incidents along this journey. Best wishes in achieving a considered response from the editorial board – Glyn

Six days later my very long note received a very short reply, copied to the editorial group. But it was simply an editor response to my earlier note, three weeks earlier.

From: Ian Dobson
Sent: Thursday, 8 September 2016 6:20 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Lynn Meek; Vin Massaro; Carroll Graham; Gavin Moodie
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Dear Geoff and colleagues, The decision to withdraw your paper was based on advice from the publisher, which in turn was based on advice it had received. Copyright on your paper is currently held by the Journal’s sponsors. They will no doubt contact you separately concerning the restoration of copyright to you, as author. Ian

Nothing about a retraction notice. And no detail on offer from anyone else. Nothing to see nor say. The Institute, of course, was one of the sponsors. But Ian didn’t say if he’d discussed this with Leo. Of if the advice received was from the Institute. And Leo was silent, as usual.

Gentle reader (if you’ve made it this far), you were warned back in Chapter 3: somehow I’d stumbled from an Orwellian thoughtcrime into a Kafka story

4 thoughts on “Diary of an academic infidel – Chapter 21

  1. Wow Geoff, my heart is heavy for you after reading this. What a journey. What a loss on so many levels.
    Tracy

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