“The extensive quote from Kafka makes an eloquent point – as does the long enumerated list of incidents…”

Indeed, I mused. As a teacher of higher education policy and management, I found it bizarre that our own academic journal, where scholars examined university leadership and governance, had managed to pursue such an unfathomable process to handle a storm in an academic teacup.

From Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925)
Image source: https://www.wort-ensemble.com/zeigt/franz-kafka-der-proces/

Elsewhere in the University, my news on the media misreporting was appreciated. Over in Legal and Risk, Kylie Gould replied to my note of thanks for suggesting The Lawyer: really pleased to hear that you have reached a resolution which includes a clarification and an apology. The Dean of the Law School (who’d write an insightful book on the uses and limits of academic freedom) remarked that the apology looked like it was deserved.

But here in Education, a cone of silence had settled at the Centre. Usually, staff views in the media were circulated internally; and the Institute would post links on its own site. But not this time. While in Brisbane I’d flagged my Oz news with the Centre’s Communications Co-ordinator.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 10 August 2016 5:59 PM
To: Marisa Sophia Simanjuntak Saeter
Subject: today’s Australian 

Hi Marisa, You will probably have seen the “clarification” published in today’s Australian … I assume my opinion piece will appear on our website, along with their clarification. If so I’d like it noted that I accepted an apology for the misreporting. Please let me know if there’s any problem. Cheers, Geoff

No response. On Friday I sent a follow-up. Hi Marisa, I see that my opinion piece in The Australian is not yet on the LHMI website. Please post the link, as it is important to me to set the record straight about my paper. Thanks, Geoff

Meanwhile, every few weeks the Melbourne Graduate School of Education also circulated a round-up of internal announcements and a list of links to staff media mentions and commentaries. After my Friday night flight back to Melbourne, I saw that they’d included my opinion piece. But not the apology.

As for the Institute, Marisa’s Monday morning reply did not seem promising.

From: Marisa Sophia Simanjuntak Saeter
Sent: Monday, 15 August 2016 8:33 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: RE: today’s Australian

Hi Geoff. Leo will be in touch to discuss this request with you. Regards, Marisa

A few days later I sent a gentle reminder.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 18 August 2016 9:38 AM
To: Marisa Sophia Simanjuntak Saeter
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: RE: today’s Australian

Thanks Marisa, I look forward to hearing back from Leo on this. Cheers, Geoff

Meanwhile, we all had plenty to do. That day I was tinkering with some PowerPoint slides for the Centre seminar with Matt Brett and Mollie Dollinger, on university-student relations. (Matt had been following my OECD metric analysis. Earlier that month, he and his La Trobe University colleagues had drawn on my paper’s discussion of tertiary sector system design in their submission to a government consultation on possible reforms.)

From: Leo Goedegebuure
Sent: Thursday, 18 August 2016 3:24 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Marisa Sophia Simanjuntak Saeter
Subject: RE: today’s Australian 

Geoff, The reason it is not on the website is that the substantive part already has featured on the website through the respective Conversation articles that were featured. The other part is a personal issue between you and the Australian which should not feature on the Institute’s website. Leo

I sat back from my screen and stared out the window. Back in March, when Hare knocked back my mild-mannered clarification, Leo had declined to post it. I recalled his advice that it would be counterproductive to give my view further oxygen (Chapter 8). But now the newspaper, conceding its error, had aired even more inconvenient truth – and at a much more inconvenient time. It seemed pointless to ask: Does the Centre’s media relations strategy make it OK for the Oz to misreport my work? Or is it just not OK – as the Journal now finds it “inappropriate” – to report that “one angry expert called on the journal to retract the offending paper”?

I sent a quick reply, and got back to work on my PowerPoint.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 18 August 2016 5:36 PM
To: Leo Goedegebuure; Marisa Sophia Simanjuntak Saeter
Subject: Re: today’s Australian 

Thanks for informing me of your rationale Leo Regards, Geoff

Later that evening I followed up Ian and Josh (Chapter 21). I’d give them a couple of weeks to address the problems I’d highlighted, then call on the editorial board.

The Centre seminar that Friday went well. Our topic was a neat fit for Mollie’s research on how staff-student partnerships could enhance the university experience. And for Matt’s, on shifts in student access and equity, and evolving expectations of higher learning.

Our format was three short presentations and a student panel discussion. Mine was up first: How far should universities go to meet student expectations? Here we’d consider the multiple identities of the university and its modes of interplay with those of students and the needs of society. I’d unpick the vexed student-as-customer question. And frame this against a wider enlightenment agenda theme going back to Plato, about the part higher learning could play in building the good society.

Image source: Raphael fresco, The School of Athens (1511)

In their presentations Matt and Mollie used my framework as a springboard for their own themes. Then we heard from the student panel.

Along the way, there was plenty of discussion from young and old. Near the end, an undergraduate panel member remarked that she’d expected to encounter more debates on campus.

Perhaps she’d seen the University’s great minds collide campaign, with its faint echo of an old idea of the university as a safe space for the collision of mind with mind (Chapter 2). I refrained from suggesting that academic politics made some things undiscussable. Or that – in the spirit of action research – we might load a few professors into a Large Hadron Collider and bang their heads together.

After the seminar I went upstairs. The upper level of our building had a large tea-room area. On the notice-board there I’d pinned up photocopies of my before-and-after Australian coverage. (No-one seemed interested, that week.)

I reflected that the Centre could run a follow-up seminar, on utopian ideas of the true university. In time we might arrive – as Socrates did in Plato’s Republic – at an acceptance that no such place existed, or might ever exist, except in the minds of those who chose to live by its precepts. From there, perhaps, we could skip to Clark Kerr in 1960s California, observing that in today’s multiversity several ideal types of the university co-existed as the illusions of its own inhabitants. And that this made it a confusing place to study, often partly at war with itself, with many walking wounded.

A week later Peter McPhee, a Centre fellow who’d attended the seminar, sent me a media story on a University of Chicago statement, rejecting safe spaces on campus where students “can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”. It highlighted the inevitable balancing act: promoting the open exchange of ideas, while also protecting student and staff well-being.

In reply I sent back an opinion piece I’d read that day in The Australian, by the vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University. Greg Craven argued that the point of any real commitment to free expression was to protect the right to say “inappropriate” things. His concern was that in universities, some views were not permissible. And that terms like appropriate were deployed to veto other viewpoints, rather than debate their substance.

Good points, Professor Craven I mused, as I headed upstairs for a cup of tea. Glancing at the notice-board, tea-bag in hand, I saw that my Oz material had disappeared. Inferring that someone had found it inappropriate, I went downstairs to my office, and then to the photocopier. Then went back upstairs and pinned fresh copies to the notice-board. I considered scrawling postera crescam laude beneath them. Or alternatively, nolite te bastardes carborundorum. But I didn’t think anyone would understand…

The following week they were still there. But I still hadn’t heard back from Ian or Josh. So I took the next step: calling on those I knew on the editorial board to review the twists and turns of the previous six months. On Thursday, with yet another bag of jelly-snakes to hand, I sat at my desk late into the night. By midnight I’d (without naming names) I’d listed events in a way that highlighted the mixed signals I’d been getting. The next afternoon, after a final proof-read, I hit Send.

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  … I look forward to hearing back from you. Regards, Geoff Sharrock


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 …

Whereas on the initial advice of the editor I had sought to make minor amendments to the text address concerns raised, the outcome now appears to be full retraction with no scope to consider republication of even a revised version of the paper. While not all of you will be aware of the full details of what has occurred, as evidenced below I do not believe that the process undertaken to resolve this matter reflects any reasonable standard of transparency, probity or procedural fairness. To judge from many exchanges with those associated with the journal … both the process and its outcome are perplexing. The term “Kafkaesque” is often used when governance systems fail; but in this case a direct comparison with Kafka’s century-old story The Trial (Der Prozess) seems particularly apt.

From Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925)
Image source: https://www.wort-ensemble.com/zeigt/franz-kafka-der-proces/

“Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” From the outset his guilt is assumed. As the months pass he is prosecuted under a procedure he cannot understand, against a set of unwritten and unfathomable laws, administered by a remote and inaccessible tribunal. He seeks help from those who seem to understand the process. But their advice and explanations bewilder him, and in time they fall silent and disappear. Some, like his uncle, seem familiar with the issues and players and willing to offer guidance; but also have other interests when giving “avuncular” advice, such as whether helping his cause publicly, even if it succeeds, will bring shame on the family. For K the most distressing thing is that at no point can anyone explain the exact nature of his crime, or what his rights in the matter are, or the formalities of the process to adjudicate it, or which authority will make the final judgement. He becomes consumed with worry, exhausted by obstacles and delays as his health and work deteriorate. As his efforts to defend his innocence, confront his accusers and escape conviction grow more desperate, they are reframed as further evidence of his guilt. Finally he becomes resigned to the fact that his sentence will be arbitrary, anonymous and inevitable. The sentence is never declared publicly and its basis is never made explicit. Without ever quite saying so, the officers whose task it is to execute him make it clear that the only solution is to accept that he must have been guilty after all …

In the present case the “crime” is the publication in March 2016 of a peer-reviewed paper presenting the author’s analysis of flawed interpretations of OECD statistics by a wide range of Australian commentators. The paper’s conclusions are misreported in The Australian newspaper as an “extraordinary attack” on “one of the most celebrated professors of higher education in the world”, among others. In reply to a message from the author which seeks to correct the false report, the professor dismisses the paper as full of “bile and bias”, “Brexit” parochialism and “selective quotation out of context” while denouncing its title as a form of “abuse” and its argument an inference of “academic fraud”. In response to the author’s explanations he warns: “your paper is now out there and nothing will change that fact. It is likely that your own reputation will be affected at least as much as the reputations of those you have sought to denigrate”. The professor then exits the discussion, and contacts the journal to demand that it retract the publication due to the author’s “breach of ethics”.

Against the author’s wish to address the complaint with minor edits, a “corrigendum” with a simple apology, and the journal’s usual right of reply for the professor given the paper’s criticisms of his public commentary, the publisher then withdraws the paper in late March “as a matter of urgency, given the coverage in the media” and in order to “eliminate the risk of litigation” by the professor. Meanwhile the professor has added the Australian journalist to the list of workplace managers he had emailed with his initial response to the author’s message about her misreporting. The journalist does not report on any of this, but refuses to publish the author’s correction, as to do so “implies my interpretation of your article was wrong”. Eventually the newspaper admits that the reporter’s account was indeed wrong. In July The Australian removes the journalist’s report from its website, and in August it publishes a correction to the March misreporting in the form of a reply from the author, and an apology for the journalist’s error.

Meanwhile during March, April, May and June the author responds to the professor’s accusations by explaining the title of the paper, rechecking quotes, explaining the paper’s analysis, and responding to the professor’s scholarly criticisms and assumptions along with his accusations. None of these attempts to address the concerns raised receives any response from the professor, after the initial exchange of emails on 9 March. Nor does the professor or any other commentator named in the newspaper report concerning their so-called “misuse” of OECD data seek to publish criticisms of the author’s paper in the newspaper, or in response to the author’s summary of the argument in The Conversation in June, or a later summary of the argument in The Australian in August. At no point does anyone dealing with the professor’s complaint suggest to the author that the professor has any interest in publishing a reply to the author’s paper in the journal itself, or any obligation to do so, given the views he has expressed to the author and others about it.

Despite these efforts by the author, by August it is finally made clear that a decision on the status of the paper has been reached by those associated with the journal. After months of “house arrest” the paper and its author are deemed guilty after all; retraction of the paper is now final; and republication even in amended form is no longer possible. From the outset, the author’s exchanges with those representing the journal, the author’s workplace management, or both, have yielded a strange mix of advice on how best to respond to the accusations made by the journalist and the professor, often from those with an unstated interest in maintaining good relations with both the journalist and the professor.

Without attributing all of the advice cited below to particular persons, since March the author has been advised as follows:

  1. That (according to the journal editor in mid-March) “I suppose it was only to be expected that pressure would soon be brought on the editor. 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”.
  2. That (according to a management representative in late March) it would be better for the author not to seek to publish a reply in the newspaper to correct its misreporting, as any further public commentary on this would only make matters worse: “it’s time for everyone to move on”
  3. That (according to a management representative in late March) it would be better not to include the vice-chancellor in the author’s workplace responses to the accusations made by the professor (copied to the vice-chancellor among others) as this would only make matters worse
  4. That (according to a management representative in late March) if the newspaper does not publish the author’s reply correcting its misreporting, it would be better not to publish this reply on the workplace website, as this would only make matters worse
  5. That (according to the journal editor) the best way to address the professor’s complaint would be to make some simple amendments, as the paper has been published online but is not yet in print
  6. That (according to the a representative of the editorial board) no such edits are possible, according to the publisher as “what is out there is the Version of Record which is the final and non-changeable version”
  7. That (according to the journal production editor) “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.”
  8. That (according to a representative of the publisher) “Ethical publishing guidelines state that we 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”
  9. That (according to a representative of the publisher, following the author’s agreement to make minor amendments, noting that none of the four peer reviewers took the title of the paper to imply academic fraud) “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”; and that the paper should be “withdrawn at the author’s request” as a “matter of urgency given the coverage in the media” and an amended version published only if the author gains “written confirmation” from the professor that this is “acceptable”
  10. That (after the author does not agree to seek permission from the professor, publication is withdrawn without the author’s consent, and the author requests further details of the original “breach of ethics” allegation) according to the publisher the editor advises that there were “no specific complaints made to him in writing about the article by Marginson”
  11. That (according to a representative of the publisher, after the author forwards a detailed explanation of the paper’s argument, and reasons why the newspaper report was wrong, as provided to the professor in March) in the event of a defamation case sought by the professor, the copyright owners (LHMI and ATEM) would also be liable
  12. That (according to a representative of the editorial board) the complaint is “a storm in a teacup”; the threat of legal action cannot be serious, given the informality of the complaint; and that any decision to withdraw or amend the paper should rest with the journal editor, not the publisher
  13. That (according to a representative of the publisher in April, following advice from the author regarding quote checks and other clarifications provided to the professor) “We have been advised not to re-publish a revise (paper) without consent from Simon Marginson, so our next step will be to seek this directly.”
  14. That (according to a representative of the publisher in April, after the author suggests that the professor should not have the option to block publication of a substantive analysis just because it points to flaws in the professor’s work, particularly since the author has offered to amend phrasing in the paper in light of concerns raised) “We have consulted in-house, and have decided it is not appropriate for us to … involve ourselves and the Journal any further in this matter. Any further submission of a revised version of the now withdrawn article would be considered by the Journal only on condition you (the author) were to obtain and present written approval” from the professor
  15. That (according to a representative of the editorial board in April) the owners of the journal (LHMI and ATEM) do not believe the paper should ever have been withdrawn on such an insubstantial basis; and that as it was peer reviewed, accepted and published it should remain so as part of the scholarly record
  16. That (according to the editor after an inquiry from the author in early May) there is no point discussing possible republication with the author as the decision is “in the hands of the publisher”
  17. (Following the author’s request for further detail of any complaint from the professor in May) no response was forthcoming from any party to the ongoing exchanges between author, editor, and representatives of the publisher and editorial board; and other advice suggests that in this case, whatever the merits, the author is unlikely to succeed because the professor is “too powerful”
  18. That (according to the editor in response to a separate inquiry from the author in May) there has been “no further correspondence” from the professor with either further complaint about the paper, or withdrawal of his initial complaint
  19. (Following advice from the author in May that he has followed his rechecking of quotes with the professor with a further explanation of the paper’s analysis in response to substantive criticisms of the analysis in March) no response was forthcoming from the editor or publisher
  20. That (according to a representative of the editorial board in early June) there was still no response from the publisher to resolve the status of the paper following his discussions with the publisher, which were concerned mainly with establishing the principle of editorial independence
  21. (Following advice from the author to the professor in mid-June that all of his criticisms had been answered, and that his demand for a retraction had the makings of an academic publishing scandal) no response was received from the professor
  22. That (according to a management representative in mid-June) the author’s advice to the professor that he has been advised to consider legal action to defend himself against the accusations made by the newspaper, and possibly the professor also as part of such action, will be interpreted by those overseeing the journal as further evidence of the author’s “personal vendetta” against the professor
  23. (Following the author’s request for advice from management representatives of any further accusations of the author’s alleged misconduct by the professor in workplace messages to which the author has not been a party) no response was forthcoming from workplace management
  24. That (according to a representative of the editorial board in July) the paper has already been retracted and won’t be republished; that it would be best for the author to “cut your losses and seek publication somewhere else” but this might prove difficult as “word gets around” among the editors of higher education journals; and that any kind of legal action is best avoided, and in the case of the newspaper’s misreporting this will be futile anyway;
  25. That (according to the editor in early August) “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.”
  26. That (according to the editor, following a request from the author to discuss the decision and its implications) any further discussion with the author of this decision would not achieve anything, and there will be “no announcements” about the decision
  27. That (according to a representative of the publisher, following a request by the author for further discussion with the publisher regarding the decision now that the newspaper has published a correction of its misreporting) “For all the journals we publish, it is given that the Editor’s decision is final and there is nothing further we could add as publisher here”
  28. That (according to a representative of the editorial board in August) the public correction of the misreporting is a private matter between the author and the newspaper, and the decision regarding republication rests with the editor, as the editorial board is only an advisory board
  29. That (according to a legal reading of the terms of the publishing agreement in August) those overseeing the journal have not established any “breach” or academic misconduct on the part of the author to justify retraction, and therefore the journal is itself in breach of the publishing agreement, as the paper has already been accepted and published (unlike earlier agreements which allowed the publisher to post papers online prior to formal publication)
  30. (Following a request from the author on 18 August to clarify whether the editor’s advice of retraction meant that there would be a formal retraction notice; if so how this would be worded; and whether copyright would be formally reassigned to the author so that he might seek publication elsewhere) no advice has been forthcoming from the editor or the publisher, as at 2 September.

Further details could be added to this account. But the fact that something has gone badly wrong is writ large in in the official silence in response to basic questions about the formal implications of the decision … Despite a good deal of “avuncular” advice along the way, it is still not clear to the author when exactly the decision to retract the paper was made, or by whom, or on what basis. Publicly, all that has happened is that on 11 August, just after the newspaper’s correction was published, the online status of the paper altered from ‘not currently available on this site’ to ‘error’. Nor it is clear how the absence of any proposal by those overseeing the journal to issue a formal public statement regarding the retraction can be reconciled with earlier statements about the Version of Record, or the ethics of scholarly publishing.

Full retraction is obviously a serious matter with reputational implications for the author: it implies either a fatally flawed analysis or some kind of academic misconduct, i.e. a “breach of ethics” as was claimed in March. I have consulted widely with people who have read, understood and accepted my paper’s analysis … The decision to retract the paper and refuse republication on the basis of an informal and apparently vexatious complaint, after months of explanation and deliberation, is seen by some as “perplexing”, or as “a disgrace”, or as “gutlessness” on the part of those overseeing the journal.

Most also regard the author’s approach to seeking a resolution as entirely reasonable: transparent engagement with all the parties (including the complainant), detailed clarification of the paper in response to concerns raised, and a willingness to make amends; but this transparency has not been reciprocated … Finally, some note the inconsistency between the early advice (from both the publisher and a representative of the editorial board) that publication of the paper made it part of the scholarly record which cannot be altered, and the final advice of the retraction by the editor, which avoids reference to any such formality. It is as if those overseeing the journal now agree that it is best to assume that formal publication is deemed not to have occurred after all, so that the basis for retraction need not be explained or justified either formally or publicly.

This suggests that what some on the editorial board describe as a “storm in a teacup” has morphed into a procedural stuff-up, and in turn some kind of cover-up. In order to placate a powerful professor, it would seem, some undeclared agreement has been reached whereby all the parties overseeing the journal will act as though the decision is justified primarily because someone else, somewhere else, authorised it. And now it is just a matter of waiting until the author, like Kafka’s Josef K, finally stops arguing his case…

Therefore, as a longstanding contributor to the journal as author, peer reviewer and guest editor, I seek an editorial board review of both the process and basis of the decision, and a proposal to remedy this situation … 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, I would appreciate written advice on what the editorial board is prepared to do to address the concerns I have raised within seven days, which should allow a reasonable time for you to confer.

I do believe that a better solution can be found to address the professor’s complaint, while upholding the probity and reputation of the journal, and without sacrificing the legitimate interests of the author in such an opaque and unprofessional manner. Unless steps toward a satisfactory resolution can be proposed, I am prepared to pursue the shabby treatment my paper has received further through other channels, including by informing those I have consulted about this matter in recent months, some of whom have cited my paper in their own work, or corrected their own interpretations of OECD data after reading my analysis. Regards, Geoff Sharrock 2 September 2016

By the time I’d finished setting out this audit trail of what had happened, I’d finished the bag of jelly-snakes. At this point I hoped that after some internal discussion, they’d conclude that the decision was flawed, and consider an alternative. Six days later, on a Thursday morning, the editor replied (Chapter 21): The decision to withdraw your paper was based on advice from the publisher, which in turn was based on advice it had received...

There was a faint but distinct whiff of gaslighting about the explanation. Like something out of Yes Minister. As Sir Humphrey might have said: an independent inquiry might infer some confusing overlaps between those responsible for deciding policy on the implementation of the Journal’s publication processes, and those responsible for administering the implementation of decisions within those processes, such that any practical outcome might make the apparent point of the implementation policy seem somewhat moot…

Image: The Trial (Wolfgang Lettl, 1981) 

But earlier that week I did get one prompt and helpful response.

From: Gavin Moodie
Sent: Monday, 5 September 2016 12:31 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Cc: Vin Massaro
Subject: Re: OECD paper

Hi Geoff As you may have anticipated, I consulted Vin Massaro before finalising my views. I have copied him into this reply. I suggest that you ask for this issue to be considered by the new editor of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management in consultation with the editorial board. The new editor should convene a meeting of the editorial board anyway to (re)set editorial policy and processes, and together they should consider your paper. You could ask for the new editor and editorial board to (re)publish your paper or release it so you may get it published elsewhere. Regards Gavin

This looked like a sensible way to resolve it, in time. As one of the peer-reviewers who’d supported publication, I expected support from Vin. I’d included Carroll in the loop also, as she was already on the editorial board, and had indicated that she and Peter, the other incoming editor, were supportive (Chapter 21).

But otherwise, I didn’t see why the editorial board couldn’t agree to review the matter now, if the publisher was the main obstacle. (At this point I assumed Leo still saw retraction as an over-reaction to an over-reaction.)

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 8 September 2016 9:47 AM
To: Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Lynn Meek; Vin Massaro; Carroll Graham; Gavin Moodie
Subject: RE: OECD paper

Dear Ian, Thanks for providing a response. Can you confirm that you have discussed the concerns I raised in last week’s message with Leo, Lynn and Josh (publisher) before providing this response? I’m aware that you discussed Simon’s complaint with Leo and Lynn when it arose initially in March; and also aware that you discussed it with Leo and Josh on the question of risks and formalities regarding the minor edits in train then. Also, I now seek a response from each party to this email (preferably in the form of a group reply) as to whether they consider that your response below addresses the concerns I have raised about the journal’s handling of this matter. Regards, Geoff

By Monday evening there had been no further response from Ian, and no new information from others in the loop, such as Vin on Gavin’s suggestion.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 12 September 2016 8:03 PM
To: Ian Dobson
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure; Lynn Meek; Vin Massaro; Carroll Graham; Gavin Moodie
Subject: Re: OECD paper 

Dear Ian, I appreciate that this case has put you in a difficult position as editor. But clearly your advice in response to the issues I have raised about the paper’s retraction does not address those concerns adequately. Such a cryptic and evasive response just makes things look even more Kafkaesque than they first appeared to be. The author should not have to guess at the process or substance of such a decision; nor should it be necessary for me to pursue and cross-examine the editor, or anyone else, in order to get simple answers to simple questionsFrom other responses to the concerns raised in my letter I have at least one suggestion on how the matter might be resolved by the editorial board. But I do not believe this should be proposed to the board by the author. I call on members of the editorial board to share their views openly with each other; and I request that someone other than the editor provide me with a response which addresses the concerns raised about the decision to retract, by the end of this week … Regards, Geoff

No-one replied that week. But the following week I had a letter about copyright from the Journal owners. It was attached to an email (cc’d to Leo) from the office of Carl Rallings, a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Southern Queensland.

Dear Dr Sharrock Further to your correspondence with Ian Dobson as Editor of the Journal of Higher Education Policy & Management, I am writing to you for and on behalf of the owners of the Journal, the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) and the LH Martin Institute for Tertiary Education Leadership and Management (LHMI) to confirm that, to the extent the copyright in your article “Beautiful lies, damned statistics” was assigned to ATEM by way of your publishing agreement dated 5 February 2016, ATEM hereby assigns that copyright back to you…Your sincerely Carl Rallings, President of ATEM.

Recalling Leo’s April advice (Chapter 12), later that night I replied.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Wednesday, 21 September 2016 11:54 PM
To: (Office of) Carl Rallings
Cc: Leo Goedegebuure
Subject: Re: Letter from Carl Rallings – President of ATEM 

…Dear Carl, We have not had contact on this matter before. You may be aware of my general concerns already … From my own exchanges with Leo, the journal editor and the publisher some months ago, I am aware of Leo’s view and also your own view as you discussed with him at the time, of the initial decision to suspend the online publication of the paper in March. I believe the publisher was spooked into a hasty withdrawal … I won’t go into details here of the many exchanges with those overseeing the journal since then, but from the author’s point of view both the process and the outcome are perplexing. Accordingly, I have requested a review of the matter from Leo and those other members of the editorial board who have been aware of the controversy … As you may be aware, the complaint arose after I had contacted the complainant initially, to advise him that the Australian report on 9 March had seriously misrepresented my paper … in the intervening months I have spent a lot of time explaining my paper, to the complainant and to others, while defending myself from allegations of an “extraordinary attack”, a “breach of ethics”, even a “personal vendetta”. 

I am concerned that the journal appears to endorse the claim that there has been some kind of academic misconduct. From responses to the many queries I have put to those overseeing the journal who have been parties to this matter, I have been led to believe the following:

  • that the complaint was never made in writing, but arose in the form of a phone call to the editor
  • that simple edits to an online publication, as proposed initially by the editor and drafted by the author, could not be made without full retraction first, to preserve the scholarly version of record
  • that once retracted, republication of an edited version would require the author to secure the written consent of the complainant …
  • that after several months of uncertainty, the eventual decision not to republish (according to the publisher) was an editor decision
  • that (according to the editor) the decision was based on (undisclosed) advice from the publisher, in turn based on other (undisclosed) advice
  • that there will be no formal retraction notice explaining these events as part of the scholarly version of record

Since early August the editor has refused a number of requests to discuss the decision the journal now appears to be treating the matter as if the publication never existed. No-one seems willing to own the final decision or to discuss its implications. Clearly, something is amiss. I bear no ill will toward the editor, with whom I have worked as a guest editor, peer reviewer and author for years. But I do not think the editorial position that has been reached that has been reached on this matter is tenable, or good for the reputation of the journal. Any independent review of the process would be unlikely to find that what has happened here reflects any reasonable standard of transparency or procedural fairness. Therefore I urge you to support a review of the decision by the editorial board. Regards, Geoff Sharrock

There was no response from Leo. The next afternoon he sent a note to all staff to say he’d be on leave for the next few weeks. I will not be contactable and will not read emails… By the end of that week, I’d had no response from Carl either. So the following week I sent my note of concern to T&F’s Regional Director, asking for the publisher to comment.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 26 September 2016 3:18 PM
To: Blatchford, Sarah
Subject: Beautiful lies, damned statistics paper – review of editorial decision sought

Dear Sarah, Attached is a letter setting out my concerns with the process used by those responsible for the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management to consider a complaint made about my paper on OECD statistics, back in March. I have sought a review of the decision as advised to me in August; and have provided supporting material. As you are aware of the background, I would appreciate an initial response within 7 days … With kind regards, Dr Geoff Sharrock 

Yet again, I detailed the twists and turns since March and the problematic outcome:

…authors should not be put in a position where, when scholars seek access to their published work, they must invent a rationale for a decision to which they were not a party, which makes no sense to them at all, and for which the justification by those making the decision remains obscure and off the record…

The response was refreshingly prompt.

From: Blatchford, Sarah
Sent: Monday, 26 September 2016 4:25 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: RE: Beautiful lies, damned statistics paper – review of editorial decision sought

Many thanks Geoff. We publish the journal concerned on behalf of LHMI and ATEM (who own the journal). Their decisions and those of the editor (as their agent) are final in relation to content and editorial policy. With kind regards, Sarah

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 26 September 2016 5:34 PM
To: Blatchford, Sarah
Subject: Re: Beautiful lies, damned statistics paper – review of editorial decision sought

Thanks Sarah, for acknowledging receipt of my letter, and for confirming that the publisher abides by editorial decisions as a matter of policy. However I think that my letter and the attachments are worth your consideration and perhaps some internal discussion with Josh. There is a problem with the transparency of the process used to address this particular complaint, and also a problem with the lack of any public justification for the (eventual) retraction of what was a formal publication. The journal owners, as you would be aware from Josh, did not support the initial withdrawal of the paper in late March. To them this appears to have been a decision by the publisher at that time, due to perceived legal risks. And at that time, unreasonable conditions for republishing an amended paper were set by the publisher … Those conditions were not proposed by the editor at the time; and the editor’s latest advice is that the final decision was based on the publisher’s advice, not the owner’s or that of the editorial board. So something does appear to be amiss. I will continue to pursue the matter with the editorial board. In the meantime, it is good to have it confirmed that the publisher would not seek to veto a decision to republish an edited version of the paper as per the attached, if an editorial board review led to that outcome. With kind regards, Geoff

From: Blatchford, Sarah
Sent: Monday, 26 September 2016 5:48 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: RE: Beautiful lies, damned statistics paper – review of editorial decision sought

Many thanks Geoff, if you consider there has been an about-turn by the owners, we cannot answer to this – it would need to be taken up with them. Taylor & Francis would not overturn a final decision by the journal owners and/or editor in relation to this journal which is owned by LHMI and ATEM. With kind regards, Sarah

So: the Institute was also behind the decision! I recalled Lynn’s advice in July, to ask if it was a publisher decision. And Leo’s in August, that the editor could explain the decision. I had forwarded my publisher letter to the editorial board group. By now Leo was on leave, and not reading emails. There was only one immediate reply. It was from Vin Massaro (who’d been too busy to respond to my earlier note), to say that he was finding all this hard to follow.

Perhaps Ian (or Sarah) had forwarded it to Carl as well. From Ian’s response – presumably confirmed with Leo and Carl the next day – I gathered that Sarah had urged the editor to own up to who made what decision.

From: Ian Dobson
Sent: Wednesday, 28 September 2016 9:19 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock; Carl Rallings; Leo Goedegebuure
Cc: Blatchford, Sarah
Subject: The ‘Beautiful Lies’ Paper

Dear Geoff, Further to recent correspondence, I wish to confirm that your paper will not be formally published in the Journal of Higher Education Management and Policy. The main reason for this is that the LH Martin Institute (LHMI), the Association of Tertiary Education and Management (ATEM), and the editor have concerns about content within the original article. Upon looking at the paper more closely, LHMI, ATEM, and the editor have taken the view that the original article would be better disseminated via a medium where open debate might be more easily undertaken. LHMI, ATEM, and the editor have thus declined to consider a revised version of the article. It should be noted that the paper not need to be retracted, because although the article appeared online for a short period, it was never formally published in the Journal as part of a particular issue in a particular volume. The ultimate decision on whether or not to publish an article in the Journal, in original or revised form, rests with the editor, and LHMI and ATEM as owners. In the case of your article, these parties together consulted Taylor & Francis for the publisher’s view, but Taylor & Francis does not itself set or seek to set editorial policy for society-owned journals. I will also send this email to parties included in your recent emails. Regards, Ian R Dobson, on behalf of the Journal, LHMI and ATEM

It helped to know who was really behind the enigmatic advice I’d been given eight weeks earlier (Chapter 21). Even if such a belated disclosure revealed a trail of obfuscation, and a disappointing backflip. Now Lynn’s suggestion back in July (Chapter 20), that Ian might say the publisher had made the decision, looked like a (plausibly deniable) piece of misdirection. I inferred that the latest advice to other parties wouldn’t explain how it was that the Journal had spent five months looking more closely before informing the author.

As for the latest advice on retraction, my low BS threshold had already been crossed. Late that evening, I started drafting a response: Dear Ian, Years from now we will all look back and wonder at the sheer volume of twists and turns and angst involved in what promises to be a fascinating case study in the micro-politics of academic publishing – working title “Crapshoot”...

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s