“Very sorry to bother you … but I was wondering if you could please send me a copy of your article ‘Beautiful lies, damned statistics…”

To judge from the sounds of silence about any need to review the decision, those in the know at the Journal had decided to keep their heads down, and let the editor handle it. And now, in September, a new OECD report had appeared, with updated statistics. To submit to another journal now, I’d need to rework my paper’s charts and tables.

I’d now spent more time defending my right to publish than on writing it in the first place. Who knew that watching The Beautiful Lie back then would have such unforeseen repercussions? And by now a mild sleep disorder had worsened. Back in June my doctor had prescribed sleeping pills and pathology tests. (The pills had helped; but lately I hadn’t found time for a haircut, let alone tests. Perhaps if I did, they’d diagnose an unusually low BS threshold.)

The stress and lack of sleep had induced a kind of zombie half-life. Each week I’d grimly trudge from home to work and back again, with little progress on either front. And now the latest update had upped my daily dose of cognitive dissonance. Since March, somehow, the paper’s official status had morphed from formally, finally published (no edits possible) to never formally published (no update needed).

And yet, at that Canberra conference it had been much discussed. Scholars across the sector had read all about it in the media. Some had sent comments on the paper (Chapter 4). Or cited it in their policy work. But if they searched for it online, the trail now ran cold.

Photo: Ethan Doyle White. Source: Wikimedia

I recalled my note to Leo back in May (Chapter 14): a risk not raised so far is that a Fairfax journalist follows me up … Their headline would probably be something along the lines of PEER REVIEWED PAPER PUBLISHED, THEN CENSORED BY ANGRY PROFESSOR...

The gap between the official March and September messages left me wondering: where did the gaslighting begin and end? I re-read the latest plot twist on retraction: 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...

Here the Journal had ignored another kind of risk. The Version of Record had been formally published online (Chapter 7). With their authentication software for detecting plagiarism, other publishers could read the VOR in full – but see no sign that it had been retracted. This became apparent months later, when I finally gave up and tried another journal. As its editor bemusedly pointed out in his polite rejection note, I seemed to have submitted a paper that I’d already published:

Unfortunately, following a desk review, I have taken the decision to reject … I am of the view that the current submission does not significantly differ from the earlier publication … the paper does not offer us new insights and hence – in my view – does not warrant publication...

In effect, the Journal‘s invisible retraction solution had created a kind of zombie paper. Quietly buried, but not quite dead. Hard to ignore, but unable to rejoin the living…

Online publication, March 2016

One early sign of the zombie problem was a polite message from a PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland.

From: Troy Heffernan
Sent: Tuesday, 20 September 2016 8:08:44 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Your latest article in Higher Education Policy and Management. 

Dear Dr Sharrock, My name is Troy Heffernan, I’m a history PhD student but over the last few years I have developed a large interest in higher education which has inevitably led me to your work. I’m very sorry to bother you with this, but I was wondering if you could please send me a copy of your article ‘Beautiful lies, damned statistics: reframing Australian university funding’. I have tried to access it from my USQ and UQ library accounts but I get the same error page in both instances. I’m sorry to be such a pain, but for the last few months I have been thinking about writing an article regarding higher education in Australia which makes your work essential reading. Sincerely, Troy Heffernan

By then three weeks had passed since my call for a board review. With no sign of any shift, my inner farm-boy was tempted to send a very brief outline of events since March: Sharp critique, prickly colleague, publication cactus… Still hoping for board support to emerge, I didn’t reply. Then when the Carl Rallings copyright letter landed (Chapter 22), I decided to call on T&F to support my call for a board review. (Perhaps I could open with Sorry to be such a pain – you see I have this low BS threshold…) In the event my long letter to the publisher would recount the saga to date (again) in detail. And conclude with what still seemed a common-sense solution:

Dear Sarah, I have not contacted you directly before … I am concerned that the journal now appears to have endorsed the complaint … that there had been a “breach of ethics” on my part … The paper shows that many commentators have misconstrued OECD statistics, not wilfully but through error … The latest OECD report appeared earlier this month, with new data which appears to confirm the narrative that the paper sets out to debunk. But this year no commentator, including those mentioned in my paper, has reiterated earlier claims that Australia again ranks “second last” for public funding. Some have advised me that they now accept my paper’s analysis. Exposing error is a basic function of scholarly work and academic publishing …

A major problem with this process is that it has been conducted entirely through back channels … The complainant has refused to acknowledge my explanation of the paper’s title … minor edits I proposed to address any concern about inferences of “misuse”, my rechecking of quotes from his work, and my substantive response to his initial misreading of the paper’s analysis. That I have offered the complainant explanations while proposing minor edits and a corrigendum to the journal editor, which included an apology for any distress caused, should have sufficed …

No independent review of this process would find that it reflects reasonable standards of transparency or procedural fairness. It is also hard to see how Josh’s advice in March on the formalities of scholarly publishing can be reconciled with later events … It seems likely that the publisher is now in breach of its contract, having failed to establish any contractual breach in the paper itself, following its initial publication. Therefore I urge you as publisher to support the proposed review of the decision by the journal’s editorial board. I believe that a small number of minor edits to the paper, mainly to clarify the title on page 1 and to revise phrasing on page 16, should suffice to address any concerns raised… With kind regards, Dr Geoff Sharrock

The upshot of putting the publisher on the spot was to learn that Leo and Carl at the Institute and ATEM were behind the decision. At that point, I considered advising the USQ student that his own DVC might find a dog-eared copy in a nearby dustbin. But in the end, I’d send him a personal copy with a note on the paper’s uncertain status.

By late September, the only board member I’d heard back from (other than the editor) was Gavin. Neither Leo nor Lynn had responded at all. But after Gavin’s note, I’d been expecting to hear from Vin. A Centre fellow whose commentary I’d also quoted in the paper, he’d been supportive all along. Back in March he’d sent a note when the first media report appeared (Chapter 4).

From: Vin Massaro
Sent: Wednesday, 9 March 2016 10:32 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: OECD figures

Hi Geoff It was you! I was given your paper for blind peer review but didn’t pick that it was you … We should find time for a coffee. Cheers Vin

During a break in our Master’s program later that morning, I’d pecked out a quick reply: Hi Vin, I’m glad to hear you’re not dismayed by my analysis. There has been a spectrum of response, as you might imagine…

He replied: Ian sent it to me with the caveat that I was included in the criticism, but I thought it was addressing a significant problem that should be debated … I think you might have toned down the bits on Simon because they weren’t always essential to your argument…

Thanks Vin, and yes, I could have made the case more gently. On the other hand, given the complexities, the gently made technical case may well disappear without trace … the dominant narrative around OECD data is so entrenched that people may well just ignore any critique that unpacks so many variables, and stick with the headline metrics as defining evidence for whatever their main concerns are: e.g. under-resourced institutions, inequitable costs for students … That’s the difficulty with an entrenched narrative – the counter-narrative seems unthinkable…

In June I’d sent him an update. He was surprised to hear that the complaint hadn’t been resolved.

From: Vin Massaro
Sent: Tuesday, 28 June 2016 2:28 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: OECD paper and misreporting in The Australian

Hi Geoff … I hadn’t realised this was still not settled – how frustrating for you! So what happened to the article itself?  Did T&F just pull it?  Regards Vin 

I replied: Let’s just say it is a long story. Leo has been involved in the discussions on this, and knows more about the current status…

The next time I saw Vin he seemed bemused at the lack of progress. He’d spoken to Lynn and Leo but they wouldn’t discuss it… In August I sent him a note about the Australian correction. He said he’d seen it, but was very busy. In September I’d added him to my board review request list. But hadn’t heard back. Apart from the editor, only Gavin had responded in that first week. I followed up.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Monday, 12 September 2016 4:23 PM
To: Vin Massaro
Subject: Re: OECD paper and misreporting in The Australian

Hi Vin, It would be good to have an informal chat with you about the OECD paper. So far I’ve had the response from Ian which you’ve seen … I’m aware that people who have not been in the loop along the way will have had a fair bit to digest. I still hope that the editorial board will review the decision and come up with a suitable way forward. Are you free for a phone call later today or sometime tomorrow? Thanks, Geoff

His reply the following week made it clear that there’d been no group discussion within the editorial board at all.

From: Vin Massaro
Sent: Thursday, 22 September 2016 12:54 PM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: happy to chat?

Hi Geoff Apologies, but I’ve just been flat out … I haven’t had time to keep up with the journal issue, nor have I been in contact with anyone about it. So I don’t think I’d be much help at the moment. Can I get back to you late next week? Regards Vin

The editorial board had had three weeks already. I decided to plough on. Later that week I sent my long letter to the publisher. Then forwarded it to the editorial group, with a copy of the article and my amendments.

The only immediate reply this time was from Vin, to clarify my note: Is the annotated article the version you now wish to see published … I’m finding all this hard to follow, as I’m sure others are who have also been involved only marginally at various points or right at the very end of this discussion. Cheers Vin

I’d left out an attachment, which hadn’t helped. I tried again.

Sorry Vin … I know it’s inherently confusing, but this is in part because it’s complex, and because it doesn’t actually add up. The annotated version is what I would like to see published; but it would help if the editor could advise on whether it covers all the points of concern. The details of the complaint have never been made available … for about two months every party involved has been saying to me, go and ask someone else … That’s why it is like something out of Kafka. Happy to talk to clarify any aspect. Cheers, Geoff

There was no reply. Two days later, the editor finally declared that the Institute and ATEM were behind the decision, after all (Chapter 22). And that he would pass his latest advice on to the other parties I’d been calling on.

Gentle reader, by this point I was feeling not just perplexed by what my Journal colleagues had done, but now vexed to the max. The next day I sent a reply to all.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Sent: Thursday, 29 September 2016 3:17 PM
To: Ian Dobson; Carl Rallings; Leo Goedegebuure
Cc: Blatchford, Sarah; Lynn Meek; Vin Massaro; Carroll Graham; Gavin Moodie
Subject: RE: The ‘Beautiful Lies’ Paper 

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”. The main issue then will be: was this matter handled honorably? Did all those involved assume responsibility for doing the right thing? … Clearly your initial solution (and mine) – minor amendments, made quickly – was not supported by others overseeing the journal for one reason or another. But now the most sensible option has been abandoned, and you have been left to explain the inexplicable.

This will be a cautionary tale for any future editor of the journal your latest advice that the paper was never formally published is not consistent at all with earlier advice on this point from the publisher in March (Josh) to which you and I and Leo were parties. Nor is it consistent with the publishing agreement I signed in February, prior to publication … If after all this time the paper is now deemed never to have been formally published after all, why was it considered impossible at the outset to make simple amendments to address any concerns raised, as you suggested initially, and as I have offered to do ever since? Your latest advice does not help me respond sensibly to those now seeking a copy of the paper, which they know was published, not least because it was reported on in the Australian …

Further, the editorial position you now attribute to LHMI and ATEM (Leo and Carl) is not consistent at all with Leo’s April advice to Josh, yourself and myself of the LHMI/ATEM view of the initial decision to suspend publication in March. That is, that the paper had been peer reviewed and published, no major revision was needed, and its withdrawal was not warranted. Why has their position changed? Why has it taken 5 months since the complaint for the three of you to “look more closely” at the content of the paper? In a 7000 word paper, which bits exactly now seem “inappropriate” that were not addressed with the simple edits I proposed…?

It also seems odd that it has taken until now for the author to be informed that LHMI and ATEM were in fact parties to the decision you advised me of 8 weeks ago. The week after your advice I asked Leo about the retraction notice aspect, and was told he knew nothing about this. Obviously the decision was not thought through. Until this week I had been led to believe that your options as editor were constrained by the publisher’s concern about legal action by the complainant for damages (for which, under the publishing agreement, the author indemnifies the publisher, thus leading me to seek my own advice by way of defence). In fact, Lynn Meek told me informally in late July that the paper had already been “retracted” and that it would not be republished; and suggested that whether the decision came from the editor or the publisher remained unclear.

Further, as far as I have been made aware, there was no written correspondence at all to you or the publisher from the complainant … How can an apparently informal complaint, the details of which I have not seen, take so many months to consider, and require so much effort from so many people to actually reach a decision? Since early May there was no new information on my side of this to add to the explanations given to the complainant of the paper’s analysis, use of quotes etc. All that has happened since then is my own publication of a summary of parts of the analysis in The Conversation in June, the Australian’s retraction of its own report in July, and a further summary from me in August when the Australian published its apology.

Further, you say now that the journal does not offer enough scope for “open debate” of my analysis. But we all know that a right of reply in the journal itself is standard procedure and that this was suggested to the complainant initially (by me) back in March … To reiterate the obvious, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the complainant has succeeded in vetoing my paper without having to justify any of his accusations in an open manner. The veto appears to have succeeded not because, in some unspecified way, my paper misrepresented his own or anyone else’s commentary; but because its critique of flaws in the OECD statistics narrative is unanswerable. The paper is not all about the complainant. But my impression is that no one responsible for the journal has been willing to tell the complainant that, along with many others, some of his commentary on OECD data has flaws … This year’s new OECD report presents a new dataset, with figures again providing a perfect platform to reprise last year’s “second last in the OECD” narrative. But this trope has not reappeared in media commentary. It is “the dogma that did not bark”: a tacit recognition that however unwelcome the implications may be, my analysis is correct, and as a sector we should stop using these “one-dimensional” funding comparisons. One reason why peer reviewers such as Vin Massaro supported publication initially is that they recognised that the analysis makes a contribution to the way OECD data should be understood in Australian commentary. This is just what scholarly journals are for.

The editorial position you now present appears to arise not from any real problem with the author’s ethics in scholarly writing, or some editorial policy on the suitability of different publication forums, or the apparently fluid formalities of scholarly publishing. It just reflects the unedifying politics of this very small corner of the academic world. Someone important got something wrong, then got upset and over-reacted when their fallacy and certain ironies arising from it were pointed out. But since they have been unable to admit that they got anything wrong, this must somehow be accommodated. So now the journal’s editorial policy requires that, for this particular peer-reviewed publication, irony is the new blasphemy, blasphemy is the new thought crime, and it is best for all (except the author) to pretend that the offending article was never actually published.

During the long months of consultation, where it appears that an agreement was reached with the complainant to which the author has not been a party, did anyone involved consider that the complainant may now face more reputational risk from pursuing a vexatious complaint to bully the journal into retraction, than from having misconstrued OECD data in the first place? Looking back, my impression is that your decision was reached as early as June, when Sarah discussed the matter with Leo and Carl. But no-one was willing to (formally) advise the author until August. And since then, evidently, no-one has been forthcoming about who was involved in making the decision until now.

Nor was anyone prepared to address the formalities of retraction, until now. I appear to have forced that issue by forwarding the advice I received from Sarah this week. To reiterate the obvious: as a matter of procedural fairness it should not be necessary for the author to pursue and cross-examine those responsible for reaching a decision for weeks and months, only to get advice which leaves so many questions unanswered … My paper has been slandered as a gratuitous “attack” piece, first by the media and then by the complainant. The journal’s process for resolving a serious allegation of academic misconduct out-Kafka’s Kafka. I think any sane person can see that the problematic aspects of the journal’s response will not go away. If the review I have sought does not take steps to properly address the concerns I have raised, any impression of a back room deal being covered up with flimsy alibis and post-hoc rationalisations can only make matters worse. Regards, Geoff

There was no reply from anyone to this. At the weekend, I sent the vice-chancellor an update.

From: Geoff Sharrock
Date: Sunday, 2 October 2016 at 11:25 PM
To: Glyn Davis
Subject: Fw: The ‘Beautiful Lies’ Paper

Glyn, For information, last week the journal reconfirmed that it will not consider publishing a revised version. This comes after seeing an updated set of proposed edits, and after my request for a review by members of the editorial board. As you see, I have reiterated my concerns about the process in particular to those in the loop on the request for a review. It is hard to see any prospect of a change of stance by the journal now; and my guess is that the complainant has received an undertaking. Thanks for all your patient consideration of my concerns, and impartial advice along the way. Regards, Geoff

From: Glyn Davis
Sent: Monday, 3 October 2016 9:10 AM
To: Geoff Sharrock
Subject: Re: The ‘Beautiful Lies’ Paper 

Thanks Geoff for this update on the article.  The sense of a Kafka short story continues unabated, alas … The implication of the explanation is that controversial issues that require wider debate should not be included in the journal, which is an interesting take on academic publication. Regards, Glyn

Indeed, I thought. And for such a little thought-crime. As my colleagues must surely appreciate by now, it out-Kafka’s Kafka

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