Plagiarism, Fabrication and a Mummy

Not the mummy in question...

Note: The mummy pictured above is NOT the one from the story due to both copyright and the fact the image may have been difficult for some readers. If you wish to view the actual mummy, you can do so at this link.

In some ways, it’s a plagiarism story that was 500 years in the making.

Last week, an investigation by Michigan State University (MSU) determined that the director of the university’s museum, Mark Auslander, had committed plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication in a director’s letter he sent in February 2019 about a recently-repatriated 500-year-old Bolivian mummy.

The case was brought forth by William Lovis, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the school and a former curator at the museum. According to Lovis, Auslander not only took credit for work he had done on the project but also spread misinformation and falsehoods in the letter.

But the animosity between those two goes back much farther than that letter and doesn’t appear to be abated by the recent decision. Though it’s rare for a case of plagiarism to center around a mummy, this is actually a tale as old as time for researchers.

Because, when unwraps this case, it’s a classic case of researchers battling for credit and praise, whether it’s earned or not.

Two Researchers and One Mummy

Mark Auslander – Photo by MSU

The story begins in 1890 when Fenton R. McCreery, then an American diplomat in Chile, donated the mummy to MSU. The mummy, nicknamed Ñusta, was 8 years old when she died approximately 500 years ago.

Though the donation was not controversial when it was made, attitudes have evolved and the school began an effort to repatriate the mummy with Bolivia. Lovis, for several years, was in charge of that process, spending much of his time working on the repatriation while also attempting to study the mummy.

However, he claims much of that changed when Auslander took over the director position in 2017. According to Lovis, Auslander “immediately started meddling in multiple research projects” he was involved with and that he ended up taking over the project to repatriate the mummy.

This included Auslander giving the mummy her name, Ñusta, which means “princess in the Quechua language. However, the mummy is Aymara, not Quechuan.

Frustrated with Auslander’s interference, Lovis retired in 2018. Meanwhile, Auslander worked with the Bolivian embassy to hold a repatriation ceremony in January 2019, which both Auslander and Lovis attended, even though Lovis was not invited by Auslander and was not a part of the event in a significant way.

However, things came to a head shortly after the ceremony when Auslander sent a “director’s letter” from the museum detailing the mummy project and the repatriation. According to Lovis, in that letter, Auslander took credit for work he had no part in and copy and pasted content from his administration reports without credit.

Lovis emailed his allegations to multiple members of the school’s administration and soon the matter was referred to the MSU Research Integrity Office, which set up a panel to investigate. That investigation took a year to complete and wrapped up last week.

To that end, the committee found that Auslander had, “engaged in plagiarism, falsification and fabrication, and that these actions had serious consequences as demonstrated by the circulation of fabricated information in other published sources.”

The letter, which had been published on the MSU website, has since been removed and the committee ordered Auslander to apologize to Lovis. However, that apology was not well accepted as Lovis said:

“I expected a real apology, on letterhead, in which he took full responsibility for his volitional actions. I had to wait a whole year for him to tell me it was an accident.”

William Lovis

Auslander, for his part, said that he was unaware of the process and that he did not understand the findings. That is why he says he didn’t appeal the decision, which was submitted in draft form in December.

Auslander goes on to say that this is part of a long-running disagreement between the two. He says that Lovis’ resignation had nothing to do with the dispute over the mummy but, instead, over Lovis’ failure to fully comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which he was the museum’s compliance officer for and had been for 27 years.

It is unclear what, if any, additional action the school will take against Auslander, though he is still currently the director of the museum and, in another interview, said he expects to have wrapped up all of these issues in the coming weeks.

The Real Nature of Research Plagiarism

When one pictures research plagiarism or authorship issues, there’s often a vision of a scientist swooping in and plagiarizing another researcher’s work wholesale, often before they get the chance to present it themselves.

That, however, is often not how it works.

Authorship issues are oftentimes much more nuanced than this. That’s because there’s a great deal of gray area about when someone should be listed as an author on a paper. This leads to being added to research without really having done any significant work or being omitted from it even though they made important contributions.

Pairing this ambiguity with the “publish or perish” environment that many in academia describe, there is a great deal of pressure to use this authorship gray area to grant or deny authorship of a paper or discovery.

However, this isn’t exactly what supposedly happened here. Auslander isn’t accused of adding his name to a research paper, but rather, using the language of his informal letter to imply that he was a part of research and work that he was not a part of and omit those that were.

It’s a similar kind of authorship issue, but one that’s very different in terms of execution and impact. However, from Lovis’ standpoint, the effect was very similar: He feels he was denied proper credit for a project that he worked on for years, including a year and a half before Auslander arrived.

So, in a strange way, this story is both more and less typical of what we see in research plagiarism cases. However, where things get really strange is with Auslander’s replies.

Auslander’s Responses

Auslander, over the course of this backlash, has offered two main defenses. The first is that the letter was an informal document and that the citation standards of a research paper did not apply. The second was that he did not understand the proceedings the university undertook against him and that is why he chose not to appeal.

I find both counter-arguments suspect.

While he is correct that a director’s letter has different citation standards, given both the content and the audience it’s reasonable to expect that he would cite his sources in some manner, especially when quoting it. In a more recent interview, Auslander seems to acknowledge this, saying that “Whenever someone doesn’t get full credit for their work it’s taken very seriously.”

However, that’s very different from his previous statement in which he said, “A few sentences were not placed in quotation marks but in no sense was somebody else’s research being claimed. And this really was just a newsletter — that’s why I was shocked he had so many concerns.”

Given that one is expected to use quotation marks even in the most informal of writing, as I did here, it seems a stretch to claim that a newsletter for a college’s museum would have lower standards of citation than a blog post.

The second claim also strikes me as odd. If Auslander was unaware of the severity of the allegations, it would represent a significant misjudgment on his part and, more to the point, a major failure on the part of the university to convey what was going on.

Given that the investigation took nearly a year to complete and Auslander was almost certainly questioned about it, it seems unlikely he was totally blindsided. If he was, then the university and the team investigating the case clearly let him down.

But, even if the school did fail to impress on him the importance, as an academic and a professor, he certainly has the background to determine how serious plagiarism allegations can be, even outside of a formal research paper.

While it’s likely that the facts of this case are indeed more complicated and nuanced than Lovis makes them out to be, Auslander’s rebuttals haven’t done much to help his case. If anything, it’s only undermined his position even further.

Bottom Line

When it’s all said and done, I have little doubt that this case is far more complicated than what has been reported in the news. This feud between Lovis and Auslander goes well beyond plagiarism and, when such feelings become involved, it can be difficult to separate feelings from facts.

What is clear are three things:

  1. The university, after a one-year investigation, found that Auslander had committed plagiarism as well as other integrity violations in the letter.
  2. That Auslander’s response to that has been less-than-ideal, offering up defenses that don’t really hold up to scrutiny.
  3. That the case is just one chapter in what is likely an ongoing feud between Lovis and Auslander.

Focusing on the story at hand, it’s clear that Auslander made a pretty serious mistake. Given that he was aware Lovis was upset about how the project was unfolding, he should have been treading more carefully. Instead, he was, at best, reckless with his writing and was called on it.

With a less tense topic and a letter removed from the years of animosity, it’s likely that this would not have become the story that it did. But the blow-up was predictable and Auslander, for whatever reason, didn’t see it coming and didn’t treat his writing with anywhere near adequate care.

Because of that, what should have been a career highlight for him is now a mark on his reputation. This could have been avoided with a few quotation marks and some clear acknowledgment but that didn’t happen.

It may be a high price to pay for such a seemingly small oversight, but, in research, there are no small oversights when it comes to attribution.

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