UC-Berkeley Exonerates Anthropologist Who Was Accused of Stealing Ideas

January 31, 2013

[Updated (1/31/2013, 10:10 a.m.) with a response from Michael Lissack.]

Terrence Deacon did not commit plagiarism. He did not steal anyone's ideas. Instead, he was the victim of a "relentless e-mail and Internet campaign" that unfairly damaged his reputation.

Those are the key findings of a report released late Wednesday by the University of California at Berkeley, which investigated allegations that Mr. Deacon, a professor of anthropology at the university, borrowed and then failed to cite much of the material in his 2012 book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter.

In the report, an investigative committee determined that, while there was "considerable overlap in the issues discussed" in Mr. Deacon's book and Alicia Juarrero's Dynamics in Action, published more than 10 years earlier, it found no evidence of pilfering. The committee instead concluded that Mr. Deacon "pursues, independently, a line of thought which is, at a very general level, similar to that pursued by Juarrero."

This was not an ordinary plagiarism case. For starters, no one was complaining that Mr. Deacon had lifted passages verbatim, because he clearly hadn't. He was accused of appropriating the ideas in Ms. Juarrero's book, and in another book, Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, and then presenting them as if they were his own.

Adjudicating such a claim is much trickier than simply comparing sentences. Making things more difficult, the books are about the nature of causation and the evolution of human consciousness, philosophical topics that resist easy summary. Even a reader with some background in philosophy can emerge a tad bewildered about what the books are asserting, much less who said what first.

What has made the case even more unusual is how aggressively it has been pursued by Mr. Deacon's chief critic, Michael Lissack. Mr. Lissack is executive director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, an organization with which Ms. Juarrero has been affiliated.

Berkeley's report says that, during the investigation, university officials were the victims of an "Internet attack"—by which is meant lots and lots of e-mails—pressing them repeatedly about the case. As a result, the university is not releasing the names of people on the investigative committee lest they, too, find themselves on the receiving end of a digital deluge.

Repairing a Reputation

So the primary finding was that, while there was overlap among the books, the similarities were not intentional; rather, they were evidence of great minds thinking alike.

The committee also found that, in a couple of instances, Mr. Deacon could not have borrowed the ideas from the others because he had written about them first. An accusation that a 2011 paper by Mr. Deacon had plagiarized from a 2010 paper by Ms. Juarrero could not be true, the committee wrote, because Mr. Deacon actually submitted his paper to the editor of the Routledge Companion to Religion and Science in 2009.

The report is unusual in its detail. Often the results of plagiarism accusations against professors are kept private or are described in terse public statements. In this case, though, Berkeley has not only released a point-by-point examination of the allegations but has also set up a Web site that explains those findings in an attempt to repair the damage done to Mr. Deacon's reputation.

In a letter to Mr. Deacon, Graham Fleming, Berkeley's vice chancellor for research, writes that the university "has both a legal and moral obligation to take steps to restore the reputations of individuals wrongly accused of research misconduct."

Responding to the report on Thursday morning, Mr. Lissack made this statement via e-mail: "By rejecting the notion that a failure to use 21st-century technology to research and then properly cite 'parallel' efforts by other scholars is an academic-integrity issue, Berkeley, which prides itself for having a school of information science, has decided to devalue the relevance of that very science to the pursuit of scholarship.

"This is a stance which the university will come to regret," Mr. Lissack continued. "The investigative committee made a much deeper query into potential sources and parallel streams of research than did the very author of the book in question: Deacon. That contrast speaks for itself."

Colin McGinn, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, said in an interview with The Chronicle last year that the overlap with other scholars' ideas was "not superficial at all" and could have been avoided with a mere Google search.

Mr. Deacon acknowledged last year that he hadn't read enough of the recent literature on the topic and that his citations didn't "go deep enough." But that was an oversight, he insisted, not an attempt to take credit for someone else's insights.

In a letter responding to the university's report, Mr. Deacon wrote that he was heartened that his colleagues, even those with whom he has had intellectual disagreements, had defended his integrity and scholarship. "Ultimately," he wrote, "this has renewed my faith in the academic enterprise we are all committed to."