Thursday, February 11, 2016

Eating Our Young
Francisco Goya, Saturn

It should’ve been a proud moment.

There was my name on the cover and the title page, for contributing a chapter to the new volume: Ashkelon 5, by Yaakov Huster. Inside, the editors’ preface praised my work in helping to put this volume out.

It should’ve been a proud moment, but it wasn’t. It was one of anger and sadness. As it happens, I had co-authored the entire volume.

I had been invited by Huster, the original author, to write the book with him when he was unable to complete it on his own. I also had a short-term editing contract to work on Huster's contributions to the volume. However, after two years of delays from my co-author, and the refusal of the editors of the series, Daniel Master and Lawrence Stager, to pay me for my editing work for more than a year after it was completed, I was forced to withdraw from the volume, taking my authored work with me. At that point, the series editors claimed (falsely) that they owned my authored work, and simply announced that they would use it without my permission and without crediting me – all in the same email in which they tried to shame me for not being grateful for all they'd done for me over the years.

In short, my former Ph.D. adviser and a former fellow student had stolen my work.

Why had they done this? On one level, Master needed to justify the way he had overseen the project. He had paid $60,000 to Huster to write the book when the book was, in Master’s own words, clearly beyond him. It seems that I was the obvious scapegoat. An example: after my co-author disappeared from contact for a year, Master told me that I was at fault for having overestimated my ability to keep in touch with Huster.

But there is another reason why Master and Stager did this: simply because they could. One person I talked to after these events expressed sympathy with me for being “Ashkelon'd”. That is, those familiar with the Ashkelon project and its directors are well aware of a long line of people who have been victimized by them. Over the course of these events I also realized that the Harvard Semitic Museum, the institution behind the Ashkelon project, had for years been falsely claiming copyrights of contributions to earlier volumes, including my own, despite the fact that contributors had not signed any forms transferring copyright, as required by law. Nor was this the only time my work had been plagiarized. In his 2010 book Philistine Iconography, David Ben-Shlomo reprints nearly verbatim an earlier article that we had co-authored on Philistine figurines, without any acknowledgment that he had done so and, to my knowledge, without permission of the copyright holder (in this case the journal had had us sign forms transferring copyright). This means that all of the ideas I had contributed to that article were passed off as his. In addition, Ben-Shlomo stole ideas from my then-unpublished dissertation, including the identification of a new figurine type. There have been no consequences to my knowledge for any of these actions.

All of the above, remember, is what has happened in a single, relatively brief career. What if we extrapolate from that to academia more generally? What if we look at even more serious issues such as sexual harassment and abuse?
Just over the last few months, we have seen revelations of sexual misconduct concerning high-profile scientists such as Jason Lieb (University of Chicago), Christian Ott (Caltech), and Geoffrey Marcy (Berkeley). Judging from these and other examples, abuse and exploitation are an epidemic in the academy.

This leads me to perhaps the most disheartening thing about my own story: No one seems to care. While those I've confided in have expressed sympathy, almost no one called it what it is – theft and exploitation – and insisted that it must stop. Instead, I was repeatedly encouraged, by junior and senior scholars alike, to keep quiet about the incident and move on. I debated with myself at length before writing down my experiences. It is as if we all view such abuse and exploitation not as an outrage, but as an unfortunate but inevitable – even necessary – part of the scholarly process. A rite of passage into academia, perhaps.

Maybe it has always been this way. Consider the case of David Robinson and Mary Ross Ellingson: Robinson was a prominent classical archaeologist in the early to mid-20th century who stole his student Ellingson's work, publishing her master's thesis and part of her doctoral dissertation under his own name. Alan Keiser, who wrote a book about the case (Archaeology, Sexism, and Scandal), has discussed how much indifference he met when trying to find a publisher. As one reviewer wrote, “what you are dealing with here is part of the unwritten history of classical archaeology. Best to leave it unwritten.”  There, an incident in the distant past, involving figures long dead, is wished to be left in the past. Here, we are dealing with a recent episode involving figures still prominent in the field, but the response is the same. In the recent cases of sexual harassment and abuse, the initial reaction of faculty and administrators was to cover up and ignore the incidents. It appears that we are simply never supposed to discuss these matters.

And so it seems that academic ethics run on an honor system – but that honor system is routinely violated. What do we do then, when the system is a failure? Or is it a failure? The honor system ends up entrenching the power of senior figures; perhaps it is designed to do so. Senior scholars are less likely to suffer a violation of the system, because of the power they wield in it; and if they do, their prominence and influence will help balance any negative consequences. What about for a junior scholar, who does not have such a network to help them? Who has trouble fighting back (and is in fact encouraged not to do so) – who is most vulnerable to mistreatment? What if the people doing the victimizing are your own mentors? Where can you turn then?

In these cases, silence is not enough. We cannot simply stand by while these incidents happen, because this will only allow them to happen again and again – unless we are fine with the continued exploitation and mistreatment and abuse of the very students we are supposed to be promoting. By allowing such things to happen, over and over, we are failing in our most basic responsibilities: nurturing our own students, the very future of our profession. Will our own fields survive in this time of threat to the humanities? And if they do, what wreckage are we leaving in them? I look at this situation again and again and come to the same conclusion:

We are failing.