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Last Update: 24 May 2004


A Case Study of Academic Misconduct, Peer Review Failures and Journal Coverups of Published Errors*


by David R. Hershey, Ph.D.

Abstract

Ph.D. historian and University of Minnesota faculty member Douglas Allchin (1993, 1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2002b) has repeatedly published a fabricated, inaccurate version of the historical context for Helmont's famous 1648 willow experiment because he did not cite any of the historical literature on Helmont. Table 1 contrasts Dr. Allchin's fabricated historical context and the actual historical context based on the history literature. Dr. Allchin used his inaccurate fabrications to criticize an article in a refereed biology teaching journal (Hershey 1991) and a biology textbook (Nason and Goldstein 1969). Dr. Allchin never even used the published Anonymous Reviewers' Comments (Anonymous 1993) for his original manuscript to improve subsequent republications. Classroom use of Allchin's fabricated 'facts' is fraught with problems (Table 2). Dr. Allchin's republication of both the ideas and verbatim sections of Allchin (1993) without attribution in Allchin (1995) and Allchin (2000) is autoplagiarism (Table 3). Dr. Allchin represented his fabricated historical facts as original material three times, at Cornell University (Allchin 1993), at the University of Texas El Paso (Allchin 1995) and at the University of Minnesota (Allchin 2000a). The three refereed journals that published Allchin's horribly flawed paper did not admit that their peer review failed and honestly attempt to correct the errors. Instead they tried to cover up the errors in various ways.

Introduction

Over a dozen historians have made headlines in recent years for academic misconduct, such as plagiarism and fabrication of facts. This case study involves fabrication of facts about Helmont's 1648 willow experiment by University of Minnesota historian, Douglas Allchin. It also details my attempts to correct Dr. Allchin's errors, including how the journals that published Dr. Allchin's fabricated facts failed to honestly correct his errors.

Allchin's Flawed Articles

University of Minnesota historian Douglas Allchin, has published five very similar critiques (Allchin 1993, 1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2002) of my American Biology Teacher article entitled "Digging Deeper Into Helmont's Famous Willow Tree Experiment" (Hershey 1991).

Allchin (1993) was first published in Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching. It is the refereed journal of the Association of College and University Biology Educators. Bioscene was edited by John R. Jungck of Beloit College in 1993.

Much of Allchin (1993) was republished in Allchin (1995) without attribution. Allchin (1995) was in the proceedings of a teaching conference held at the University of Minnesota. It does not seem to be available online.

Allchin (2000a) was published in the The Journal of College Science Teaching (JCST), which is edited by Lester Paldy of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. If you are a member of the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) you can access this article online in the JCST archive. A slightly different version of Allchin (2000a), designated (Allchin 2000b) appears on the University of Minnesota SHiPS Resource Center website run by Dr. Allchin. What appears to be the same webpage (Allchin 2002a) also appeared in the refereed online journal The Pantaneto Forum, edited by Dr. Nigel Sannitt.

Fabrication, Failure to Cite Sources and Autoplagiarism

Dr. Allchin's articles contain numerous factual errors and fabrications and cite none of the historical literature on Helmont. Table 1 contrasts Dr. Allchin's fabricated historical context and the actual historical context based on the history literature. Classroom use of Allchin's fabricated 'facts' is fraught with problems (Table 2).

In addition to fabrication and failure to cite any of the historical literature on Helmont, Allchin's republications of Allchin (1993) without attribution represent autoplagiarism.

Table 3 contains two representative example passages from three of Dr. Allchin's publications, each represented as work done by Dr. Allchin at a different university - Cornell University (Allchin 1993), University of Texas at El Paso (Allchin 2000a) and University of Minnesota (Allchin 2000a). Allchin (1995) does not cite Allchin (1993). Allchin (2000a) does not cite either Allchin (1993) or Allchin (1995).

Autoplagiarism, or auto-plagiarism, is defined as an author republishing or reusing the same piece of their writing without citing the initial publication or use. A student who turns in the same term paper in two classes without the teacher's permission is considered guilty of autoplagiarism. Most refereed journals require that submitted manuscripts must not have been published elsewhere. The Journal of College Science Teaching, which published Allchin (2000a), requires that

"Manuscript content must be original and unpublished."

It is fairly obvious why autoplagiarism is prohibited by colleges and universities. An unethical faculty member can use autoplagiarism to get credit and pay for the same piece of writing at different universities. Autoplagiarism is unfair to universities who end up being defrauded by paying for already published work. It is unethical for a faculty member to use autoplagiarism to exaggerate their publication record. Autoplagiarism also cheats universities, publishers and journals out of the credit they deserve for first publishing a particular article.

Attempts to Correct Allchin's Flawed Articles

I first came across Allchin (2000a) at the end of 2001 and immediately noticed the total lack of citations of the historical literature on Helmont and Allchin's fantasy version of the historical context for Helmont's 1648 experiment. I emailed Dr. Allchin and asked him to correct the many major errors in print because they unfairlt criticized my work and misinformed teachers and students. My facts were supported by citations from the historical literature on Helmont (Hershey 1991). Dr. Allchin refused to make any corrections. The JCST editor would not print an erratum or even admit that Allchin (2000a) contained errors. My other option was to submit a letter to the JCST which was published in May, 2002 (Hershey 2002a).

Allchin (2002a) responded to my letter in an unprofessional manner and insinuated that I had a motive other than to correct factual errors. I had specifically asked editor Paldy to please edit out any personal attacks by Dr. Allchin but he failed to do so. Dr. Paldy also misrepresented the disagreement by titling the letters, "Two Views on Helmont." This was not a difference in viewpoints, it was Dr. Allchin fabricating historical facts and my presenting the facts as the history literature presents them. Here is a rebuttal to Allchin's letter (Hershey 2002b).

Shortly after coming across Allchin (2000a), I also found Allchin (1993) which revealed Dr. Allchin's autoplagiarism. Allchin (1995) also contained much of Allchin (1993) often virtually verbatim, yet did not cite Allchin (1993).

I contacted Bioscene and asked them to correct the factual errors in Allchin (1993) as an erratum. They refused. They also refused to allow me to publish a letter to the editor or article pointing out the errors. Not to correct major errors in a teaching journal is a coverup. It is also a huge disservice to teachers and students, who may be deceived by Dr. Allchin's fabricated facts.

About September 2003, I found that shortly after my May, 2002, letter pointing out factual errors and lack of needed citations of the history literature, Dr. Allchin republished Allchin (2000a) in an online refereed journal, The Pantanetto Forum (Allchin 2002a). None of the factual errors had been corrected, and there were still no citations of the history literature on Helmont. At that point I came to believe that Dr. Allchin's repeated attacks on Hershey (1991) were malicious and not just due to Dr. Allchin's incompetence as an historian.

I contacted Nigel Sannitt, editor of The Pantanetto Forum. He too refused to correct the errors in print via an erratum. He allowed me to publish brief comments on the factual errors as Hershey (2003b) but edited out all my criticisms of Dr. Allchin. However, Editor Sannitt apparently did not edit out all of Dr. Allchin's personal attacks on me (Allchin 2003). Here is my rebuttal Hershey (2003c)to Dr. Allchin's erroneous Pantaneto Forum comments.

Of particular note is Dr. Allchin's misrepresentation of his supposed 2003 article on "Pseudohistory and Pseudoscience". The volume and page numbers he gives are bogus. Volume 12 of Science & Education, contains no such article by Dr. Allchin.

Peer Review Failures

Allchin (1993, 1995, 2000a, 2002a) are examples of peer review failure. If any of the very similar Helmont sections in those articles were submitted as an undergraduate term paper, it would earn an F for lack of literature citations and its fabricated and inaccurate historical facts. Dr. Allchin's own University of Minnesota has a webpage that explains what materials need to be cited in student term papers. Among materials that require citations are

"Assertions that are arguable or facts that are not widely known."

Both those reasons clearly apply in Allchin articles, which argue that Hershey (1991) and Nason and Goldstein (1969) did not have the correct historical context. It is also clear that Allchin's articles deal with facts about Helmont and his 1648 experiment "that are not widely known." Apparently the peer reviewers and editors had so little knowledge of Helmont that they failed to notice that Dr. Allchin placed Helmont in the wrong nation and wrong century! Allchin (2002a) stated,

"Jean Baptiste van Helmont, a Dutch physician from the early 16th century."

That statement speaks volumes about Dr. Allchin's competence as an historian. A quick check of an encyclopedia or a websearch reveals that Helmont (1579-1644) was Belgian and was not even alive in the early 16th century!

One of the things that baffles me the most is that none of the three editors had the common sense or sense of fair play to send Dr. Allchin's manuscript to me for a third review. Given that Dr. Allchin was criticizing my American Biology Teacher article, I would certainly have been a motivated reviewer. I also clearly had an interest in Helmont, and unlike Dr. Allchin's manuscript, my article cited historical literature on Helmont!

Peer Review Abuses

It is rather ironic that the publication of Allchin (1993) involved unethical conduct of the Bioscene editor, John R. Jungck of Beloit College. Dr. Jungck explained to me in an email that one of the reviewers of Dr. Allchin's manuscript was "rather insistent" that he or she be allowed to publish an article in rebuttal to Dr. Allchin's manuscript. Dr. Jungck's email explained how he "negotiated" a secret deal to silence that reviewer by agreeing to also publish a page of the reviewer comments in the same issue as Dr. Allchin's uncorrected manuscript (Anonymous 1993). Dr. Allchin (2002a) claims he was never shown the reviewer comments before his Bioscene manuscript was published. An editor not showing the peer reviewer comments to an author is a deliberate short-circuiting of the peer review process. Publication of reviewer comments for an article, particularly in the same issue as the article, is unprecedented in Bioscene and every other science education journal that I am familiar with.

The story that Dr. Jungck told me via email is very different from his explanation in Bioscene where he stated that,

"the two reviewers strongly appreciate the author's [Allchin's] perspective and desire it to be shared with readers of Bioscene."

That contradicts Dr. Jungck's email describing the "rather insistent" reviewer who didn't want Allchin's manuscript published or wanted to publish an article to rebut Allchin if it was published.

If Dr. Jungck had done his job as editor and required Dr. Allchin to revise the manuscript according to the reviewer suggestions, this webpage may not have been needed. The reviewers of Dr. Allchin's Bioscene manuscript said that "the article might better serve readers if references to professional history of biology literature were given on van Helmont." If Dr. Jungck had required Dr. Allchin to read and cite the history literature on Helmont to support his historical context, Dr. Allchin might have realized that his facts were wrong and corrected the manuscript.

Refereed Journal Coverups

When a reader reports major factual errors in a journal article, the journal editor should investigate and, if confirmed, publish an erratum. The following is similar to what should have appeared in the Journal of College Science Teaching:


Hypothetical JCST Erratum

The recent article by Allchin (2000a) was misrepresented as original work from the University of Minnesota. Most of Allchin (2000a) was based on work done at Cornell University (Allchin 1993) and University of Texas at El Paso (Allchin 1995). The JCST policy is that "Manuscript content must be original and unpublished."

Allchin (2000a) fabricated the historical context for Helmont's willow experiment and completely lacked the literature citations required to support such unfamiliar facts. The major factual errors in Allchin (2000a) are corrected in Table 1. Table 1 also contains citations of the historical literature. We apologize to the authors of Hershey (1991) and Nason and Goldstein (1969) who Allchin (2000a) libeled because the criticisms were based on his fabricated, and thus false, historical context.

The Editor




I am struck by the hypocrisy of the refereed journals that published Allchin's articles (1993, 2000a, 2002a). All three journals have refused to correct Dr. Allchin's numerous factual errors in an erratum. I can only interpret that as an attempt to avoid the embarassing admission that their peer review and editing failed, and they published a horribly flawed article. Compare the reality of the journals not warning their readers of major published errors to some of their high-minded claims: The objectives of ACUBE, which publishes Bioscene include,

"to bring to light common problems involving biological curricula at the college level and by the free interchange of ideas; endeavor to resolve these problems"

Where was the "free interchange" when I tried to correct the major factual errors in Dr. Allchin's Bioscene article?

The National Science Teacher's Association, which publishes the Journal of Science College Teaching (JCST) has the mission statement,

"to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all."

How does not correcting major factual errors in a JCST article and not including a published letter correcting some of the errors in the JCST online archive "promote excellence?"

Conclusions

Peer review sometimes fails and journal editors and publishers typically try to cover up error-filled articles rather than the editor honestly correcting the errors in print and in online journal archives. Such coverups negatively impact the reputation and integrity of editors, journals, publishers and all of science. When coverups occur in education journals, such as Bioscene and Journal of College Science Teaching, they add to the problem of science illiteracy.

At most, journals may allow a person who discovers errors in an article to publish a letter calling attention to the errors. However, the editor then typically allows the author of the article being criticized to personally attack the letter writer. That is a strong disincentive for astute readers to call attention to errors in published articles. When science education journals cover up error-filled articles, it may enable incompetent or dishonest authors to rise in the professional ranks. It also "pollutes" the science education literature with errors.

Universities must also share some of the blame for error-filled articles such as Allchin (1993, 1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2002b). Why didn't in-house peer review at Cornell University, University of Texas El Paso and University of Minnesota detect the incompetence of Dr. Allchin's manuscripts? Allchin (1993, 1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2002b) are a black mark on the academic reputation of those institutions. If Dr. Allchin's manuscripts had been submitted to the student writing centers at those universities, they surely would have noticed that the manuscripts were unacceptable because of the total lack of citations for the many unfamiliar facts on Helmont.



Literature Cited

  • Allchin, D. (1993). Reassessing van Helmont, reassessing history. BioScene: Journal of College Biology Teaching 19(2):3-5.

  • Allchin, D. (1995). How not to teach history in science. IN F. Finley, D. Allchin, D. Rhees and S. Fifield (eds.), Proceedings, Third International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Conference, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, 1, 13-22.

  • Allchin, D. (2000a). How not to teach historical cases in science. Journal of College Science Teaching 30:33-37.

  • Allchin, D. (2000b). How not to teach history in science. University of Minnesota SHiPS Resource Center.

  • Allchin, D. (2002a). Two Views on Helmont. Journal of College Science Teaching (May) 31, 7).

  • Allchin (2002b). How not to teach history in science. Pantaneto Forum July.

  • Allchin, D. (2003). Reply by the Author to David Hershey’s comments. The Pantaneto Forum. Oct.

  • Anonymous. (1993). Anonymous Reviewers' Comments. Bioscene: Journal of College Biology Teaching 19(2):30.

  • Hershey, D.R. (1991). Digging deeper into Helmont's famous willow experiment. American Biology Teacher 53: 458-460.

  • Hershey, D.R. (2002a). Two Views on Helmont. Journal of College Science Teaching (May) 31, 6-7).

  • Hershey, D.R. (2002b). Hershey's rebuttal to Allchin (2002a)

  • Hershey, D.R. (2003a). Misconceptions about Helmont's willow experiment. Plant Science Bulletin 49:78-84. (detailed discussion of Allchin's errors on Helmont). PDF

  • Hershey, D.R. (2003b). Comment on Douglas Allchin's "How Not to Teach History in Science" Pantaneto Forum October.

  • Hershey, D.R. (2003c) Rebuttal to Allchin's Pantaneto Forum comments.

  • Nason, A. and Goldstein, P. (1969). Biology: Introduction to Life. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley.


    *Old title of this website was "Two Views on Helmont's Willow Experiment".

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