Plagiarism Investigation Exonerates Terrence W. Deacon

Over the course of the last 13 months, UC Berkeley Professor of Anthropology Terrence W. Deacon has been the subject of a relentless email and Internet campaign alleging that in his 2012 book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, as well as in other publications, he plagiarized ideas, theories and concepts from a 1999 book, Dynamics in Action, by Dr. Alicia Juarrero, professor emerita of philosophy at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and from articles by two of Juarrero's associates, Dr. Carl Rubino, a classics professor at Hamilton College in New York, and Michael Lissack, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence in Florida.  UC Berkeley appointed a committee of two senior members of its faculty to investigate misconduct charges brought by Juarrero, Rubino and Lissack against Deacon. The committee issued its report, finding "no evidence to support" the allegations against Deacon, which it concluded were "without foundation."

Plagiarism is one of the most serious charges that can be brought against research scholars, with the potential to destroy professional reputations and devastate careers.  Consequently, when an institution's investigation finds such misconduct allegations to be fallacious, it has an affirmative obligation to repair the damage done to the falsely accused.  That is not just a moral obligation; it is a legal one as well. The Federal regulation that governs the manner in which research misconduct investigations are conducted requires that efforts be made to restore the reputation of persons wrongly accused. 1  Consistent with that mandate, and our institutional responsibility, this web page will set the record straight regarding the background, the allegations and the University's investigation and findings.  What follows is a detailed narrative that explains how the campaign against Deacon unfolded, examines how the allegations were addressed by the University, and culminates with a summary of a recently completed investigation into the allegations.

Relevant UC Berkeley Policies

Berkeley's research misconduct policy  is modeled on federal regulations  which define research misconduct to include plagiarism -- "the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit."  According to regulation, in order to constitute research misconduct, plagiarism must be a "significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community" and must be "committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly."2   Federal regulations authorize institutions to initiate an inquiry if allegations "are sufficiently credible and specific so that potential evidence of research misconduct may be identified."3  University policy establishes procedures for investigation of allegations of research misconduct, which begin by reference to the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research. When sufficiently credible and specific allegations are presented, the Associate Vice Chancellor may appoint a committee to conduct an initial inquiry to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to warrant a full investigation.

In addition to the University's policy on research misconduct, Berkeley's Faculty Code of Conduct prohibits "[v]iolation of canons of intellectual honesty, such as research misconduct and/or intentional misappropriation of the writings, research, and findings of others."   

Allegations and Investigation

Beginning in November 2011, Juarrero emailed Deacon alleging that in his book Incomplete Nature he had appropriated concepts from Dynamics in Action without attribution.  Notably, Juarrero did not allege that Deacon had copied text verbatim.  On the contrary, Juarrero wrote that "there is [sic] no sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph identities." Rather, Juarrero claimed that "Deacon's thesis –and the arguments he present to back up those theses–track mine from beginning to end."4  Deacon responded to these charges, and to later similar allegations by Lissack (see below) by stating that (1) he had not read Juarrero's book, (2) he had been working on the ideas in Incomplete Nature since the early 1980s, (3) concepts discussed in both books were not original to Juarrero and had been discussed by many scholars over many years, (4) the claims of similarity appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of Deacon's arguments, and that, in fact, (5) many of the arguments advanced in the two books were quite different. 5

In December 2011, Juarrero contacted UC Berkeley Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Price to express "concern about possible academic research misconduct by Dr. Terrence W. Deacon." Juarrero provided a spreadsheet purporting to show over 200 examples of claimed similarities between Incomplete Nature and Dynamics in Action.6  Price responded to Juarrero's allegations with several emails seeking further details sufficient to initiate an investigation. He asked Juarrero to provide evidence that Deacon appropriated from her the ideas expressed in Incomplete Nature rather than thinking of them on his own.  Price noted that the use of similar concepts in two works is not by itself evidence of plagiarism, but that if Juarrero could show that Deacon had appropriated her unique use of concepts, it would provide the basis for moving forward with an investigation.7  The requested information was not provided. 

In January 2012, Michael Lissack, an associate of Juarrero's and the director of an institute in which she is a fellow, emailed Deacon charging that he "made extensive use of the works of Alicia Juarrero and Evan Thompson without the appropriate attribution." Lissack wrote that the fact that "you have NOT quoted line by line without citation is easily shown," but claimed that there "are deep parallels between" Juarrero's earlier book and Deacon's "Incomplete Nature."8  During the following 12 months, Lissack sent multiple unsolicited emails to a wide distribution list alleging that Deacon had engaged in plagiarism or associated forms of misconduct, and that Berkeley was covering it up. 9 Among the recipients were 25 California state legislators, University administrators, newspaper editors and, according to Lissack, a large number of Berkeley faculty members.10 Lissack also posted some of this material on a website he created devoted to his allegations, the homepage of which carries the headline "So why is UC Berkeley allowing a senior professor to commit plagiarism?"   A Google search for "Terry Deacon" generates a link to this website with the tag line "The Terry Deacon Affair –Plagiarism or Worse?   At times, however, Lissack appeared to back away from allegations of plagiarism or intentional misconduct.  On January 27, he wrote to Deacon:

"Many of those involved –including myself –have made use of rhetorical patterns which have been much too strong.  Given that your work was not presented as a text for academics, but rather an educational text for a broader audience, my use of 'plagiarism' was much too strong a word.  I regret the pain which my use of the word must have caused you.  The way forward here is NOT to evoke that word. . . . I do believe (and have from the beginning) that you have not done anything here with nefarious intent."11

Nevertheless, in May 2012, Lissack sent email to a long list of individuals at UC Berkeley and elsewhere requesting that "Berkeley investigate Prof. Deacon's writings for potential academic integrity violations" under Berkeley's Code of Conduct.12 In a follow-up email to Vice Provost for the Faculty Janet Broughton, Lissack stated that "[w]e hope you will take the time to read the books and articles in question and to look through the spreadsheet prepared by Alicia Juarrero."13  On June 4, after reviewing the relevant correspondence, Broughton referred the matter to Associate Vice Chancellor Price for review under the University research misconduct policy. Given the vociferous public campaign by Lissack, in which Lissack declared Deacon a plagiarist and accused the University of covering up his misconduct, Price decided to move directly to a full investigation of the claims by Juarrero and Lissack, despite his earlier reservations about the sufficiency of Juarrero's allegations.  He appointed a committee of two UC Berkeley senior faculty members to investigate the allegations.  The members of the Investigation Committee both have familiarity with the relevant field, but have no personal or professional association with Deacon and are not members of his department.  The committee reviewed three specific allegations against Deacon that had been made by Juarrero, Rubino and Lissack:

    1. That in his 2012 book Incomplete Nature, Deacon appropriated, without attribution, original ideas, theories and concepts from Juarrero's 1999 book Dynamics in Action.
    2. That in his 2011 article "Eliminativism, Complexity, and Emergence," Deacon plagiarized from Rubino and Juarrero's co-authored 2008 book chapter, "Introduction to Emergence, Complexity and Self-Organization: Precursors and Prototypes," and Juarrero's 2010 book chapter, "Causing Human Actions: New Perspectives on the Causal Theory of Action," in Causing Human Actions: New Perspectives on the Causal Theory of Action, MIT 2010, Aguilar and Buckareff, eds.
    3. That in his 2004 book chapter "Memes as Signs in the Dynamic Logic of Semiosis: Beyond Molecular Science and Computation Theory," Deacon plagiarized from Lissack's 2003 article "The Redefinition of Memes: Ascribing Meaning to an Empty Cliché."

Findings

The committee issued its report on January 11, 2013, and, as provided in the University's Research Misconduct policy, the Vice Chancellor for Research accepted the report on January 14, 2012.  Consistent with the request made by Lissack in his May 2012 correspondence with Vice Provost Broughton, the committee engaged in a "thorough reading of the relevant writings" and reviewed Juarrero's spreadsheet.

1. The Juarrero and Deacon Books

The committee found no evidence that Deacon's book plagiarizes Juarrero's.  The committee concluded that while there was "considerable overlap in the issues discussed," this overlap was an expected result of the fact that the two authors pursued the same "general line of thought" regarding the emergence of certain phenomena.  For example, both Juarrero and Deacon share the view that life and consciousness can be understood in terms of self-organization within inorganic matter. However, that idea "does not originate with Juarrero, but has been defended by many thinkers going back (at least) to the mid-eighteenth century, "the report said.

The committee found that, although Deacon and Juarrero share this general point of view, they "differ in focus, in the concepts they develop, and in the particular conclusions they reach."  Turning to the Juarrero spreadsheet, the committee determined that the "commonalities" listed there did not, either individually or in the aggregate, indicate plagiarism.  It noted that many of the "commonalities" alleged by Juarrero dealt with ideas that "are standard in the philosophical literature."   Juarrero also complained that Deacon used a number of terms that she had used in her book, but the committee found that these, too, "are common the in the philosophical and scientific literature prior to Juarrero's book."

The committee also rejected the notion that the sheer number of common references, even to non-original material, could be construed as evidence of plagiarism. First, the committee noted that, in Deacon's book, these common references were embedded in a larger body of non-common material, making it implausible that he incorporated them from Juarrero. Second, the committee found Deacon's treatment of many of the common references much different from Juarrero's.  Third, the committee concluded that, even if Deacon had become aware of a commonly-used reference or example as a result of Juarrero's book, his use of it would not constitute plagiarism.

2. The Juarrero/Rubino and Cashman/Deacon articles

Juarrero and her co-author Rubino claimed that in the 2011 article "Eliminativism, Complexity, and Emergence," Deacon, along with co-author Tyrone Cashman, plagiarized from Juarrero/Rubino's earlier 2008 book chapter, "Introduction to Emergence, Complexity, and Self-organization," as well as from Juarrero's contribution to an MIT Press anthology published in 2010.  Juarrero alleged that the 2011 Cashman/Deacon article followed a "pattern of argumentation" "virtually identical" to a five-step argument developed in the 2008 book chapter authored by Juarrero and Rubino.  After the additional claim of gross similarity between the Cashman/Deacon article and her chapter in the MIT Press anthology, Juarrero stated in a memorandum to Price and Broughton: "It is impossible to argue that the precise sequence and content of ideas described here occurred by chance or simply because all authors are "working in the same field. The likelihood that this would be the case is astronomical. What has taken place here can only be classified as appropriation of ideas or concept plagiarism."14

The investigation committee concluded that Juarrero's description of the pattern of argument as virtually identical is misleading.  "It gives the impression that the two essays discuss the same topics in the same order, and this is simply not true," the committee's report said. In fact, the committee found, "there is no close parallelism in the structure of the essays."  Although the two essays "touch on many of the same topics, in varying degrees of depth," those topics are natural subjects "for any treatment of the history of emergentism," according to the report. Furthermore, the committee concluded that, with respect to each of the individual analytic steps Juarrero describes, she and Rubino "seem to overestimate the originality of their contribution."  For example, Rubino claimed that "I know of no treatment prior to ours that brings together these sources"–Kant, Mill, Broad, Alexander, Lewes and Morgan –"especially one that associates John Stuart Mill with the so-called British emergentists."  On the contrary, the committee found that a widely-cited 1992 paper by Brian McLaughlin –uncited by Juarrero and Rubino –"cites exactly the same sources, including Mill" and that "it is not hard to find sources even farther back that connect Mill with the British emergentists. . . . The idea that Juarrero and Rubino are the first to associate Mill with the British emergentists, then, is absurd."

As noted above, The Cashman/Deacon 2011article is the subject of a second plagiarism allegation by Juarrero.  In an email memorandum to Price, Juarrero asserted that Deacon appropriated original ideas that she had developed in an article published in 2010 (in Aguilar and Buckareff, eds., Causing Human Actions: New Perspectives on the Causal Theory of Action).15 This allegation is demonstrably false, for the chapter in which Cashman/Deacon supposedly committed their acts of plagiarism was actually written in 2009, a year before Juarrero's MIT anthology article was published.  We know this because the University received the following statement from the editor of the volume in which the Cashman/Deacon chapter appeared:  "While the publication date of the volume is 2011, they [Cashman/Deacon] emailed me a final draft of their chapter on October 30, 2009. No changes were made to their article after this date. I have email evidence of this, should it be necessary to prove.'" 16

Since Deacon could not have plagiarized from a work published a year after his chapter in question was submitted, and since Juarrero/Rubino could not have plagiarized from the Deacon chapter they presumably had not seen, it would appear that there is only one explanation for the similarities between the two chapters; i.e., the explanation which is rejected so vehemently by Juarrero – that the authors are "working in the same field."

3. The Deacon and Lissack Articles

Perhaps the most remarkable allegation of plagiarism was raised by Lissack while the committee's investigation was underway and well after his written commitment to Deacon that he would refrain from allegations of this sort.  On October 17, 2012, Lissack wrote to Price alleging that Deacon had plagiarized Lissack's 2003 "Redefinition of Memes" article in a 2004 book chapter titled "Memes as Signs in the Dynamic Logic of Semiosis." Lissack claimed that "[a] reading of both works will indicate that Deacon appropriated my concept of the meme as a 'sign' for an 'environmental niche' and failed to provide attribution or citation."17 On October 22, Price wrote back, asking Lissack to confirm Price's understanding that Lissack was claiming that "concepts in the earlier publication . . . are so unique that their use in the later publication without attribution must constitute plagiarism." On October 25, Lissack responded that "[y]our understanding is correct."18

Like the allegation discussed immediately above, this allegation is demonstrably false. For as the investigation committee found, "Lissack does not seem to be aware that the Deacon chapter is a lightly edited reprint of Deacon's 'Editorial: Memes as Signs,' published in 1999," four years before the appearance of Lissack's "Redefinition of Memes" article.  In other words, Deacon's article was published first, so the ideas in it could not have been plagiarized from an article published years later.  If one were to apply Lissack's logic that conceptual similarity is evidence of plagiarism, then one would have to conclude that it was Lissack, not Deacon, who committed plagiarism. (The University does not contend that Lissack plagiarized Deacon, but it believes that this example highlights the absurdity of the plagiarism claims against Deacon).

What Does Plagiarism Mean, and Can Lissack, Juarrero and Rubino Meet Their Own Standards?

UC Berkeley policy describes plagiarism –consistent with federal regulations – as the intentional, knowing or reckless appropriation of another's ideas or words without attribution and in violation of scholarly norms.  Similarly, the University's Faculty Code of Conduct prohibits the intentional misappropriation of the research or findings of others.  These standards prohibit writers from knowingly claiming the original ideas of others to be their own. They do not, however, require that writers using common concepts and terminology, standard examples, or well-known scholarly references cite every scholar who has previously employed those same terms, examples and references. Nor do they require that scholars advancing general concepts or positions that have been proposed for decades cite every other thinker who has done so. Requiring such broad citation would be impractical and would inhibit scholarship by raising fears that missing any prior scholar's writings on similar topics could result in charges of plagiarism or misconduct.

Lissack and his institute, have, however, proposed a new definition of plagiarism, which they call "plagiarism by negligence."  They claim that plagiarism extends beyond the conventional definition to include a failure to cite any preceding works that make use of similar concepts, explore similar ideas, or recapitulate similar, even if unoriginal, arguments.  They ask rhetorically, does "an academic have an affirmative obligation to cite or make reference to those who preceded him or her in working on similar ideas?"  They assert that ignorance of similar preceding work does not excuse lack of citation, for in the age of Google access to preceding work is easy and thus ignorance of such work represents negligence—the lack of citation constitutes "plagiarism by negligence."  "There is no excuse," declares Lissack in a recent paper, "to even tolerate the idea that in the Internet Age it is acceptable … to fail to see what others have written before publishing his own work. . .  Plagiarism by negligence is still plagiarism." [emphasis added]. 19

To adopt this novel standard for defining plagiarism would create some "interesting" situations. Take, for example, the intellectual arena of human thermodynamics, a topic that both Deacon and Juarrero address in their respective books. Hmolpedia: An Encyclopedia of Human Thermodynamics, Human Chemistry and Human Physics maintains a webpage, "HT pioneers," which lists scientists and writers who over the years have contributed theory and logic to the understanding of the thermodynamics of human existence.  At the moment the page lists some 505 individuals.20  How many of these authors would Deacon and Juarrero have to cite to avoid a charge of plagiarism under Lissack's novel definition?   Note that this list does not include either Juarrero or Deacon, both of whom have written on the thermodynamics of human existence.  So even the encyclopedic Encyclopedia of Human Thermodynamics may not meet Lissack's standards of complete citation.

The committee properly rejected this attempt to redefine plagiarism, concluding that "failure to cite an earlier work with the same subject matter, even an important one, is not by itself research misconduct."  Furthermore, the report demonstrates that the standard that Lissack and his institute  would apply to Deacon is not one that Juarrero, Rubino and Lissack have always met in their own scholarship. The committee described Juarrero's and Rubino's failure to cite Brian McLaughlin's "well known and comprehensive 1992 treatment of the history of emergentism" in their "Introduction to Emergence" paper.  Despite his claim that the similarity between the two papers could be explained only by plagiarism, Lissack failed to cite Deacon's 1999 "Memes as Signs" essay in his own 2003 "Redefinition of Memes" article.   Practice varies among scholars, and some are more exhaustive than others in citing prior authors.  Thus, it can certainly be argued that it would have been an improvement for Deacon to find and cite Juarrero's Dynamics in Action, or for Juarrero and Rubino to find and cite Brian McLaughlin, or for Lissack to find and cite Deacon.  But that is a discussion about academic style and comprehensiveness, not plagiarism or academic misconduct.

The Investigation Committee has exonerated Terrence Deacon by finding that each of the allegations of plagiarism made against him are either without foundation in logic or evidence, or are demonstrably false. As a result, it is the responsibility of the University to make a concerted effort to repair the damage done to a wrongly accused member of our faculty.  In the Internet age, when unsupported and demonstrably false charges can be leveled against an individual and distributed directly to hundreds of people via email and many thousands more through websites, as has been the case with respect to Deacon, repairing reputational damage is an extraordinarily difficult challenge.  For that reason, the University has taken the unusual step of writing this narrative and creating a website where the investigation report is posted and its findings are available to any interested individual.

 


1 See 42 CFR 93.304(k)
2 See 42 CFR 93.104(a)(b)
See 42 CFR 93.307(a)(3)
4 Email, Juarrero to Price, 12/ 5/2011
5 Emails, Deacon to Juarrero,  11/18/2011, 11/22/2011/, 11/24/2011
6 Email, Juarrero to Price, 12/5/2011
7 Email, Price to Juarrero, 12/12, 2011
8 Email, Lissack to Deacon, 12/24/2012
9 See, for example, "Cowardice at UC Berkeley in the face of Plagiarism," September 26, 2012; or,  "Plagiarism at UC Berkeley," October 2, 2012; or, Lissack emails of 5/18/2012, 5/27/2012, 5/28/2012, 9/26/20112
10 See Email, Lissack to Price, 10/17/2012
11 Email, Lissack to Deacon, 1/27/2012  
12 Email from Lissack to multiple recipients, 5/22/2012
13 Email, Lissack to Broughton, 5/23/2012
14 Email attachment, Juarrero to Price and Broughton, 8/7/2012
15 Email, Juarrero to Price, 8/7/2012
16 Email, Haag to Price, 12/12/2012
17 Email, Lissack to Price and others, 10/17/2012
18 Email, Lissack to Price, 10/25/2012
19 See, "Subliminal Influence or Plagiarism by Negligence?" email Lissack to Price, 12/20/2012
20 See http://www.eoht.info/page/HT+pioneers