“Disappearing” the Scholar/Author (Updated)

BY AARON  BARLOW

When my father returned home from the Pacific after the end of WWII, he found no signs remained of his existence in his parents’ house. His mother, probably fearing he would never return (he was gone for three years), had ‘disappeared’ all of his belongings. He never forgave her for that.

This morning, NYU professor Michael Rectenwald woke up to discover he had been ‘disappeared’ from a website that had once featured at least three of his articles. The articles remained, but his name was no longer connected to them. The byline name, which had been his, now belonged to someone else.

The venue, Insurgent Notes describes itself as “a collective-based journal that will publish online several times a year.” It also notes that it “welcomes manuscripts from anyone who feels sympathy with our overall viewpoint.” Rectenwald may have once been simpatico, but he is no longer. So, he had to disappear.

There are, of course, weaknesses and strengths to publishing online. One of the weaknesses is that articles are not set in lead. That is, once published, they can still be changed. This, of course, does have advantages, but it comes with the weakness that the changes need not reflect the will of the writer. The host of the site can change anything she or he pleases—as Insurgent Notes has made abundantly clear. One strength, on the other hand, is that change, even if it goes unnoticed (the change in byline on Rectenwald’s pieces seems to have been made late in 2016), can always be found—if someone is looking for it (the ‘wayback machine’ at archive.org shows that all three articles did  once hold Rectenwald’s byline). The weakness is that someone has to be looking for it.

For whatever reason, Rectenwald discovered the change today, and posted about it on Facebook. The ‘new’ author also has a Facebook account and does appear to be a real person, though he has put up little information about himself. It is impossible to tell why the change was made—to pad the ‘new’ writer’s resume, perhaps or simply to punish Rectenwald for having grown in a direction different from Insurgent Notes. Whatever the reason, the act is unconscionable, as bad (in its own way) as my grandmother’s getting rid of my father’s belongings. It should not be easily or quickly forgiven.

Rectenwald was acting as both scholar and public intellectual in publishing with Insurgent Notes. That makes this an interesting case in terms of academic freedom, for these are two of the three major areas covered by academic freedom (the third being the classroom). By taking Rectenwald’s name off his work, Insurgent Notes has abridged his academic freedom as surely as if it were a fifteenth-century church and he a dissenting scholar/monk. In our scholarly and political discussions, we should have progressed far beyond that.

The 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure contains this passage:

In the political, social, and economic field almost every question, no matter how large and general it at first appears, is more or less affected by private or class interests; and, as the governing body of a university is naturally made up of men who through their standing and ability are personally interested in great private enterprises, the points of possible conflict are numberless.

This should have an impact on (and refer to) not only our own academic institutions (which are subject to censure by the AAUP when abridgement of academic freedom is established) but also on the venues where our works, both scholarly and in our roles as public intellectuals, are disseminated. This is more important today, when our work can be changed without our knowledge or credited to someone else in this new and bizarre sort of plagiarism.

What Insurgent Notes has done should be broadly condemned. At the very least, the website should be encouraged to publicly apologize to Rectenwald and to right the wrong, giving him credit once more and continuing to host the articles as originally published (taking down his articles is no solution). What happened to Rectenwald may be a small event at a minor venue, given the greater scheme of things, but the precedent it attempts to set is unacceptable.

Update: Insurgent Notes, after first deciding to take down the articles has (apparently after being shown this blog post) decided to restore Rectenwald’s name to the articles! I hope they also offer him a very public apology.


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  1. Pingback: Weekend reads: What’s the real rate of misconduct?; research parasites win awards; preprints’ watershed moment | shaka

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