I have done a fair few things in my life that I regret, the worst of which is something that I will, unfortunately, never be able to apologize for.
While in Grade 7, (and, so, by no means ‘just a young lad’), my best friend and I wreaked serious damage on our teacher’s motorcycle by pouring a cup of sugar down the gas tank. This was planned and deliberately meant to injure the teacher’s most prized possession. Our justification had been that our teacher had failed to give us the marks we deserved, and what was more, he routinely showed up to class drunk. Far too sozzled to care. So, we were minor superheroes in our own eyes, rebelling against a tyrant.
I remember our teacher starting the motorbike at the end of the school-day, and I recall vividly the bike sputtering to a halt not long after he had taken off in the direction of the exit. What I had imagined to be a moment of sheer joy felt nothing like it at all. Our glee turned into abject horror at what we had done.
While there have been other things I have not been particularly proud of doing, this still rankles me the most because of what happened when I went back to my teacher’s house some 25 years after this episode. I had imagined shaking his hand, apologizing to him profusely and insisting on buying him a new bike. When I discovered that he had passed away some years earlier I felt sick with remorse. I will have to live with a black cloud over my soul for the rest of my days.
The other standout lapse of sense that really rankles the heart came to pass three years ago. In the world of academia it is possibly the worst crime of all: the charge of plagiarized ideas. Think ten stolen motorcycles with sweetened gas tanks. Set ablaze for good measure. I have always seen it coequal with the gravest sin you can commit in the world of scientific knowledge.
The apology, I have always felt, should fit the transgression. And it should be made without conditions. And so, first, the apology. I apologize. Unequivocally and unconditionally.
Possibly one of the hardest thing you will ever have to do is to apologize, and mean it with every fiber of your being. And, it is harder still to apologize when you feel betrayed yourself. In my case, it was my predisposition for trust in someone I thought I knew that was entirely misplaced.
My first transgression was mine in every respect. I brought the sugar; I opened the gas cap; I emptied that cup of sugar into the tank, and I watched the hapless fellow suffer the consequences of the evil plot. When the cause is yours, the effects are proportionately yours to bear. Indeed, they ought to be if you are true to yourself and truly do feel contrite.
My second transgression was worse for the bearing because it became a constant reminder to me to discipline my predisposition to trust others with better judgement. I shall explain this later. But for now I wish to return to the issue of an apology.
The trouble is that, living as we do in a ‘culture of apologies’, it is very hard for any given apology to ring as being truly sincere; it is perhaps why I have been of the opinion that actions speak louder than words when you intend to apologize. And so, I have chosen not to ‘merely’ make apologies.
Besides, for the longest time I felt so utterly betrayed that I lost sight of the fact that there are several faceless others who deserve an explanation from me. And, therein, lies the chief reason for this missive: I am writing this one-to-all apology today because the most grievously aggrieved and injured entity is the collective enterprise of academic research that I so cherish.
If you believe that surely a simple apology, however heartfelt it might be, is not enough for a misdemeanor of this magnitude then you would be right. I did not think it was either, regardless of the facts and circumstances surrounding it. My first thought was to limit collateral damage, and so I resigned my post. That seemed like the right thing to do.
But is that enough? This is where the story becomes thicker. And if you would like to know the sordid details of this story, then you might want to get a cup of coffee and settle in. I can only hope that my mistake is instructive to someone else out there in some small way.
My relationship with academia had arguably been unorthodox from the beginning. I never fit the traditional mould. With an entrepreneurial mindset and a love for making academia better, I was never interested in the money or job security that academia provides (I chucked tenure twice for untenured roles, merely because I was more interested in pursuing different avenues for growth). What interested me was the idea of making progress with academic research, especially on those big, cross-disciplinary issues. This will, in fact, remain an undying and deep love.
I have had the benefit of two exceptional academic mentors in my life. It was the second of these whom I was working with at the time. I think of him as having an Elon Musk-esque sort of mind for trying to take on impossible projects that sound pretty outlandish to begin with, but seem to make more and more sense as you see them progress.
It was he who had entrusted me with the task of coming up with a platform upon which to premise not just mine and his research, but that of an entire research cluster.
It was a big ask, and I knew immediately that I would need assistance. So I convinced my university to permit me to split my position in order to free up half my income to hire a capable researcher. This being done, the race was now on to get things moving quickly.
Progress was, however, still disappointingly slow with this addition. Genuine ability seldom comes with a commensurate desire for application. (Incidentally, this is remarkably true of a great number of academics.) Sometimes, though certainly not usually, there is even merit in this form of careful laziness.
To speed things along even further, I recruited the aid of a research assistant. An Eastern European student of the field, with exceptionally sharp wit and an equally soft temperament. I instantly fell in love with his generous attitude and his capacity for work. I still consider him to be one of the most charming and reverent people I know. I hired him on the spot and we agreed that, besides a modest stipend, I would give him a bonus for every paper we wrote together; this sort of ‘loading’ for output was not unheard of at the time.
The frenzy of work that followed was an order of magnitude beyond what I had imagined in my wildest dreams. We would discuss a problem over a cup of coffee, and within a few days, often less, he would have a completely worked out solution. Not once or twice, but repeatedly and increasingly more frequently. At the peak of our collaboration, there were months when I was paying him several times more than what I was receiving from the university myself. And I could not be happier doing so.
When it came time to submit papers to journals for review, however, he would insist upon remaining anonymous. “I am fiercely private,” he would tell me. “I am only on one non-English social media platform, and there, too, I give a false name,” he explained. “I have no interest in my name being published anywhere.”
Research clusters are sometimes fast and loose with the attribution of ideas within a team; this was certainly the case with our team at the university, and it was generally acknowledged to be a good thing. When you are working on a problem that is new to field — as was the case for us — what matters is claiming an idea before a rival team has the opportunity to do so. Whether or not this is worthy pursuit is a great question, and perhaps even germane to my own experience. The ethos at our research cluster was one of idea before personality, and there is merit in that to be sure. What mattered was the cluster’s progress and prestige; credit may exceed input on one project or another but, in the long run, would equalize.
As it was, at least two colleagues of mine were aware of this situation of mine, and found it odd that my RA was so reluctant about being given credit in a paper that would perhaps be read by, at most, five people in the world. But, like I say, among my defects is the fact that I am impatient. I did not find this request for privacy strange or suspect. A desire for privacy and a preference for money over academic fame seemed like reasons enough. Besides, violating the express desire for anonymity is a step few academics are willing to take, for fear of making a grievous transgression. I was no different in this regard either. So, blithely, I sent the papers out to places where quick publication was possible.
We published five papers, and had five others that were ready to be sent out, when the hammer fell and the truth became known to me. Privately having discovered what had happened was a gut-punch of Mike-Tyson proportions. The source of my collaborator’s genius was one obscure journal, originally published in his native language, and in an entirely different field.
The gravity of the situation had not sunk in until I set aside concerns about my embarrassment and re-read one of the papers. Plagiarism is bad enough when it is a line or two that is unattributed. This, however, was far deeper. What I had printed under my name was almost entirely someone else’s work, where nothing but the context differed. My ideas had simply been grafted onto someone else’s body. It was, I have to admit, worse than finding out that I had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.
There was not much I could do but seek retractions from the journals, which I then began doing. The thought that I would have retracted recently published articles was a nauseating feeling, and one that only the passage of time and the benefit of knowing that I had the courage to do the right thing has ameliorated.
At the time, what was so frustrating to me was not just that I felt betrayed by my RA and humiliated— which I did — but that I had chosen to offer and accept spurious terms of engagement for a research collaborator. Actually, to be perfectly clear, I felt no angel on the shoulder or voice in my head telling me that it was a situation to be avoided.
I am fortunate to have the support of colleagues who said that I need not call if all off and walk away into the wilderness, never to be seen or heard from again. Such understanding is rare in any walk of life, but especially in academia, where reputation is all that matters. And so I was incredibly humbled by it.
But, my pride was wounded and my heart was broken, and I needed to steal myself away from it all. So I offered my resignation and refused an offer for another post at a very prestigious institution.
What of my partner in crime? He left without permitting me to confront him a second time, with a cooler mind. He is now back home, and I promised to keep his identity a secret provided he spoke to the editors of the journals affected and refunded the money given to him. This he did very reluctantly and after much coaxing, and only because I traced him down through one of his relatives. At least one of the editors confirmed that he did, indeed, follow through. And he eventually refunded most of the money I had paid him as well, which I was fortunate enough to give back to the university for some future project.
What of me, then? Have the wounds healed?
No, and arguably they never really will entirely. But, I have found some peace in the lessons learnt from this experience. These I wish to share now.
First, the “no skin-in-the-game” epithet works both ways. It is routinely leveled at academics who don’t work in the private sector, but comment on it. What I learned was that those without skin in the game in academia can be equally — perhaps a great deal more — insidious. Academic research has a set of broad rules that are followed for a reason; they have been forged through time and have aided application of the scientific method. Hiring a mercenary was unambiguously contradictory to the spirit of the game.
Second, paradoxically, it is actually incredibly hard to ask for a retraction! I had to send multiple reminders to all journals involved to please take the articles down and provide an explanation. This, agonizingly, took months. Perhaps, this is understandable. A journal’s reputation is sullied every time a retraction has to be issued, and their first concern is — and some may even argue that it should be — to the journal, and not to an author having a crisis of conscience.
Third, plagiarism is plagiarism. I realize this more now than I ever did before this experience. Inadvertent or intentional, does not matter. This seemed like a harsh proclamation to me for the longest time, since I felt like the victim of a serious violation of trust. But it is true. That nauseating feeling in my stomach is proof. If I had tried, really, really, tried, I would have gotten to the bottom of the problem. I should have taken the time, in private, ex ante, rather than be forced to clean up the mess in public ex post.
Fourth, apologize immediately and publicly. This I did not do because I felt it was a private matter that I should discuss with those that mattered to me. This, in retrospect, is wrong for one compelling reason. In science, openness is key to driving progress. What I did was bad science, and deserved the same open treatment as well. So, this is also an apology for not having apologized publicly earlier.
Finally, this above all else: Keep your scruples closer to you than your ambitions.