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Self-Plagiarism for Me, but Not for Thee: Wesley Elsberry Replies

Casey Luskin

Evolution activist and marine biologist Wesley Elsberry hypocritically charges mathematician and ID advocate Granville Sewell with “self-plagiarism” and “deliberate gaming of the [academic publication] system.” What’s hypocritical about the charge?

Well, recently in the journal Synthese, Elsberry himself self-plagiarized his own prior work. I don’t care if Wesley Elsberry “plagiarizes” himself, if that’s even the right the word for reworking or repurposing your own writing for different audiences. But as I argued earlier here, it is hypocritical for Elsberry to attack Sewell for doing exactly the same thing that Elsberry himself has done. Now, in his own defense, Elsberry has replied to me.

In the context of the Darwin debate, when someone closes a rebuttal by calling your arguments “an orgy of strawman gouging and delusional codswallop,” there’s a good chance you’re dealing with an evolution lobbyist who feels the need to compensate for a weak position. But this “orgy of strawman gouging and delusional codswallop” label-accusation against me is exactly how Elsberry closes his response. How did he get to this point?

Early in his response, titled “Educating Casey on Publishing,” Dr. Elsberry concedes my point that he self-plagiarized his recent paper in Synthese. He writes, “I’ll stipulate that the essay is mostly the same.”

Elsberry had originally charged that “A whopping 24% of Sewell’s latest essay is taken from his 2005 American Spectator article,” yet our analysis showed that about 94% of Elsberry’s Synthese paper is taken from another source. If Sewell’s 24% “self-plagiarism” is “whopping,” then what is Elsberry’s 94%? Super-whopping?

After reading Elsberry’s admission, I thought this issue would be pretty much settled. But for some reason, Elsberry’s trying keep it going.

Elsberry wants to explain why what he did is OK, but what Granville Sewell did isn’t. Dr. Elsberry must be worried about the growing pile of peer-reviewed scientific papers being published by pro-ID scientists and scholars, because he turns this into some kind of a peer-reviewed paper-counting contest.

Apparently, since Granville Sewell has published his arguments in peer-reviewed scientific papers, and then tried to republish some prior material in his now-withdrawn Applied Mathematics Letters (AML) paper, Sewell is supposedly guilty of some grave sin that Elsberry hasn’t committed. In Elsberry’s paper-counting contest, Sewell’s paper shouldn’t be counted. As Dr. Elsberry puts it in his (note: sarcasm coming) characteristically kind and charitable manner :

The [Discovery Institute] and its spokes-weasels can’t simultaneously claim that each re-publication counts separately and that self-plagiarism that repeats the same arguments in the technical literature is not happening. … Maybe [self-plagiarism] isn’t high on the lists of academic sin, but it certainly does goes some way to demonstrating intellectual dishonesty to game the technical literature.

Obviously, Elsberry is just trying to change the subject. I suppose that by doing this, he thinks he can deflect readers from the implications of his own fallacious accusation against Sewell. It’s a pretty weak attempt at deflection.

What was newsworthy about the withdrawal of Granville Sewell’s paper had nothing to do with what might or might not have happened in some hypothetical paper-counting contest, had Sewell’s paper been published. It had to do with the fact that evolution activists are trying to stifle academic freedom by pressuring journals to refuse to publish peer-reviewed technical papers challenging Darwinian evolution. Since Elsberry had some involvement in those discriminatory efforts, and most certainly publicly applauded them, he apparently now feels the need to deflect from that serious issue by talking about some paper-counting contest.

And even if there was some paper-counting contest, none of Elsberry’s points would make a difference. If a journal finds that a peer-reviewed paper makes an argument worthy of publication, and they choose to publish that paper, then it’s still a peer-reviewed paper. Right? Seems pretty simple to me.

Indeed, it’s not like Sewell’s paper was wholly identical to his prior pieces on the topic. The new paper responded to those with differing views, and furthered arguments he had made in earlier publications. Moreover, Sewell’s AML paper explicitly referenced and noted his prior sources which Elsberry claims were “self-plagiarized” (e.g., Sewell’s 2000 and 2001 papers in The Mathematical Intelligencer). So it’s not as if Sewell was trying to hide from AML the fact that he’d written on this topic before. How Sewell’s paper could be construed as “gaming the system” is beyond me.

Sewell’s paper completely and successfully passed through the peer-review process at AML. It was recommended for publication, and only later, for purely ideological reasons, was it withdrawn. Thus, in its public apology to Sewell, AML made it clear that the withdrawal of the paper had nothing to do with problems with its content:

Dr. Ervin Rodin decided to withdraw the article without consultation with the author, not because of any errors or technical problems found by the reviewers or editors, but because the Editor in Chief subsequently concluded that the content was more philosophical than mathematical and, as such, not appropriate for a technical mathematics journal such as Applied Mathematics Letters.

The editor even said that he “welcome[s] Dr. Sewell’s submission of future articles for possible publication.”

Always thinking like an evolution activist, Elsberry is apparently so desperate to find ways to attack the peer-reviewed publications of ID proponents that he’s willing to make contrived charges of “self-plagiarism”–a publication practice he himself engages in, apparently even moreso than his persecutees. As for the “gaming the system” accusations, whatever that means I see no evidence that Granville Sewell did it.

And as for Dr. Elsberry’s apparent need to attack his opponents as “spokes-weasels” who show “dishonesty” and write “delusional codswallop,” I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out whatever’s going on there.

Given that Dr. Elsberry has a stated agenda to accuse those advocating ID of being guilty of “lying”, we shouldn’t be surprised that his unpersuasive response rises barely above the level of condescension, personal attacks, and weird double-standards.

If you’d like to see more from Granville Sewell, check out his book In the Beginning and Other Essays on Intelligent Design.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



evolutionGranville Sewellintelligent designplagiarismSyntheseWesley Elsberry