Retractions in anthropology

An editorial in the British Medical Journal earlier this week described Andrew Wakefield’s controversial 1998 Lancet article linking the MMR vaccine with autism as an “elaborate fraud”. Although the article was retracted in 2004 by ten of Wakefield’s co-authors, Wakefield himself continues to insist on its validity, despite new evidence presented by the journalist Brian Deer in the BMJ that the study was not simply flawed but that data were fabricated by Wakefield in a way that could not possibly have been accidental.

I’ve been reading the academic blog Retraction Watch for a few months now, and find it interesting for more than just the Schadenfreude that comes from seeing others go down in flames, because of the ethical meta-commentary that accompanies notices of retractions, and because it has made retractions much more prominent than any one journal could (except presumably the highest-tier ones). But that leads me to think: can anyone name cases of retraction in anthropological publications? I’m not talking about Piltdown-style refutation without retraction, or disputes such as Mead vs. Freeman or Chagnon vs. Tierney, or of anthropologists publicly changing their minds about earlier publications. Obviously in a non-experimental science we wouldn’t expect them at nearly the rate or in the same circumstances, but surely there must be cases of blatant plagiarism or ethical dishonesty that have resulted in a formal retraction … right?

Does anyone know of a list of anthropological publications that have been formally withdrawn from the academic record? Or, can anyone name some?

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4 Comments

    • Thanks – that’s really interesting! It raises the question of how a student writing a dissertation on evangelical hell houses can plagiarize a dissertation on staged drunk driving accidents. Maybe the sections plagiarized were theoretical in nature? I don’t know – I probably don’t want to know, do I? This is a retraction, I agree – the publisher in this case is the university, and it issued an edict to remove all print and electronic copies of the material, as if it had never been written.

      • Yeah, I don’t know the details either, but my guess would be a massive lit review section. I occasionally moonlight as a freelance editor for academics and have several stories of plagiarism that I caught – from master’s/PhD students through tenured professors. Academics are overworked and try to take shortcuts that turn into plagiarism.

        You’re right, though, that we don’t hear about retractions in anthropology. I guess it has to do with the nature of our conclusions, which rest on our interpretation of data rather than on the data themselves?

  1. Hey Steve –
    I don’t know if this can truly be considered a retraction, but what about Emile Cartailhac’s 1902 “Mea culpa d’un sceptique”? In it, he renounced his view that Paleolithic art didn’t exist, and set about to correct the defamation he had inflicted on early defenders of parietal art, notably at Altamira. While it’s not a retraction per se, it did mark a repudiation of his former perspective on the topic, which is as rare as a retraction in the scientific literature, wouldn’t you say?

    Cartailhac, E. 1902. Les cavernes ornées de dessins. La grotte d’Altamira. ‘Mea culpa d’un sceptique.’ L’Anthropologie 13: 348-354.

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