The University named Assistant Professor of English Vanessa Ryan an associate dean of the Graduate School in January despite evidence of alleged plagiarism in her published work, according to multiple sources and documents reviewed by The Herald.
A University inquiry committee tasked with looking into the matter determined that “Ryan had indeed plagiarized” but cleared Ryan of misconduct on the basis that the mistakes were unintentional, according to the committee’s November confidential final report, a copy of which The Herald has obtained.
Thirteen tenured members of the Department of English signed and sent a letter to President Christina Paxson, Provost Mark Schlissel P’15, Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 and Vice President for Research David Savitz detailing their dissatisfaction with how the University handled the plagiarism allegations and Ryan’s appointment as associate dean, said Professor of English William Keach, who was one of the thirteen.
The alleged plagiarism in Ryan’s first and only book, “Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2012, came to light in August during the initial phases of her tenure review, according to the inquiry committee’s report.
“Without doubt, this represents a serious breach of academic integrity and academic honesty, values which lie at the heart of the academic enterprise at Brown University and any institution of higher learning,” the committee wrote in its findings.
Ryan declined multiple requests for an interview but sent The Herald a written statement.
“In August 2013, I learned that my book contains inadvertent errors of attribution, which resulted from mistakes I made in documenting my research as I worked on the project over many years,” Ryan wrote. “I take full responsibility for these mistakes. I notified my publisher immediately, spoke with my chair of department and have been taking steps since then to rectify the situation. Among other things, I have reached out to the scholars whose words lack attribution to speak to them directly and apologize.”
Matthew McAdam, acquisitions editor for the JHU Press for classics, humanities and literary studies, confirmed in an email to The Herald that the book is now “out of print and unavailable for purchase” from the press. McAdam did not respond to subsequent emails seeking an explanation of that decision.
An external reviewer for Ryan’s tenure case received from an anonymous source a list of passages from her book with language nearly identical to that in other published works and relayed it to the University in August, Keach said.
That list, which came from someone who is “anonymous and apparently not a member of the Brown community,” included about 35 such instances, according to the report. The committee identified 27 instances.
Last week, The Herald obtained a list containing passages in Ryan’s book that used verbatim language at length without quotation marks or appropriate citations next to matching passages from the original sources. The Herald has independently verified 33 of these instances of alleged plagiarism in “Thinking without Thinking.”
Upon being notified of the allegations against her in August, Ryan searched through her past work and found additional unattributed material in her dissertation, according to the inquiry committee’s report. Ryan talked to Yale faculty members with whom she worked on her dissertation shortly after discovering those errors, Keach said.
Ryan has continued to oversee undergraduate research projects this academic year. She also remains an adviser on one senior honors thesis and a second reader for another.
Ryan voluntarily stepped away from the graduate dissertation committees on which she had been serving, though the University did not compel her to do so, said a tenured faculty member in the English department who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired or sued. Ryan declined to comment when asked to confirm this.
In her new role as associate dean, Ryan works on improving graduate student teaching, The Herald reported in January.
Schlissel, McLaughlin and Savitz declined multiple requests for comment and interviews for this story. Paxson and Philip Gould, professor of English and chair of the department, did not respond to such requests. Instead, Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, sent The Herald a written statement on behalf of the administration.
“Ensuring academic integrity is central to fulfilling Brown’s mission of teaching, research and service at the highest levels,” Quinn wrote. “Expectations of students, faculty and staff are emphasized in the Academic and Student Conduct Codes and in the Faculty Rules. The University takes seriously any allegation of research misconduct and has established confidential processes for assessing allegations of academic and research misconduct.”
The process of assessing the allegations of plagiarism played out over the course of several months.
In accordance with the faculty rules regarding allegations of misconduct, a three-person inquiry committee was assembled to examine the charges leveled against Ryan. The committee comprised Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Sheila Blumstein, Professor of History Harold Cook and Professor of Religious Studies Susan Harvey. Cook and Harvey declined to comment, and Blumstein could not be reached for comment by press time.
The committee’s final report, delivered to and approved by Savitz in November, stated that though Ryan’s book contains plagiarized material from other sources, the plagiarism in question “does not rise to the level of misconduct.”
“While, as a result of these mistakes, my book uses words from other scholars’ writings without attribution, the substance of the ideas in the book is my own,” Ryan wrote to The Herald.
Ryan also disputed whether her errors, which did not relate to the core of her thesis, constituted plagiarism. “To the extent that plagiarism involves an intentional passing off of someone else’s work or ideas as your own, that is not what happened here,” she wrote in a follow-up email.
The Modern Language Association, of which Ryan is a member, defines plagiarism in its style manual as “using another person’s ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source.”
The University’s Policy for Responding to Allegations of Research Misconduct defines misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other practices that significantly deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the research community for proposing, conducting or reviewing research or in reporting research results.”
“It does not include honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgment of data,” the rules continue.
The committee determined that Ryan’s “plagiarism arose from sloppy research methods” and considered it “unintentional, ‘honest error,’” according to the report.
The major flaw in Ryan’s research practices was not keeping track of citations diligently enough, specifically while working with scientific material “well outside (her) own purview of expertise as a scholar of literature,” the report found. Unattributed passages mostly describe background information and are not a part of “her own original thesis.”
“Professor Ryan is a rising star in the field, is highly regarded and is respected as a serious scholar, teacher and colleague,” the report also states. “She has been an outstanding citizen not only within her department but more broadly in the Brown community.”
In the letter the 13 tenured English department faculty members sent to top administrators disapproving of their handling of the case, they criticized the inquiry committee’s interpretation of misconduct, Ryan’s involvement with graduate students as associate dean, and the University’s decision not to disclose the matter to other scholars, including those who reviewed Ryan’s published work, Keach said.
Keach declined to comment directly on anything contained in the inquiry committee’s report.
“Everyone I talked to in the English department understood that document to be saying that research misconduct included plagiarism, that plagiarism is a form of research misconduct,” Keach said. “Therefore any judgment that a faculty member’s work contained errors that were plagiarism but not research misconduct was a kind of category mistake. It was contrary to the logic of the University rules.”
Following the inquiry committee’s conclusion, Ryan and top administrators, including Schlissel and McLaughlin, engaged in negotiations resulting in Ryan’s December withdrawal from the tenure track and January appointment as associate dean, Keach and the anonymous faculty member said.
Quinn confirmed that Ryan’s administrative post lasts 18 months. Ryan’s contract as an assistant professor of English — a title she currently retains — also expires next June.
Keach said most members of the English department he spoke with did not express opposition to Ryan’s receiving a temporary administrative assignment to give her a chance to find her footing. “It seemed like, under the circumstances, a generous but appropriately generous move for the University to make,” he said.
But many department members are displeased that Ryan’s new position entails working with graduate students, Keach and the anonymous faculty member said.
Keach cited the possibility of graduate students asking Ryan for letters of recommendation or indicating on their resumes that they took part in a teaching program under her auspices without knowing that outside scholars might be aware of her errors.
Faculty members also raised concerns about McLaughlin’s role in the process given his close ties to Ryan, Keach and the anonymous faculty member said.
McLaughlin chaired the search committee that hired Ryan and previously served as chair of the English department, placing him directly responsible for Ryan’s annual reviews and reappointment considerations, according to the report. McLaughlin is also a mentor to Ryan, having “known (her) since she was an undergraduate” at Harvard, where he was a lecturer, the report notes.
Though McLaughlin recused himself from the process of evaluating whether Ryan’s alleged plagiarism constituted misconduct, according to the report, he did participate in the subsequent negotiations with Ryan that culminated in her appointment as associate dean, Keach said. The anonymous tenured member of the English department confirmed McLaughlin’s involvement with the negotiations.
Faculty members were also upset that the administration did not make “an appropriate public statement” about the case, Keach said.
“The University has responsibilities to other people outside the University,” Keach said. “We particularly focused there on the importance we felt of informing the outside evaluators who evaluated Professor Ryan’s work for tenure.”
Elaine Freedgood, a professor of English at New York University who served as an external reviewer for Ryan’s tenure case, said she was eventually informed that Ryan withdrew from the tenure track but not that plagiarism was involved. “You just can’t keep this quiet,” she said.
The inquiry committee’s report states that Ryan “expects and hopes to participate in public conversations about what has happened, how it happened and how best to prevent such problems in the field,” but no such public conversations have taken place.