The academic gamblers

Mehreen Sheikh
Jan 6, 2019 · 8 min read
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The journalist Royce Rensberger asserted already in 1970s that fraud in research is a constantly growing phenomenon. In his article “Fraud in research is a rising problem in science”, published in The New York Times in 1977, he notes that scientists who cheat by forging their results or who choose only the facts that support their theories, represents a phenomenon often neglected by those who view scientists as unshakably objective in their quest for truth. Rensberger claims that the number of dishonest researchers is increasing as a result of the growing aggressive competition for research funds, which are often awarded to researchers who can produce, or claim to produce, the most impressive new discoveries in the shortest time. In addition to deliberate prejudice, he notes that growing tolerance for careless research and negligent interpretations of the results are ever-increasing problems. He also asserts that non-scientific disciplines, in which it is unusual to conduct replications (repeat the same experiment); it is quite easy to cheat and get away with negligence, especially when the results are in accordance with everybody’s expectations.

One recent illustration is the research on the Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, owned by the Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen. Since 2001, an international research team has been studying the invaluable scripts at the Centre for Advanced Study, an independent interdisciplinary research center in Oslo. The head of the research team is Jens E. Braarvig, who is a professor in History of Religions and an authority on Buddhist history, literature and language. The research team has already published four volumes including reproductions and translations of the Buddhist manuscripts. In all, they plan to publish 10–12 publications.

The reviews

The problem is that certain parts of the Schøyen researcher’s research product are marked by a serious scientific offense: to present one’s work as new and original, and at the same time fail to inform about previous researchers and their exact same discoveries and conclusions. Several of the Schøyen researchers are guilty of this negligence, which has been criticized in two book reviews (Ruegg 2002; 2007). In his review of the second volume of the Schøyen Collection, Ruegg notes that “Braarvig dates the manuscripts in this volume from the second to the eighth century, and suggests that the Vinaya texts have an affiliation with a Mahasamghika school”. But as Ruegg rightly asserts, the Vinaya texts of Mahasamghika origin from Afghanistan were published already in 1932 by Sylvain Levi, in his article “Note sur des manuscrits sanscrits provenant de Bamiyan (Afghanistan) et de Gilgit (Cachemire)”. This is an article which Ruegg points out, but which is not included in the current volume. However, it is listed in another volume of the Schøyen Collection.

«New and unique research material»

It is sensational that the head of the team, Jens E. Braarvig, on several occasions, has expressed that “these texts are some of the oldest Buddhist texts ever found, and that he and his team, “by means of paleographic methods, have ascertained that the manuscripts span a period of 600 years”. Furthermore, that “in the coming years, their research group will reveal and systematize the treasures in this unique material” (Sheikh 2018). In the introduction to the first volume, Braarvig writes that “recently, to the great surprise and joy of the scholarly community of Buddhist studies, a sizable collection of Buddhist manuscripts appeared, with new and important material for the study of Indian Buddhist history, religion and culture”. In the same way, in the introduction to the second volume, Braarvig writes on the behalf of the editorial committee:

The second volume of the Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection presents a selection of texts from most of the genres found in Buddhist literature, viz., Agama as well as Mahayana sutras, Vinaya as well as Abhidharma works, poetical and narrative pieces, and even a non-Buddhist philosophical treatise. The Vinaya fragments suggest that the text is affiliated with one of the Mahasamghika schools, but other schools of Buddhism are also represented. Given the rather extended time span into which our manuscripts fall, from the 2nd century A.D. up to the 8th, it has not yet been possible to assign the texts as a whole to a specific school, or even institution, notwithstanding the fact that many if not most of the manuscripts may once have belonged to a single collection.

To assess the historical importance of these documents, found as they are in one of the most important centres of Buddhist creativity and one of the key stations on the Silk Road, linking India and China with the West, is a challenge to the participants in this volume, and to other scholars as well, whom the project group invites to contribute to further research on these manuscripts and their significance for the history of Buddhism.

Dishonest account of both the research material and the research process

It is a fact that their research material is not new or unique. It should not have been a challenge to date this material, because there is already available research that has determined the origin of these texts — Vinaya texts of Mahasamghika origin from Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Schøyen researchers give a dishonest account of both the research material and the research process. If one reads the introductory part in Sylvian Levi’s article from 1932, the extent to which Braarvig has used the first mentioned scholar becomes obvious.

Levi reports that “on July 31, 1930, M. Hackin led an expedition to Afghanistan. He describes the expedition to Bamiyan and the succeeding work in a report. He especially pointed out a cave at the east side of the place where the 35-meter long Buddha statue stands. The cave was uncovered after a landslide near the cliff, and Hackin found — under some ruins — the remains of very important paintings and sculptures. This lot also contained a number of manuscripts on bark, written mainly on Brahmi, together with some rare manuscripts written on Kharosti. The variety of texts span from the 3rd–4th century (written on Kusana) to the 7th–8th century (written on Gupta tardif). In addition there were texts from India and texts from Central-Asia.”

The conclusion that is drawn is that “the library in the cave has contained a collection of manuscripts from different provinces, or copies from different countries”. Levi also reports that “in the 8th century, after the Muslim invasion, the existence of Buddhism became very endangered in Bamiyan”. He tells that “most of the small fragments seems to belong to the Abhidharma dissertation, an assertion that is difficult to substantiate”. Levy also expresses, in his article of 1932, enthusiasm at “discovering an authentic Vinaya piece of Mahsamghikas, perhaps also a piece of Agamas, the latter is probably a copy”, he writes. (Levi 1932, my translations).

Originally published in an article more than 60 years ago

The affinity between the Schøyen research and the work of Sylvain Levi, on exactly the same topic, is also evident from Braarvig’s statements published in the Newsletter from the Centre for Advanced Studies. Braarvig introduces the material to which the research team, via Martin Schøyen, has gained access: “These Buddhist manuscripts stem from a monastery library that judging by the evidence was destroyed in the eight century”. In addition, he says that “by means of paleographic methods we have ascertained that the manuscripts span a period of 600 years, from the first to the seventh century”.

Furthermore, he says that “the collection consists of approximately 3000 fragments of several hundred books from a library that judging by the evidence was built up by the Buddhist Mahsamghika sect. The library was probably destroyed in connection with the Muslim invasion of Afghanistan in the eight century, but the fragments that did survive were incredibly well preserved in the cold, dry climate of the high Afghan plains. The remains were found in a cave roughly 300 km north of Bamiyan, where in March 2001 the Taliban authorities blew up two Buddha statues that were more than 50 meters high and almost 2000 years old”. “The old manuscripts are on the whole written on palm leaves or birch bark …” (Sheikh 2018).

Braarvig creates the impression that the Schøyen researchers have obtained this knowledge by studying the evidence, with the help of, among other things, paleographic methods. Nevertheless, all this knowledge was already published in an article more than 60 years ago, a source that the Schøyen researchers have not listed in the current volume. It is clear, however, that they do have knowledge of Levi’s article, because it is listed in another volume.

The definition of Plagiarism

In this context, it is interesting to bring up the term plagiarism, which means imitation, copy or theft of another person’s research work. “This may include the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another person’s distinctive and significant research findings, or an extended borrowing even with attribution”, according to The American Historical Association, which among other things, inquires into alleged misconduct, including plagiarism. Peter C. Hoffer, who is a historian and a former member of the latter organization, discusses different definitions of the term plagiarism in his book on the subject. According to the latter scholar, plagiarism is “theft of another person’s contribution to knowledge”. The motive is “to seek an advantage of some kind from the use of another’s work, it includes an intent to deceive”. As Hoffer writes: “In a historical work that is presented as one’s own contribution to knowledge, not only must one acknowledge its sources, the writer must reveal the full extent of the work’s indebtedness”.

This is exactly what several of the Schøyen researchers have not done, according to the above mentioned reviews. It is not only a matter of systematical errors, for instance that one repeatedly borrows an extract without stating the source, or systematically forgets to put quotation marks when using a direct or a nearly direct quotation. The most serious scientific offense that the Schøyen researchers have committed is to present their work as new and original, and at the same time fail to state previous researchers and their exact same discoveries and conclusion.

Publishing and research funds become the main aims, rather than real discoveries

In his article on fraud in research, Rensberger quotes two interesting perspectives, which are still relevant, on why researchers cheat. According to Dr. Borek, a microbiologist, the reason for dishonesty in research is that scientists have to publish in order to obtain research funds, and that promotion often depends on the amount of the funds acquired. Consequently, publishing and research funds become the main aims, rather than real discoveries. When the rewards are almost within reach, the temptation for some to cut corners or fabricate data, or to produce just anything at all, becomes overwhelming.

Rensberger also quotes another researcher, Dr. Luria, a virologist, who says that scientists who publish distorted data suffer from the same personality disorder as gambling addicts. In addition, he maintains that the control mechanisms against fraud are sufficient in science and that it is only those who have a twisted image of the reality who believe that they can get away with it. According to Dr. Luria, researchers who cheat often begin to believe in their theories before they are proved, and then they draw the conclusion that they are entitled to establish this truth in other people’s heads. In addition, as Rensberger notes, “when the scientific gambler loses, the resultant damage extends beyond his reputation and that of his institution”.

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