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Econ Professor Swart resigned due to plagiarism

Comparison of Serra (2010) and Swart (2012) graphs
Comparison of Serra (2010) and Swart (2012) graphs

By Peter Sullivan & Hayes Gardner &

When Brian Swart, Economics, abruptly resigned in the middle of last semester, the College declined to disclose why, citing his privacy.

Interviews with professors from other institutions involved in the situation and documentation they provided show that Swart resigned after it was discovered he had plagiarized massive amounts of his work.

He plagiarized a total of four articles, including his entire dissertation. Indiana University, where he received his Ph.D. in 2011, has now rescinded the degree. Swart was finally caught in September after he submitted a plagiarized paper to the journal Theoretical Economics and a referee noticed similarities to another paper.

“It’s astounding,” said Martin Osborne, Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto and Editor of Theoretical Economics. “It’s paragraph after paragraph. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything close to it.”

Evidence of Plagiarism
Gilles Serra, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Center for Economics Research and Teaching in Mexico City and one of the professors whose work Swart copied, laid out the evidence in a letter to Grinnell in September. The first documented instance of Swart’s plagiarism came in his 2007 qualifying paper, which copied from a paper by Micael Castanheira, Benoit Crutzen and Nicolas Sahuguet called “Party Governance and Political Competition,” which had been posted on several academic websites in 2005. The plagiarism continued through Swart’s 2008 dissertation proposal, 2010 working paper, 2011 dissertation and 2012 submission to Theoretical Economics. Some of these instances were revisions of the same paper. In addition to the Castanheira, Crutzen and Sahuguet paper, Swart also copied from three papers by Serra.

The similarities between Swart’s work and earlier papers by others are striking in the wording and the game theory proofs themselves. Osborne pointed out particular examples in a letter to Grinnell and information provided to the S&B. For example, Swart wrote in a 2011 paper, “With probability p, the voters observe quality and the swing voters will vote for the candidate who is the highest quality … With probability 1-p, voters are uninformed about quality so they will have to form beliefs.”

Comparison of Serra (2010) and Swart (2012) graphs. Source: Gilles Serra’s Letter to Grinnell.

Yet Castanheira, Crutzen and Sahuguet wrote almost the exact same thing six years earlier, in 2005: “With probability p, voters know exactly the quality of each platform. In that case, swing voters elect the politician with the highest quality platform … When left uninformed about platforms qualities (this happens with probability 1-p), voters have to form beliefs about the qualities they can expect from each politician.”

As Serra details in his letter to Grinnell, it even appears that Swart followed the changes Serra made to a paper over time and mimicked them. A 2008 paper by Swart plagiarized a 2007 paper by Serra. Serra made changes to his 2007 work in a paper he wrote that was published in 2010. A 2012 paper by Swart then plagiarized Serra’s 2010 paper and reflected the changes. Swart mimicked changes down to word choice. Serra replaced the words “candidate selection method” with the word “effort,” which Swart also did. Serra deleted his welfare analysis. So did Swart. Serra added references to two more papers. Swart added references to the same ones.

Swart did not respond to several calls and voicemails to his cell phone nor email and Facebook messages.

“I am bewildered that someone in academia could behave in such a way,” Serra wrote in his letter to Grinnell. “This incident has also triggered a feeling of vulnerability about my work knowing that Professor Swart is targeting me, having plagiarized several of the papers that I have posted online. But mostly, I am concerned about the integrity of my research now that I know our colleague is trying to republish it in different journals. I worry that it can hurt my tenure process and my further development as credit for my research might be claimed by someone else.”
Castanheira had similar feelings upon discovering his work had been stolen.

“To be frank, my first reaction was one of amusement,” Castanheira wrote in an email. “Then, I actually started reading Brian Swart’s article, and I felt as if I had been burglarized. As if someone had gone through my privacy, and stolen important and intimate belongings. This was distressing: I had nightmares for several nights. I felt a deep anger for a long time.”

Timeline of Events
Events were set in motion when Swart sent a paper to Osborne’s journal, Theoretical Economics. Swart’s paper was peer-reviewed by three anonymous referees in September 2012, one of whom recognized that Swart’s work closely mirrored one of Serra’s previous papers, entitled “Polarization of What: A Model of Elections with Endogenous Valence,” published in the Journal of Politics.

“One of them replied very fast and said it was very similar to another article he had read that was published,” Osborne said.

“Because I am a political scientist, he thought he could send my paper to an economics journal and no one would find out,” Serra said in a Skype interview.

Osborne contacted Serra, who opened the paper and was surprised at what he saw.

“I open the paper and start reading it and it was a shocker,” Serra said. “Like, I can’t believe what I’m reading. There’s someone else’s name on this paper and it’s someone else’s writing and wording of things. But it’s all my ideas, just paragraph by paragraph, all my ideas, all my theorems, all the proofs of my theorems then all my graphs and conclusions.”

Serra then looked up Swart’s work on the Internet and discovered a paper with Swart’s name on it that appeared to be copied from a paper of Serra’s colleagues.

“Then I became really worried and even though I couldn’t find anything else online, I decided to look up his dissertation,” Serra said. “So I went to ProQuest, that’s a database that contains all Ph.Ds from America and Canada. So I looked on ProQuest and I found his dissertation and you can imagine I was surprised and outraged … It was all very surreal.”

After reading Swart’s dissertation, Serra found the fourth and final one of Swart’s papers that can be accused of plagiarism, which was located on Swart’s personal Indiana University webpage.

Serra then cooperated closely with Osborne on what actions to take. Osborne sent an initial letter to Indiana University and, on Sept. 21, to Grinnell, providing evidence of Swart’s plagiarism. Serra followed up with another letter to Grinnell on Sept. 25. By the end of September, Swart had resigned from his post at Grinnell, a position he had held since Fall 2010. After being notified by Osborne and Serra, Indiana University eventually rescinded his Ph.D. Professors at Indiana University involved in the situation declined to comment.

Grinnell’s Response
Some of the professors took issue with what they described as Grinnell’s lack of responsiveness to their letters. In fact, they did not learn of Swart’s resignation until reading about it online in an S&B article from Oct. 12.

“Grinnell remained too silent in my view,” Castanheira wrote in his email to the S&B. “It was hard to understand what was actually happening on their side. Eventually, I learned about Brian Swart’s resignation from Scarlet and Black, not from Grinnell’s authorities. I thought, ‘they are victims just like us, why do they behave as if they had something to hide?’ I still do not have the answer.”

“Grinnell was not very responsive actually,” Osborne said.

He corresponded by email with Dean of the College Paula Smith, who eventually notified him of Swart’s resignation.

“She did inform us that he had resigned, but she didn’t say anything more,” Osborne later added.

Smith and President Raynard Kington did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the relative silence, Serra was impressed with Grinnell’s prompt actions.

“I was very impressed that they acted so quickly,” Serra said. “I was impressed, but not surprised, because I expected that of an institution such as Grinnell.”

Keith Brouhle ’96, Chair of the Economics Department, did not acknowledge Swart had plagiarized, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. He did point out that the College’s hiring process, which did not catch Swart’s plagiarism, is built on trust. He said job candidates meet with the department, the Student Educational Policy Committee, members of Executive Council and others, but that those outside the College also play a role, particularly in providing recommendations for the candidates that the College trusts.

“We do a lot of things ourselves and we rely on others as well,” he said.

He added that trust is a part of many job applications.

“When you go to apply for a job, they’re going to rely upon the trust embedded in those recommendations,” he said.

Osborne said he thought that Swart’s hiring “doesn’t reflect any significant negligence on the part of Grinnell.”

“We rely on what people say,” he said.

He expressed more concern that Indiana University had not caught Swart in the course of his Ph.D. program, wondering how Swart got through meetings with his advisor.

“Either he suddenly fed them a finished paper or he was clever and fed them bits and pieces,” Osborne said.

“I just hope he learned a lesson”
Serra could take legal action against Swart, but says he will not at this time.

“Taking legal action was always a serious consideration,” he said. “Several people recommended it to us and our institutions offered legal support. But we all decided not to go down that path for now, as we did not believe it to be necessary.”

Though they do not plan on taking legal action at this time, Serra and Castanheira still believe plagiarism should be taken seriously.

“I don’t feel any personal animosity toward Brian Swart,” Serra said. “I don’t think this is personal. He did hurt me professionally, but this is fairly fixed now. So, I wish him well, I just hope he learned a lesson and will be on a better path to doing something else. Stealing ideas from others is not only illegal and immoral, but also does not pay off. Other than that, I wish him well.”

“If I can give a recommendation to those who read you: don’t plagiarize,” Castanheira wrote in his email to the S&B. “You are not only deceiving the people around you. You are deceiving yourself. And in this case reality bites extremely hard when it resurfaces.”

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  • S

    Solmaz Filiz KarabagDec 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks for this post… I wonder why those plagiarized papers are not retracted? What is the problem with academician in this field?? best regards

  • W

    writersdriveApr 5, 2013 at 6:54 am

    tthnx for share with us,, well done

  • J

    John MasheyFeb 11, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Congratulations to Scarlet and Black for good reporting.

    However, there are worse cases, at least Grinnell took action, Try See No Evil…, which shows about 90 pages of alleged plagiarism by a Professor and his students. Most of it was ignored by the university, except the few pages in a paper that had been retracted earlier.

  • J

    Jake White '13Feb 8, 2013 at 8:08 pm

  • P

    Prahl #2Feb 8, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I find this disappointing. It is almost like a very anticlimactic “Catch Me if You Can.” Lucky that that Economist new the works or this shmuck would still be teaching….

  • B

    BassilFeb 8, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I initially thought this headline was a joke.
    I enjoyed the class I took with Professor Swart. It’s such a shame that his academic career was built on such falsehoods, because he would have made a fine professor. Most of his students enjoyed crawling out of their beds at 8 am to be in his class.
    Not really sure what else to say. It’ll be really tough for him to proceed forward- that big “gap” in his resume will have to be accounted for, and I’m not sure how many academic interviews would welcome “plagiarism” as an answer.

  • T

    Ted DansonFeb 8, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    How did the newspaper get the original info for this story? Did the authors of the original works reach out or was there talk inside of Grinnell? I’m curious what happened between Swart resigning and this article getting written.

  • 2

    2013 EcommentatorFeb 8, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    The econduct of the ecommentators on this article is getting out of econtrol.

  • J

    JakeFeb 8, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Egads 2010 alum enough already. Your shtick is ennoying.and emature.

  • 2

    2010 alumFeb 8, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Why did you delete my ecomment? These editors are trying to hide the truth

  • 2

    2010 alumFeb 8, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Looks like he was not a very good econ artist! This is the type of thing that is econsidered to be a very serious offense, especially in econtemporary times when it seems like these scandals are econtinually occurring. Although freedom is speech is our econstutitional right, this freedom is econstricted such that work is econnected to its rightful owner. Writing his own work probably took too much econcentration, or it was a bit too hard to come up with his own econcepts. Too bad the internet is not very econducive to remaining undiscovered. It is also strange that Grinnell did not econdemn him sooner– I wonder what other options they were econtemplating. Bet he feels like going to Herrick and having some econfession time–Maybe he could go work at Carleton as an econsolation prize!