Plagiarism allegation roils Michigan State, museum

Michael H. Hodges | The Detroit News | 5:58 pm EST February 6, 2020

A controversy tied to charges of plagiarism and a 500-year-old Bolivian mummy has erupted at Michigan State University. 

William Lovis, an emeritus professor of anthropology and a former curator at the MSU Museum, has accused the museum director, Mark Auslander, of plagiarizing his work in the museum's regular monthly newsletter last February — an accusation a faculty investigative committee recently endorsed. 

An emeritus professor of anthropology and a former curator at the MSU Museum, has accused the museum director of plagiarizing his work.
Detroit News file photo

In his "Director's Letter," Auslander summarized the repatriation of the mummy, nicknamed Ñusta, at the Bolivian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in January 2019.

"There were parts of the letter that were cut and pasted from reports I had filed that were dated and had my name on them," Lovis said. "When you cut and paste and don't attribute, that's plagiarism." 

For his part, Auslander explains that the newsletter is an informal communication with museum members and supporters, and not an academic publication per se. Nor did he leave Lovis out of it, but cited research Lovis and another colleague conducted on ancient corn discovered with the mummy. 

Mark Auslander
David Guralnick, The Detroit News

"A few sentences were not placed in quotation marks," Auslander said, "but in no sense was somebody else's research being claimed. And this really was just a newsletter — that's why I was shocked he had so many concerns."

Lovis leveled his charges in a widely distributed email to the faculty and administration almost a year ago. The issue was referred to the MSU Research Integrity Office, which appointed three faculty members to investigate.

The letter, which had been on the MSU website, was taken down once Lovis' email went out. 

The faculty committee's final report, issued last week, concluded Auslander had engaged in "plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication," according to an excerpt forwarded to The Detroit News by Lovis, and also reprinted on the website of a nonprofit academic watchdog, retractionwatch.com, which broke the story. 

The committee ordered Auslander to apologize, which he did in an email. 

"He claimed that everything he did was inadvertent," Lovis said. "To me that sounds like, 'Oh, I overlooked that. It was an accident.' But you don’t plagiarize and falsify information. That’s not an accident, that’s a train wreck."

Melody Kindraka, an MSU spokeswoman, declined comment, saying: "At this time the university is evaluating the next steps." 

The mummy in question, now back in Bolivia at the country's National Museum of Archaeology, was donated to the MSU Museum in 1890 by Fenton R. McCreery, an American diplomat in Chile. Included with the mummy were pouches, beads, plant remains and objects found with her. Ñusta was about 8 years old when she died. 

After the ceremony at the Bolivian Embassy last year, the country's president at the time, Evo Morales, flew the little girl's remains home on the presidential plane. 

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Originally Published 5:30 pm EST February 6, 2020
Updated 5:58 pm EST February 6, 2020
Subscribe Now – Get Your Offer