Date: June 30, 2021 09:03AM
LDSinc would have LOVED it if the following bit of Papyrus was authentic, but it is not. Oddly, HTR doesn’t want to acknowledge their mistake.
(This is from The Chronicle Of Higher Education and is likely behind a paywall for many here.)
A Scholarly Screw-Up of Biblical Proportions
By Ariel Samar, JUNE 29, 2021
‘Harvard Theological Review’ offers an exemplary guide on how not to do peer review.
What should a journal do after publishing a blockbuster paper marred by fraudulent evidence, failed peer review, and undisclosed conflicts of interest?
If you’re Harvard Theological Review, the answer appears to be nothing.
An ongoing misadventure at one of the most prestigious journals in biblical studies traces to April 2014, when it devoted the better part of its spring issue to a single subject: a scrap of papyrus bearing the sensational phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”
It was a triumphant moment for the main article’s author, a world-renowned Harvard Divinity School professor named Karen L. King. A year and a half earlier, when she announced her discovery at an academic conference in Rome, her colleagues had revolted. Top scholars of early Christian manuscripts had found signs that the papyrus was a modern forgery — and that King had failed to take basic steps to vet the manuscript, which she’d provocatively named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” The Review, a century-old publication, was so alarmed that it pulled King’s paper from the lineup for its next issue.
But now it was in print: 29 pages at the front of the journal, along with impressive-looking reports from professors at MIT and Columbia claiming to detect no signs of forgery. To publicize their results — and King’s apparent vindication — the scientists granted interviews to The New York Times and The Boston Globe, which had earlier given front-page coverage to King’s find.
As I discovered while researching my new book, however, the Review’s April 2014 issue was something other than it had seemed. Two of the journal’s three peer reviewers had believed the papyrus was a fake. The sole favorable reviewer was an acclaimed papyrologist named Roger Bagnall. But Bagnall was not an impartial referee, much less a blind one: He had helped King draft the paper the journal was asking him to review. Not only had King named him in it as her star adviser, but he had already been filmed touting the papyrus’s authenticity for a forthcoming Smithsonian Channel documentary.
Bagnall warned the journal that he was far too involved in King’s article to peer-review it — and that he was no expert in extracanonical Christian texts. “I wouldn’t want there to be any illusion that I’m in any way an outsider in the way that referees typically are,” he had emailed the editors. But the journal sent his anonymized praise to King as if it had come from a traditional referee. Without Bagnall, the article would have lacked a single positive review. His opinion allowed King to claim that “in the course of the normal external review process” at least one referee had “accepted the [papyrus] fragment.”
“They obviously ignored the caveats,” Bagnall, a former Columbia dean and retired director of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, told me. “Hey, you know, count this as a review! Run it through! … It’s not the way I would wish to run a journal.” (He confirmed he was the unnamed favorable reviewer only after I discovered it from other sources.)
I found still other conflicts of interest in the scientists King had enlisted to examine the allegations of forgery. The MIT scientist, it turned out, was a close family friend of King’s since their childhoods in small-town Montana and was an usher at her first wedding. The Columbia scientist was Bagnall’s brother-in-law. They had been chosen not for their expertise in archaeological science — they had none — but because they were friends or family of the only major scholars to stake their reputations on the papyrus’s authenticity.
Cambridge University Press, which publishes Harvard Theological Review, expects authors “to declare any potential conflicts of interest…(real or apparent) that could be considered or viewed as exerting undue influence on his or her duties at any stage during the publication process,” as the press’s ethics code then phrased it. Yet neither King nor the scientists had disclosed their intimate social and familial ties, not even to the editors who published their reports.
“This is the first I’ve ever heard of it,” Jon Levenson, then a co-editor of the Review, told me when we spoke outside his home in a Boston suburb in 2019. If Levenson had known, he said, he would have insisted on using other scientists. “The fact that they are close friends, that certainly is very suspicious and not best practices [or] acceptable practices.”
The journal, it turned out, had never peer-reviewed the scientists’ reports — to check, for instance, whether the studies had been properly carried out, meaningful tests of forgery. News media, for their part, were effectively barred from doing their own checks: Harvard Divinity School gave reporters exclusives on King’s article on the condition they contact no scientists or scholars other than those King had cited in her paper.
The Review’s April 2014 issue, in short, was a rickety edifice; in less than a month, it started to crumble.
Scholars made damning new findings of forgery and soon published them in a special issue of New Testament Studies, a rival journal. An investigation I did for The Atlantic in 2016 unmasked the long-anonymous owner of the Jesus’s Wife papyrus as an internet pornographer who had dropped out of an Egyptology program where he’d struggled with Coptic, the language in which the error-strewn “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was written.
The day after the Atlantic article appeared, King conceded for the first time that the papyrus was probably a fake, a reversal covered on the front page of The Boston Globe. As I learned while reporting my book, she had suspected from the start that the papyrus was forged, but pressed ahead, ignoring red flags, recruiting conflicted scientists, and withholding important facts, photos, and paperwork. The papyrus, which King promoted as the first ancient text to depict a married Jesus, had served as a kind of missing link in her pioneering scholarship on female figures in early Christianity.
Writing in the Times Literary Supplement this year, the archaeologist Michael Press lamented what he called “the ugly details of a peer-review system that utterly failed, at multiple points, to put the brakes on the dissemination of … a forgery.”
There remains an obvious path to redemption for Harvard Theological Review: retraction of King’s and the scientists’ papers.
This past March, Brill retracted a book chapter by the Oxford classicist and MacArthur “genius” Dirk Obbink because the provenance of a headline-making Sappho papyrus he had discovered appeared to be fabricated. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” papyrus was in some respects worse: Not only was the ownership history King had published a lie, but the fragment itself was by all indications a hoax.
The case for forgery was now so strong, King told me in 2016, that the papyrus “cannot be used for any kind of historical reconstruction.” King had not only disavowed the evidence on which her article had rested; she was warning other scholars away from it. There is scarcely a more explicit way to label a published paper “unreliable,” the chief benchmark for retraction set by the Committee on Publication Ethics, or COPE, an esteemed, 12,000-plus-member international nonprofit that counsels academic editors and publishers on best practices.
“If you’re a good scholar and you’re a good editor, you want seriously flawed material to be retracted,” Deborah Poff, a Canadian philosopher and former university president who edits the Journal of Academic Ethics and is COPE’s immediate past chair, told me. “If you care about publication ethics, you want to protect the integrity of the academic product. I mean, that’s your job.”
Yet five years after King herself disclaimed the papyrus, the Review has yet to retract her paper — or to inform its readers of the undisclosed conflicts that greased publication.
In 2016 the journal offered its only public explanation. “Harvard Theological Review has scrupulously and consistently avoided committing itself on the issue of the authenticity of the papyrus fragment,” it said in a press statement. “HTR is a peer-reviewed journal. Acceptance of an essay for publication means that it has successfully passed through the review process. It does not mean that the journal agrees with the claims of the paper. In the same issue … in which HTR published Professor Karen King’s article and the articles on the testing … it also published a substantial article by [the Brown University Egyptology] Professor Leo Depuydt arguing that it was a crude forgery. Given that HTR has never endorsed a position on the issue, it has no need to issue a response.”
Despite her about-face in the news media, King, too, saw no need for the journal to disabuse its readers. “I don’t see anything to retract,” she told The Boston Globe. “I have always thought of scholarship as a conversation. So you put out your best thoughts, and then people … bring in new ideas or evidence. You go on.” But if a scholar’s best thinking was based on a forgery — rather than evidence — don’t readers deserve to know? This wasn’t some subtle shift in scholarly interpretation; King had admitted being duped by a con man.
Adam Marcus, a co-founder of the influential website Retraction Watch, panned the Review’s press statement in a blog post, calling it “a cop-out … of biblical proportions.”
When the Review postponed King’s paper, in 2012, in the wake of the first forgery suspicions, I’d sought comment from Kevin Madigan, who then co-edited the journal with Levenson. They’d planned to publish in January 2013, he’d told me, but “everything is now on hold until we are able, with Professor King’s help and by scientific dating, to establish the authenticity of the text” (my emphasis). “Provisional acceptance” (emphasis Madigan’s) had from the start been “conditional upon scientific dating and further verification.” That sounded a lot as if the journal’s confidence in authenticity mattered — as if it mattered enough to be a requirement for publication.
Why else had the journal held King’s article? Why had it gone through the motions of peer review, scientific tests, and “further verification”? Or were those just for appearances, because in private the Review “scrupulously and consistently” avoids positions on whether the data and sources for its authors’ papers are real?
It was only after publication — when the house of cards collapsed — that the journal announced it never had a position on authenticity, and didn’t need one.
Last year, when I emailed the Review’s new editor, a Harvard divinity scholar named Giovanni Bazzana, he said the journal was standing by its four-year-old press statement, which addressed none of the new developments. (Presented with the criticisms in this article, Bazzana said the Review had no additional comment “at this point.”)
Marcus, of Retraction Watch, told me that the 2016 statement was even more disingenuous after the recent disclosures. “It actually didn’t pass peer review,” Marcus said of King’s paper. “I mean, yes, it did pass their version of peer review. But I don’t think any journal editor would honestly say, ‘Yes, we had one corrupt — I don’t mean dishonest, but deeply conflicted — peer review that never should have happened, and two that said it’s a forgery, so we listened to the one that was conflicted.’ I mean, that’s not how it works.”
The editors’ other argument against retraction — that the journal was merely hosting a kind of debate between two sides — might have been a defensible piece of revisionism if they’d made it in 2014, with the issue’s publication. But now it strained belief. The journal had made no pretense of even-handedness. King’s side was given six articles — to the other side’s one. And King got the last word, a four-page response that described Depuydt’s case for forgery as lacking “any substantial evidence or persuasive argument.”
Perhaps more to the point, there no longer were two sides: The side that had argued for authenticity had abdicated, because its key evidence was found to be fake. It’s hard to imagine a science journal refusing to retract a paper whose main dataset turned out to be fabricated.
Mario Biagioli, a science historian at UCLA and co-editor of Gaming the Metrics: Misconduct and Manipulation in Academic Research, told me, “it should be retracted.” Though today’s biblical scholars may know from recent news coverage that the papyrus is a forgery, students and lay readers could well encounter the Review’s April 2014 issue without such context. In the absence of an appended retraction or “expression of concern,” researchers could “waste time, money, and potentially harm their careers, because they are working on data that turns out to be fraudulent or false,” said Biagioli, who has also taught at Harvard and Stanford.
In 2019, King began a phased retirement, at 65. Last summer, Levenson and Madigan, both of them Harvard divinity professors, stepped down as the journal’s co-editors. (Though their resignations occurred within about a month of my book’s publication, they say the Jesus’s Wife saga wasn’t a factor.)
Cambridge University Press opened an investigation in response to my findings and has been counseling the Review on “correct procedures,” said Jennifer Wright, a manager and ethics adviser at the publishing house who spoke to me on its behalf. But because Cambridge journals have editorial independence, the Review will have the final say over any outcomes — once again acting as judge and jury in its own case. “We do expect those journals to uphold high editorial and ethical standards,” Wright said, pointedly.
So far, the Review has shown no signs of budging.
Its failure to come clean to its own readers may owe to the same incestuous dynamics that led to the papyrus’s publication. Can a Harvard journal edited by Harvard professors dispassionately assess a Harvard paper, one that Harvard publicists were promoting to major news organizations even before its full acceptance? If mistakes or misconduct emerge after a paper’s publication, do its editors have the power and independence to hold their Harvard colleagues to account?
Harvard Theological Review deems every member of Harvard’s divinity faculty an “associate editor,” giving in-house authors unusual influence with — and over — fellow editors. The school’s dean sits on the journal’s editorial board. “I don’t want to suggest this is a mafia enterprise — that these guys are just helping themselves and their friends,” Biagioli told me. “At the same time, I also believe that can happen — that is, if you have a journal that … is bound to a place, conflicts of interest are bound to happen,” particularly when editors receive submissions from high-ranking colleagues they say hello to in the hall each day.
Poff, the philosopher and Journal of Academic Ethics editor, agrees. “This was and is, in my opinion, much too closed a shop for objectivity and best practices.”
Journals with similar entanglements often find it easier to “circle the wagons” than to correct or retract, Marcus told me. “It becomes very difficult to acknowledge, because acknowledging a mistake means burning a whole bunch of bridges.”
The bridges in this case may have been bigger than usual. While King was preparing her article, an outside committee convened by Harvard’s then president, Drew Gilpin Faust, was investigating the study of religion at Harvard, amid concerns that its programs — including those at the divinity school — were falling short of their potential. It was a period when the divinity school was consumed with proving its worth.
In the end, Faust rejected her own panel’s chief recommendation, a reorganization that would have diminished the divinity school’s role in religious studies at Harvard. Faust announced her decision — effectively sparing the divinity school — on September 19, 2012, the same day King’s “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” discovery appeared on the front pages of The New York Times and The Boston Globe. (Faust declined to comment on the timing.)
Had King sent her paper to a top-tier journal outside Harvard, it most likely would have been rejected. Had a scholar outside Harvard sent a comparable paper to the Review, its editors would have faced fewer internal pressures to accept it. Peer review, free of fear or favor, would have had a better chance of working the way it was supposed to, saving King’s reputation and sparing the divinity school years of mortifying news coverage over the history-making papyrus that wasn’t.
Brent Nongbri, a leading historian of Christian papyri, drew an even simpler moral from the Jesus’s Wife affair. “The lesson is this,” he wrote on his blog last year. “Be able to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Accept justified correction with humility and grace, and just move on.”