From the science of human apes (Anthropology) to the aping of science.

This statement explain a potential case of plagiarism concerning Minkov & Bond, 2015, published in Personality and Individual Differences (PAID), 76: 204-215.

Prof. Minkov holds a PhD in Social Anthropology, hence the title of this letter.

Minkov’s draft, which I read in June 2014, can be found at the following link:

As you can see in the references, the authors had initially cited my Mankind Quarterly (MQ) paper (Piffer, 2013. Factor Analysis of population allele frequencies as a simple, novel method of detecting signals of recent polygenic selection: The example of educational attainment and IQ. Mankind Quarterly, 54(2), 168-200) hence showing that they had read it. When I got ahold of the draft, in June 2014, I realized the authors had misrepresented my work, trying (unintentionally or not) to diminish its importance with the incorrect statement that I had used a sample of only 9 populations when in fact I had used two samples comprising respectively, 14 and 50 populations. This prompted me to send Minkov an email, where I criticized him for misrepresenting my work: to which he did not reply. Reference to my work was deleted afterwards and is absent from the final manuscript, published in PAID, 76: 204-215.

Worst of all, the authors introduces factor analysis of allele frequencies without providing a theoretical (evolutionary) rationale, but they do provide a concise explanation in the discussion, which is clearly aping my explanation in the MQ 2013 paper (I had not noticed this at the time I had emailed Minkov, in June).

To summarize, I provided evidence that the authors (at least Minkov) read my paper, had initially cited my MQ paper by misrepresenting its contents, but eventually removed this reference from the published version, and there is a paragraph in his published paper which is very similar to a paragraph in my MQ paper. Now, I need to briefly introduce some background information.

My MQ 2013 paper was the first to present the idea of co-selection of alleles showing a cross-population correlation in frequencies and is still the only published paper that presents the idea that “a large cumulative effect at the national level” can be predicted by the “combined frequency of a few alleles”. Since this concept is expressed only in my paper and there for the first time (apart from other articles that I have later published) and since the authors had read my paper, it’s remarkable that the authors did not bother to credit me. If the authors had copied a part of my paper that wasn’t as novel or that was published in many other articles, I would not have considered it a serious offence.

Below I report the paragraphs in question. It can be seen that Minkov and Bond’s  paragraph reports my novel idea in different words, however it is the same concept (that a few genes act as proxy for many other genes and this explains the strong effect size at the national level).

Minkov & Bond’s paragraphs:

"One possible explanation of the difference between the individual level and the national/ethnic level in our case is that national/ethnic LHS-TO may be driven by a large package of genes, each of which produces a very small effect at the individual level (and, in some cases, no effect at all); however they produce a large cumulative effect at the national level. It is therefore quite possible that our LHSGF index is actually a proxy for a much larger package of genes that may or may not be in linkage disequilibrium at the individual level. Whatever the case may be at the individual level, the frequencies of these genes may correlate at the national level, producing a large effect at that level". (Minkov & Bond, 2015).

My 2013 Mankind Quarterly (issue n.54)  paper (paragraph he plagiarized) can be downloaded here:

Here is the paragraph:

“Metaphorically,  this factor could be seen as a “magnet” attracting all other unmeasured educational attainment alleles,located throughout the whole genome. As the effect size of each SNP is typically very low (around 0.1%), even 10 SNPs would not account for more than 1% of the variance in IQ or educational attainment scores across populations. The likely explanation for why the effect size for the 10 SNPs at a cross population level detected in this study is so high (around 80%), is that the alleles are not randomly distributed across human races, so that the combined frequency of a few alleles predicts the frequencies of many other alleles affecting the same phenotype. This inflates the correlation with the phenotype well beyond anything that would be explainable by the modest effect sizes of the examined SNPs. Indeed,whenever the phenotypic effects of any set of two or more alleles are similar, population-level correlations suggest co-selection for the same trait." (Piffer, 2013).

I have emailed both the author and the editor of PAID but neither of them has replied yet. If this issue could have been peacefully solved by means of a rational discussion with the authors, I would have happily stayed silent and given them the opportunity to correct their mistake. However, since no answer to my query was provided, I decided to publicly report this allegation of academic misconduct, made more serious by the author’s refusal to collaborate.

Update (January 07th 2015): I get an answer from PAID’s Editor: “Dear Dr. Piffer: you are welcome to submit a commentary on this article which will be considered for publication. If accepted, the authors of the article will be invited to write a response.
Tony Vernon”

I see already that this is going to be a really slow process and it is not even certain that my commentary will be published (which I suppose is decided only by the editor). Nonetheless I will submit my commentary and write an update here about the outcome.

 I hope this example will show that transparency is a top priority in science publishing and the role of editors should be as minimal as possible, to avoid bias or in extreme instances, covering up of academic misconduct.


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