University scholarship takes place in a relatively free environment. Career academics do not face the dilemmas that are routine in corporate journalism, where socially valuable content must often be weighed against its potentially negative impact on advertisers, shareholders or government sources. Nevertheless, US intellectual culture is still susceptible to the corrupting effects of economic and state power, such that scholars’ adherence to factual integrity and ethical standards can unravel quickly.
The Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University in Washington, DC, is a case in point. CLALS’s research and analysis on Latin America has been compromised by a long-established and widespread demonization of Venezuela and by the economic interests of US investors in exploiting Latin America’s energy resources.
Venezuela is a country that experienced an abortive US-backed coup d’état in 2002 and continues to be construed widely as an enemy state within the circles of government, think tanks and the media. Academic safeguards like peer review and stringent ethical codes have not prevented scholars from presenting false and misleading information about the country. For example, Venezuela is often portrayed as an economic basket case, despite clear evidence that during the past decade, it has experienced a respectable real per capita income growth rate of 2.7 percent annually, has slashed poverty and unemployment in half, and has reduced income inequality to the lowest in Latin America.
An October article published on the CLALS website, “Venezuela: The True Scope of Chávez’s Legacy,” insisted on presenting the dominant yet deceptive view of the country. However, researchers Andrés Serbin and Andrei Serbin Pont went one step further, by offering a fictitious statistic as supposed evidence of the “dire state of the economy”:
According to the 2012 UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) report, an increasing number of Venezuelans are living under the poverty line – with a 29.9 percent increase in the poverty rate last year – with income no longer enough to fulfill basic needs.
In fact, ECLAC’s 2012 report to which they refer contains no data whatsoever for 2012; the above citation simply does not exist. Even worse, more recent ECLAC data, available online, indicate that Venezuelan poverty from 2011-12 actually declined by 19 percent (and prior to that – from 2010-11 – increased by only 6 percent). According to the very organization to which Serbin and Pont appeal, last year Venezuela experienced Latin America’s “largest drop” in poverty.
The magnitude of this falsehood, disseminated by a center of higher education, is hardly seen in the errors typically committed by news outlets such as The New York Times or The Washington Post on Venezuela. However, CLALS has behaved contrary to the norm that prevails at news organizations by refusing to correct its invented claims.
Economist Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research first exposed the factual error in Serbin and Pont’s article three days after their post was published by CLALS. His piece was reposted elsewhere online, and his invalidation of their poverty claim later appeared in the comments section of the original CLALS article.
I emailed the director of CLALS as well as the dean of AU’s School of Public Affairs one week after Weisbrot’s piece revealed the research center’s inaccuracies, because no corrections had yet been made. Professor Eric Hershberg, director of CLALS, claimed responsibility for “approv[ing] all entries before they are posted” and noted that “when Weisbrot wrote to me conveying these points,” he “did not find them … to be significant.” Hershberg also informed Serbin and Pont of Weisbrot’s “criticisms.” And when they declined to comment, he supported their decision, “and thus will not dedicate any additional time to the discussion,” he told me by email.
I replied that this was a very unusual and noteworthy event – “a professor taking personal responsibility for having approved and published a post containing undisputed factual errors, and yet refusing to correct these errors” – and invited him to offer an explanation for his decision that I could quote in this article. I received no response.
American University’s Academic Integrity Code, to which the AU community is bound, lists the “fabrication of data” as one of nine actionable academic-integrity violations:
Fabrication is the falsification, distortion, or invention of any information or citation in academic work. Examples include, but are not limited to, inventing a source, deliberately misquoting, or falsifying numbers or other data.
It is clear that the center’s steadfast refusal to correct the false claim, and its inability to provide any justification for it in the face of repeated requests, likely renders it in noncompliance with the university’s academic standards for its faculty. Prompt and unreserved self-correction when presented with proof of error is a standard practice in academia. Hershberg’s behavior “seriously deviates” from practices “commonly accepted within the scholarly community for proposing, conducting, or reporting scholarly work.” As such, it is likely a violation of scholarly integrity as defined by the American University faculty manual (page 65).
Unfortunately, in the wake of this episode, CLALS went on to serve as a platform for an even clearer violation of ethical standards, this time by guest author Thomas Andrew O’Keefe, who flouted the rules on conflict of interest set by his own academic institution, Stanford University.
On November 7, 2013, O’Keefe wrote the CLALS piece, “Replicating the US’ Shale Gas Revolution in Latin America,” in which he criticized “the region’s tumultuous politics,” which “often get in the way of implementing policies that boost investment and encourage a highly productive energy sector.” Argentina, for example, has “scared off private-sector investment” necessary for developing shale-gas reserves; Brazil’s “nationalistic legislation,” O’Keefe wrote, “could well impede exploiting its shale gas reserves.”
“In fact the only Latin American country where the stars seem aligned to repeat the US’ shale gas success story is investor-friendly, politically-stable, energy-starved, and free-market oriented Chile,” concluded O’Keefe, who, as a Stanford lecturer, is teaching two courses and advising senior theses this academic year.
However, O’Keefe’s professorial opinions on Latin America appear to be mediated by obvious personal financial interests, which he neglected to disclose. He lists in his biography his position as president of the San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group Ltd., whose website touts its ability to “alert investors to opportunities in state-owned companies that are about to be privatized” in Latin America.
Clearly then, his political views on Latin American hydraulic fracturing and its impediments align closely with his consulting group’s financial imperatives – none of which he made explicit, thereby violating Stanford University’s Faculty Policy on Conflict of Commitment and Interest:
A conflict of interest occurs when there is a divergence between an individual’s private interests and his or her professional obligations to the University such that an independent observer might reasonably question whether the individual’s professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal financial gain.
That is – no matter what the circumstances – if an independent observer might reasonably question whether the individual’s professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal financial gain, the relationship should be disclosed to the public during presentations, in publications, teaching, or other public venues.
American University’s CLALS, a center that receives financing from the US State Department, laments the fact that “Washington debates about Latin America are all too often plagued by US’-centric perspectives and adherence to conventional wisdoms that are disconnected from the complex realities of the region.”
This is certainly true; but the same could be said of CLALS itself, only worse: the “conventional wisdoms” and “US’–centric perspectives” that it is publishing appear not to be subject to fundamental ethical standards, including those prescribed by its host university.