I do not understand why UCSD felt it had the right to gag this professor. Was it motivated by politics? Did the administration calculate that the professor wouldn't be able to challenge the decision? How many people has this happened to? Were there others who didn't have the determination to go to court? As the professor said, "If you have to bankrupt yourself to protect your academic freedom, then academic freedom is dead.”
Professor Published After Two-Year Court Battle
June 03, 2012
It’s been a long wait for sociology professor Richard Biernacki. After fighting in court for two years — and taking out a second mortgage to fund the attorney fees — Biernacki’s formerly banned manuscript has finally been published. The work, titled Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry, was released for sale by Paul Grave Macmillan publishes next month on July 3.
It has been almost three years since the UCSD Social Sciences department placed a gag order on Biernacki’s manuscript, which is about peer review in the social sciences. The order, written by Dean of Social Sciences Jeff Elman, asked Biernacki to stop “harassing” a colleague within the UCSD Sociology Department whose research methods Biernacki critiqued in his book.
The gag order also stated that Biernacki could be fired if he requested data from the National Science Foundation. In response, Biernacki hired an attorney and took the case to court. After two years of conflict, both in and out of court, the administration retracted its order last June.
Biernacki said that the university administration’s misinterpretation of his work as a personal attack on another faculty member was both a personal and professional setback.
“My salary was kept artificially low, because I wasn’t promoted,” he said. “The recognition that I would have received in my field two years ago did not come my way. I had to pay a steep attorney’s fee to fight the UC legal team in Oakland. Being on a level playing field is costly. If you have to bankrupt yourself to protect your academic freedom, then academic freedom is dead.”
Biernacki’s book states that peer review is frequently less thorough in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. Biernacki argues that this lack of peer review in his field has led to the widespread generation of data that is ambiguously valid and non-replicable. He said that his book was intended to be a methodological critique, not a personal attack.
“All the examples in the book are about problems that come along with trying to interpret the meaning of primary texts,” he said.
One of the book’s chapters appraises the reasoning used by sociologists to classify the statements made in the autobiographies of Nazis. Another chapter critiques sociologists’ attempts to classify book reviews as positive or negative.
“I can see why people feel uncomfortable, because I’m critiquing methods that are so widely used,” he said. “But I’m not exempt. I’m critiquing my own use of these methods as well, because I have used them myself. I think social scientists treat each other with kid gloves, because we’re so unsure of what we’re doing.”
Biernacki said that a written order from the administration was the wrong avenue to use in handling his case.
“If someone had a complaint about my critique, it’s the academic senate they should have gone through,” he said. “We have a faculty-run legal court on campus. We don’t need the administration to get involved.”
Diane Hamann, Director of the UCSD Academic Senate, could not be reached as of press time. Social Sciences Dean Jeff Elman is on sabbatical and could not be reached.
This story is an updated version that had been adjusted to address corrections.