By Peter Sullivan & Hayes Gardner, sullivan3@grinnell.edu & gardnerh@grinnell.edu

When Brian Swart, Economics, abruptly resigned in the middle of last semester, the College declined to disclose why, citing his privacy.

Interviews with professors from other institutions involved in the situation and documentation they provided show that Swart resigned after it was discovered he had plagiarized massive amounts of his work.

He plagiarized a total of four articles, including his entire dissertation. Indiana University, where he received his Ph.D. in 2011, has now rescinded the degree. Swart was finally caught in September after he submitted a plagiarized paper to the journal Theoretical Economics and a referee noticed similarities to another paper.

“It’s astounding,” said Martin Osborne, Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto and Editor of Theoretical Economics. “It’s paragraph after paragraph. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything close to it.”

Evidence of Plagiarism
Gilles Serra, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Center for Economics Research and Teaching in Mexico City and one of the professors whose work Swart copied, laid out the evidence in a letter to Grinnell in September. The first documented instance of Swart’s plagiarism came in his 2007 qualifying paper, which copied from a paper by Micael Castanheira, Benoit Crutzen and Nicolas Sahuguet called “Party Governance and Political Competition,” which had been posted on several academic websites in 2005. The plagiarism continued through Swart’s 2008 dissertation proposal, 2010 working paper, 2011 dissertation and 2012 submission to Theoretical Economics. Some of these instances were revisions of the same paper. In addition to the Castanheira, Crutzen and Sahuguet paper, Swart also copied from three papers by Serra.

The similarities between Swart’s work and earlier papers by others are striking in the wording and the game theory proofs themselves. Osborne pointed out particular examples in a letter to Grinnell and information provided to the S&B. For example, Swart wrote in a 2011 paper, “With probability p, the voters observe quality and the swing voters will vote for the candidate who is the highest quality … With probability 1-p, voters are uninformed about quality so they will have to form beliefs.”

Comparison of Serra (2010) and Swart (2012) graphs. Source: Gilles Serra’s Letter to Grinnell.

Yet Castanheira, Crutzen and Sahuguet wrote almost the exact same thing six years earlier, in 2005: “With probability p, voters know exactly the quality of each platform. In that case, swing voters elect the politician with the highest quality platform … When left uninformed about platforms qualities (this happens with probability 1-p), voters have to form beliefs about the qualities they can expect from each politician.”

As Serra details in his letter to Grinnell, it even appears that Swart followed the changes Serra made to a paper over time and mimicked them. A 2008 paper by Swart plagiarized a 2007 paper by Serra. Serra made changes to his 2007 work in a paper he wrote that was published in 2010. A 2012 paper by Swart then plagiarized Serra’s 2010 paper and reflected the changes. Swart mimicked changes down to word choice. Serra replaced the words “candidate selection method” with the word “effort,” which Swart also did. Serra deleted his welfare analysis. So did Swart. Serra added references to two more papers. Swart added references to the same ones.

Swart did not respond to several calls and voicemails to his cell phone nor email and Facebook messages.

“I am bewildered that someone in academia could behave in such a way,” Serra wrote in his letter to Grinnell. “This incident has also triggered a feeling of vulnerability about my work knowing that Professor Swart is targeting me, having plagiarized several of the papers that I have posted online. But mostly, I am concerned about the integrity of my research now that I know our colleague is trying to republish it in different journals. I worry that it can hurt my tenure process and my further development as credit for my research might be claimed by someone else.”
Castanheira had similar feelings upon discovering his work had been stolen.

“To be frank, my first reaction was one of amusement,” Castanheira wrote in an email. “Then, I actually started reading Brian Swart’s article, and I felt as if I had been burglarized. As if someone had gone through my privacy, and stolen important and intimate belongings. This was distressing: I had nightmares for several nights. I felt a deep anger for a long time.”

Timeline of Events
Events were set in motion when Swart sent a paper to Osborne’s journal, Theoretical Economics. Swart’s paper was peer-reviewed by three anonymous referees in September 2012, one of whom recognized that Swart’s work closely mirrored one of Serra’s previous papers, entitled “Polarization of What: A Model of Elections with Endogenous Valence,” published in the Journal of Politics.

“One of them replied very fast and said it was very similar to another article he had read that was published,” Osborne said.

“Because I am a political scientist, he thought he could send my paper to an economics journal and no one would find out,” Serra said in a Skype interview.

Osborne contacted Serra, who opened the paper and was surprised at what he saw.

“I open the paper and start reading it and it was a shocker,” Serra said. “Like, I can’t believe what I’m reading. There’s someone else’s name on this paper and it’s someone else’s writing and wording of things. But it’s all my ideas, just paragraph by paragraph, all my ideas, all my theorems, all the proofs of my theorems then all my graphs and conclusions.”

Serra then looked up Swart’s work on the Internet and discovered a paper with Swart’s name on it that appeared to be copied from a paper of Serra’s colleagues.

“Then I became really worried and even though I couldn’t find anything else online, I decided to look up his dissertation,” Serra said. “So I went to ProQuest, that’s a database that contains all Ph.Ds from America and Canada. So I looked on ProQuest and I found his dissertation and you can imagine I was surprised and outraged … It was all very surreal.”

After reading Swart’s dissertation, Serra found the fourth and final one of Swart’s papers that can be accused of plagiarism, which was located on Swart’s personal Indiana University webpage.

Serra then cooperated closely with Osborne on what actions to take. Osborne sent an initial letter to Indiana University and, on Sept. 21, to Grinnell, providing evidence of Swart’s plagiarism. Serra followed up with another letter to Grinnell on Sept. 25. By the end of September, Swart had resigned from his post at Grinnell, a position he had held since Fall 2010. After being notified by Osborne and Serra, Indiana University eventually rescinded his Ph.D. Professors at Indiana University involved in the situation declined to comment.

Grinnell’s Response
Some of the professors took issue with what they described as Grinnell’s lack of responsiveness to their letters. In fact, they did not learn of Swart’s resignation until reading about it online in an S&B article from Oct. 12.

“Grinnell remained too silent in my view,” Castanheira wrote in his email to the S&B. “It was hard to understand what was actually happening on their side. Eventually, I learned about Brian Swart’s resignation from Scarlet and Black, not from Grinnell’s authorities. I thought, ‘they are victims just like us, why do they behave as if they had something to hide?’ I still do not have the answer.”

“Grinnell was not very responsive actually,” Osborne said.

He corresponded by email with Dean of the College Paula Smith, who eventually notified him of Swart’s resignation.

“She did inform us that he had resigned, but she didn’t say anything more,” Osborne later added.

Smith and President Raynard Kington did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite the relative silence, Serra was impressed with Grinnell’s prompt actions.

“I was very impressed that they acted so quickly,” Serra said. “I was impressed, but not surprised, because I expected that of an institution such as Grinnell.”

Keith Brouhle ’96, Chair of the Economics Department, did not acknowledge Swart had plagiarized, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. He did point out that the College’s hiring process, which did not catch Swart’s plagiarism, is built on trust. He said job candidates meet with the department, the Student Educational Policy Committee, members of Executive Council and others, but that those outside the College also play a role, particularly in providing recommendations for the candidates that the College trusts.

“We do a lot of things ourselves and we rely on others as well,” he said.

He added that trust is a part of many job applications.

“When you go to apply for a job, they’re going to rely upon the trust embedded in those recommendations,” he said.

Osborne said he thought that Swart’s hiring “doesn’t reflect any significant negligence on the part of Grinnell.”

“We rely on what people say,” he said.

He expressed more concern that Indiana University had not caught Swart in the course of his Ph.D. program, wondering how Swart got through meetings with his advisor.

“Either he suddenly fed them a finished paper or he was clever and fed them bits and pieces,” Osborne said.

“I just hope he learned a lesson”
Serra could take legal action against Swart, but says he will not at this time.

“Taking legal action was always a serious consideration,” he said. “Several people recommended it to us and our institutions offered legal support. But we all decided not to go down that path for now, as we did not believe it to be necessary.”

Though they do not plan on taking legal action at this time, Serra and Castanheira still believe plagiarism should be taken seriously.

“I don’t feel any personal animosity toward Brian Swart,” Serra said. “I don’t think this is personal. He did hurt me professionally, but this is fairly fixed now. So, I wish him well, I just hope he learned a lesson and will be on a better path to doing something else. Stealing ideas from others is not only illegal and immoral, but also does not pay off. Other than that, I wish him well.”

“If I can give a recommendation to those who read you: don’t plagiarize,” Castanheira wrote in his email to the S&B. “You are not only deceiving the people around you. You are deceiving yourself. And in this case reality bites extremely hard when it resurfaces.”