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What the Receptio scandal teaches us about plagiarism and academia

A scandal full of twists and turns created a storm in academia over the festive break. It featured egregious plagiarism, threatening social media accounts, potential funding fraud, and fake prestige profiles. Grab your popcorn ‘cause this is quite the tale!

It all started when medieval manuscript scholar Peter Kidd made a shocking discovery. A mountain of his research was copied and pasted from his website into the pages of Dr Carla Rossi’s publications via Receptio (a Swiss publishing house claiming to be a research institute). When Kidd reached out to sort it all out, he was threatened with legal action. He was also informed that his blog content was worthless: “”I regret to inform you that blogs are not scientific texts, published by academic publishers, so their value is nil!”. This appears to be the argument sustaining Dr Rossi’s position, that she could not plagiarise because blogs don’t count… hmmm.

What’s a scholar to do? Kidd used his blog to get the word out and from there other scholars took to Twitter to share their perspectives… and some novel findings.

Scouring the pages of Receptio, a curious academic community found many suspicious elements of the website. Most of the photos of staff were photoshopped and grabbed from stock photos – no one could find evidence most of those featured existed. Likewise, the office photos were completely fake, and the London address is home to 268 other companies. The community shared their findings and responses to the multitude of deceptions, discrepancies and plagiarism. By this stage, #ReceptioGate was a mini Twitter storm and uncovered even more examples of plagiarism from other sources. As the scandal expanded, the Receptio website continued to be updated in response to individual claims. Dr Rossi also wrote a now-deleted four-page response to “Alleged Plagiarism”. Another issue emerged when established scholars discovered their names attached to the Receptio website without their consent or knowledge.

Dr Rossi’s husband was displeased with this discourse. He created an email account under the name “John Does”, rather than his own David La Monaca. The account was a bot made to spam Peter Kidd and was produced using ChatGPT. Next, he created a Twitter account “cercamon64mss” to further abuse Kidd, including homophobic slurs and threatening statements such as “you really think you’re safe?” and “coming to get you”. Dr Rossi then gave an interview claiming she had received anonymous threatening emails.

Concurrently Kidd repeatedly called for measured and cautious responses to the issue: “let’ be careful not to get into doxing or speculating too wildly. I am sure that some innocent people are caught up in this”. Dr Rossi and supporters produced follow up videos in defence of Receptio claiming “our centre is currently the victim of a barbaric smear campaign”. Later another troll Twitter account claimed that Kidd was involved in manuscript trafficking.

Aside from all of this is the suggestion that Receptio/Dr Rossi got a lot of funding for their work (c. £445,000). If that funding is based on plagiarised work that makes the scandal even worse.

So far, so frantic! Dr Paula R. Curtis has created a fantastic thread picking up all the nuance and detail for the curious. I also want to draw attention to her point of reflection, as I think it is the crux of the whole sordid mess:

This is actually a good reminder that one key issue in #Receptiogate is a total lack of regard for work by/on vulnerable academic groups. Not just independent scholars but those who engage in public-facing scholarship, & queer/intersex/genderfluid studies… It’s hard to overstate the long and recent/current troubled past in medieval studies, and this is not just a matter of potentially stealing work and defrauding academic institutions, but doing so while utterly disrespecting labor by and on already underserved communities.

Dr Curtis highlights the importance of recognising power dynamics within academia and the ease with which intellectual exploitation happens. These are the type of issues our students can learn from and grow into well rounded, academia-ready graduates. In particular, this is an issue I’ve covered in my own work: how academia demands we be public-facing, but does not necessarily prepare us for the realities of this.

Returning to the plagiarism issue, this scandal is a wonderful story to explore the value placed on different types of scholarly outputs. Any academic with sense would see Peter Kidd’s work and know that it is of excellent academic standing. Dr Rossi certainly did as she thought it good enough to copy for her texts. At the same time as stealing from Kidd, Dr Rossi also insulted the value of his public-facing works, as a weak excuse for her plagiarism. The logic does not compute here. Her and her husband’s defences against the plagiarism accusations were always going to fall flat. So, it makes (unfortunate) sense that they would stoop to threats and retaliatory accusations.

The scandal offers a new way to look at plagiarism, why citations and recognising sources are so important, and why it matters to communities of researchers. Plus, avoiding plagiarism means never flailing about the internet defending the indefensible when caught red handed!

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