Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Monday, September 9, 2013

Plagiarism, Paul Johnson, and The American Fisheries Society

Editor's Notes.  About halfway through this essay I am going to assume that you have previously read last month’s post, regarding Delaware and the nonprofit organization NatureServe.  If you have not already done so, please take a minute to back up to [19Aug13], and then read forward.

This essay was subsequently published as: Dillon, R.T., Jr. (2019d) Plagiarism, Paul Johnson, and The American Fisheries Society.  Pp 243 - 249 in The Freshwater Gastropods of North America Volume 4, Essays on Ecology and Biogeography.  FWGNA Press, Charleston.

My first impression of Dr. Paul D. Johnson was that of a “hard-charger.”  It was November of 1998, and I had been invited to Chattanooga to join a committee primarily composed of natural resource managers, fresh from organizing two successful meetings on unionid mussel conservation in the Midwest, interested in expanding their portfolio to include freshwater gastropods and going national.  That weekend we drafted a constitution for The Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society and made plans for a first general meeting, to be hosted by Dr. Johnson in Chattanooga four months later.  I was pleased to accept the chairmanship of the FMCS Gastropod Committee that Saturday afternoon in November.  And I was honored to nominate Dr. Johnson to the office of President-elect of the entire society in March, from which he ascended to the presidency in 2000.

Even as early as 1998, Dr. Johnson was advocating a “national strategy” for the conservation of freshwater gastropods, to be modeled after a mussel strategy then nearing completion by the group.  This project would involve the development of a list of North American freshwater gastropods prioritized for conservation purposes.  And of course, Dr. Johnson envisioned that such a list would arise from a collaborative effort, presumably coordinated by the FMCS Gastropod Committee. 

Although I was not opposed to the idea (15 years ago), it was my strong opinion that our committee’s first order of business ought to be a comprehensive survey of the continental freshwater gastropod fauna, only after which conservation priorities might be assigned.  I have also developed moral scruples regarding the admixture of science, politics, and public policy, which have deepened in recent years, but no point in going down that road here [1].

In any case, I declined to become involved with Dr. Johnson’s “national strategy,” passing the chairmanship of the FMCS Gastropod Committee to him in 2002.   The effort seems to have subsequently shifted home, from the FMCS to the American Fisheries Society Endangered Species Committee, which has in recent years become a center for such work on the aquatic biota in general.  I have remained on the sidelines, hoping for the best while fearing the worst.  And in June, alas, my worst fears were realized.

In June Dr. Johnson and 13 of our friends and colleagues published a feature article in Fisheries, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Fisheries Society.  It is entitled, “Conservation status of freshwater gastropods of Canada and the United States” [2].

Although the paper extends to 36 journal pages, details regarding the development of the data upon which the Johnson/AFS recommendations of “conservation status” were based are extremely vague.  Here is the single relevant sentence from the methods section, quoted in its entirety:  “Species occurrences within provincial and state boundaries were generated using primary literature, including provincial and state checklists where available, as well as personal communications with professional who are knowledgeable about certain groups or regions.”

Now I have some very, very bad news to report.  If you open a new window in your browser today (9Sept13), go to the USGS website hosting the Johnson/AFS database, and execute a map query for Delaware, you will find almost exactly the same list of 8 species you received from your identical query of the NatureServe Explorer database last month.

This is a peculiar list.  Missing from it are the four most common gastropod species actually inhabiting the freshwaters of Delaware: Physa acuta (aka P. heterostropha), Menetus dilatatus, Ferrissia fragilis, and Lymnaea (Pseudosuccinea) columella.  All four of these species are very nearly cosmopolitan in their distribution throughout eastern North America, and simple reference to the collections of either the DMNH or the ANSP would have returned numerous Delaware records for most of them.

The Johnson/AFS report also includes one species that our extensive field surveys of Delaware and attendant reviews of systematic collections have failed to uncover, Physa gyrina.  Populations of Physa gyrina do inhabit Ridley Creek in Delaware County, southeastern Pennsylvania, so on first reading it certainly seems possible that the Johnson/AFS record might be bona fide.  Or might this record represent a misidentification of Physa acuta?  The DMNH collection does hold a single undated lot of P. acuta (locality just “Wilmington”) misidentified as P. gyrina.

On 3Aug13 I sent an email inquiry to Dr. Johnson, asking if he could provide a reference to the primary literature or any other source available to him supporting his report of P. gyrina in Delaware, with 12 of his coauthors on the CC line.  Dr. Johnson has not favored me with the courtesy of a reply [3].

The match between the Johnson/AFS database and the NatureServe database is simply too close to be coincidental.  But at no point in his paper does Dr. Johnson acknowledge NatureServe as the origin of his primary data – not in methods, results, or acknowledgments.  The NatureServe organization is mentioned only on pages 250, 252 and 263 with regard to its system of conservation ranking, and cited only with respect to conservation ranking in the reference section.  The Johnson paper does not include a citation to the NatureServe Explorer as explicitly required by NatureServe for the fair use of its data.

The match is not perfect.  The exotic Bellamya (“Cipangopaludina”) chinensis was deleted from the Johnson/AFS Delaware list, and Helisoma (Planorbella) trivolvis added, indeed #11 on the confirmed list soon to appear on the FWGNA website.  The generic nomina of Physa gyrina and Fossaria obrussa have been emended to Physella and Galba.

But the evidence of plagiarism is pervasive.  My thirty years of experience grading the genetics lab reports of lazy college sophomores have (alas!) given me way too much practice identifying the phenomenon [4].  I have footnoted analyses of the situations in West Virginia [5] and New Jersey [6] below.  If these examples do not constitute sufficient evidence to convince my readership that the extensive data table reproduced in the appendix of the paper by Johnson and his colleagues did not originate from the NatureServe Explorer, tell me how many more such examples are necessary, and I will supply them.

Dr. Paul D. Johnson and his 13 colleagues stole a crappy, spurious dataset off the internet, tweaked it to the point they thought nobody would catch them, put their names on it, and transferred it into the peer-reviewed literature without attribution.  Shame on everybody involved: Arthur E. Bogan, Kenneth M. Brown, Noel M. Burkhead, James R. Cordeiro, Jeffrey T. Garner, Paul D. Hartfield, Dwayne A. W. Lepitzki, Gerry L. Mackie, Eva Pip, Thomas A. Tarpley, Jeremy S. Tiemann, Nathan V. Whelan and Ellen E. Strong.  Your mothers taught you all better.

And both the American Fisheries Society and the USGS Southeast Ecological Science Center are now accessories to egregious plagiarism.  The Johnson paper must be retracted, with apologies to NatureServe and to the scientific community at large.

Because the damage extends beyond that done to the professional reputations of Paul Johnson and his 13 collaborators.  The greatest damage is that done to science.  For what was merely the conventional ignorance of the worldwide web has now been transformed, by its publication in what appears to be a reputable journal, into ignorance of a high and aggravated nature, disgorged by 14 professionals whose credentials would lead one to expect some minimum level of scientific rigor, wrongly.  And perhaps a bit of integrity, for a change.

Postscript – On the date this essay was posted I mailed a formal letter to Dr. John Boreman, the President of the AFS, accusing Dr. Johnson and his 13 coauthors of plagiarism.  Dr. Boreman then tasked Mr. Jeff Schaeffer, the chief science editor of Fisheries, to conduct an individual review.  And 11 days later, I received a letter from Mr. Schaeffer finding that my “letter of complaint and supporting information from the blog do not meet” the standard of plagiarism.  I do not know what testimony the 14 authors of the Johnson paper might have offered on their own behalf.  I myself was not interviewed.


[1]  The language, culture, and values of science are not incompatible with those of law, politics and public policy, but they are not compatible either.  And over the years it has become clearer to me that much damage is done by workers with either worldview when we try to force a fit with the other, directly analogous to the damage done when a false compatibility is forced between public policy and religion, or science and religion, for that matter.  See any of my essays labeled “Worldview Collision” at right for more.

[2] Johnson, P. D., A. E. Bogan, K. M. Brown, N. M. Burkhead, J. R. Cordeiro, J. T. Garner, P. D. Hartfield, D. A. W. Lepitzki, G. L. Mackie, E. Pip, T. A. Tarpley, J. S. Tiemann, N. V. Whelan & E. E. Strong (2013)  Conservation status of freshwater gastropods of Canada and the United States.  Fisheries 38: 247 – 282.

[3] The complete correspondence record is as follows.  On 2July13 I sent an email to Dr. Johnson inquiring if he might be willing to share his database of occurrences with me, and asking for additional detail on the method by which these data were converted to conservation status recommendations.  Twelve (of his 13) coauthors were on the CC line.  (I have been unable to find an email address for Tarpley.)  I received no reply from any of the 13 recipients.  On 3Aug13 I sent a second email to Dr. Johnson, again with 12 coauthors on the CC line, simply requesting information regarding the occurrence of Physa gyrina in Delaware.  I received one fragmentary reply from Mr. Jay Cordeiro, who abruptly broke off our correspondence when I asked for clarification.  And I have heard nothing since.

[4] The sad science of plagiarism detection focuses on the “shared bonehead error,” or SBE.  If student #2 copies the errorless lab report of student #1, he will not be caught.  If student #2 copies a lab report, finds errors and fixes them, he will not be caught.  In fact, if student #2 copies a lab report containing reasonable errors, for example “three squared equals six,” he will not be caught.  The key to detecting plagiarism is the situation where student #2 copies a bonehead error, for example “three squared equals seven.”  Such “shared bonehead errors” are like fingerprints.

[5] NatureServe’s West Virginia list includes 28 species.  To this list Johnson/AFS added nine nomina – five valid species and four junior synonyms.  But there are two SBE omissions on both lists: Lyogyrus granum and Physa (“Physella”) gyrina.  This despite the fact that reference to the ANSP collection online would return 1 West Virginia lot of the former and 6 lots of the latter.

[6] NatureServe’s New Jersey list includes 22 species, three of which are exotic or introduced, reducing the list to just 19.  To these 19 Johnson/AFS added ten nomina – nine of which are specifically valid.  But again there is one SBE omission [7] on both lists: Helisoma (Planorbella) campanulatum, of which the ANSP collection online holds 15 New Jersey lots.

[7] There is also at least one glaring “shared reasonable error” on the two New Jersey lists.  Neither includes Ferrissia fragilis, which is #8 most common of the 30 species (no not 22, no not 28) soon to be documented on our Freshwater Gastropods of the Mid-Atlantic website.  This omission does not qualify as a “shared bonehead error,” however, because no national collection (to my knowledge) actually holds a single New Jersey record of F. fragilis.  The ANSP does hold 8 lots of F. fragilis from New Jersey, but five are curated as “Ferrissia sp.” in their online database, and three are misidentified as Ferrissia rivularis.  Thus the absence of F. fragilis from the New Jersey tabulation of Johnson/AFS does not constitute evidence of plagiarism.  It is a glaring example of that simple, conventional ignorance which we all ought to be working to fix, together.


  1. Wow. I am amazed by this. There may be more to the story, I do not know, but this just seems to fit into the legacy of poor scholarship that seems to pervade much of the recent North American gastropod literature.

  2. Bravo Rob. Things won't get better on the conservation front or on the science-policy front until more of us stand up and point to the bad science.

  3. I think you might consider oversight here. The authors assumed knowledge not present in the paper by their error, not plagiarism. The authors used the Natureserve database as a starting point with full knowledge of those at Natureserve. Jay Cordiero an author on the paper was the mollusc coordinator at the time at Natureserve. Natureserve has been involved in this effort from the beginning. I agree it should have been cited, that methods sentence is clearly lacking, but it was not plagiarism, Natureserve was a partner in the work from the start.

  4. Plagiarize is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the following: "to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source".

    I have frequently worked with individuals from NatureServe and frequently use their website to find information regarding some species. What I know for certain is that NatureServe has not spent 1 day sampling in the state in which I work and thus the data that they use and post on their website is not collected by them. In fact, most NatureServe employees are largely data managers and clueless regarding the biology and distributions of the species in which they are dealing. Therefore, this data must be collected by someone else . Since there are so few researchers working with freshwater gastropods in North America, I suspect that much of the data provided to NatureServe for use one their website very well may have been provided by the author's themselves in the form of unpublished reports. This could occur through the state permitting processes in which species are reported to a state and then entered into a State's Heritage Database which is linked to NatureServe's website database. This leads to the question: Is it plagiarism if one uses one's own data to write a publication if the individual has shared this data? Another question is who made the first mistake in the data, the individual providing the data or NatureServe?

    Mr. Dillion is making serious accusations that he must substantiate with evidence rather than his experiences as a teacher. Has he verified all records in the NatureServe database? Has he contacted all of the sources of these records? Until these questions are answered, these accusations must be taken with much salt.

  5. The above screed cannot go unanswered. You are besmirching and defaming colleagues and friends of mine and doing so without any credible evidence whatsoever. I helped Jeremy Tiemann work on part of this project so I know something about what went into the process. You summarized your involvement with the FMCS Gastropod committee and your reasons for opting out of the process. It would appear that it was a mutual decision that you stay on the sidelines and “hope for the best” as you put it. You stated that “it was my strong opinion that our committee’s first order of business ought to be a comprehensive survey of the continental freshwater gastropod fauna, only after which conservation priorities might be assigned” It’s certainly your right to voice your opinion, but your are extremely naive to think that such an undertaking could be funded and completed in timely fashion and not delay a first pass attempt at educating our fellow aquatic scientists and policy makers as to the plight of the fauna. And that is what this is – a first pass. You obviously have never collaborated on and listing process at either the state or federal level or you would know that it’s an iterative process.

    You also pontificate about your “moral scruples regarding the admixture of science, politics, and public policy” and you are certainly free to voice such antiquated views. However, given your admitted disregard for laws governing the collection and movement of species across international borders in direct violation of Federal Law (your blog of 22 April 2011) it is fortunate that those of us working with policy folks to conserve the fauna, stay as far away as possible from people like you. With your track record your participation would certainly damage our credibility.

    Now to the meat of your screed. Your claim of plagiarism is a serious one and cannot stand without comment. You begin by criticizing the methods by which species were assessed and point to a single sentence that summarized their approach. I will concede that the methods section could have been expanded to make clear to novices how the data were collected. You harp on Natureserve but fail to mention the lack of museums that were also utilized in data gathering. It’s always nice to have a shout out or acknowledgment of your museum to use in preparing proposals and justifying budgets etc., but this is a review paper. I’ll say it again – this is a review paper. To include a detailed list of all data sources is unnecessary. You obviously have it in for Natureserve, but are you so blinded that you can’t even read that one of the authors of the paper is affiliated with Natureserve? How can you plagiarize your OWN data? For you to claim plagiarism would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

    You also go on about how this or that COMMON species of snail has been negligently overlooked in the list for Delaware or New Jersey. Planorbella campanulata, Physella gyrina, P. acuta, P. heterostropha – who gives a SHIT. It’s fucking Delaware and New Jersey and it’s not the FOCUS OF THE PAPER – which if you need reminding is about conservation of rare species. In that section of your rant you go on about how the authors didn’t go on-line and check the ANSP for records that were plainly there. Are you so naïve to suggest that we take on-line museum records without verification and include them as publishable data? Seriously?

    You also complain that your emails weren’t returned. Well all I can say is that I don’t answer those that I receive from Nigerian Princes either. It’s usually a waste of time and I can only suppose the authors thought similarly about yours. As a colleague said to me yesterday, this blog has jumped the shark. And it ain’t pretty.

    1. Finally, some intellectual conversation on this blog. This would be serious if the accuser did half the work as those who stand accused.

    2. On the commenter’s observation of 'intellectual conversation' followed by a personal attack....I'd laugh out loud if this whole dialogue wasn't so serious.
      Back to Kevin's writings, starting with 'antiquated views'...if basing your writings on verifiable data, then label me a dinosaur. The farther you move away from the firm foundation of fact the more likely you are to get mired in a political agenda, personal aspiration, or at best … just plain error. First the ends justify the means, then you find out the ends are not justifiable. This is the inherent problem with long distance policy making. One only has to look at Atlantic Sturgeon in the Southeast, where a proposal to list was made on little to non-existent data and once the process gained momentum, new contradictory information was ignored and defunding of the (offending) project gave the appearance of an effort to suppress pertinent information that didn’t support the end goal. Then comes the face saving two step.
      As to a review paper, it should include every possible reference that pertains to the subject reviewed. Never heard of or can I conceive of a review paper with an incomplete bibliography. I particularly find fault with Kevin’s lack of ability to express oneself in a civil manner, which tends to undermines any credible point he might have made.
      Thanks to Rob for exposing himself to ridicule posted here in order to point out that the King has no cloths or at least pointing out that we need to closely examine how sound the limb on which we crawl out on, truly is.

    3. Thanks for the pearls of wisdom Mr. Chickenshit, sorry Mr. Anonymous. My reference to antiquated views was that in todays world one cannot separate science, politics and public policy when dealing with conservation issues. As for your finding "fault" with my lack of civility, when someone engages in personal attacks the besmirch ones reputation and career they should expect the same in return. You can hit and run away or you can hit back. I suggest you crawl out on a limb and jump off.

  6. Two questions I had watching this unfold...

    1. If you feel this strongly regarding the Johnson et al. publication, why not address your concerns to the editor of the journal instead of an online slanderfest?

    2. The focus of your ire confuses me. You are very concerned about the exclusion of common fauna in a review paper on rare species, yet appear content that the authors maintained Elimia as a separate and valid genus in lieu of following your synonymy of it into Pleurocera. I'd be far more upset about the latter.

    1. Regarding your question (1) - I addressed an open letter to the President of the AFS Monday morning outlining the charges above, as well as posting them on the blog. Science is a public process, and and it is important that this business be conducted openly, don't you agree, Mr. Anonymous?

      Regarding your question (2) - Yes, that's a good point about the taxonomy in the Johnson/AFS paper. It's terrible. But that seems like a separate issue to me. Maybe we'll take a good look at the taxonomic problems in a future post.

  7. Much of what I wanted to say about this post has already been said. My comment is partly about the previous post but is related to this post as well and it seems the conversation is here. You worried that, “Fresh young students, casting about for research ideas, will tend to assume that the freshwater gastropod fauna of North America is in some sense “known,” and divert their energies elsewhere.” I’m not concerned about the data on NatureServe turning fresh young students away from studying freshwater snails. The database was around when I began my dissertation work in 2005 but that did not stop me from including a chapter on snail survey work (for which I received two grants). I’m more concerned about those fresh young students stumbling on to this blog and seeing the vitriol and mudslinging being spouted by one of the most productive malacologists alive today. Who would want to join a community where one of the most senior researchers is likely to slander you by calling you mentally ill (e.g. March 12, 2008, D. Taylor) or a make ridiculous claims of plagiarism and post it on the web for anyone and everyone to see? The content blog is much more of a deterrent to fresh new students than NatureServe or one AFS publication ever will be.

    Also, in the previous post you stated, "And (how many times must we warn our students?) the internet is a wild and woolly marketplace of information, both the good and the bad, and the buyer must beware." This statement is particularly fitting because I give the same warning to students in my Freshwater Invertebrates and Malacology classes about the content of the FWGNA site.

  8. It is my understanding that such issues should be handled in peer reviewed journals. To post something such as thing in such a form on the Internet is nothing short of tabloid fodder and is therefore not worthy of consideration by the scientific community. If the allegations are worth pursuing they should be done in a manner worthy of academia. This particular blog serves only to demean the accuser as well as the accused. Shame on you. You are a Ph.D. You should know better and have more personal dignity than you apparently possess.

  9. I will admit that I am commenting at least seven years late on this and the other related blog entries that are critical of NatureServe's Snail lists and Conservation Status Rankings (https://fwgna.blogspot.com/2013/08/delaware-and-what-we-think-we-know-that.html, https://fwgna.blogspot.com/2012/01/toward-scientific-ranking-of.html, https://fwgna.blogspot.com/2011/12/toward-scientific-ranking-of.html, etc.).

    This seems to be a bit of a pissing match between the two parties (or three if you add in the AFS contingent) that likely should have been kept a little more civil and maybe less public.

    I can personally attest to the passion Dr. Dillon has to for expanding the knowledge of Freshwater Gastropods of NA and making the data as transparent and publically available as possible.

    And while I do not necessarily agree with Dr. Dillon's categorization of this as plagiarism, I do find it curious that when I followed his instructions to look at NatureServe's Delaware Snail species list it does not seem to have changed at all over the past 7 years.

    I have read comments in these posts suggesting that NatureServer is more than welcome to update and correct their lists with additional information. Couldn't this be addressed despite the hard feelings in the name of science?