Expression of Concern


In Museum Anthropology volume 28 number 2, Larry Nesper published an article titled, “Historical Ambivalence in a Tribal Museum” (Nesper 2005). Nesper's article examines the nature of the George Brown, Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center within its own complex social and economic contexts. On April 14, 2008, I received a letter with supporting documents from Miriam Guthrie Martin in which she raised a set of concerns related to the validity and appropriateness of Nesper's article. Martin requested that “a public response be published in Museum Anthropology and that the article be retracted immediately, to include any related online archives” (letter to the editor, April 10, 2008). Martin's letter and documents were concurrently sent to a range of parties, including Nesper and Catherine Fowler, President of the Council for Museum Anthropology—the American Anthropological Association (AAA) section that sponsors the journal. While numerous and complex, Martin's concerns broke into two broad categories. One set of issues centered on points where Martin possessed information that showed specific facts underpinning Nesper's ethnographic account, upon which his interpretive argument rested, to be in error. I will return to this factual level of the Martin complaint below. First, I touch on the broader issues that Martin raised in her request.

While grounded in her family's experience as Lac du Flambeau community members and their unhappiness with Nesper's account of people, institutions, and social dynamics characterizing this particular social world, the second set of questions raised by Martin were broader in scope and concern the general nature of scholarly publishing in the humanities and social sciences and the nature of (and ethics of) ethnographic research (methods) and representation (products). Of particular relevance here are issues related to robust peer-review and careful editing in scholarly journal publishing and, more widely, the cultivation of a sense of responsibility on the part of all involved in the pursuit of cultural description and interpretation. More specifically, Martin's complaint focuses general attention on the mechanisms available (or not available) to members of particular communities to respond to, and to potentially criticize, ethnographic accounts judged by them to be in error, and thereby a source of damaging, and potentially lasting, misrepresentations.

Unlike the factual issues, Martin's broader questions are not easily addressed, but they do have the capacity to deepen and expand conversations—and healthy arguments—that have been ongoing in anthropology and related disciplines since the early 1970s. They speak directly to the strengths and, ultimately also, the limitations of collaborative research methodologies (cf. Christen 2007; Dombrowski 2001; Lassiter 2005; McMullen 2008). As editor, my response to Martin's complaint, along with that of the Council for Museum Anthropology's officers, have been undertaken in significant awareness of the big picture issues that are at stake relative to these broad concerns on the ethics and epistemology of social and cultural research, both in general and in colonized indigenous communities in particular. It is beyond the scope of this expression of concern to address these matters, but I have hope that the two contributions that follow this one—the first by Martin, the second by Nesper—will advance a conversation that needs to continue in a more vigorous fashion. I urge readers of the journal to read these contributions closely and to give serious thought to the broader issues raised therein.

Returning to the specifics of this particular case, Nesper acknowledges that the factual evidence presented by Martin has implications for his analysis. After being made aware, by me, that such a course was a possibility, Nesper requested that I issue an expression of concern related to his article. In a letter dated September 19, 2008, he wrote:

I am requesting that you issue an expression of concern in regard to an article I wrote entitled “Historical Ambivalence in a Tribal Museum,” published in Museum Anthropology Volume 28 (2) Fall 2005 as evidence has been presented to me showing a number of factual inaccuracies that implicate my analysis. Dr. Guthrie Martin, a member of the Lac du Flambeau community and also of the Guthrie family, members of which, played roles in the development and operation of the museum, has pointed out to me that I erred in reading the genealogical data to the effect of not distinguishing several people with similar names. Specifically, I incorrectly attributed to Ben Guthrie activities that were, in fact, the actions of these other individuals. The effect of this confusion in the paper is to give greater credibility to and thereby implicitly endorse the opinions of the sector of the local society that was most critical and least supportive of the museum project than they deserve. I have also been supplied with several tribal council resolutions chartering the historical society and the museum, as well as financially supporting the museum thus indicating a more complex political, social, and economic process than I was able to discern from the interviews I conducted and the documents I was given and thought to ask for at the time I wrote the article. Furthermore, these errors might have been brought to my attention had I had the foresight to circulate a draft of the article amongst my consultants before I submitted it to the journal for peer-review. I regret this lapse of judgment.

[Larry Nesper, letter to the editor, September 19, 2008]

Nesper's request converged with the recommendation of an ad hoc panel of three Council for Museum Anthropology members appointed to review Martin's request during the summer of 2008.

According to the conventions of scholarly journal publishing, a journal editor has the responsibility for attempting to resolve questions and conflicts such as the one emerging from Martin's complaint and request. In this instance, I ceded responsibility for evaluating Martin's protest to Council for Museum Anthropology President Fowler. My reasons for this step related to potential conflicts of interest deriving from my professional acquaintance of many years with Nesper and, secondarily, from complications arising from the fact that his article was published in the journal at the moment that the journal's editorship was about to be passed from the previous editor to me. President Fowler appointed a three person ad hoc panel to weigh Martin's complaint and to make recommendations to the Board and to me as editor. Appointment of this panel was preceded by extensive conversations between the President and myself and between us and the AAA's Director of Publishing. These preparatory discussions focused on reviewing and learning from current best practice ethics guidelines in scholarly publishing (see Blackwell Publishing 2008).

As noted in the ad hoc panel's report (Colwell-Chanthaphonh et al. 2008:2), the CSE's [Council of Science Editors'] White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publication“recommends three key means of correcting the literature” (CSE 2006:section 3.5.1). These are (1) errata, (2) retractions, and (3) expressions of concern. These three options are terms of art in scholarly publishing. While many active scholars may possess some sense of what errata and retraction entail, I would strongly urge all readers to acquaint themselves with the focused, technical meanings that these two terms have come to have and to learn what the, as yet, much less familiar practice of issuing formal expressions of concern involves (Noonan and Parrish 2008).

The ad hoc panel reviewing Martin's complaint found that it had merit and recommended the issuance of an expression of concern. While finding intellectual merit in the paper (as had Martin herself) and not seeing its shortcomings as rising to the level justifying retraction, the ad hoc panel described the paper as flawed for its “reliance on a handful of anonymous sources, [its] failure to engage the documentary record, and the [author's] failure to allow knowledgeable community members to comment on the paper prior to its publication” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh et al. 2008:2).

The ad hoc panel's recommendations were considered in detail by the President and I and in substantive outline by the Council's Executive Board. In addition to urging the Council's board to carefully review and assess the ongoing work of the journal over time, so as to assure that appropriate editorial quality is established and maintained, the ad hoc panel recommended that I undertake three steps. The first of these was to publish an expression of concern related to Nesper (2005). As noted above, Nesper has also made this request. This document constitutes realization of the panel's recommendation and, as importantly, Nesper's own request. The second recommendation was to provide Martin with an opportunity to address her concerns about factual and interpretive issues in the pages of the journal. Her contribution to this issue, written in collaboration with Gregg J. Guthrie, actualizes this recommendation. The third recommendation was that Nesper be given an opportunity to address these questions in a contribution to the journal. His statement is published in this issue as well. In the wake of these contributions, it is my hope that scholars and other interested parties working in museums, in academic settings and in local communities will build on these statements in furthering a richer discussion of the issues raised therein. Nesper and Martin are both encouraged to pursue further writings reflecting on the matters that they raise in their essays, as well as upon the full range of contributions that might appear going forward.

For the ad hoc panel, a key goal of these efforts was to pose for the Museum Anthropology readership some of the larger issues that Dr. Martin raised in her initial letter, such as, “How have persons been placed in the troubling position of responding to published misinformation in an instance where scholarly research has been conducted and reviewed? Are protocols, conditions of acceptable practice, or research procedures shifting within the discipline? Is there a time when flexibility in these protocols or conditions is necessary? Is there a changing perception of ethics and accountability within the discipline?” (Martin in Colwell-Chanthaphonh et al. 2008:3). Additional questions are posed by Guthrie in the conclusion to Martin's commentary. Questions of these sorts call out for both a diversity of answers and for further questions. Perhaps Museum Anthropology, as well as other appropriate venues (such as the new journal Collaborative Anthropologies and the various weblogs that have already demonstrated an interest in fostering such discussions) can play a role in extending and enriching this conversation. Of course, the discussion will also unfold in less public settings, including behind the scenes in complexly human places such as the George Brown, Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center, where this phase of the conversation began.

What does an expression of concern mean in this case? Readers are left to weigh this question for themselves, but as an editor I would observe that this publishing technique is intended to flag a published work as one about which concerns have been raised and judged to be substantive enough to warrant asking future readers of the work to weigh the facts and interpretations presented therein with extra care. Future readers of Nesper (2005) are asked to read it in connection with this document and the two essays—by Martin and by Nesper—given elsewhere in this issue of the journal.


The following comments constitute my views as editor and do not reflect the views of any other parties. This coda does not bear directly on the specifics of the expression of concern offered above except that, to the best of my knowledge, its issuance here constitutes a new development for the discipline of anthropology. This fact is a source of no small measure of regret on my part and warrants a concluding reflection in the spirit of an editorial.

In the literatures of the physical, natural, and medical sciences, expressions of concern have become common enough that the genre is becoming familiar to practitioners. Expressions of concern in these fields are typically very brief and they often have a temporary quality. They normatively warn readers, in fields such as medicine, that published research with life and death consequences is, for example, being investigated by an appropriate oversight body (often at a research hospital or university) that is charged with policing scientific research integrity. Until a formal investigation is concluded, it is the obligation of a scientific editor in a field such as pharmacology or structural engineering to make her or his readers aware of the cloud of suspicion that hangs over an article so that practitioners and other scientists can proceed with due caution while the matter remains unresolved. The findings of the relevant investigation could lead to the removal of the expression of concern (signaling that the published work has regained its initial credibility) or to the further step of formal and permanent retraction (in cases where a formal body has found wrongdoing).

In the social sciences and humanities, the expression of concern genre is almost completely unknown. In studying them as a general phenomenon, I was unable to discover a previous use of this mechanism in anthropology or in a neighboring discipline.1 Thus, while I am a strong proponent of ethical practice in my disciplines of anthropology and folkloristics and in the work of scholarly communication generally, I am troubled to find myself having a hand in potentially setting a new and revolutionary precedent for the fields of the human sciences. Does this move, which flows in part from the harmonization (in the legal sense, which I intentionally inflect with a concern with hegemony and monoculture) of the AAA publications program vis-à-vis an international (but Western dominated) and corporation-centered publications (and scholarly communications) system, in which the default settings derive from the biomedical sciences, make sense to anthropologists? Does it make sense to concerned parties with whom we interact and collaborate?

Museum Anthropology, as an AAA journal, is published in partnership with Wiley-Blackwell as one among a truly staggering number of scholarly journals. When the AAA publications program moved to Wiley-Blackwell, I, as an editor, received copies of two very useful and sophisticated documents, a printed paper version of Best Practice Guidelines on Publications Ethics: A Publisher's Perspective (online as Blackwell Publishing 2008) and a copy of the book Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals by Irene Hames (2007). For a still novice editor, these resources are invaluable. It is a fact that the AAA alone could not provide its editors with in-house resources equal to these works. I am very glad that I have them. What I want to flag for discussion though, is the fact that the Best Practices Guidelines originally appeared as an article in the International Journal of Clinical Practice and the author of Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals is the managing editor for The Plant Journal. The expression of concern genre derives from a world of discourse and practice rooted in the biomedical sciences and, without opening up venerable questions on the nature of scientific anthropology, I would observe that there has not yet been a discussion within our field about the broader biomedicalization of scholarly publishing comparable to the healthy (but largely ex post facto) conversations that have followed in the wake of the imposition of biomedical models of informed consent and human subjects research policy in social and ethnographic research. Such developments happen organically in real time. AAA editors have access to robust policy guidelines that can help them do a better job, but these guidelines originate in very different social settings and diffuse to us along paths cut by financial and technological contingency, not reflective debate within and for anthropology. In the presence of a “rule book,” particularly one that evidences the hallmarks of rigor and global consensus, the impulse to “go by the book” rather than rely on custom or sui generis solutions to novel local problems becomes powerful. Before such a process completely engulfs anthropology publishing, I hope that interested parties, including the AAA's Committee on Scientific Communication, will weigh and debate, outside the context of particular instances such as this one, the use of the “three key means of correcting the literature” formalized in documents like the CSE's White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publication (Blackwell Publishing 2008; CSE 2006; Hames 2007). This is a narrow framing of the matter. More broadly, it entails asking what effects the changing norms and forms of scholarly communications are having, and will have, on the practice of anthropological, particularly ethnographic, research in an era in which biomedical science has a powerful conditioning effect on all scholarly activity. Such questions matter not only for full-time scholars, but also for the great diversity of communities with which anthropologists engage. If the expression of concern genre becomes normal in anthropology, what kinds of effects—positive, negative, anticipated, unanticipated, therapeutic, chilling—could it bring in tow?2

As an ethnographer, I am particularly concerned with the role that happenstance plays in human affairs, including in scholarly pursuits. While poor judgment on the part of many different parties, to say nothing of real-world social complexities and honest differences of opinion, can be seen as a source of some of the problems arising in the Nesper/Martin case, there were also many factors beyond any individual's control that played a role. The wrenching structural challenges that Museum Anthropology faced as a publishing enterprise during the time of Christina Kreps' editorship, and in much of my own term, looms silently over the episode. For me, there is little doubt that the journal's predicaments in the moment in which Nesper submitted his article, and in which it was accepted and published, provided an environment that did not strengthen the paper in the ways that we expect as a community of scholars. The dilemmas of structure and agency and of history, as well as of social networks and of what some might call good and bad luck are all evoked in this instance. An author, just like a fieldworker, cannot account for all that is going on in the key moments shaping their work. In such an environment, my response is to try to combine a stance of charity toward all involved with the desire for hardheaded analysis aimed at building better, more responsible, forms of scholarly practice.

I wish that Nesper's research had been such that the factual errors in his paper could have been avoided. I wish that greater care had gone into peer-reviewing Nesper's article and that, if it were to have gone on to see publication, it would have been conveyed in the pages of the journal in a more carefully produced form. I wish that Martin had offered her critique directly to the journal as a scholarly contribution, in the form of an article, a commentary, or a letter to the editor, rather than as a formal request for retraction, as this necessitated a formal process of inquiry that has resulted in an irrevocable transformation in the work of social science publishing with potential negative as well as therapeutic consequences. Retrospective wishes proliferate and remind us how precarious our work, and the social worlds that we study, can seem.

None of my wider doubts about the implications of this process diminishes my appreciation for the care and goodwill that a large number of individuals—Nesper and Martin included—have brought to working through this episode. May good come from our efforts together, even in disagreement.


  1. 1. During August 2008 I sought to locate as large a sample of Expressions of Concern as I could identify. I closely studied 15 examples as well as several instances of related genres such as retractions and an instance of an “Expression of Concern Reaffirmed.” No social science or humanities instances were discovered. As an independent check, I asked Council for Museum Anthropology board member Kimberly Christen to undertake a search for social science or humanities examples. She also did not discover any (personal communication, August 14, 2008). After completing this effort, AAA Director of Publishing Oona Schmid called to my attention a paper by Noonan and Parrish (2008) that examined the genre on the basis of an analysis of 16 published examples.

  2. 2. Central to such conversations will need to be the concept of risk. Both human subjects regulation and the expression of concern genre arise from an institutionalized social desire to safeguard human health and well-being via a process that weighs relative benefits and risks to humanity, to specific populations and to individuals posed by human subjects research (on the one hand) and publication (on the other). As has been illustrated in discussions of human subjects regulation vis-à-vis ethnography, such matters, especially notions of risk, become ever more difficult to operationalize as one moves along a continuum from biomedical investigation toward interpretive and humanistic social inquiry.

Jason Baird Jackson is the editor of Museum Anthropology and an Associate Professor of Folklore at Indiana University, where he also serves as Director of the Folklore Institute.