bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

On the Receptio-Rossi Affair: a preface to some reflections

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 23 January, 2023

After the jollities, the hangover. Over the festive break, a corner of social media was abuzz with a tale of plagiarism, questionable business ethics and sloppy scholarly practices. It was played out in rapid instalments, on Twitter, Mastodon and I refer, of course, to the concerns first raised by Dr Peter Kidd, beginning on 24th December 2022, concerning the Research Centre for European Philological Tradition (which takes Receptio as an acronym for its full title) and the recent work of its Director, Prof. Carla Rossi. The affair has been dubbed, in depressingly unoriginal fashion, #Receptiogate — when will we stop naming everything with a whiff of malpractice after a 1970s American political scandal? That said, perhaps the cliché in the name is to the point, given as what, in part, is at stake is unoriginality. The existence of that hashtag is evidence of how the first revelations about possible unacknowledged copying precipitated quite a Twittersquall, in which further allegations were levelled at Receptio. They must have made it a very un-merry Christmas in the Rossi household. To judge from Twitter, many would consider that fair comeuppance.

The affair is not over yet; at present, there is a counter-attack by Prof. Rossi, claiming she is the victim of hate campaign and hinting at dark forces at work. Meanwhile, Peter Kidd reported on 5th January that one of his blog-posts has been removed without his agreement. There is something unedifying about what is happening now but so there was also in the glee with which Twitter assumed there was a moral certainty of Good and Evil in a manner which exists only in second-rate Hollywood films. Like remembering the unwise actions of the night before, we might prefer to forget and move on from them. There is, though, a use to taking some time to reflect because it seems to me that it teaches us some uncomfortable truths about the state of the republic of letters now.

I should preface my comments with a statement of full disclosure. Of the two main participants, I have known one for over twenty years but not met the other once. I have read some of Peter Kidd’s work closely, having been the series editor for his catalogue of manuscripts of The Queen’s College, Oxford. We may have had our minor disagreements, which we have probably both now forgotten and they certainly have not dimmed my respect for his scholarly acumen. As to Carla Rossi, I am not aware of having come across her name before this dispute, though I have now heard positive report of her. It is my impression that some have, from the revelations of the past few weeks, drawn the conclusion that there has been a campaign to deceive of which the Receptio affair is only the latest instalment. I do not intend to attempt to assess the veracity of that assumption. On the contrary, I aim consciously to avoid taking that position, for two reasons.

The first is the basic emotional one is that I do not want something so depressing to be true. Watching the fracas progress, I found myself feeling a smidgeon of sympathy for a fellow human being and her family. Few find it pleasant to be under harsh scrutiny, particularly at a time which most take for recuperation. A desire to counter-attack and to deny any fallibility makes psychological sense but she should have been better advised. It must to be said that Prof. Rossi has done herself no favours. Her early reaction was to act with unbecoming hauteur about social media, belittling Peter Kidd as ‘un blogger’ (I will return to this in a later post), but saw no irony in posting that statement on her page. Her more recent pronouncements have rarely helped her cause. If this is the villain, they are not very good at that role; she has become too easy a target for it be useful to pile more pressure on her.

There is, though, a more important reason for my reticence. My concern is that pretending to moral certainty and identifying a villain is at best a distraction, at worst a serious misdirection. We might think that by isolating the one individual considered responsible for malpractice and shame them into ostracization, then we have done a good deed to save our system. But what is that system? That is the question which interests me more than the rights and wrongs of the actions of a specific individual.

I sense that a desire to consider the wider implications is already developing: witness Charlotte Gauthier’s useful post on the affair, the positive response that it has received. My intention is to expand on her thoughts and to consider three aspects of what is happening. The first will be what it tells us about the nature of the scholarly community or what we might call (reviving a noble Renaissance phrase) the republic of letters. That then leads us into the issues of how this republic communicates in this digital age. Finally, I want to reflect on the central issue at stake in this debacle: the nature of plagiarism.

What I will not be doing is providing a narrative of what has happened. That can be followed not just by reading the various blog-posts and social media feeds. Particularly detailed are Peter Burger’s Dutch language interventions (you can navigate to them from here). It will also be apparent that I am not intending to touch on the element which relates most directly to my own research, that is the opportunity the affair give us to reflect on the nature of fragment studies as it stands at present. This is a matter to which I want to return but, for now, I will confine myself to stating that I support what Lisa Fagin Davis has said about the deficiencies in what Receptio has produced.

A final warning: the posts that follow are merely first attempts to step back and reflect on what has been going on in this affair. There may not yet be the distance to do that with perspective, and the issues may need a fuller analysis than I can provide here. In an attempt to gain some space to reflect, I will not be posting them in quick succession but over a set of weeks. It is time, though, to provide the first instalment.


One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] I said in my previous post, the first topic I want to consider in reflecting on the so-called Receptio affair is what it tells […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: