Jenny Bulstrode, Malpractise, and Academic Freedom

Dr Jenny Bulstrode, an academic at University College London (UCL) and previously Junior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, is being investigated for academic malpractice.   

Dr Bulstrode published an article in the journal History and Technology. In it, she argues that Henry Colt, one of the most important figures of the industrial revolution, who is credited with the invention of a means of turning scrap metal into pig-iron, stole the idea from enslaved black metal workers in Jamaica.   

Dr Bulstrode’s paper has been vigorously attacked by a number of eminent historians. Dr Anton Howes, an expert in innovation and the English Industrial Revolution, has stated that “Bulstrode’s narrative requires multiple smoking guns to work, none of which are in the evidence she presents”. Professor Lawrence Goldman of the University of Oxford adds that her article is evidence that “reason and facts are being suspended in the search for ever more ways to undermine the history of Britain and its empire”. Finally, a paper written under the pseudonym “Oliver Jelf” quotes what it argues are damning refutations of Bulstrode’s ideas from Bulstrode’s own sources.   

These academics add the charge that Bulstrode is “ideologising history”, and Goldman has called on UCL to investigate Dr Bulstrode for academic malpractice. History and Technology, together with the Taylor & Francis Publication Ethics and Integrity Team, have launched an investigation. UCL has given credence to the view that Bulstrode’s article merits investigation, stating that they take “allegations of research impropriety very seriously” and that they “await the outcome” of the journal’s review process. There are, in summary, three charges against Dr Bulstrode:  

  1. That her theory goes far beyond the evidence provided by her sources. 
  1. That passages of her sources contradict her theory. 
  1. That she was motivated by an ideological desire to attack the British Empire.  

None of these charges, if true, supports an accusation of academic malpractice. (2) raises the possibility that Bulstrode may have deliberately suppressed passages in her sources that contradicted her theory. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that she did this. It is perfectly possible, as Professor David Wootton, a historian at the University of York, has argued, that Bulstrode was simply careless in her reading of the sources. Carelessness in an academic is a fault, but it is not malpractice.   

Taylor and Francis have, therefore, been overeager to launch an investigation into Bulstrode, and overly willing to make concessions to those who demanded an investigation. This is worthy of attention. However, we ought also to pay attention to the way the demands for an investigation have been phrased. Claims that Bulstrode has overstepped or contradicted her sources, which might with further evidence support an accusation of academic malpractice, sit cheek by jowl with claims that Bulstrode was ideologically motivated in writing her article. These accusations of ideological motivation, e.g. that Bulstrode is “ideologising history”, could never support an accusation of academic malpractice.  

Academic freedom requires that academics must be free to pursue their research with whatever motivations they happen to possess. That academics are motivated as little as possible by ideological considerations and as much as possible by an impartial concern for the truth might be thought to be a very desirable state of affairs. We might even regard it as a “goal” to be achieved. However, we must beware the temptation to put the achievement of “social goals” before academic freedom. To do so would be to ape those who in the past have sacrificed academic freedom to other social goals, for instance, the goal of making academia “less bourgeois”. Bulstrode’s putative ideological motivations could only ever be an explanation for why she committed malpractice – if as is yet to be shown, she did commit malpractice. They could not themselves constitute a case of academic malpractice.   

The three charges levelled at Dr Bulstrode may be correct. Even if correct, they are not, as they stand, sufficient to indict her of malpractice. British universities have become alarmingly quick to turn intellectual disagreements into disciplinary matters. This envenoms debate, and stifles free enquiry.