The triumph of Truth, Luigi Mussini (Photo by Molteni&Motta/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

#ReceptioGate and the (absolute) state of academia

The numbers game has incentivised bad behaviour

Artillery Row

Forget the Christmas panto — the most hilariously bizarre show in town this holiday season has got to be #ReceptioGate.

Our story begins with Peter Kidd, a researcher specialising in medieval manuscripts, who found that his work had apparently been plagiarised by one Dr Carla Rossi of an obscure Swiss “research institute” called Receptio. In a recent publication, Rossi used not only written descriptions, but also images of manuscript fragments identical to materials from Kidd’s well-known website, representing them as her own work of “reconstructing” a manuscript using a proprietary scholarly method. Kidd contacted Receptio to ask for an explanation and received a diatribe from her “secretary” threatening legal action in reply. 

Why should anyone beyond a small subset of Very Online medievalists care?

Kidd documented the threatening response from Receptio, and some of the evidence for Rossi’s appropriation of his research, on his blog. This is where #ReceptioGate took off: Kidd’s Twitter followers began to notice that certain elements of Receptio’s website were suspect. For a start, many of the photos of its so-called staff and board members were stock photos that had been taken off the internet and Photoshopped onto a consistent background. No independent evidence could be found that most of them — including the “secretary” who had threatened Kidd with legal action — ever existed. Receptio’s London address was revealed to be a registered office home to 268 other companies; office photos on the institute website were likewise phoney.

In revenge, Rossi’s husband David La Monaca — one of the few staff listed on the Receptio website who actually appears to exist — set up a Twitter account and email bot to spam Kidd with angry messages under the name “John Does”. Unfortunately, IT guy La Monaca neglected to consider that the email headers showed precisely who had set up the spam bot; the reply-to email address was his own. La Monaca couldn’t even bother writing his own threatening copy: at least one email was produced using ChatGPT.

#ReceptioGate took its most bizarre turn when a correspondent posted a screenshot purporting to show that Professor Antoni Rossell, listed as a member of Receptio’s scientific advisory committee, had been dead for over a year before his joining the institute was announced. A video subsequently posted on the Receptio YouTube channel showed Professor Rossell — still very much alive — defending Rossi in a stilted performance whose resemblance to a hostage video did not go unnoticed by its bemused audience.

Meanwhile, the people behind Receptio were frantically editing the institute website and Rossi’s publications to remove or alter these damning bits of evidence. One of the colour images Rossi had used without permission was converted to black and white in an updated version of her publication; Rossi claimed that the image had been sourced from elsewhere and then “colorized” using software to produce an image identical to the original from Kidd’s blog. Evidence mounted of Rossi using the research — including verbatim passages — of various scholars in her other publications, uncredited. By trying to cover her trail and intimidate colleagues into silence with threats of legal action, Rossi triggered that least-appreciated of all internet phenomena: the Streisand effect.

Investigations by other Twitter medievalists showed that Rossi received funding of 20,000 Swiss francs (approximately £18,000) from the Swiss National Science Foundation for the work derived from Kidd’s research, and 547,145 CHF (approximately £490,000) over her academic career. Receptio also offered courses in Rossi’s supposedly innovative research methods (which appear to involve little more than using the Wayback Machine to look for manuscript images on defunct websites) to the tune of €8000 per academic year. It also provided a residential fellowship programme costing €700 per month, though it is unclear whether anyone signed up for them.

At the time of writing, Dr Rossi’s honorary professorship at the University of Zurich appears to have been withdrawn (though possibly for reasons unconnected with #ReceptioGate). A senior scholar whose name once featured on the Receptio website has taken to Mastodon to distance himself from Rossi and her spurious institute. Whether the Swiss National Science Foundation will take any action to recover its money is yet to be seen.

Why should anyone beyond a small subset of Very Online medievalists care about what seems to be a fairly cut-and-dried case of academic malpractice, even one with all of the twists and thrills of a detective novel? Because #ReceptioGate has something vital to say about the frankly insane way that historical research is funded and disseminated, both on the Continent and in the UK.

Reducing research to a numbers game incentivises gaming the numbers

Simply put, there are more qualified researchers who do useful and interesting work than there are academic jobs or grants to support that work. Those who do manage to find jobs and/or grants are generally measured on metrics such as publication rankings or the amount of grant money brought to their institution, rather than on the actual quality or importance of their research. This tyranny of quantification is compounded by government systems like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, which purports to assess the quality of research undertaken in universities, but in reality does nothing of the kind, either in science or in the humanities. Reducing research to a numbers game incentivises gaming the numbers, not scholarship.

Unsurprisingly, the all-importance of numbers on both the individual university and higher education sector level has led in some instances to academic fraud. People set up spurious “research institutes” to capture grants, and they focus their efforts on producing derivative (if not actually plagiarised) work that can be published quickly, artificially boosting their publication metrics. This appears to have been the modus operandi of the Receptio Institute. Those who are the most skilled at playing the system are often not the ones who do the best and most important research, simply because historical research and system-gaming are two difficult-to-master and usually non-overlapping skill sets. Even in the normal, non-fraudulent course of events, applying for competitive grants takes huge amounts of time and effort that could be much better spent on innovative scholarship than on form-filling.

Research on mediaeval manuscripts — with occasional exceptions such as the recent discovery of new documents showing that Geoffrey Chaucer (of Canterbury Tales fame) was not, in fact, a rapist — doesn’t tend to cut through to the mainstream. Social media and blogs like Kidd’s are one of the main ways scholars can engage the public, and many would like to do more to share their research outside the academy. However, this sort of outreach does not often count towards the numerical targets that are essential for researchers to meet in order to get or keep academic jobs. If you’ve ever wondered why academics seem mostly to talk to other academics, here’s one reason: many of us are (implicitly) penalised for spending time talking to the public, even as “public outreach” continues to be a buzzword in university management circles.

Unlike scientists, humanities scholars generally need time, rather than large amounts of money, to do their work. A sensible system of research funding that decouples funding from artificial metrics would improve the quality of research and reduce instances of fraud and waste. Proposals for such a system have abounded for years. #ReceptioGate shows, once again, that it’s past time to take another look at them.

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