by Nicola Davis)
Professor Lewis Wolpert, the eminent developmental biologist and author, has admitted incorporating unattributed text from a variety of sources in his recent popular science books.
Published by Faber and Faber in 2011, You're Looking Very Well was described as exploring "the scientific and social implications of our ageing population in an engaging, witty and frank investigation tackling every aspect, from ageism to euthanasia to anti-ageing cream".
It has been found, however, to contain more than 20 passages that have been taken directly from academic papers, websites and Wikipedia with no indication that they were penned by any author other than Wolpert himself. The book has now been withdrawn from sale.
A champion of the popularisation of science, Wolpert, a fellow of the Royal Society, is a former chairman of the society's committee on the public understanding of science. He has written on issues such as the origins of belief, embryonic development and depression, from which he himself has suffered.
Wolpert has faced a previous claim of lifting paragraphs from other people's work. An investigation last April into a review copy of his forthcoming book Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man? also found passages taken from uncredited sources, leading to publication being suspended shortly before its release date. The book was rescheduled for release in May this year.
In an email statement issued by Faber and Faber, Wolpert said: "I acknowledge that I have been guilty of including some unattributed material in my last book to be published, You're Looking Very Well (2011) and in the initial version of my yet unpublished book Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?. This lack of attribution was totally inadvertent and due to carelessness on my part. It in no way reflects on my publishers, Faber and Faber, and I take full responsibility. When downloading material from the internet as part of my research, and coming back to it after a gap of maybe weeks or sometimes months, I simply did not recall that I had not written these passages myself. It is my sincere hope that no damage was done to any individual by the inclusion of any of these passages.
"I am grateful to the journalist who drew these lapses to my attention, and would like to stress that I would never ever knowingly claim someone else's material as my own."
In response to the findings, Faber and Faber have confirmed that You're Looking Very Well has now been withdrawn from sale. Despite suggesting that Wolpert's age might be a contributing factor to instances of "borrowed" text found in Why Can't a Woman be More Like a Man? when first alerted to the situation last April, Faber declined to issue further comment regarding You're Looking Very Well when contacted last week.
Fellow biologist Professor Jim Smith, director of the National Institute of Medical Research, said: "Lewis Wolpert is one of the most distinguished scientists of his generation, who has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of developmental biology and to the public understanding of science. He is now in his mid-80s, with a history of ill health, and I am disappointed that his publishers appear to have not provided him with enough support to have prevented mistakes like these."
Last year primatologist Jane Goodall came under fire for taking passages of her book, Seeds of Hope, from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia, while in 2012 science writer Jonah Lehrer fell from grace amid accusations of plagiarism andmade-up quotes.
Wolpert's 2011 work received widespread acclaim, with the sociologist Laurie Taylor describing it in an article for the Rationalist Association as "a detailed and resolutely empirical tour of everything there is to be known about effects of ageing". But several passages came straight from academic papers.
Examples include descriptions of how the elderly are viewed in today's society. Wolpert writes: "Yet [elderly people in the United States today are not treated with the respect and reverence to which they were accustomed earlier in history. The gerontologist David Hackett Fischer notes that literature from seventeenth-and eighteenth-century colonial America stressed deference and respect for the elderly. He maintains that the elderly were] viewed with [a feeling of deep respect and reverence], which contrasts with more modern views. Today the elderly [have become virtual outcasts of society, many living on the fringe, often in retirement communities or in nursing homes. In modern industrial] societies [emphasis and value are placed on youth, with advertising geared towards and glamorising the young. To the extent that advertising acknowledges the elderly individual at all, it attempts to make him or her appear younger. The elderly are victims of mistaken beliefs and irrational attitudes] promoted [largely through the various mass media]."
However, the words within the square brackets can be found in two consecutive paragraphs of an academic paper entitled The Elderly in Modern Society: A Cultural Psychological Reading, by Alan Pope, published in 1999. "The words that the author used were indeed my own original work which was published several years previously in a journal called Janus Head,"
Dr Pope said: "I have no idea how the circumstance might have arisen whereby these words were used without proper attribution."
Several passages in the book appear to have been taken, near-verbatim, from the paper Evolutionary Theories of Aging and Longevity by Leonid Gavrilov and Natalia S Gavrilova, published in the journal The Scientific World in 2002. Commenting by email on the findings, the authors were sympathetic to the much-respected scientist, stating: "We are glad that some excerpts from our article are published in this book. We would be even more happy if our paper is referenced, or included in the 'further reading section' of the book."
You're Looking Very Well does include a chapter entitled Further Reading; however, Wolpert omits to mention the many websites and academic papers, including those by Pope, Gavrilov and Gavrilova. Nor are they credited in footnotes or within the text.