Someone recounts my botfly tale: Is this plagiarism?

Someone called my attention to a new piece on Nautilus, “Parasites are us: how biological invaders challenge our notion of self and others” by Robert Levine, who’s identified this way:

Robert V. Levine is a professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno and former president of the Western Psychological Association. His previous books include 
A Geography of Time and The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold.

And the article is described this way:

An excerpt from the book Stranger in the Mirror: The Scientific Search for the Self © 2016 by Robert V. Levine, published by Princeton University Press on May 10, 2016.

I was at first chuffed, as Levine’s piece starts out with a longish description of my experience with a botfly larva injected by a mosquito into my head when I was a graduate student doing a summer course in Costa Rica. This story has been recounted in the book Tropical Nature (Forsyth and Miyata 1984)as well as on RadioLab in a piece by Robert Krulwich (see below). Levine’s piece then segues into a nice discussion of how parasites become part of the body of afflicted individuals.

But as I read the piece, and saw the numerous quotations, I became upset, for Levine not only misrepresents quotes as being given to him when they weren’t, but also seems to copy wording from Tropical Nature. 

First, although Levine gives the impression that most of my words that he quotes come from his own interview with me, they’re actually taken, word for word and without attribution, from an interview I did some years ago with Robert Krulwich for RadioLab. That interview,  “Yellow Fluff and Other Curious Encounters” is available on the RadioLab website, and goes from 45:19 extends to 55:45. Here’s an excerpt from Levine’s piece:

The most common treatment where Coyne was living was known as the “meat cure.” He was told to strap a slab of meat—a steak, maybe—to his head. This cuts off the maggot’s air supply, and the maggot, thinking the steak is part of Coyne’s flesh, burrows into it searching for air. Once the maggot gets far enough, he would just have to pull off the steak with the worm in it. It made sense, but Coyne respectfully declined. “The idea of toiling in the tropical heat every day with a T-bone strapped to my head was not something that I wanted to do.”

Meanwhile, the symptoms were getting worse. “It’s a terrible itch and from time to time it would like move or twitch and you would feel this sort of sharp pain in your skull or you could feel it grinding up against it,” Coyne recalled. “And when I went swimming or took a shower, it would sort of freak out because its airhole would be cut off, then it would really go nuts. You know, make a lot of pain. So I tried to avoid getting my head under water.”

All of my quotes come directly from the NPR piece, but are unsourced by Levine. The non-quoted parts are also derived from my discussion with Krulwich. The impression throughout the piece is that Levine got the quotes directly from me, which isn’t the case. In fact, the person who sent me the link said that Levine appears to have done a great job interviewing me.

From time to time Levine gives quotes that he says came from his conversation with me, and that may well be true, though I don’t remember talking to him. But those very few quotes are embedded in a much larger group of quotes that taken from RadioLab, but not identified as such. Here’s an example. What I am said to have told Levine is in bold (“Coyne told me”), and the rest of the quotes are taken, word for word, from my interview with Krulwich:

The botfly wasn’t that painful and I knew it was going to come out on its own after a while,”Coyne told me. He decided to just try to enjoy and marvel at what was happening inside him as much as he could.

“This behavior might seem weird to a lay person,” he said, but “I make my living on flies. I work with fruit flies. I’m a geneticist, and here is a fly making its living on me.” Coyne was intrigued to find himself inside a food chain instead of on his usual perch as a consumer at its end. The botfly was fattening up on Coyne, and Coyne was becoming increasingly fond of the botfly. “I was getting more and more curious when it would come out. I didn’t want to kill it.”

And there are unquoted bits that seem to have been taken largely from RadioLab, like this bit from Levine’s piece:

The botfly kept growing. Within a couple of weeks it had become the size of an egg, then a quail egg. Coyne started wearing a baseball cap. One night he was at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park with his friend Sarah Rogerson. .

Here’s what RadioLab says, with my words, and my friend Sarah’s, put in quotation marks, with the rest (not in quotes) being Krulwich’s narration:

So, a couple of weeks passed and the botfly is just getting “bigger and bigger and bigger.” It goes from jellybean size to something like “the size of an egg”. An egg? “Yeah, it was pretty big.” Like a quail egg. Well, he’s covering it now with a baseball cap, which is maybe one reason they decided to go to Fenway Park.

And here’s one direct quote from me to Levine embedded in a mass of quotes taken directly from the RadioLab interview:

But mostly he wanted to save the fly. He looked at his baby on the pillow and decided to try to rear it into an adult fly. “I’d prepared a jar of sterile sand and I took the worm and dropped it in the sand and put on a top with an airhole,” Coyne said. “But unfortunately it died.” Looking back, he said that he was sorry he “didn’t just put it into a jar of alcohol to preserve it.” Coyne felt extremely sad afterward. “You know in the temperate zone in Boston the botfly is not going to make it. It just can’t live and so it was doomed from the start. I wanted to see it complete its life cycle but unfortunately it didn’t quite make it. I did the best I could with what I knew.” He felt the loss. “It added richness into my life, it really did. People still get completely horrified when I tell them the story even though to me it’s sort of a nice story.” And, he told me, “It was my botfly.”

All quotes here, except for the one in bold, are from the NPR story. Clearly, Levine is implying that all the quotes were given to him by me, but in reality they are taken from NPR. I call that misrepresentation.

Finally, there’s one bit whose wording appears to have been taken from the place where Krulwich got the story: the book Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America (Scribners, 1984) by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, my best friends when I was in graduate school at Harvard. (Ken died in a fishing accident in 1983, and never saw the published book.) In Chapter 13, “Jerry’s Maggot,” they use my botfly tale to begin a discussion of interspecies relationships in the tropics.  Here’s a quote from p. 154 (you can find it on the web here), and the words in quotations are from an email I sent the authors when they asked me to tell them what I remembered about the botfly. The rest of the words are Forsyth and Miyata’s.

Jerry is a biologist. At the time, he was a graduate student at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Well versed in evolutionary logic, genetical theory, Ivy League ecology, and tile use of biometrical tools, he was also aware that his actual experience with living creatures was “limited to unexciting fruit flies crawling feebly around food-filled glass tubes.” Working in the Museum of Comparative Zoology had done little to change that. The Museum was no longer what it had been in the days of its founder, tile celebrated Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose constant exhortation to “study Nature, not books” was practiced by all. Jerry’s biological interactions continued to be with fruit flies in a crowded, sterile lab, and tile only animals he saw, aside from his fellow graduate students and the ubiquitous dogs of Cambridge, were the stuffed mammals that resided in the display cases between his office and tile Pepsi machine. Finally, after a winter and spring of listening to some of us urge him to get out of the lab, he enrolled in a field course in tropical ecology. Soon he was jetting to Costa Rica, determined to experience for himself the riches of tropical nature.

And here’s from Levine’s piece. The bits in bold, which are more than my own quotations, bear a remarkable similarity to Forsyth and Miyata’s chapter.

This, however, is a more personal story about Coyne. It goes back to 1973, when he was a mere 24-year-old graduate student at Harvard. As he moved through the program, Coyne was becoming well versed in the intellectual tools of his trade—genetics, evolutionary logic, research methods, and the like. But when it came to real-life contact with nature, his experience was pretty much “limited to unexciting fruit flies crawling feebly around food-filled glass tubes.” He was even more frustrated working at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. This was the same museum that was founded by the great Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, under the guiding philosophy to “study nature, not books.”But, aside from fruit flies in a sterile lab, the only nature Coyne was seeing were stuffed mammals in a display case on his way to the Pepsi machine. When given the opportunity to take a summer field course in tropical ecology in Costa Rica, Coyne didn’t hesitate. He never imagined how close to nature he would get.

That’s annoying, especially the direct lifting of the bits about Louis Agassize, and about the animals between my office and the Pepsi machine, the latter typical of Adrian and Ken’s humor.

I haven’t investigated the piece beyond the bit on my botfly, nor even looked super-closely at the botfly bit. But there’s enough here to make me think that not only is there sloppiness going on—quotes that Levine implies were given to him by me, but in reality were given to Krulwich by me, but also copying of words and ideas from the show and from the book Tropical Nature, and content from RadioLab.

Now it may be that the unattributed quotes in the article are given attribution in the book, but what’s in the article should also have been sourced and explained. And the use of wording from Tropical Nature seems to me to approach plagiarism.

In short, I think this is a combination of sloppiness and possible plagiarism, but wanted to see what readers think.


  1. Michael Finfer, MD
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    If the material is not attributed, then it is plagiarism. You may have a legitimate beef. Complain and see how far it goes.

    You may even be featured, in a good way, over at Retraction Watch.

    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      I have brought it to Princeton’s attention and now will try to contact Nautilus.

      • Jeanne Aloia
        Posted May 2, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Jerry! I’ve fallen off the subscription list and cannot seem to resubscribe. My days aren’t the same without your posts. Help! I’ve looked in my spam folder.

        Nothing seems to work. And by the way, I think you should pursue your inquiry into the plagiarism of your articles.

        • Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          I have no idea what happened about the subscription. I can’t fix that from my end, but maybe you can use another email account if you have one? I would definitely do something if I could.

          • Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            My WordPress blog also often sheds subscribers. You’d think a big platform like WordPress would have figured out how to do things right by now!

    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      + 1

    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink


    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      For what it’s worth.
      Inspired by this annoying story
      I just ordered “Tropical Nature”

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 14, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        You’ll love it!

  2. Sarah
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Whether it is plagiarism or not, it is certainly extremely sloppy documentation, and no reputable scholar should every be caught doing this kind of thing.

  3. mordacious1
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Interesting story about parasitic behavior. That botfly sounds nasty too.

  4. Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Sigh. Yep, it’s plagiarism, of a type that’s increasingly prevalent. There’s a school of thought that says we should give up on fighting this type of text-lifting (so long as it represents portions of an otherwise original composition) and focus instead on instances of fraud. In this case the more serious violation is the author implies he conducted an in-depth interview, built the necessary rapport, did the background work needed to develop this story. He thereby implies a personal relationship to the story, but it sounds like that interview didn’t happen. Fake interviews are becoming so prevalent; multiple members of my family (myself included) have been fake-interviewed, sometimes for no apparent reason. It’s really baffling.

  5. Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I am no lawyer but I believe plagiarism is when a party represents someone else’s words or ideas as his own. By this definition, I don’t think you were plagiarized, since he attributes the words to you, but others may have been.

    • Posted May 3, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure that plagiarism is a legal term at all, but from what I remember from my courses of intellectual property, the guy seems to violate the copyrights of the radio show/station.

      • Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I think you are right. You can be plagiarized with impunity if you do not have a copyright.

  6. Karst
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    The book can partly be viewed on Amazon. The index has Coyne, Jerry, p 54-59 and 68-69. Chapter 5 is “Parasites ‘R US, apparently p. 54-69. Chapter 6 is “Multiple Personalities”, apparently p. 70-83. Unfortunately, neither chapter is visible, nor are the Notes pages for those chapters.

  7. Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    That kind of writing is why I keep a box of tissues on my office desk; when I tell a student that I’ve caught them plagiarizing, and therefore they’re going to flunk my class, they usually start to cry.

  8. GBJames
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Is it possibly a case of violation of copyright from RadioLab? (I don’t know how that works… do they hold copyright to their interviews?)

  9. Richard Bond
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Slightly off-topic, but I have booked to go to Costa Rica for the last three weeks of next January, mainly because of reports of the amazing bird life to be seen there. Does anybody have suggestions about how to avoid botflies?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Info I have says to wear clothing and bug spray (and by that I guess mosquito repellent).
      But c’mon, bot flies are cool.

    • loren russell
      Posted May 2, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Avoid botflies:

      Use every means to avoid mosquitoes — constant use and renewal of repellants, cover your arms and legs, use mosquito nets at night, if there’s any question about the presence of mosquitoes indoors..

      The botfly is phoretic [as ready-to-hatch eggs] on mosquitoes, and not nearly the nastiest thing you can get from the latter..

      Not sure of elevational/habitat range and seasonal abundances of botflies, but the single case I’ve seen was picked up in Costa Rica in winter.

      • Posted May 2, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        They are mostly lowland creatures.

    • barn owl
      Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      You could buy a tube of the ivermectin that’s used to deworm horses – it’s effective against botfly larvae. You can adjust the dose according to weight (j/k, but then again, I’ve seen recommendations to use a dab of horse dewormer on a Q-tip, to kill a botfly larva in a human).

      • Posted May 2, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        That would be bad. You don’t want it to die inside you. It will rot and get infected.

        • barn owl
          Posted May 2, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Ugh! I have to say that I’ve always ignored any advice from horse trainers etc. that involves dosing oneself with equine medications (I’ve known people who’ve treated themselves with the NSAID phenylbutazone, meant for use in horses).

          • Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

            Bute was originally developed for humans and is still used to treat rheumatic illness in the UK. It has severe side effects, but who wouldn’t want some aplastic anemia?

    • Richard Bond
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 4:12 am | Permalink

      Thanks for all of the suggestions. I now feel much more comfortable that I did after reading PCC’s account.

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 14, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        And if parasitized, you don’t have to opt for the full experience, as Jerry did. Larvae can be removed fairly easily when they’re very small–you can google the methods.

  10. kieran
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Yep Plagiarism, large chunks of unattributed quotes.

  11. Alpha Neil
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    That’s annoying, especially the direct lifting of the bits about Louis Agassize, and about the animals between your office and the Pepsi machine, the latter typical of Adrian and Ken’s humor.

  12. Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    He directly lies when he says you told him those things. That’s serious.

    On a side note, I had not remembered (or maybe never knew) the part about your preparing a jar of sterile sand for your offspring. That definitely could have worked, and was worth a try, so you shouldn’t regret trying it. I raised mine and put it in loose, slightly moist soil after it emerged, and it pupated and after several weeks I had the adult. Well worth it! Maybe the softer texture and higher moisture content of the soil made the difference. Did yours try to dig, or did it die on the surface? Maybe it can’t dig into loose sand very well.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I think the folks here would like to see pix. I know i would.

      • Posted May 2, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        That was back in the 1980s, will try to dig out the slide and scan it…

  13. Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Anyone catch the first sentence in Levine’s last paragraph in Nautilus?

    “Then again, results are more important than who gets credit for what.”

    I was going to say that it was ironic, but the statement actually seems congruous with the style of writing that blends who said what to whom.

  14. rickflick
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Whatever it’s legal status, it’s shabby writing. An example of stolen intellectual property.

  15. Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I had a slightly similar experience recently when a paper of mine got an (odd) second round of interest in the press years after it was published. I had a few interviews, but one reporter, at a major London newspaper, tried to schedule an interview and the timing didn’t work out. They published the piece anyway, lifting direct quotes from other sources (always attributing). But it was a strange as it wasn’t clear that these quotes were from interviews spread across 5 years. It seemed like they were all about this reporter’s story. The reporter completely missed the point of the new interest, which was new context related to more current work.

    So there was attribution, but a false narrative was constructed. Don’t even know what to call this.

  16. Posted May 2, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    The content quality (and seriousness) of Nautilus has been declining. I unsubscribed a few months ago.

  17. Posted May 2, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    …references were
    added to the Nautilus article…

    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, after I informed them! They didn’t bother to email me back. Not very polite of them. . .

    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      It seems strange (to say the least) that the references weren’t there to begin with. They change the feel of the writing–though without scanning to them–it does still give the impression that the piece is more personally about Jerry than it is.

      I don’t mean to be harsh, but Levine’s piece feels parasitic–though, less so with the references.

  18. tubby
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I’d find myself in the Dean’s office and probably expelled for doing that.

  19. jrhs
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    An en-grossing “a-man-and-his-botfly” story.

    I hope everything would be sorted out. Maybe, you will receive an apology within a week.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I am not surprised.

    Nautilus has been painted as a not-so-stealth attempt to promote religion among science, it houses Templeton founded scientists such as Calen Scharf, and its quality has never been very high.

    [ (apologetics motivation of the magazine) ; (the origin of the religion-in-science metaphor) ; (an apologetics example); (Caleb Scharf, astrobiologist); (Scharf’s Templeton Foundation connection)]

    Oy, no vey I buy Nautilus!

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Oh, for the love of … spelling! Caleb Scharf, naturally.

  21. ploubere
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    An important point about plagiarism or sloppy sourcing is that it brings into question the validity of the information in the article. If the author is misrepresenting sources, is he also inventing some of what those sources said?

    Since Jerry seems to be confirming that at least the information is valid, then that’s not the case here. But if I’d been reading the article and found out afterward that the sources were inaccurate, I’d question the whole thing.

  22. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Is there the slightest possibility that the RadioLab editor is to blame?

    • Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think that’s possible. What’s on RadioLab is publicly available, and I suspect the quotes were just lifted from the interview.

  23. jaxkayaker
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s plagiarism of the book and radio show and possibly a violation of their intellectual property rights, even with proper citations. The number of lifted direct quotes, even without attribution, would seem to exceed that permitted by fair use standards, especially without the addition of commentary or analysis. However, I’m not a lawyer.

  24. Rod
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Somewhat tangentially, a couple of yrs back an episode of Bones featured the character Dr. Hodgins incubating a botfly in a cyst of some kind on his neck, and insisting on allowing it to hatch naturally, and of course posting the whole thing on the web.

    Maybe one of the writers from Bones saw your paper.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 14, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      So far we know of Lou and Jerry having done this, and when I was in Costa Rica I learned that ecologist John Vandermeer had “raised” a botfly as well (his was on his ribcage, IIRC).

      Over the years I suspect this has happened regularly now and then, given the influx of curious biologists in the tropics.

      (Leaving the Ticos scratching their heads, but for other reasons.)

  25. Craw
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Hmm. Wait a moment.

    Let’s consider just the egg thing. Should he have said it first the size of a breath mint, then a corn pop, then a ping pong ball? People talked about eggs, he reported on eggs. Should he perhaps have had it start the size of a quail egg and then get smaller so as to vary the wording? He is conveying a story; such details are part of the story as experienced and related by those involved. Does that make them off limits?

    I do not know if he told Coyne anything, but if he did not and said he did then that’s bad. I agree the way that is related suggests it was all narrated to him. But a key to good writing–usually lauded here — is to leave out what readers will skip. I will skip details of whom Coyne told what and whe, there being no murder alibi hanging on the details. So if Coyne told him the direct quotes closely attributed, not guilty.

    • nicky
      Posted May 3, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Craw, please do not call Jerry, our host, “Coyne”, he has expressed on several occasions he does not like to be called that. Jerry, Jerry Coyne, PCC, our host, etc. all appreciated. But if you know your host dislikes to being called so (whatever his reasons), it is rude to do so.
      On the other hand, I agree with your not guilty of plagiarism verdict. The prime source is *very* clear. However, it was wrong not to mention that some/much of his info and wording came from interviews carried out by others. It would have been the right thing -and only a small effort- to mention that, even if only in a footnote.
      I’m sure American lawyers can make a case of copy-right infringement here, but that is what these lawyers -unlike botflies- are feeding on.

  26. Posted May 2, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    This sounds exactly like (one aspect) of what Johann Hari got busted for. It’s akin to plagiarism, or it’s a form of plagiarism, because he’s passing off words that Krulwich was entitled to use as an interviewer as words that *he*, Levine, was entitled to use in that way. The appearance is that Levine did all the interviewing, with all the skill, application, etc., that that entails.

    You’d think people would be very careful about this kind of thing after the Hari case received so much publicity.

    To the extent that words have been attributed to him, I don’t think Jerry has been plagiarised – though he’s been treated rudely – but a form of plagiarism, or something akin to plagiarism, has been done to Krulwich and any other interviewers in a similar situation (I didn’t follow the detail of what came from where).

    My understanding is that this kind of thing is taken pretty seriously in journalistic and scholarly circles.

    Provided he kept within reasonable bounds (e.g. of how much he quoted), Levine could, and should, simply have said, “In an interview with X published in Y, Coyne said, ‘—‘”. I do hope his book handles this properly.

  27. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted May 2, 2016 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    “This fly, well, it’s eating Jerry, and so it’s more and more… well, it is Jerry.”
    “It is, and that’s the part that made me like it.”

    And that’s the part of you that makes me like you.

  28. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    Of course it should be properly attributed but it’s a great story that certainly bears retelling!

  29. Dawn Oz
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    As the British would say, ‘it’s poor form’. To me it’s plagiarism as he is misleading the reader as to the nature of your relationship (interviewer-interviewee), and lying about work that he just didn’t do. Grrrrrrrr

  30. bobkillian
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Any reaction yet from Cal State Fresno?

  31. Mike
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    One mans Botfly is another mans Dog, uugh , anyway, I’d send him a severe email telling him to attribute the Quotes he’s pinched, and also for an apology in writing in the same Magazine, failing that , sue him for a Million Bucks.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Coyne notes that a piece in Nautilus plagarized his bot fly story. Or comes very close to plagiarism because it’s so derivative from a conversation of his with […]

%d bloggers like this: