Truth, Lies and Wikipedia

I think it’s time to post a brief update on the story of Mark Brake, a Professor at the University of Glamorgan who falsely claimed to have a PhD from Cardiff University when applying for a grant in 2006. After this came to light through a story in the Western Mail, it was covered in the Times Higher, and I also blogged about it here.

There’s relatively little I can say about what’s been going more recently on in connection with this story, for reasons of confidentiality. However, one thing I am allowed say in public that Professor Mark Brake is no longer a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, a status he acquired in 2008.  I’m not allowed to discuss the events leading up to, or the reasons behind, his decision to resign from the IOP, but he did so in January 2010.

That little bit of news hardly merits an entire blog post, but what’s interesting is the subsequent behaviour of the wikipedia editors. Mark Brake’s wikipedia page currently states:

He was elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2008[1] and is presently Director of the Science Communication Research Unit at Glamorgan.

As soon as Brake creased to be a FInstP, the IOP Director of Membership and Business, John Brindley, edited the page to make it clear that he no longer held the Fellowship. Bizarrely, however, a wikipedia editor overruled the change and the text reverted to the above form. The editor says that this “leaves open the possibility that this may no longer be the case”.

Well, it may leave open that possibility but the implication of the above form is definitely that Brake remains a Fellow. As John Brindley himself wrote on the corresponding wikipedia discussion page

there is a well established and understood convention that memebrships of professional institutions is considered as continuous from the date of election unless or untl a date of resignation or removal is given.

However, the editor has refused to budge on the grounds that

Other than your comments here, which unfortunately can’t be considered to be a reliable source according to wikipedia rules, I can find nothing to indicate that he has, in fact, resigned.

Short of putting an announcement on their webpages that Brake has resigned his Fellowship – something that is contrary to their usual practice – there doesn’t seem to be anything the IOP can do to convince wikipedia to amend this page so it says the whole truth, rather than just a partial and potentially misleading version.

And while I’m on the subject of potentially misleading statements, it is perhaps worth going back to the original grant application that started this whole affair off. I showed part of this in a previous post, but here is the whole page showing the false claim of a PhD:

Under Professional Qualifications you will see Brake lists professional connections with the Royal Society of Chemistry as well as a Fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society. This was written in 2006. In fact Brake disappeared from the membership register for the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1993 and ceased to be a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1994. Hmmm…

You might argue – as the editor seems to be doing in the case of the wikipedia page – that these aren’t factually incorrect in that they give the year of election but say nothing about whether his tenure may or may not have ended.  I think most academics would agree with John Brindley, however, that the convention is to give a date of termination if the qualification no longer applies, otherwise the implication is that the status is unchanged.

Seeing further pieces of misleading information on the grant application doesn’t really surprise me, but I find it strange that somebody seems to want wikipedia’s pages  to misrepresent the truth in a similar fashion.


19 Responses to “Truth, Lies and Wikipedia”

  1. Mr Physicist Says:

    I dont understand. The Institute of Physics has an internet register of
    members that can be searched – prrof enough of Fellowship. Maybe its because it is only accessible to existing members?

  2. I agree it is bizarre, but the register requires a password so cannot be directly linked from wikipedia. The editor seems to think that only the only things that are true are things that are on public web pages….

  3. Hmmmmm, here are the user contributions for the two editors who have been reverting the edits on the Mark Brake page,

    Now I can’t really talk as all my wikipedia edits (about three) have been on the page of the Stirlingshire Cup, but it seems a little odd.

  4. It is Junder1234 who has made the recent edits. Who this person is or what his/her motivation can be for making these changes is open to question.

  5. He is technically correct. Wikipedia is not a newspaper, it is an aggregator of other sources, precisely because of its anonymity. In Wikipedia, anyone can go around claiming to be John Brindley and inserting (false) tidbits of information into articles about IOP members. To protect against this, there is a policy: to quote WP:OR,

    “Wikipedia does not publish original research or original thought. This includes unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, and ideas; and any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position. All material added to articles on Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable published source, even if not actually attributed in the text.”

    Unless IOP or someone within the organization is willing to come forward and state through standard channels that Brake’s fellowship has been revoked, there’s no reason for editors of Wikipedia to allow that assertion into the article.

    Someone could insert that statement back with a link to _this blog entry_, and, while blog entries are generally considered undesirable sources, this blog is sufficiently non-anonymous that it might be accepted.

    • Eugene,

      I realise that those are wikipedia’s rules, but in this case they have clearly led to a misrepresentation of the truth.

      While it is true that “anyone can go around claiming to be John Brindley”, not many could use his computer’s IP address to make an edit on a wikipedia page.

      If you look on the talk page for Brake’s wikipedia entry you will see that someone attempted to include a link to this blog at the page where it shows the fraudulent grant application. This was refused by a wikipedia editor on the grounds that blogs are not allowed. I don’t think linking to this page would be allowed either.

      Incidentally, I should point out that Brake’s own website finally removed the reference to FInstP.


  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Is it true that Professor Brake teaches courses on science fiction?

    Where there is ambiguity in the logical meaning of a text, it is resolved by considering what the intended recipient would have understood it to mean. The committee to whom this grant application – signed by Brake – is addressed would unquestionably have taken it to mean that his Professional Qualifications were current.

    I expect that other academics at U Glamorgan who do NOT write such things in their grant applications are disappointed that their university’s hierarchy has not yet done the one thing by which it can meaningfully disassociate itself from Mark Brake’s actions. Perhaps it is time to remind the THES that this wretched business continues.

    As for the generally excellent Wikipedia, I sometimes wonder how anybody is ever recorded there as having died.

  7. Unless and until there is a reliable source confirming the resignation, the truth as far as the world is concerned is that he’s still a member, and the rest is properly classified as “rumors”.

    The IP address that made edits signed “John Brindley” is resolved as At best, that confirms that the anonymous editor lives in the UK. That narrows it down to 4 million or so broadband subscribers of Virgin Media.

  8. telescoper Says:

    Anyone actually interested in the truth could email John Brindley ( and ask him. But then that would be a “private communication” and not admissable by wikipedia rules either.

  9. Would you personally consider it credible if some guy named Eugene (with whom you had no prior contact) showed up in your blog comments and claimed that he had first-hand information from John Brindley that Mark Brake had resigned his IOP membership?

  10. No I wouldn’t. But I would email John Brindley and ask if it were true. I am a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, by the way.

  11. Grouchy prof Says:

    The IOP can publish a communiqué to which Wikipedia could refer. Currently, you are asking the Wikipedia reader to take at face value some blog postings.

    • telescoper Says:

      At the moment wikipedia states that this person was elected thus implying he continues to hold that status. They could easily check the veracity of my claim by contacting the Director of Membership and Business of the IOP.

      Not everything in blogs is false and not everything on wikipedia is true.

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    More to the point, not everything on grant applications is true, either.

  13. […] claimed to have a PhD on a grant application written in 2006 (see, for example,  here, here, and here). The UoG purportedly held an  ”investigation” into this matter, but took no […]

  14. If the grant application is genuine, Mark Brake claims to be a Chartered Chemist (CChem) in 1982 and a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (MRSC) in 1983.
    The RSC rules state you have to be a MRSC before you can be a CChem and you have to be a Member for at least 2 years to get Chartered status.
    Is this more evidence of falsification on the grant application?

  15. oops to previous post, years should have been 83 and 84, argument remains the same

  16. I do not permit anonymous comments from fake email addresses.

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