Christopher Bronk Ramsey is a researcher at the University of Oxford. He has repeatedly committed fraud in some of his research. I am attempting to have him held to account for those frauds. Details follow.
Christopher Ramsey has been on the faculty at the University of Oxford for over a quarter century. He is considered to be one of the leading researchers in the world, in his field. I am attempting to have him held to account for frauds in his research.
Submission to the University
On 7 May 2014, I submitted an allegation of research misconduct to the University of Oxford. The submission is copied below.
The definition of research misconduct adopted herein is from Research Councils UK. The definition is given in the RCUK Policy and Guidelines on Governance of Good Research Conduct (February 2013). It includes, but is not limited to, the following.
Falsification. This comprises the inappropriate manipulation and/or selection of data, imagery and/or consents.
Misrepresentation of data, for example suppression of relevant findings and/or data, or knowingly, recklessly or by gross negligence, presenting a flawed interpretation of data.
Christopher Bronk Ramsey is a professor at the University of Oxford. His main area of work is in a subject known as “radiocarbon dating”. Briefly, radiocarbon dating tries to determine how many years ago an organism died. For example, suppose that we find a sample of a bone from some animal; then, using radiocarbon dating, we might be able to determine that the animal died, say, 3000 years ago.
An overview of radiocarbon dating is given Appendix 1. In the descriptions of Ramsey’s offences, familiarity with the subject at the level of that appendix is assumed.
First offence: knowingly-erroneous statistical analyses
Occasionally, repeated radiocarbon measurements are made on a single sample. A statistical method for combining such repeated measurements was presented by Ward & Wilson [Archaeometry, 1978]. The method is now standard in the literature. A problem, though, has arisen: the same method has also been used when measurements are made on different samples. That problem is considered in this section.
Ward & Wilson consider two distinct cases. Case I is where all the measurements are made on the same sample, which is believed to be homogeneous. In Case I, the authors advise first doing a simple statistical test, as a partial check that there was no measurement, or other, error. Assuming that the test is passed, the radiocarbon measurements are combined via a simple weighted average.
Case II is for when “one does not know whether all determinations are estimating the same date (or effectively indistinguishable different dates)”; the emphasis is theirs [Ward & Wilson, 1978, p. 21]. Case II is thus for measurements of different samples. As the authors state, there is a “fundamental difference” between Case I and Case II: the simple weighted average that is used for combining measurements in Case I should not be used in Case II. Instead, a more complicated method must be used. An approximating method is described by the authors.
The foregoing is accepted by everyone who has studied the issues, as far as I know. (There can be different approximating methods used in Case II; exact methods are not feasible.)
Despite the above, Ramsey has published papers where he uses the simple method of Case I in situations that fall under Case II. The result is to give illusory precision. For example, if some radiocarbon samples that should be treated under Case II would have given an age range of 3000–3100 years—using a valid method—Ramsey might claim a more precise range of 3025–3075, by using the method of Case I (this example is for illustrative purposes only).
I e-mailed Ramsey about this, in February 2014. A copy of my message, and Ramsey’s reply, is in Appendix 2. The reply admits that “any classical statistical method, based on normality assumptions will only be an approximation - and possibly not a very good one”. Thus, the reply acknowledges that the method used in his papers is sometimes not good. The reason for using the method seems to be that doing the calculations correctly would be difficult. It is indeed true that doing the calculations correctly is difficult, but that is not a valid reason for misleading readers by presenting calculations that are known to be wrong.
Ramsey’s reply also states that his “papers all have the primary data and so anyone can reanalyse the data using different assumptions”. That obviously does nothing to allay the problem of unjustified precision in the published papers’ claims—which is what readers of the papers rely upon. The problem is especially acute because almost none of those readers will have the statistical expertise required to do the difficult reanalysis themselves.
The rest of Ramsey’s reply is mostly verbiage.
The full problem is worse than the above might indicate. In the field of radiocarbon, a standard computer program used for the analysis of radiocarbon ages is OxCal. OxCal was written by Ramsey. In OxCal, the simple method of Case I is implemented; so many other follow the use of OxCal’s author, and inappropriately use Case I. Thus, Ramsey has led many other researchers into also publishing papers that are based on the inappropriate method.
Second offence: failing to properly consider volcanic gas
Some of Ramsey’s work has purported to date a major eruption of the island volcano Thera, in Greece. The date is key for anchoring much of ancient history around the eastern Mediterranean. There have been at least four conferences on the date, a few books, hundreds of research papers, etc. Ramsey (and some other radiocarbon scientists) claims that the date is much earlier than is possible according to conventional archaeology.
The area around a volcano will degas CO2, especially prior to an eruption. In the atmosphere, CO2 includes some 14CO2; volcanically-degassed CO2, however, includes no 14CO2—this is a key distinction. Plants absorb most of their carbon from CO2 in the air. Thus, any plant that absorbs a portion of its carbon from degassed CO2 will be deficient in 14C.
The radiocarbon age of the remains of a plant depends on the amount of 14C in the remains. Hence, by absorbing volcanically-degassed carbon, the radiocarbon age of the plant will be increased. Simply put, any plant grown on a volcanic island would be suspected of having a radiocarbon age that is greater than its actual age, due to absorbing some degassed CO2.
Ramsey’s papers on radiocarbon ages from Thera do not properly treat the above issue. Yet Ramsey has been using radiocarbon ages from Thera to underpin his claims to rewrite ancient history—much to the consternation of Mediterranean archaeologists.
One of Ramsey’s papers on Thera was published in the book Tree-Rings, Kings and Old World Archaeology and Environment (2009). This paper discusses, in particular, the radiocarbon ages of several seeds from Thera. The paper’s analysis was based, in part, on the assumption that all the seeds had effectively the same 14C concentration. I sent an e-mail to Ramsey about this (on 9 December 2008). The e-mail noted that there were good reasons to believe that the assumption was false, e.g. “there would surely have been some degassing on and around the island while the seeds were growing”. The e-mail continued as follows.
Your paper argues against such problems, claiming that "Statistical procedures exist to test a hypothesis of whether all the data are consistent (or not) with describing the same age (Ward and Wilson 1978)". That claim is untrue.
Ramsey’s reply admitted that “As you say you certainly cannot prove that they all have the same radiocarbon concentration”.
Another of Ramsey’s papers on Thera was published in Science (original on 28 April 2006; revision on 24 April 2013). This paper also discusses seeds from Thera, claiming that the seeds “show a consistent age”. The claim is impossible, and Ramsey knows that.
The issue of degassing ties in with the problem of Case I vs. Case II: even if two seeds were known to be from the same year, one might be affected by degassing and the other not.
Appendix 1: Basics of radiocarbon dating
The term “radiocarbon” is commonly used to denote 14C, an isotope of carbon which is radioactive with a half-life of about 5730 years. 14C is produced by cosmic rays in the stratosphere and upper troposphere. It is then distributed throughout the rest of the troposphere, the oceans, and Earth’s other exchangeable carbon reservoirs. In the surface atmosphere, about one part per trillion (ppt) of carbon is 14C.
All organisms absorb carbon from their environment. Those that absorb their carbon directly or indirectly from the surface atmosphere have about 1 ppt of their carbon content as 14C. Such organisms comprise almost all land-dwelling plants and animals. (Other organisms—e.g. fish—have slightly less of their carbon as 14C; this affects how radiocarbon dating works, and there are methods of adjusting for it.)
When an organism dies, carbon stops being absorbed. Hence after 5730 years, about half of its 14C will have radioactively decayed (to nitrogen): only about 0.5 ppt of the carbon of the organism’s remains will be 14C. And if the carbon of the remains is found to be 0.25 ppt 14C, then the organism would be assumed to have died about 11 460 years ago. Thus, a simple calculation can find the age, since death, from any 14C concentration. (Remains older than about 50 000 years, however, have a 14C concentration that is in practice too small to measure; so they cannot be dated via 14C.)
Ages are conventionally reported together with the standard deviation of the laboratory 14C measurement, e.g. 900±25 14C BP (14C-dated, years Before Present). The true standard deviation, though, will often be larger than what is reported, due to non-laboratory sources of error—e.g. the admixture of impurities with the remains.
Although a tree may live for hundreds, even thousands, of years, each ring of a tree absorbs carbon only during the year in which it grows. The year in which a ring was grown can be determined exactly (by counting); so radiocarbon dating can be tested by measuring the 14C concentrations in old tree rings. Such testing found errors of up to several centuries. It turns out that the concentration of 14C in the carbon of the surface atmosphere has not been a constant 1 ppt, but has varied with time. Thus the simple calculation of age from 14C concentration is unreliable.
Tree rings, though, also provide a solution to this problem. The concentration of 14C in the carbon of an organism’s remains can be compared with the concentrations in tree rings. Tree rings that match, within confidence limits, give the years in which the organism could have plausibly died.
The matching procedure thus provides calibration of 14C concentrations. (Calibration via tree rings, though, does not extend back 50 000 years; other ways of calibrating are therefore being developed.) Ages that are estimated without calibration continue to be reported, and are called “uncalibrated 14C ages”, or simply “14C ages”.
Appendix 2: Some correspondence on the Ward & Wilson method
From: D.J. Keenan
Sent: 05 February 2014 18:20
To: Christopher Bronk Ramsey
Cc: Malcolm Xxxxxx; Tiziano Xxxxxxxx
Subject: Misuse of Ward & Wilson test
Malcolm forwarded to me a copy of some correspondence between you and Tiziano. In the correspondence, you claim that “if all the samples are short-lived from the same year we would expect them to all have the same radiocarbon composition and thus act as if they were all from the same sample”. The claim is clearly false for samples from Thera. You are aware of the issue of misusing the test of Ward & Wilson: you have I have discussed it before by e-mail; the issue is treated in detail in my NPG  paper, which you read.
I note that you have been misusing the Ward & Wilson test in some of your published papers, e.g. in Science. Correcting the problem would lead to a wider date range. I ask if you intend to publish corrigenda for those papers.
From: Christopher Ramsey
Sent: 06 February 2014 00:03
To: D.J. Keenan
Cc: Malcolm Xxxxxx; Tiziano Xxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: Misuse of Ward & Wilson test
There are several different issues here which are not that simple.
1. There is the Ward and Wilson test, formally for subsamples of the same material. This is a more stringent test than you would apply for samples of material spreading over some years. If a set of dates pass this test, it clearly does not mean that they are all from the same year, nor that they are from the same sample. However, it does indicate that the scatter is not greater than that you would expect for material from a short-lived horizon.
2. There is the combination method used. Which method you used does depend on what you think about the samples - which ultimately is a matter of opinion. If you assume the samples might be a range of different ages there is not a simple solution to this. The distribution of ages is almost certainly non-normal - so any classical statistical method, based on normality assumptions will only be an approximation - and possibly not a very good one. I have suggested Tiziano some other ways he might think about this.
3. In terms of the publications - the papers all have the primary data and so anyone can reanalyse the data using different assumptions. This is what I assume Tiziano will be doing, amongst other things. There have of course already been many papers, book chapters etc putting different interpretations on the data, and also looking at models that exclude the Thera VDL data altogether. I'm sure there is scope for more of this.
In the end there are not perfect solutions to any of these. The real situation is quite complicated, the range of possibilities to be entertained is quite large, and there is no statistical model which will incorporate all of this information. In the end "all models are wrong but some are useful" - which applies to classical statistical models as well as Bayesian ones. A good approach is probably one which looks at robustness - how much do the results change under different assumptions.
However, as I said to Tiziano (which you probably heard), I don't think the details of the statistical methods really address the main issue here. If you think the eruption is - say 1520 BC, then you cannot explain the radiocarbon data just by using slightly different statistical models.
Anyway - I think it is worth Tiziano investigating these ideas in some depth - without too much badgering by the rest of us. I'm happy to answer his queries if he wants any suggestions - but also think that it would be worth him discussing these things with people who have no particular interest in this particular research. I don't think the adversarial tone, which these discussions sometimes descend into, is particularly useful.
I write in relation to your complaint submitted on 7 May 2014, which falls to me for consideration under the University’s code of practice and procedure on academic integrity in research.
In considering your complaint I have sought the assistance of Professor Philip England in the Department of Earth Sciences, who is familiar with the radio-carbon dating technique and with the context within which samples are gathered for radiometric dating in general, and for radio-carbon dating of geological events that occurred during times of interest to archaeologists. He has also carried out research and teaching on Santorini.
In relation to your first allegation, of erroneous statistical analysis, Professor England has concluded that Professor Ramsey’s response to you (in your appendix 2) appears to be reasonable, and that it is reasonable to assert in relation to Case II, as Professor Ramsey does, that where one has reason to suspect that a sample contains sub-samples of different ages, no classical statistic method will help.
In relation to your second allegation, that Professor Ramsey did not properly treat the issue of potential incorporation of volcanic gases into the samples from Santorini that he dated, Professor England’s conclusion is that this suggestion of contamination is an idea with no quantitative underpinning, and that this is a matter of a difference of assumption between Professor Ramsey and you.
Overall, Professor England has concluded that your complaint does not take account of a fundamental aspect of working on samples from the natural world, that there are unconstrained variables about which researchers are forced to make assumptions. Professor Ramsey has made one assumption and you would like him to agree to a different one. Professor England concludes that this is an issue that should be decided through the usual channels of scientific discourse.
Having considered the matter, I agree with Professor England’s conclusion, and do not consider that there is a case to answer under the University’s code of practice on academic integrity in research. I therefore regard the matter as closed and do not propose to take this matter any further.
The third paragraph claims that it is “reasonable” to apply Case II of the statistical method. Case II, however, can only be applied when a certain condition holds, and the condition does not hold. Hence, the paragraph's claim is false.
The fourth paragraph claims that effect of volcanic degassing is “a matter of a difference of assumption between Professor Ramsey and you”. I assume that the volcano, which had one of the largest eruptions during the past several millennia, might have degassed during the months prior to the eruption. Ramsey assumes that there was no degassing. Ramsey's assumption is prima facie unreasonable; moreover, Ramsey makes the assumption without real justification. Hence, the paragraph's claim is true, but extremely misleading.
The fifth paragraph claims that “Ramsey has made one assumption and you would like him to agree to a different one”. The claim is false. Ramsey can make any assumptions that he likes, as long as the assumptions are clearly stated and given valid justifications.
Finally, it is worth recalling the definitions of falsification and misrepresentation (cited in my submission to the University). Falsification includes “inappropriate manipulation … of data”. Misrepresentation includes “knowingly, recklessly or by gross negligence, presenting a flawed interpretation of data”. Ramsey is plainly guilty of both. Thus the University has failed, in its investigation, to do its duty.
Report to the police
Some people have argued for research misconduct to be criminalized. Perhaps the most prominent of those is Richard Smith, who was the editor of the British Medical Journal for 13 years.
I support involving the criminal justice system to hold to account people who commit research fraud. Hence, I have sought for a way to apply current laws. In particular, I considered whether Ramsey might be guilty of the crime of misconduct in public office. The crime is a serious offense: the maximum penalty is life in prison and an unlimited fine.
Note: I have no training in law, and I am not alleging that there has been a criminal offence.
I asked the police to investigate Ramsey for misconduct in public office. The police declined to investigate. Their reason was that they do not think Ramsey is a public official, and so Ramsey cannot, even in principle, be guilty of misconduct in public office. I have since discussed their reason with the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as informally with legal counsel. It seems that statutory law is unclear on the issue, and there is no relevant case law.
The police suggested that I file an allegation of an offense under the Fraud Act. The Fraud Act, however, requires deception for monetary gain. I have no evidence that Ramsey committed research misconduct for monetary gain. Moreover, I strongly believe that monetary gain was not the motivation for Ramsey's misconduct. Rather, I suspect that the motivation was to maintain and enhance his prestige—in a word, ego.
Potential prosecution of the registrar
The police also informed me that the senior administrators at a university are public officials—and so potentially can be prosecuted for misconduct in public office. At the University of Oxford, the most senior administrator is the registrar, Ewan McKendrick. Given that McKendrick whitewashed the investigation into my allegation about Ramsey, would it be possible to prosecute McKendrick?
I decided to obtain legal advice on that question. Additionally, I decided that if the advice was positive, I would not report the matter to the police; instead, I would undertake a private prosecution. For that reason, I contacted a law firm specializing in private prosecutions, Edmonds Marshall McMahon. I sent the firm the following letter.
I have been campaigning for greater integrity in scientific research. Specifically, I have been campaigning to enhance two things in U.K. research: transparency and accountability.
Regarding transparency, this implies that when a scientific result is published, the data that supports the publication must be disclosed. Nowadays, such transparency is legally required in the U.K. Until 2010, however, there was no transparency: scientists could, and did, publish results and not allow others to see the supporting data.
In 2010, I won a legal case: getting the Freedom of Information Act to apply to scientific data. The case set a precedent, which affected almost all publically-funded research. That received substantial coverage in the media—in the U.K. and internationally. It also received strong public support from the Minister of State for Universities and Science (then David Willetts) and the Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (then Phil Willis).
Despite such support, many scientists strongly protested against the precedent. Then the Royal Society, and others, attempted to push for a change in the law. I met the Royal Society president (Paul Nurse) and the current Government Chief Scientific Adviser (Mark Walport). Both of them made it clear that they strongly believed the law should be changed—and they were scornful in their manner.
Prime Minister Cameron got involved, in May 2011. At that time, U.S. President Obama visited the U.K. Then the President and the Prime Minister issued a joint statement saying, inter alia, that they “emphasized the importance of data sharing and open science data policies …”. Ultimately, the Royal Society, and others, accepted that data supporting scientific publications had to be disclosed.
Thus, the battle for transparency was won. There is, however, still no accountability: at present, scientists can commit fraud with impunity. Indeed, there does not seem to have been a single case during the past half century where a non-medical scientist has been found to have committed research fraud. The result is predictable: a substantial portion of research today is bogus.
My objective is to change that. Specifically, I want to set a precedent by having a scientist be found guilty of research fraud. The purpose of the precedent is to bring about systemic accountability—similar to what I did with transparency.
The test case that I have chosen concerns a professor at the University of Oxford, who is doing research in archaeology of the Bronze Age. The case has some aspects that make it especially appealing to pursue.
- The research itself has no implications for government policy; so, I cannot be accused of being politically motivated.
- The issues are fairly easy to understand and do not require specialist training in science.
- The research is in a field in which I have expertise and peer-reviewed publications.
- The researcher is one the world’s leading experts in the field, is the head of a major laboratory, and is a full professor at one of the world’s top universities: if someone that prestigious can be held accountable, then almost any other university researcher could be as well.
Initially, I hoped to have the professor prosecuted for Misconduct in Public Office. It seems, however, that it is not certain that a professor is a public officer; so, it is probably not best to attempt to prosecute the professor. Perhaps, though, there is another way to proceed.
I submitted an allegation, to the University, of research fraud by the professor. That led to an investigation, by the University. The investigation was a blatant whitewash, as expected. The investigation was headed by the University registrar—who is a public officer. Hence, I wondered if the registrar could be prosecuted for Misconduct in Public Office.
Details for the case are on my web site:
Please let me know if you think that a private prosecution of the registrar would have a good chance of success.
After sending that, the firm and I have had some preliminary discussions. Subsequently, I retained the firm, to provide advice.
The law firm provided their advice on 9 February 2015. The advice presents two main conclusions.
The first conclusion is about whether a university professor is a public official. On this, the advice is negative. Thus, a university professor cannot, even in principle, be guilty of misconduct in public office.
The second conclusion is about whether the Oxford registrar might be guilty of misconduct in public office. On this, the advice tells that the registrar probably, but not certainly, is a public official. In any case, however, the registrar is innocent of misconduct. The reason is that the registrar followed proper procedures when conducting the investigation.
Government funding agencies
Ramsey is the director of the radiocarbon laboratory at the University of Oxford. (The laboratory is formally known as the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.) According to recent publications by the laboratory, “Funding for the laboratory comes from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)”. It has been suggested that I report Ramsey's fraud to NERC.
NERC is one of the UK Research Councils. The Research Councils have published Policy and Guidelines on Governance of Good Research Conduct (as noted above). Could the Policy and Guidelines be used to hold a scientist to account for fraud?
I had discussed a related issue with a Member of Parliament, The Right Hon. Peter Lilley, in early 2014. Lilley had then tabled the following Parliamentary Question.
To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills how many non-medical scientists have been found to have committed research misconduct in the last 30 years. 
The Answer to the Question, which was published in Hansard, seems to be confused. Hence, I submitted requests to the relevant Research Councils for more information. My requests were made under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to the Answer, NERC had found one case of research misconduct since 2010. The response to my Freedom-of-Information request, from NERC, is copied below.
In response to your enquiry …, our answer to the parliamentary question … appears to have been misquoted or possibly misunderstood. The initial question requested information relating to the past 30 years, but Hansard states ‘since 2010.’ The case in question goes back about 25 years and relates to a member of staff working for the Freshwater Biological Association who was found not to hold the qualification they claimed. In line with our records retention schedules, we do not hold any further details going back this far.
Thus, during the past 30 years, this was NERC's only case of research misconduct—and even this does not indicate that any research publication was fraudulent. Yet it is virtually inconceivable that during a 30-year period, every research publication was completely honest and honorable. I conclude that NERC's procedures for handling misconduct are a sham.
Considering everything that happened with the case, we can draw a general conclusion about the state of affairs in the UK. For an allegation of fraud in publicly-funded non-medical research, the situation is as follows. Government funding agencies will not investigate. Universities will not investigate. The legal system will not investigate.
|•||Allegations of research misconduct|
|•||Tree-ring data at Queen's University Belfast|
Nuwer R. (15 September 2014), “It's time to criminalise serious scientific misconduct”, New Scientist, 2986: 27. [An interview with Richard Smith.]
Sovacool B.K. (2005), “Using criminalization and due process to reduce scientific misconduct”, American Journal of Bioethics, 5: W1–W7. doi: 10.1080/15265160500313242.