In this post I outline an instance of academic defamation against me by medievalist Dr Helen Young.

I also share details of how the editors and publishers of the journal have refused to investigate and retract the defamation.

The false claims appeared in December 2020 in the journal postmedieval and the assertions were made without any supporting evidence or citations:

  • that I’m allied to a white supremacists YouTuber
  • that I have ‘attacked’ ‘medievalists of colour’
  • that I’m aligned with those who regard scholars of colour as ‘invading’ the field of medieval studies

Having attempted to resolve the matter in private, I now write an open letter.

I fully refute these unfounded allegations and openly call for their retraction.

Outline and background

First, I outline the venue and context of the defamation. I detail those responsible (the author) and complicit (editors and publishers). I then chart my attempts to request a retraction which have been passed over by both present general editors of the journal, dismissed by the past general editors and ignored by the journal’s publisher: Palgrave Macmillan. I conclude with a reflection on the dangers of these behaviours for the future of the interdisciplinary field of medieval studies and its aspirations for greater inclusivity.

Before proceeding, it is important that I state that I have never met or communicated with Dr Helen Young directly. To the best of my knowledge, I have received no letters, telephone messages or emails from them and I regard myself as having no personal or professional disagreement with Dr Helen Young. However, from autumn 2019, I became aware she has already co-authored a defamatory blog-post about me which I discuss towards the end of this piece. Given Dr Helen Young’s existing and unprovoked antagonism towards me and my work, I have not attempted to communicate with them directly in this instance.

The venue and context of defamation

The defamation in question was published in volume 11, issue 4 for 2020 in the postmedieval journal. Published by Palgrave Macmillan and distributed online by Springer Nature, the journal has its own website here.

  • The author of the unsubstantiated defamation was Dr Helen Young, Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University, Australia, in an article titled ‘Race, medievalism and the eigtheenth-century Gothic turn‘.
  • The journal lists itself as ‘peer-reviewed‘, so at least two further anonymous scholars must have read Dr Helen Young’s draft manuscript at least once and recommended the publication of the defamatory sentences;
  • The postmedieval issue in question was themed ‘Race, Revulsion, and Revolution’, guest-edited by Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, M. Breanna Leake and Micah James Goodrich who must have read Dr Helen Young’s defamation at least once and facilitated its publication;
  • The general editors of postmedieval to the end of 2020 were Professor Myra Seaman and Professor Lara Farina and they must have retained overall responsibility for the contents of the special issue;
  • From the start 2021, the new general editors of postmedieval were Dr Shazia Jagot, Professor Julie Orlemanski and Professor Sara Ritchey. While clearly not responsible for overseeing the publication of volume 11 issue 4, they do have current responsibility for all complaints and requests for retractions. These responsibilities are outlined on the Palgrave Macmillan website here for editors and here for authors. Palgrave Macmillan explicitly state that the editors’ role is to ‘Allow authors the right to appeal any editorial decision’ and ‘be ready and prepared to publish corrections, corrigenda, errata when necessary as well as to retract articles that (the editor and Palgrave Macmillan) deem unethical, misleading or damaging’.
  • The managing editor for postmedieval is listed as Francesca Petrizzo who appears affiliated with the University of Leeds and I presume would be consulted regarding my complaint and request for retraction relating to published material in postmedieval.
  • The postmedieval editorial board are listed on the Palgrave Macmillan website and by association, they are also implicated in this issue, if only with regard to their individual and collective academic reputations. Still, I note the editorial board includes the aforementioned former general editors Professors Seaman and Farina.

In summary, there is an a priori case that all of the aforementioned individuals share responsibility for publishing the defamation and/or refusing my request for the retraction of the defamatory content.

Reporting the defamation

Contacting the editors

I was made aware of the defamation in early February 2021. I contacted the first general editor whose details were available on the website – Dr Shazia Jagot – on 14 February 2021.

Dear Dr Jagot,

I colleague alerted me to the publication of an article in your journal by Dr Helen Young which contains the following statement:

“The same video praises by name Professor Howard Williams, a UK-based archaeologist who, among other white academics, publicly, actively, and dismissively resisted that advocacy and attacked the people engaged in it – specifically, medievalists of color.”

Might you please confirm that this is indeed published as the version of record under your editorship? I attach the pdf I’ve just downloaded which does seem to be the case,

With thanks,

Dr Jagot correctly alerted me to the fact that she had not been editor for that issue in question but she said:

I would be happy for my query to be passed on to the rest of your new editorial team and the previous co-editors, with the additional query regarding how I might go about requesting a retraction of the unfair, unsubstantiated and defamatory passage I quoted in my first communication.

In the following exchange with Dr Jagot, she explained that the former general editors were in fact Professors Seaman and Farina who oversaw the guest editorship of Rambaran-Olm, Leake and Goodrich. Rather than take it to Palgrave Macmillan, she proposed forwarding my request to the former general editors. I agreed for the request of retraction to be passed on to them.

The response from the past editors

The response from Professors Myra Seaman and Lara Farina was astonishing. They didn’t even wait for me to share relevant evidence or outline the nature of the defamation. Rather than investigating, they claimed partial responsibility for the published defamation, and then claimed they had seen evidence provided by Dr Helen Young substantiating their uncited claims, evidence which I know does not exist and they have not shared (see my letter to Palgrave Macmillan below). In an email dated 17 February from Professor Myra Seaman, copying in Professor Lara Farina, they joint authored the following statement:

Our colleague Shazia Jagot has shared with us an email exchange she had with you over the past couple of days regarding a statement in an article by Helen Young that postmedieval published in issue 11.4. As editors of postmedieval at the time of the issue’s publication, we stand by the statement. Dr. Young provided us with evidence supporting their claims, and the description in the article is appropriate to the evidence we have seen. Nothing suggests to us that the statement is unwarranted.

Contacting Palgrave Macmillan

I tried other routes to gain a retraction, but then decided it was best that I report the incident directly to Palgrave Macmillan via their ethics email: publicationethics@palgrave.com. I attached relevant evidence. I sent this first on 10 March 2021 and (having received no reply), I sent a reminder on 30 March 2021. I received no reply to either communication. Here is my original 10 March 2021 letter:

Dear Palgrave Macmillan,

I’m writing in relation to defamation published 21 December 2020 in the journal Postmedieval 11(4) authored by Dr Helen Young in the article titled ‘Race, medievalism and the eighteenth-century Gothic turn’ (‘Postmedieval contents’ attached screenshot; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41280-020-00203-7). The statements in question by Dr Young appear in a single paragraph in the introduction to the article beginning ‘The white racial direction of the eighteenth-century medievalist turn has yet to be corrected.’ (see attached ‘Young 2020 intro’ screenshot).

In this paragraph, Dr Young names me in relation to the following 3 connected points, none of which are supported by evidence:

Dr Young mentions me by name as ‘Professor Howard Williams, a UK-based archaeologist’, claiming I’m ‘praised’ by the YouTuber ‘Survive the Jive’, described by Dr Young as a ‘white supremacist’. She thus directly implies I’m associated with that individuals’ views and with white supremacism more broadly. The video in question is not cited and no evidence is cited to back up this gross mischaracterisation of my academic work. The only possible evidence which might exist as a basis for Dr Young’s claims is a 70-minute long video by this YouTuber where he briefly mentions my Archaeodeath blog regarding the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. However, rather than standing as ‘praise’ of me as Dr Young suggests, ‘Survive the Jive’ dismisses my stance on the responsible use of the term as ‘feeble’. I have no association or communication with this individual and do not agree with his videos or views on this matter. Rather than based on evidence, cited or otherwise, Dr Helen Young has published in Postmedieval a false narrative crafted by Dr Erik Wade, an author in the same issue of Postmedieval (see ‘Postmedieval contents’ screenshot), who made the same unsupported claim on 29 October 2019 (see attachment Wade 29 Oct 2019 screenshot).

Dr Young then mischaracterises me as ‘among other white academics’ and then she describes me as ‘publicly, actively and dismissively’ responding to ‘advocacy’ and being responsible for having ‘attacked the people engaged in it, specifically, medievalists of color’. If this pertains to my blog-posts and publications on the topic of the responsible and critical use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, my publications cannot be characterised as an ‘attack’ upon or ‘dismissal’ of any one scholar or group of scholars, and certainly not ‘medievalists of color’. My blog-posts can be found here: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/category/anglo-saxon/ and my Aeon magazine article is published here: https://aeon.co/essays/why-we-should-keep-the-term-anglo-saxon-in-archaeology. I’m also the author of a series of peer-reviewed academic journal articles and book chapters on the history of Anglo-Saxon archaeology that tackle some of the issues Dr Young claims have ‘yet to be corrected’. I attach a blog-post summarising these but I’m happy to share my academic publications to help provide further context as required: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2016/11/09/archaeodeath-on-the-history-of-anglo-saxon-archaeology/

Next, Dr Young states “’Survive the Jive’ and his ilk” regard medievalists of colour as “’invading’ the scholarly field’ and makes the claim this ‘sentiment has been echoed on social media and listserves by white medievalist academics’. While I am not mentioned in this specific sentence, by association with the preceding sentence, this implies I have been party to such views.

I was alerted to this last month (14 February) having seen Dr Young’s statements about me circulated widely on social media by Dr Erik Wade (see ‘Wade 3 Feb 2020’ Twitter screenshot). In the first instance I approached the listed editor of Postmedieval Dr Shazia Jagot to (a) confirm that I was viewing a published version of record and (b) to request a retraction of the statements by Dr Young. Dr Jagot explained she was part of an all-new editorial board and instead could she share my email with the former editors. I agreed, but then hesitated, only at that point realising that the issue in question had been guest edited by three individuals, one of whom has publicly slurred me on social media. Not wishing to pursue further conflict with this individual, I indicated to Dr Jagot that was probably best I don’t pursue this issue with them. However, Dr Jagot assured me that the former editors of Postmedieval in question were not the guest editors, but instead Professor Myra Seaman and Professor Lara Farina. With that information made available, I agreed to let Dr Jagot share my request.

The response below is the result: rather than investigating my request and asking me to share supporting information with them, I received a response from Professor Seaman and Professor Farina which claims to have seen ‘evidence’ provided by Dr Helen Young ‘supporting her claims’. This evidence hasn’t been shared with me. Rather than taking this further and dealing with my request for retraction, it seems Professors Seaman and Farina have positioned themselves as knowingly publishing the defamation. This is in stark contradiction with Palgrave Macmillan’s ethics policy and guidelines on reactions which states explicitly that ‘editors should consider retracting a publication if ‘Copyright has been infringed or there is some other serious legal issue (eg. Libel, privacy). https://publicationethics.org/retraction-guidelines. Both editors and author are clearly in breach of the Palgrave Macmillan Journals Ethics Policy: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/journal-authors/ethics-policy/10052358

In sum, Dr Helen Young has published defamation in your journal Postmedieval without supporting evidence. I contacted the current editors requesting a retraction. With my permission, the current editors approached the former editors of Postmedieval to respond to my request. Those editors have indicated their participation and approval of the published defamation. Neither current nor former editors have provided evidence backing up Dr Young’s unsupported allegations and it seems they have not investigated the matter.

Finally, I would note that via Dr Erik Wade and others this article has now been widely circulated on social media and the statistics at the time of writing show it has been accessed 937 times.

I now pass it onto you for your attention in the hope of a speedy resolution.

Yours sincerely,

Howard Williams

Reflections

I am upset by this turn of events and these false allegations aimed at discrediting me and my work. My academic work and public engagement has sought to maintain a critical yet courteous approach to investigating key issues in the archaeology of early medieval North West Europe and its present-day reception and misappropriation.

Equally, I’m surprised and disturbed at the unethical refusal of postmedieval and Palgrave Macmillan to investigate my request for the retraction of Dr Helen Young’s false claims.

In regards to my responsible, reasoned and ethical stance on the careful and critical use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in academic research and in public archaeology and heritage contexts (which seems to be the issue which has prompted these accusations), my stance is outlined in my academic Archaeodeath blog and a series of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. Indeed, my 2020 co-edited book, Digging into the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Public Archaeologies draws together a host of original perspectives on how early medieval archaeology can interact in constructive and robust fashions with political uses and abuses as well as broader popular culture receptions of the Early Middle Ages in the early 21st century and I explicitly address how to contend with extremist (including white supremacist) appropriations of the field.

Dr Helen Young neither cited or shows any awareness of my published works when writing their defamatory and unsubstantiated claims.

I have never indulged, supported or sustained white supremacist and racist beliefs, views and behaviours in my personal or academic life.

I continue to strive to do my utmost to challenge and combat white supremacist, racist and other extremist misappropriations in medieval studies.

Previous defamation by Dr Helen Young

As stated above, I regard myself as having no personal or professional disagreement with Dr Helen Young. However, she has prior form in attacking me and misrepresenting my work. In 2019, together with one Dr Kevin Caliendo, Dr Helen Young published an ad hominem defamatory tirade against me and my work via a blog-post.

That post created a false narrative about me and my work whilst it omitted citing any of my publications and social media posts accurately or fairly. It constituted a gross mischaracterised my academic and personal views.

Dr Helen Young and her colleagues

A few words on context. Dr Helen Young is one of a small group of medievalists well-versed in using social media to mischaracterise and misinform regarding the work of other scholars in order to discredit and defame them whilst simultaneously promoting themselves. They are also not adverse to do this at the expense of students, junior scholars, scholars of colour and other marginalised academics, professionals and amateurs.

Dr Young and their associates thus orchestrate bullying and facilitate abuse online by holding fiefdom over specialist community pages and hashtags, mobilising support via the fragile egos of some senior scholars, and egged on by a small clique of core followers. They are clearly emboldened to take things one stage further and publish defamation in venues which claim to be subject to rigorous scholarly standards and peer-review. This is why this instance of defamation is particularly concerning.

Why this matters: a broader pattern of behaviours

Dr Helen Young is seemingly attempting to disseminate unsubstantiated allegations and flagrant abuse within the apparatus of prestigious academic publishers which affords their work with the superficial veneer of scholarly legitimacy and ethical standards.

In the case of postmedieval, it is shameful that peer-reviewers, guest editors, past and present general editors and seemingly also the editorial manager and publisher have facilitated such abusive and unethical behaviours.

By their own admission, Professors Seaman and Farina ‘stand by’ the defamation of Dr Helen Young, falsely claiming they have had sight of evidence shared with them which they are unable to produce since it does not exist. Meanwhile, neither past nor present general editors, nor Palgrave Macmillan themselves, will recognise my complaint and requests for retraction.

As a community of scholars, we must adopt a zero-tolerance approach to these unethical and damaging behaviours and challenge those individuals, academic institutions and organisations, and also the academic publishers, who facilitate abuse and defamation.

Conclusion

I was unable to pursue this matter further in early 2021 since, from April onwards, I became involved in a redundancy process and subsequent campaigning in support of colleagues and departments under threat at other higher education institutions in the UK, including Leicester, Sheffield and Worcester. I also could not respond due to personal circumstances.

For these combined reasons, I was concerned regarding the impact of this defamation on myself, but also my family, friends, colleagues and students and thought it best to stay silent temporarily.

Only now do I have the time and fortitude to tackle this upsetting issue once again.

I fear posting this open letter risks drawing further attention to the defamation otherwise hidden in a relatively obscure academic venue. Likewise, it risks attracting more baseless online defamation from Dr Helen Young and her associates. Yet, Dr Helen Young and her editors chose to publish this to denigrate me and my work and this should not stand unopposed and without retraction.

Furthermore, Dr Helen Young’s defamation does not simply affect me; it brings the field of medieval studies, and the postmedieval journal itself, and the journal’s publisher into disrepute.

More importantly, I’m concerned that the tactics of Dr Helen Young and their associates will be replicated to discredit, bully and silence others, including others far more vulnerable than myself. Such behaviours stifle critical thinking and debate by creating a toxic environment for students and scholars alike as well as the wider publics we hope to involve in our work. Specifically, unethical and defamatory statements of the kind made by Dr Helen Young make medieval studies increasingly distant from the diverse and inclusive field we hope it can become.

For these reasons, Dr Helen Young’s lies must not be allowed to stand.

So, having tried to unsuccessfully resolve the matter privately earlier this year, I’m going public with this unfortunate and disturbing situation.

I now require an apology from the author of the defamatory piece (Dr Helen Young), postmedieval‘s editors and editorial board, and the publisher Palgrave McMillan.