Historians rewrite history.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 13 2003 7:23 PM

Historians Rewrite History

The campaign to exonerate Doris Goodwin.

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Most often … the plagiarist has started out with good intentions but hasn't left enough time to do the reading and thinking that the assignment requires, has become desperate, and just wants the whole thing done with. At this point, in one common scenario, the student gets careless while taking notes on a source or incorporating notes into a draft, so the source's words and ideas blur into those of the student.

If there's a single reputable academic (or, for that matter, journalistic) institution that declines to categorize accidental borrowing as plagiarism, Chatterbox is unaware of it. Rick Shenkman, an associate professor of history at George Mason University and editor of its History News Network Web site, told Chatterbox, "We surveyed college plagiarism standards around the country. … [N]one of these standards provided an exemption for intent."

Caveat: Prior to 1990, the American Historical Association did include the phrase "with an intent to deceive" in its definition of plagiarism. Goodwin has argued, on this basis, that her borrowings weren't plagiarism at the time they were written. The MLA's guidelines, however, did not contain this loophole, and neither did Harvard's, as best Chatterbox (class of 1980) can recall. And anyway, the only logical terminology to apply as we debate this in 2003 is contemporary. "This is a distinction without a difference," historian Stanley Kutler told Chatterbox. "Simply put, intent alone does not make plagiarism. Negligence, whether purposeful or inadvertent, does just fine."

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2) It isn't plagiarism if you footnote the source. Wrong again. Here's the MLA Guide:

Presenting an author's exact wording without marking it as a quotation is plagiarism, even if you cite the source [italics Chatterbox's].

Here's the AHA and the OAH:

Plagiarism includes more subtle and perhaps more pernicious abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism also includes the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another person's distinctive and significant research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations, or an extended borrowing even with attribution[italics Chatterbox's].

Here's Harvard:

If your own sentences follow the source so closely in idea and sentence structure that the result is really closer to quotation than to paraphrase … you are plagiarizing, even if you have cited the source[italics Chatterbox's].

3) Goodwin's "character and work symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity." Goodwin is no Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass. What she did was wrong, but it shouldn't be career-destroying. Nonetheless, it's quite a stretch to say that Goodwin hews to the "highest standards of moral integrity." A true moral exemplar wouldn't duck the "plagiarism" label, as Goodwin has. And a true moral exemplar wouldn't have hidden the evidence of her plagiarism for many years, acknowledging it only after the press found out about it. That's exactly what Goodwin did. Goodwin's best-known borrowings were lifted from Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, a biography of JFK's high-spirited sister. The author Lynne McTaggart discovered the plagiarism in the late 1980s, threatened legal action, and reached a quiet settlement with Goodwin's publisher, Simon & Schuster. Goodwin didn't come clean even about her "inadvertence" until news of it broke last year in the Weekly Standard. More to the point, Goodwin left the plagiarized portions intact in subsequent editions of the book in question, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, until the Weekly Standard revelations compelled her to fix them.

Moreover, Goodwin is no one-time offender. In August 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a story by Peter King reporting that Goodwin's subsequent book, No Ordinary Time, also contained passages that were lifted from other books (though once again, Goodwin had scrupulously footnoted). Here's a passage from Joseph Lash's 1971 biography, Eleanor and Franklin: