Historians Rewrite History
The campaign to exonerate Doris Goodwin.
Chatterbox never intended to revisit the Doris Goodwin plagiarism case. She's paid her dues, however unwillingly, and her forthcoming book about Abraham Lincoln deserves to be judged on its merits. But when the New York Times publishes a letter denying Goodwin ever committed plagiarism—signed by a pack of distinguished historians, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Morton Blum, Robert Dallek, and Sean Wilentz—the violence done to the truth is too much to bear silently. Historians, of all people, should know better than to rewrite history.
The letter in question appeared in the Oct. 25 New York Times. (To read it, click here.) It was written in response to an Oct. 4 Times story headlined "Are More People Cheating?" that placed Goodwin in the same rogue's gallery as former Tyco Chairman L. Dennis Kozlowski and accused rapist (and confirmed adulterer) Kobe Bryant. Admittedly, that was pretty rough, perhaps rougher than necessary. But what really seems to have provoked the historians' ire was the following perfectly accurate sentence: "Renowned historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose have plagiarized colleagues' work." In response, the historians wrote:
Plagiarism is a deliberate intent to purloin the words of another and to represent them as one's own.
Ms. Goodwin did not intentionally pass off someone else's words as her own. Her sources in her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, were elaborately credited and footnoted. Her errors resulted from inadvertence, not intent.
She did not, she does not, cheat or plagiarize. In fact, her character and work symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity.
Let's break this down into three parts.
1) Inadvertent copying isn't plagiarism. False. The sixth (i.e., latest) edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, published by the Modern Language Association, has an entire section devoted to "unintentional plagiarism." The MLA is the nation's pre-eminent arbiter of proper and improper sourcing methods. "Plagiarism," saith the MLA Handbook,
sometimes happens because researchers do not keep precise records of their reading, and by the time they return to their notes, they have forgotten whether their summaries and paraphrases contain quoted material that is poorly marked or unmarked.
This is precisely what Goodwin says she did.
The plagiarist's standard defense—that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes—is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. … Faced with charges of failing to acknowledge dependence on certain sources, a historian usually pleads that the lapse was inadvertent. This excuse will be easily disposed of if scholars take seriously the injunction to check their manuscripts against the underlying texts prior to publication.
Chatterbox has previously noted that the plagiarism definition given to freshmen at Harvard, whose board of overseers Goodwin sat on when the Weekly Standard first made public Goodwin's borrowings—many years earlier, Goodwin had also taught in Harvard's government department—actually describes unintentional plagiarism as the most common variety:
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Doris Kearns Goodwin by Alex Wong/Getty Images.