Historians rewrite history.

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

Historians Rewrite History

The campaign to exonerate Doris Goodwin.

No pass for Goodwin
No pass for 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.

Advertisement

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 American Historical Association's "Statement on Plagiarism" (which has also been adopted by the Organization of American Historians) similarly fails to recognize any exemption based on intent:

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:

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.