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.

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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:

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."

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:

... so Eleanor composed herself, returned to the living room, and said in her most disarming manner: "It is kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?" At that, she turned to Marshall Field; she knew it was a bothersome responsibility, she said, but could he accept the chairmanship? Somewhat startled, the Chicago philanthropist and stalwart New Dealer did.

Here's a passage from No Ordinary Time, published in 1994:

... Eleanor quickly composed herself, walked back into the living room, and said in her most disarming manner, "It was kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?" At that, she turned immediately to Chicago philanthropist and New Deal loyalist Marshall Field; she knew it would be a bother for him, but could he accept? Though caught somewhat off guard, Field gave his assent ...

FDR, My Boss, by Grace Tully:

Near the end of the dinner Missy arose from her chair to tell me she felt ill and very tired. I urged her to excuse herself and go upstairs to bed but she insisted she would stay until the Boss left. He did so about 9:30 and within a few minutes Missy suddenly wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

No Ordinary Time:

Near the end of the dinner, Grace Tully recalled, Missy arose from her chair, saying she felt ill and very tired. Tully urged her to excuse herself and retire to her room, but she insisted on staying until the president left. He did so at 9:30 p.m. and, moments later, Missy let out a piercing scream, wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

Hugh Gregory Gallagher, FDR's Splendid Deception:

If, as happened once or twice, one of its members sought to violate it and try to sneak a picture of the President in his chair, one or another of the older photographers would "accidentally" knock the camera to the ground or otherwise block the picture.

No Ordinary Time:

If, as occasionally happened, one of the members of the press corps sought to violate the code by sneaking a picture of the president looking helpless, one of the older photographers would "accidentally" block the shot or gently knock the camera to the ground.

And so on. Goodwin told the Los Angeles Times that "as long as a person is credited" a writer enjoys "leeway to use some of the words. Just using individual words now and then, and when it is clear where it is coming from, that is what paraphrasing is." Wrong. To repeat Harvard's admonition:

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.

Chatterbox doubts this definitional exegesis will be news to Schlesinger, Blum, Dallek, or Wilentz, or to the journalists (David Halberstam, Walter Isaacson, and Evan Thomas) who also signed the letter. But he does hope this ends further debate about whether Doris Goodwin committed plagiarism. Anyone who pretends otherwise is blowing smoke.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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