It's Not Rick Perlstein's Scholarship that Seems to Be in Question. It's His Politics.

Historians in the News
tags: plagiarism

Mr. Hoffer is a historian at the University of Georgia. For many years he served on the committee of the American Historical Association that formerly policed the profession when allegations of wrongdoing arose.  He is the author of Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in the Writing of American History (2004).

Click here to follow HNN's full coverage.

First, it seems to me that in the four sets of parallel texts of Perlstein and Shirley presented in the HNN piece, taken from the Slate story, and provided by Shirley's lawyer (see how complex the trail of attribution can be!), there are phrases that are neither common usage and/or facts nor ideas. The former should be directly quoted, with specific page attribution, rather than paraphrased. Adding a link to the source text to an on-line set of endnotes is a nice touch, but does not obviate the duty to quote. Borrowing the exact terminology of another secondary source without quotation marks is plagiarism. By the by, plagiarism is a strict liability offense--intent does not matter. Even if you did not intend to run the stop sign, you are liable for the offense. But here the offenses seem minor, more like failing to signal when changing lanes, rather than running the stop sign. The reportage indicated that there were 45 such impermissible borrowings. If the four that Shirley's lawyer provided are the most telling, then I think Perlstein's offense is relatively minor. 

More important for me and more exculpatory for Perlstein is that he did provide ample evidence of exactly where he used secondary sources. Now the tale could have been told entirely with primary sources. But if he used secondary sources Perlstein would have been derelict in hiding their use, which brings me to my second thought.   

The second thought: where did Shirley get the language? Is it his own or did he borrow it from other places. My Kindle edition has citations for direct quotes, but only a few notes for the sources of Shirley's own narrative. There is a doctrine in equity pleading that goes, roughly, he who seeks equity should do equity. It's called the "clean hands" doctrine, and it applies here. If Shirley himself used secondary sources for his narrative, he should tell the reader what those sources were and from whence in those sources he took material. We cannot tell what and how much, or even how, he borrowed if he does not cite us line and verse. I'll not bet on it, but I would not be surprised, if he slipped a few times, as Perlstein may have slipped.    

Third, about the lawsuit: Simon and Schuster does not have the cleanest hands when it comes to plagiarism. They published Ambrose and defended him when evidence of plagiarism appeared in his books with them. His editor at Simon and Schuster was quoted as telling him and his readers that the allegations should not stop him from continuing to write. So, too, Goodwin published with Simon and Schuster a book that had plagiarized passages. Full disclosure: I discussed these cases in my own Past Imperfect  and found that the accusations of plagiarism were well founded. But the evidence against Perlstein that Shirley's lawyer offered does not come close to the evidence against Ambrose and Goodwin. 

Fourth, more about the lawsuit: Plagiarism is not a legally cognizable category. See Judge Posner's Little Book of Plagiarism.  But as he suggests on pages 34-35, it might be attacked in court as a species of fraud. The legal basis for the lawsuit would be copyright infringement. I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but Shirley would have to prove that his economic interest in his work would be harmed by the publication of Perlstein's book to win an injunction (stopping publication). It seems to me that the entire purpose of the suit is to do the exact opposite, and gain attention for Shirley's book. It is ten years since it was published, there is no new or revised edition, and the attack on Perlstein's alleged plagiarism has brought new interest in Shirley's book. The request for 25 million dollars in damages from Perlstein's publisher (the party with the deep pockets here) could only have been meant to attract media attention. How could a book not yet published have cost Shirley this much in lost revenue? One might then liken this to the "SLAPP" (strategic lawsuit against public participation, a phrase coined by George Pring and Penelope Canan, in SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out) offended moguls have lodged against far less well-funded journalists to force them to apologize and retract offending comments, but again this analogy may not be entirely apposite.  

If, and I mean if, that was the purpose of the suit, then the damages are a sideshow. The real purpose may be to undermine Perlstein's reputation. Remember that, like Shirley, Perstein is a journalist. His reputation rests on his writing. Cut into the foundations of trust in that writing and one cuts into the trust readers have in Perlstein's arguments. And make no mistake, as other journalists and political commentators have reminded us, the Reagan legacy is a vital part of the present political debate. speaking purely for myself, I don't think the American public has as much at stake here as the Republican Party. Its two wings seem to be battling to wear Reagan's mantle. My students do not remember Reagan, and his legacy does not meant that much to them. 

Finally, I think that Perlstein's reputation will survive the attack. it is precisely because it is seen as politically motivated, rather than driven by a real concern for scholarly standards, that it can be refuted as partisan malice. That is a shame, because Perlstein's work should be applauded or criticized on its own merits, rather than as part of a rhetorical campaign. The danger is that history will be viewed, and used, for political purposes. That denies to us the real lessons of history.  

comments powered by Disqus