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I Stood Accused of Plagiarism

Illustration by Curtiss Calleo

Editor's Note: Over the last two months we have circulated Mr. Oates's piece to the people he refers to by name in order to give them a chance to respond. Those who chose to respond are listed below.


Bob Bray
Michael Burlingame
Arnita A. Jones (on behalf of the American Historical Association)
Walter W. Stewart and Ned Feder
Robert L. Zangrando



A Nightmare Tale of Ruthless Accusers, A Misused 'Plagiarism Machine,' An Orwellian Star Chamber, an Unscrupulous Verdict, and Hopeless Confusion About Definitions

A recent Saturday edition of the New York Times carried an article about plagiarism with the flippant title,"Stop, Historian! Don't Copy That Passage." The article was inspired by the recent sensationalized allegations of plagiarism against two of our finest historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. The author of the article discussed them briefly and described the plagiarism machines now"humming" across the country. But she devoted a good part of her account to my"famous" plagiarism case of some years ago. Her story was cruelly slanted in favor of my accusers and the American Historical Association's Star Chamber, which handed down an infamous ruling in the case. The author never bothered to interview me or to make a single mention in her article of my side of the story. Here is what really happened in this sordid affair.



In February 1993 Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, accused me of plagiarizing several of my historical biographies. Plagiarism is the most serious charge that can be made against an author; the accusation alone is so lethal that it can do irreparable damage to a writer's career. Yet that did not deter Stewart and Feder from raising the cry against me. After all, they had made a name for themselves as"fraud busters" by attacking scientists in highly publicized cases. Spurred on by Michael Burlingame, a Connecticut College historian who's made the destruction of my books his raison d'etre, the two scientists subjected several of my biographies to a so-called plagiarism machine, twin computers rigged up in their NIH office to scan texts in search of their idea of plagiarism. My books were the only biographies and histories investigated. Unfazed by their lack of expertise in historical writing, Stewart and Feder announced that they had found"hundreds of examples of plagiarism" in my work and circulated a box of allegations, 1,400 pages worth, to reporters and scholars nationwide. They mailed the boxes by Federal Express, I might add, and charged it to the government.

Because the press thrives on accusation, the Stewart/Feder"findings" generated sensational headlines; Time Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Associated Press and the Chronicle of Higher Education, not to mention Science and other periodicals, ran stories about Stewart and Feder and featured their allegations (but not my public rebuttal of them) in sidebars.

The Stewart/Feder attack climaxed an obstreperous public debate that began in 1990-1991, when a literary critic, a professor of classics, an associate professor of criminology, and two historians publicly charged that I had plagiarized in writing With Malice Toward None, my life of Lincoln. They cited as evidence similarities of phrases and short bits of factual matter between my account of Lincoln's early years and that in Benjamin Thomas's 1952 biography. From the outset, my accusers were out for publicity. Instead of sending me their allegations and asking for a response, my original challengers, literary critic Robert Bray and historian Cullom Davis, presented their allegations at a symposium of the Illinois State Historical Society, which had elected not to forewarn me about the nature of the complaint (I learned about it later, from a reporter). According to a historian who was present, the symposium organizers hoped that the charges would get into the New York Times the next morning; they were"disappointed" when the Times ignored them.

After that, the three other accusers joined the attack. One after another, this cabal of five filed complaints and follow-up complaints with the Washington, D.C., based American Historical Association, the self-appointed policeman of the historical profession. As each complaint came in, AHA Executive Director Samuel R. Gammon and AHA Deputy Executive Director James B. Gardner, turned it over to the professional division, which handles plagiarism cases and which then consisted of"Professors Susan M. Socolow (vice-president of the division), Nell Irvin Painter, David M. Katzman, Barbara A. Engel. and Anand H. Yang. As called for by their rules, Gardner officially notified me of each complaint and gave me exactly ninety days to respond. At the same time, disregarding the AHA rules about confidentiality in plagiarism cases, Davis and Bray gave interviews to newspapers, and all five accusers circulated their charges to scholars and writers across the country. The AHA officials made no attempt to restrain them.


Since I am not a member of the American Historical Association, I denied its jurisdiction over me and refused to submit to the summons of Socolow, Painter, Katzman, Engel and Yang. But because a public attack required a public response, I issued a rebuttal to the press and to the community of Lincoln and Civil War scholars, my true peers. After carefully reviewing the allegations, 23 nationally prominent historians, including 5 Pulitzer Prize winners, issued a public statement rejecting the allegations of plagiarism as"totally unfounded." Subsequently, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, my employer, announced that"distinguished scholars of two departments" had examined the charges and had found them"groundless." The AHA professional division and council, after dragging the case out for a year and a half, handed down a verdict absolving me of the charge of plagiarism, but rebuking me for not having enough references to Benjamin Thomas's biography. I and other Lincoln scholars disputed that point, since Thomas's scholarship is cited repeatedly in my references and since Thomas's own biography has no references at all--only a general discussion of sources at the back. In fact, there are no guidelines for what is sufficient acknowledgment of sources in popular biographies and histories. Thousands of such works including a great many on Lincoln have been published with no footnotes and no bibliographies at all. In my view, the AHA professional division had no business passing judgment in an area of historical writing devoid of any recognized standard.

Meanwhile, anticipating the AHA decision against plagiarism, Michael Burlingame, the last accuser to join the pack, took the case to Stewart and Feder. Burlingame said he was convinced that I was guilty of plagiarism and asked them to prove it by running my life of Lincoln and several of my other biographies through their plagiarism machine. The two zealots leaped at the chance--and wasted no time disseminating the results to an eager press.

With the help of my wife, Marie Phillips, who holds an advanced degree in public administration, I filed a formal complaint with the NIH and other Federal officials, asking where a couple of government scientists got the authority to investigate a private citizen in the humanities doing so at taxpayers expense in a government office with government machines. Asserting that Stewart and Feder had strayed far beyond the NIH's mission, their supervisors had the good sense to unplug their machine, confiscate their box of allegations against me and have the two"reassigned." But that didn't stop them from railing on about my alleged plagiarism, or from reassuring potential users that their software was a legitimate anti-plagiarism device.

Meanwhile, the two scientists filed a fonl1al complaint with the American Historical Association's professional division, now headed by Professor Drew Gilpin Faust and including professors Paul K. Conkin and Claire G. Moses in addition to Nell Irvin Painter and Anand Yang. In May 1993, after Stewart and Feder had been shut down, AHA Deputy Executive Director James B. Gardner informed me that the professional division had accepted Stewart and Feder's now discredited charges against three of my biographies, those of Nat Turner, William Faulkner, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and was officially launching an investigation. The members of the professional division picked out some 80 pages of the Stewart/Feder complaint and gave me ninety days to respond to them. In December 1993, Professors Faust, Conkin, Moses, Painter and Yang handed down a decision on the Stewart-Feder complaint, finding no plagiarism in my books as it is" conventionally" defined, but faulting me for"misuse," a new AHA category of misconduct the professional division had designed specifically for my book (the term itself wasn't used, but its definition was). As the Washington Post editorialized on January 8, the AHA decision"sowed" confusion in and out of academe.

What follows is the full story of that decision, the story that did not appear in the press. The story is about perfidy and an abuse of power on the part of the leaders of a formidable historical association, and the threat their anti-p1agiarism crusade poses to all historical writing. Let us begin with a crucial point in the debate.


Plagiarism is not what Stewart and Feder say it is."The nifty thing about plagiarism," Stewart asserts,"is that it's a simple, well-defined form of misconduct that can be easily detected." If so, what is the need for his plagiarism machine? According to Stewart and Feder, the copying of a single word or phrase, without quotation marks and attribution, is plagiarism no matter how commonplace the words may be. These examples were in their brief against me:"balcony of the Tremont house" and" cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue." Their definition is so relentlessly restrictive that no writing could ever be done if it becomes the standard. Nevertheless at a conference on plagiarism at the National Institutes of Health, several self-styled"whistle-blowers" argued that it should be the standard.

The most recent AHA definition of plagiarism is"the expropriation of another author's text and the presentation of it as one's own." This is distressingly vague. What constitutes"another author's text"? A phrase? a sentence? a paragraph? Trying to explain the definition at the NIH conference on plagiarism, AHA Deputy Executive Director James Gardner said:"This definition does not require that the expropriated text be of a specific length; sentence, paragraph, page ... no reference to that at all. It In short,"the dimension of length" for plagiarism as one critic noted, can be construed as only"one word!" It Is there any wonder that confusion and consternation reign"both inside and outside academia"?

What's additionally troubling is that a scholarly, authoritative definition of plagiarism has been in the public domain for decades, yet it's been almost totally ignored in the uproar over my case. This definition was put forth by a genuine expert, Alexander Lindey, in his 1952 study, Plagiarism and Originality, published by Harper & Brothers. Never challenged on any moral, legal, or intellectual grounds, Lindey's definition is lucid, concise, and sensible. He states:


Plagiarism is literary--or artistic or musical--theft. It is the false assumption of authorship: the wrongful act of taking the product of another person's mind, and presenting it as one's own. Copying someone else's story or play or song intact or with inconsequential changes, and adding one's name to the result constitute a simple illustration of plagiarism.


Lindey's definition was the standard when I wrote my biographies, and it is the one by which I should be judged. I did not copy"someone else's story" and sign my name to it. I did not expropriate anyone else's sentences, paragraphs, and pages verbatim or with only"inconsequential changes." Nor did I do anything that constitutes"verbal fraud" as defined by Lindey or by common sense.

In one of the most perceptive passages in his book Lindey warns that"any method of comparison which lists and underscores similarities and suppresses or minimizes differences is necessarily misleading." Yet that is precisely the method used by the AHA professional division and by my accusers.


In 1986, the officials of the AHA assumed the power to police the writing of history, arguing that this fell within the meaning of the organization's congressional charter. Yet nothing in that charter or in any other source, empowers the association to function as the historical profession's"ethical watchdog," as Susan Socolow phrased it (the charter merely authorizes the AHA to"promote an interest in history"). Nevertheless, cheered on by Thomas Mallon, the author of a book on plagiarism who has his own agenda, the AHA professional division and council, ignoring Lindey's definition of plagiarism, adopted an inferior version written by Professors John Higham and Robert Zangrando. Plagiarism, they said, was verbal theft,"the expropriation of another author's findings, interpretations, or text) presented thereafter as one's own creation without proper attribution." This was so broad and imprecise that almost anything could be construed as plagiarism. To make matters worse, the AHA exhorted historians to blow the whistle on one another, and signaled its willingness to accept complaints against historians from anybody, in any field (this obliged the AHA to accept the series of orchestrated charges and follow-up charges brought against me by people outside history). The AHA leaders also assumed the right to prosecute non-members and members alike.

With that, the AHA professional division started adjudicating plagiarism complaints; it did so in star-chamber proceedings which excluded the accused and from which there was no appeal. Like the Red Queen's court in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the AHA professional division, council, and executive directors proceeded to make up the rules as they went along. In 1990 they amended the AHA statement on plagiarism. Next they dropped"with intent to deceive." Thus, mistakes made in the Ions journey from note-taking to composition, revisions, copyediting, page proofs, and publication could put a historian or biographer in the AHA's jailhouse. In 1993 the professional division and council again redefined plagiarism, adding a new and"equally unethical" category,"misuse." None of these definitions was ever submitted to the AHA membership for ratification. The AHA's"Statement on Plagiarism and Related Misuses of the Work of Other Authors" adopted in 1986, amended in 1990, and amended again in 1993, now read:


The expropriation of another author's text, and the presentation of it as one's own, constitutes plagiarism, and is a serious violation of the ethics of scholarship....

The misuse of the writings of another author, even when one does not borrow the exact wording, can be as unfair, as unethical, and as unprofessional as plagiarism. Such misuse includes the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another historian's distinctive and significant research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations, or an extended borrowing even with attribution. ... [A historian] ... should never simply borrow and rephrase the findings of other scholars.

Both plagiarism and the misuse of the findings and interpretations of other scholars take many forms. The clearest abuse is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation. More subtle abuses include the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences, or reference to a borrowed work in an early note and then extensive further use without attribution.


The sweeping vagueness of this statement ought to horrify every writer, editor, and publisher in the country. If"misuse" can be"as unfair, as unethical, and as unprofessional as plagiarism," why not call it plagiarism? What, moreover, is meant by"limited borrowing, without attribution," or"an extended borrowing, even with attribution," of another scholar's"research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations"? Can anyone pretend to understand the final sentence of the above quotation? None of the AHA Statement is clarified; no examples are given. The new rules mean whatever AHA officials and accusers wish them to mean.

In her report for 1992, Susan Socolow, outgoing head of the professional division, conceded that"We continue to tinker with our Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct." A year later, they were still"tinkering" with it. While failing over eight years to produce a clear, authoritative guideline (the AHA's various statements on plagiarism do not even mention Lindey), the professional division has persisted in judging complaints and handing down verdicts that affect people's careers and livelihood. To make matters worse, the division applies its ever-changing rules retroactively, to books and articles published before the rules were adopted.

On one level this is sheer academic bungling, an example of over-zealous scholars, ill-versed in such matters as due process and common sense, making a mess of things. But on a deeper level it is about power--about a small group of scholars detonated to make theirs the premier historical society in America and to impose their notion of standards on an entire discipline. Like any group consolidating power, they will run right over anyone who challenges them. I offer what happened to me as an example.

Because I am not a member of the AHA and did not vote in the elections that brought its current leaders to office, I once again denied the AHA's jurisdiction over me and refused to respond when the association demanded I answer to the Stewart-Feder charges (the professional division's handling of the earlier complaints against my life of Lincoln convinced me that it didn't treat the accused fairly). The professional division--Faust. Conkin, Painter, Moses, and Yang--ignored my refusal and"volunteered" me to participate in their quasi-legal proceedings in which they functioned as prosecutor, judge, and jury. When I demanded that the professional division grant me minimal due process, in the form of a fair and open hearing, so that I could face my accusers and judges with my attorneys present, the members rejected my request because the AHA guidelines do not provide for such a hearing. When my attorneys asked by which AHA standard my books were to be judged, we were assured that it would be by the 1990 statement on plagiarism. So the AHA's attorney, Albert Beveridge, III, of Washington, D.C., wrote my lawyers. And so AHA Deputy Executive Director Gardner wrote me. Both Beveridge and Gardner were speaking for the professional division. Still denying the AHA's jurisdiction over me, I nevertheless wrote a 6O-page refutation of the Stewart-Feder charges and mode of analysis, shaping it according to the AHA's 1990 definition of plagiarism, and my lawyers shared my refutation with Beveridge to enlighten him about my position. Beveridge then released the material to the AHA professional division.

The members of that division misled us. Unable to find me guilty of their 1990 definition of plagiarism ("the expropriation of another author's findings, interpretation, or text, presented thereafter as one's own creation"), Conkin, Faust, Painter, and their colleagues devised the new category of"misuse" and applied that to my work. This was done in May, 1993, three months after Stewart and Feder had filed their complaint.

Having adopted misuse, the professional division then convicted me of violating it in books published years before, in 1975, 1982, and 1987."Mr. Oates." the verdict states, relied too much and too consistently, even with attribution, on"the structure, distinctive language, and rhetorical strategies" of other scholars and authors, including the subjects of his biographies. This was served up with a list of the works I am supposed to have"misused."

While I and many others dispute the entire AHA"finding," let me focus on one work the AHA professional division claims I"misused." According to the five members of that division, my biography of Nat Turner, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, depended too much on Henry Tragle's The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Documents. No other books on Nat Turner were cited. How can a narrative biography rely too much on"the structure, distinctive language, and rhetorical strategies" of a compilation of documents? The AHA offered no answer. That my biography draws heavily from manuscripts and contemporary newspapers was ignored.

As always, the language of the AHA scholars is as imprecise as it is misleading. What"rhetorical strategies" means is anybody's guess. The only structural similarity between my books and previous ones on the same subjects is that they are chronologically arranged. What constitutes"distinctive language" apparently depends on the beholder.

If there is a lesson in this sordid tale, it is the old adage about how power corrupts, in this instance making strange allies of the ambitious and the self-righteous. At the AHA's annual convention, held in San Francisco in January 1994, a session on plagiarism afforded the following spectacle. The moderator was Professor Faust of the AHA professional division, who had a hand in the"misuse" debacle regarding my books. The featured speaker was Laurin A. Wollan, Jr., an associate professor of criminology at Florida State University, who helped spearhead the earlier public attack against my Lincoln biography. An attempt to establish an ironclad definition of plagiarism, Wollan's presentation was aggressively incoherent, abounding in passages like these:


...the analysis of plagiarism must address primarily the element of appropriation, not attribution. It may be, though, that there is implicit in this definition, the idea that the second writer must do something more than merely provide attribution. But implications or general understandings to such effect will not do when professional associations must adjudicate cases on the basis of explicit statements.

The quantity of copying is likewise an important element to the definition. It would require, however, that the copied account must be the crux, the core, an entity, and unitJiD8 or artistic whole, is to confuse the amount that is required in copyright infringement with the amount that suffices for plagiarism. To use a distinction between substance and procedure which is familiar beyond its home base and legal discourse, ideas and information are substance, language is the procedure. The former, ideas and information, depends on the latter, language. Language is empty without ideas and information. They are not the same. ... I told you this was deadly [audience laughter].

The cure is not a turn to a code of conduct like an internal revenue code to guide us in what we can get away with. Instead the cure is a return of composition to centrality among the skills of the scholars. Not because it [is] so ornamental, though it can be that, but because it is so instrumental. The discipline of composition, the how of it, the process, forces thoughtful attention to the what of it. Substance of description, thesis, argument, demonstration, the writer who would get those things right is one who must compose, not just cobble together the prose that is already there.


During the discussion period, Wollan argued that the repetition of a single"distinctive" word was plagiarism. He gave an example:"One writer who shall remain nameless, wrote, Grant rode over a gullied mountain road. Another writer who shall remain nameless wrote, Grant rode horseback over the gullied mountain road." For Wollan, the purloined word was"gullied." Anyone familiar with my case would know at once that the two writers were Benjamin Thomas and Stephen Oates and that the"stolen" word was in my Lincoln biography.

Wollan not only misquoted Thomas and me, but lifted the examples completely out of context. Here is what Thomas said:"Grant arrived at the Bridgeport railhead on October 21. From there he must travel fifty-five miles on horseback over gullied mountain roads." Here is what I said:"In mid October the President gave Grant command of all armies in the West and ordered him down to Chattanooga with the authority to fire Rosecrans if he wanted to. Grant, then at Louisville, relieved the general by telegram and hurried south to Chattanooga, riding horseback over gullied mountain roads."

What is more, the word"gul1ied" is not unique or distinctive to Thomas. In arguing that it is, Wollan did not do his homework. J. T. Headley's The Life of Ulysses S Grant (1868), p. 242, states that the general's party struggled horseback over"deep gullies" in the mountain roads. Frank A. Burr's A New, Original and Authentic Record of the Life and Deeds of General U.S. Grant (1885), p. 450, also reports that the general's horseback journey was difficult because the mountain roads"were washed into deep gullies." Thomas did not give a source for"gullied," nor did I. Neither did Headley or Burr. Had we quoted and cited every such word our notes would have been many times longer than our texts, and our books unpublishable.

The commentator for Wollan's remarkable paper was Paul K. Conkin, of LBJ fame, who had played a leading role in prosecuting and judging my case. Conkin not only praised the speaker ("Wollan is brilliant in offering rules for copying") but made the astounding admission that Wollan's esoteric writings on plagiarism had strongly influenced Conkin when he helped shape the AHA's definition of"misuse." Sitting together in the audience were AHA attorney Albert Beveridge, and two of my earlier accusers, Michael Burlingame and Cullom Davis. They were all there together, accusers and adjudicators alike, delighting in the tough stand the AHA was taking against plagiarism and"misuse."

These are not harmless academicians fussing pedantically over semantics. Using the money and other influences of a formidable 14,000 member organization, they have the power to destroy academic careers. What's more, their restrictive standards and kangaroo court procedures pose a threat to all historical writing and publishing. Those of us in the humanities would do well to ponder scientist David Baltimore's warning about their like. Commenting on Stewart and Feder's noisy attack against a scientific research paper with which he was associated, Dr. Baltimore said:"These are difficult times for those of us who pursue knowledge in the biological sciences. I see this affair as symptomatic, warning us to be vigilant to such threats, because our research community is fragile, easily attacked difficult to defend, easily undermined." The literary community of biographers and historians is equally fragile,"easily attacked," and"difficult to defend." If it is to survive, we must defend it vigorously, both from zealots armed with machines and from Orwellian bodies with hidden agendas. COMMENT BY NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER

Mr. Oates refers to an article I wrote for the New York Times in January that discussed the case. He writes that the"story was cruelly slanted in favor of my accusers and the American Historical Association's Star Chamber, which handed down an infamous ruling in the case. The author never bothered to interview me or to make a single mention in her article of my side of the story." 11

For the record, I did try to contact Mr. Oates, to no avail. When I telephoned the history department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst--where Mr. Oates had been a professor--I was told that the department had no telephone number or email address for Mr. Oates and that even the mailing address the department had for him was uncertain since he had not responded to correspondence from the department for some time. In any case, the department declined to release that address to me. I subsequently telephone information for the town of Amherst, and learned that there was a Stephen B. Oates in the directory, but that his number was unlisted.

Emily Eakin
New York Times


Copyright Stephen B. Oates

Copyright Illustration by Curtiss Calleo