With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Scotching Plagiarism

Having taken part in some widely reported plagiarism disputes and having chaired a standing committee on student academic conduct, I did not regard plagiarism as a very original sin. But I was not prepared for what I encountered in April 1998.

A new book, Alexander Graham Bell: A Life, by a Scottish author, James Mackay, came to my attention that month. I myself had published Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude with Little Brown in 1973. I was the first historian to whom Bell's heirs had opened the voluminous archive of Bell's papers stored at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The resulting book was the runner up for the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in biography and by 1998 had been generally accepted for 25 years as the definitive work on Bell. I had come to prize it as a footprint in the sands of time, a promise that has over the millennia helped motivate art and literature, deeds of valor, restroom graffiti, and plagiarism. The news of Mackay's book thus dampened my spirits somewhat. But I was consoled by the fact that my Bell biography was still in print after a quarter century and that meanwhile I had won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in history for The Launching of Modern American Science. So I approached Mackay's book with relative equanimity and keen curiosity as to what significant new facts and insights it might offer. I was flabbergasted by what I found.

Mackay's acknowledgments, like mine, thanked the National Geographic Society for permission to study its vast Bell Collection. That remark set off a loud alarm in my mind, since the entire collection had been moved to the Library of Congress a couple of years after my book was published and ten years before Mackay, by his own account, first thought of writing a Bell biography. Mackay also thanked the staffs of the Bell Museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, and the Alexander Graham Bell Association in Washington, D.C., for their help. I later learned that none of them had ever heard of him.

I was therefore not surprised that Mackay began his book by quoting the same item in an Edinburgh newspaper with which I had opened my book. But as I read on and on, I was stunned by his unrelenting piracy. Mackay's book had been warmly praised in the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine. Only the Washington Post review by Professor Bruce White of Gallaudet College sounded a chilling note. Not wanting to expose the Post to legal action, he put the case delicately:"readers familiar with Bruce's work are likely to experience déjà vu while reading Mackay's, given the similarities throughout the book in organization, presentation of information, and sources cited." That put it mildly. Of the 297 pages of Mackay's text, 285 contained obvious plagiarisms, often transparently disguised by substituting synonyms for some verbs and adjectives, but otherwise identical in meaning and order with those in my book. Mackay might have covered himself with a blanket acknowledgment that my book was the sole source for almost all of his. But he chose instead to embellish it with four pages of source notes. They included more than 100 specific references to the Bell Collection, obviously copied from my book, since he had never seen the originals. My book was cited only for two minor opinions and the locations of two houses.

I could not and cannot understand how a rational man could have expected to get away with such a caper. Plagiarism is a unique offense in that the perpetrator publishes and signs the evidence against himself. Mackay's book was published in Scotland in 1997 and set off no alarms there, even though a British edition of my book had been published and reviewed in 1973. But Mackay rashly agreed to the American edition of his book in 1998, the one that caught my eye and alerted Professor White. The very people he thanked for helping him were the surest to read and be baffled by his thanks. In the case of the four other biographies he is known to have extensively plagiarized, three of the authors were dead and he may have supposed that I was too. But the fourth, like me, was alive and vigorously kicking. Though exposure was inevitable, I decided to help it along. I wrote John Wiley and Sons, Mackay's American publisher, and Cornell University Press, the current publisher of my Bell biography. After some dickering Wiley declared Mackay's book out of print and out of stock, offered to buy back booksellers' stocks, destroyed all copies on hand, and billed Mackay about $40,000. In return I agreed not to bring suit, since a transatlantic litigation would cost more in time and money than I would be likely to gain. I also agreed not to notify the general press, though informing the scholarly journals. However, a New York friend had already passed the story on to the web journal Slate, and so the general press picked it up anyway. The New York Times gave it some play (keeping mum about its own initial touting of the book). The Times of London ran a story and that led to an extended and scornful article in the Edinburgh Scotsman. So Mackay did not escape scot-free in his own bailiwick (though he is even now held in high esteem by some Robert Burns aficionados because of his prizewinning biography of Burns, only lately accused of plagiarism).

Before being shredded, the American edition of Mackay's Bell book probably sold several thousand copies to the general public. But I was more concerned with alerting the historical profession before the book had lodged inextricably in bibliographies and textbooks. I was heartened when in August 1998 the Library Journal published a scathing editorial reproaching research libraries for refusing to take Mackay's book off their shelves even though many public libraries had agreed to do so. The Journal of American History and Technology and Culture promised not to list or review it but declined to publish a notice of the plagiarism until I obtained a formal judgment from the American Historical Association's Professional Division.

Then began more than two years of frustration suggestive of Dickens's Bleak House and Kafka's The Trial. I often thought of the adage"justice delayed is justice denied." In July 1998 I asked the AHA for the necessary forms. In August I received and submitted them. In November I was told that the Professional Division had agreed to consider them and asked for evidence. In December I submitted the evidence, which was forwarded to Mackay, giving him ninety days to reply. In February 1999 he requested and was granted an additional forty-five days. In May I received his response, long and ludicrous. I was given thirty days to respond to it, after which he would have thirty days to reply. I declined to enter into that last round of circumlocution. In November 1999 I was notified that the Professional Division had found Mackay guilty and would recommend publication of its finding, the parties to have thirty days to comment on that recommendation. The third millennium dawned. The year 2000 came and went, inexplicably without action. At last, in March 2001, the AHA newsletter Perspectives published the official verdict, a crushing condemnation of Mackay's plagiarism. At seventy-seven, against the odds, I had lived to see the day of deliverance and could now die moderately content.

Meanwhile Mackay forges on. Over the protests of some Scottish Burns scholars he has just been invited to address an international Burns conference. If I may plagiarize Yogi Berra, this could be déjà vu all over again.