Reporter's Notebook: Impressions of the 117th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Chicago, 2003


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

This was the convention which may well have been most memorable for what did not happen. Michael Bellesiles did not appear, though he had been expected to until just a week ago. The historians opposed to a war in Iraq did not press the association to take a vote against war. And nothing untoward happened to remind us of the terrifying world in which we now live. The worst news was that Sarah Lawrence had to cancel job interviews Saturday and Sunday because of a snowstorm back east.

But history -- the history profession's recent history -- hung over the convention like a dark cloud. The Bellesiles mess and the Ambrose/Goodwin plagiarism scandals were probably the subject of more conversations than any other topics, with the exception, among young historians, of that perennial favorite: the dearth of jobs for fresh Ph.D.'s. Anecdotal survey: Job candidates suggested there were fewer opportunities this year than last, a sign undoubtedly of the persistence of the education recession, which continues to afflict colleges and universities facing severe budget cutbacks. Only one school seemed to have trouble attracting candidates: Monroe Community College in upstate New York. The chairman of the school's history department, Lewis Lansky, sitting at a lonely table, told HNN that he had an immediate opening for a political historian with an expertise in African-American studies."I'm sitting on a gold mine," he confided. But after four days he did not have a single solid lead.

Sign of the Times: Michael Grossberg revealed that he had to deal with more charges of plagiarism this past year than at any other time in his seven-year career as editor of the American Historical Review. So many charges were filed that he feels compelled to establish a formal procedure for dealing with plagiarism questions. The goal: to facilitate the discussion of such charges "without exposing the Association to libel suits."

Surprisingly, the history that happened here thirty-five years ago almost never came up. Historian Rick Perlstein took delight in reminding people that it was here at the Hilton in the very hotel in which we were now meeting that Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats watched on television the rioting in the streets that doomed his long-shot campaign before it even began. (Two panels dealt with the rise of the conservative movement which succeeded in 1968 in dramatically ushering in a conservative age, both attracting overflow crowds.)

Snap shots: Outgoing AHA President Lynn Hunt delivered her keynote address to the accompaniment of pictures projected on a giant screen behind her, a clear sign of the ways in which the AHA is trying to adapt to a world affected now at least as much by visual imagery as by print. Incoming president James McPherson's arm was in a sling, making him look a bit like one of the wounded soldiers about whom he so often writes. Job seekers found themselves being interviewed in a somewhat dingy basement-like room at the Hilton in an area conspicuously marked with signs indicating clearly that the very place where they were sitting served at other times as the hotel's loading dock. What meaning there was in this no one was sure, but the blue-collar surroundings struck a striking note of contrast to the high expectations the candidates held for securing positions in what is after all the white-collar world of the professoriat. Not to be overlooked was the historian who stood outside the hall where Lynn Hunt gave her talk. He distributed a flier which complained that his termination at Queens College in 1994 had been accompanied by a campaign of such egregiousness as to make it comparable to a Nazi War Crime. Oddly, the flier was addressed to the OAH convention in April 2002.

Irony of the Convention: The only historical organization which showed a flare for entrepenurship was the Radical History Review Editorial Collective, which offered T-shirts for sale. Price: $12. The shirts, featuring a picture of Karl Marx, bore the slogan: "Earn Big Money: Become a Historian." The group, as of Saturday afternoon, had sold fifty shirts in two days, raking in a cool $600.

In the "Things Aren't as Bad as They Seem Department": AHA officials tried to put the best face on rough economic times. Executive director Arnita Jones was delighted to announce that the organization had run a small surplus of $46,000 in 2002; a deficit had been expected. She also noted that the meeting had attracted some 4200 members, about the same as last year, but substantially down from the boom year of 2001, when 5,200 turned out for the Boston meeting.

Quote of the Convention: Columbia University historian Carol Gluck: "All good history is international history." (We hope to persuade Professor Gluck to write an article for HNN elaborating on this idea.)

Most Exciting Concept Advanced at the Convention: Paul Schroeder's thesis that imperial power is deplorable but hegemony is not. Schroeder captured the imagination of the audience with a subtle explanation of the differences between empire and hegemony, providing a hopeful vision of a world in which the United States could operate as "first among equals" in league with other countries rather than simply as a bully. He noted that one of the greatest causes of disorder in history has been the choice of large powers to attempt to build an empire rather than merely obtain hegemony. Lynn Hunt was so excited by his lecture that she ran up to him afterward to implore him to lay out his analysis in an op ed. Schroeder promised HNN he'd consider writing a piece for us. (Plea from the Editor: If you know Mr. Schroeder please encourage him to write for us.)


On Friday night (January 3rd) at 6:30 historians opposed to a war in Iraq assembled in the Crystal Room at the Palmer House hotel. Nearly 100 historians from some forty institutions turned out, among them Van Gosse, Roy Rosenzweig, and David Montgomery. The main argument was whether the group should ask the association to go on record against an Iraq war. Some proposed going to the Business Meeting of the Association scheduled to take place the following day to press for an immediate vote of the people in attendance, though it was conceded the rules apparently did not permit a vote to be held since the issue had not been placed on the agenda in advance. Others doubted the wisdom of such a vote, noting that Business Meetings usually attract only a small number of historians. Wouldn't the general membership be upset to discover that a small group had committed the organization to an official position on a contentious question without advance notice to the association's members? It was recalled that in 1969 the Association had decided not to even vote to condemn the Vietnam War. Finally, the group decided to read a brief statement to the Business Meeting in conjunction with the circulation of a petition. The following day, near the end of the Business Meeting, the statement was read and noted in the minutes. By the end of the annual meeting 667 historians had signed the petition.

Click here to read the statement.


The panel that attracted the most attention--and the largest audience--carried the most controversial title: "Plagiarism: What's So Bad About It Anyway?" William Cronon, head of the AHA Professional Division, which sponsored the panel, observed that plagiarism "is more prevalent than anyone in this audience would believe." He should know. Allegations of plagiarism made to the AHA are investigated by his division. But he declined to go into details.

Alan Brinkley contended that plagiarism is probably no more common today than it was a decade ago, but argued that the commercialization of history is increasing the pressure on popularizers to plagiarize. This prompted a retort from Judge Richard Posner. If commercialism is increasing the pressure on historians to plagiarize, doesn't that mean logically that there's more plagiarism today than before?

Nobody on the panel, which also included journalist James Fallows, editor Donald Lamm and historian Carla Phillips, defended Ambrose and Goodwin. All in fact took a hard line on plagiarism, Phillips arguing that the punishment should be "draconian," Fallows saying that plagiarizers should be fired, Brinkley contending that in the academy no offense should be considered more deplorable, noting that the history profession as a whole suffers every time a single historian is found guilty of plagiarism. Posner, referring to the "celebrity plagiarism of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin," observed that they footnoted their sources, "like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime."

But several speakers drew distinctions. Posner said that historians who do not claim to be original should be held to a less strict standard than those who do. Such historians--you might call them hacks, he said--"help put other people's ideas in circulation." "It is only when originality is prized," he added, "that plagiarism has a pejorative sense." He noted that in the law originality is not highly valued, therefore few care if a judge's decision is written by a clerk and in any case everyone knows that judges often do not write the decisions issued under their own names.

Some in the audience thought that they had detected in Fallows a little softness toward plagiarism. Fallows quickly cleared up the confusion. "Let me make myself clear," he said. "I am against plagiarism." He even went so far as to say he'd flunk any student caught plagiarizing, which some in the audience thought might be going too far. One teacher with more than thirty years experience in the classroom averred that students often had mitigating circumstances which needed to be taken into account.

Each of the speakers made brief presentations, often drawing laughs. Fallows got the most laughs. He recalled that some twenty years ago he had been the victim of plagiarism. He happened to be reading an article in the "Petersburg Daily Bugle or something" when he noticed that "hey, this is familiar. Hey, wait a minute, I wrote this." He realized, he said, that the article ripped off a piece he had done for the Atlantic Monthly about flying in an F-15. The story had an unhappy ending. After calling up the editor to complain Fallows was told that the article had been written by an old guy who had become a drunk and was having trouble writing. The next day the writer was fired. Fallows said he always regretted afterward that the man had been fired. (This expression of sympathy was what led some in the audience to think he had gone soft on plagiarism.)

Fallows insisted that journalists actually take plagiarism more seriously than academics, contrasting what had happened to the drunk with what happened when an academic plagiarized something like 14,000 words in a textbook published by a major house. Again Fallows had been plagiarized--as had some other Atlantic writers--but when he complained neither the university where the professor taught nor the publisher seemed terribly interested in righting the injustice. Eventually the academic moved on to another school and the publisher amended, but did not withdraw, the textbook. Compared with the poor drunk who'd been fired, the professor got off easy and the publishing house didn't seem to care.

Fallows noted that journalists take plagiarism seriously because they take pride in reporting on what they see with their own eyes and in figuring out how to explain what they discover. But he admitted that journalists borrow ideas from each other liberally. "There is," he jokingly noted, "a website called something like 'HonkIfYourStoryHasBeenRippedOffByTheNewYorkTimes.'"

Donald Lamm, who worked for many years at W.W. Norton & Co., recalled that when he was an editor he happened to come across an advance notice for a new book "by a certain president who had left office before the end of his term." The book was titled, "The War Called Peace." You cannot copyright a title but Lamm remembered clearly that the same title had been used a few years earlier by a conservative author with whom Nixon was undoubtedly familiar. So what you had here was "the theft of a title by a president who formerly had declared, 'I am not a crook.'" Lamm complained to the publisher. A short time later Nixon changed the title.

On several occasions the discussion veered toward student plagiarism. William Cronon asked that the subject not be consisdered at this time as the AHA is planning to deal with it at the next convention. Cronon revealed that the AHA is"planning to do a real live example of plagiarism at the session where you will download a paper from the Internet." This should be good.

The session ended shortly after a member of the audience recalled that at Columbia University there was the famous case of a professor who had been caught decades ago plagiarizing whole footnotes and nothing was done about it. The media wouldn't touch the story, he added. Fallows quickly chimed in that he'd be happy to rectify this injustice. A sly smile crossed his face. The audience laughed. But the professor escaped without disclosing the identity of the plagiarizing professor.

Note: HNN was made aware of a story last spring involving a professor at Columbia who years ago had been suspected of plagiarism. We investigated and discovered that Allan Nevins had been accused of stealing material from a young historian whose unpublished article Nevins had read when it was submitted to him by the American Historical Review for peer review. The young historian was Fred Harvey Harrington, who ultimately became the president of the University of Wisconsin. Nevins had supposedly recommended that the article not be published and then subsequently incorporated the material into his own work, a biography of John C. Fremont, which was published under the title, Fremont: Pathmaker of the West (1939). After Nevins's borrowing was discovered the AHR went ahead with the publication of Harrington's article under the title, "Fremont and North Americans" (vol. 44, 1939). Accompanying the article was a brief apology by Nevins promising to give Harrington proper credit in future editions of Nevins's biography of Fremont. Nevins did not confess to plagiarism. Because Harrington is dead and we were unable to locate his papers, which made it impossible to determine exactly what had taken place, we did not choose, in the context of the Ambrose/Goodwin scandal, to highlight the controversy. An HNN intern found a second edition of the Fremont biography by Nevins, which appeared in 1955. There was no reference to Fred Harvey Harrington.

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More Comments:

Lynne Lewis - 3/10/2003

Dear Mr. Bateman,
Although this is not truly plagiarism, I was searching for matches to my four-year-old son's name. You see, his name is Bateman Lewis. I've found many references to Lewis Bateman, such as yourself, but no other Bateman Lewises.
Do you know any other Bateman Lewises? If so, I'd appreciate any information you have.

Oh yes, I am a high school mathematics teacher. I have stop assigning papers as projects because I found that even my best students were not above "borrowing" material from other writers.

Thank you,
Lynne Lewis

Charles Hendricks - 1/21/2003


Great report. This was almost as good as going to the annual meeting, which I missed this year. Thanks for filling me in.

Charles Hendricks

John G. Fought - 1/13/2003

They don't call it 'credit' for nothing. Credit has a cash value.
What the industry of history does is to dismantle articles and books into component parts, some smaller than a sentence, and to recycle some of these parts in many new works, sometimes in altered or damaged form, usually with but sometimes without an identifiable reference permitting it to be traced to its original source. To mention one serious example, in this way some of Bellesiles' falsehoods have entered the mass of legal prose surrounding the Second Amendment, where they masquerade as truths. Plagiarism and fabrication, by breaking the chain of reference, make it harder to distinguish accurate from inaccurate material, and harder to identify a source that one has good reason to mistrust. Plagiarism is also a kind of identity theft, robbing the original author of credit for originality, a much prized trait among scholars who pretend to know already everything that matters about their specialties. This kind of credit can bring promotion, grants, and fellowships. Fabrication is more like counterfeiting. I remember when certain computer nerds used to tell each other that "information wants to be free", but I suspect that none of them worked for Microsoft, and that few of them generated much new information themselves. Some of them may have worked for Apple, though, which is said to have 'freed' some profitable information from Xerox PARC way back when. It's the same story, essentially. Ever had anything valuable stolen from you?

Ted Andrews - 1/13/2003

Shouldn't we recognize that "there's plagiarism" and "there's plagiarism?" If a scholar makes every effort to avoid it, and to properly cite sources, and still slips up, shouldn't that scholar receive a break? Someone who is sloppy and makes numerous errors does not deserve a similarly generous break.

Jim Schmidt - 1/12/2003

I do not understand the current sentiment on the issue of plagiarism nor that of the controversy surrounding the work of Prof. Bellesiles.

Let us say that Scholar A produces a work that receives the approbation of the many others in the field of history. Let us also say that that it is found that the work of Scholar A is found to have plagiarized from the work of Scholar B.

What should our response be?

Yes, we should recognize that the work of Scholar A is in part the work of Scholar B. Even though Scholar A has, in her work, claimed credit, we should recognize that Scholar B actually deserves that credit.

The additions that Scholar A has made to our understanding should not, however, be compromised because of a defect in her research and presentation.

We, as an industry, should give credit where credit is deserved. I think we have the proper mechanisms to do so. So, why should the issue of credit be of such concern?

If a historian plagiarizes or falsifies data what should our response be? I think that our response should be based on our view of the profession of historian.

Do we view the profession of historian as a collective enterprise that is the result of the work of many that is judged by many or do we view the profession of historian as an individual enterprise in which individuals compete for status and favors?

Let us look at the responses to the current controversies in the history profession of an answer.

To me it seems that our industry has recognized instances of plagiarism and the falsification of data. I offer the examples of Prof. Goodwin and Prof. Bellesiles as examples of the profession of history discovering and dealing with these situations. What could be better than to point out these errors?

For some, such as Prof Katz, this is not enough. He and many others wish to drive out from the history profession the likes of Professors Goodwin and Bellesiles. I think this is wrong. I think that this is wrong because I do not agree with what is the implied meaning that Prof Katz's position places on the field of history.

Prof. Katz's view implies that what the individual historian does in important. I disagree. I believe that what the industry of history does is important. Let us regulate ourselves and determine what is good history and what is not.

Prof. Katz's offers us a history that is based on the merits of the individual historian. This seems to me to be a tenuous basis at best. I think that the collective of historians is best.

Why should any historian care about Prof. Goodwin or Prof. Bellesiles except in the case of their personal career?

Steve H - 1/12/2003

Jim Schmidt writes in an earlier message (Let's get real about plagiarism, dated January 1, 2003, 7:15 PM):

"However, what historians and computer programmers do is very similar. They both have to understand people and how those people act and behave in various circumstances. The difference is historians describe what they find and computer programmers implement what they find."

I would note what I would imagine to be some similarities as well as some differences between the historical research and computer engineering professions.

One difference IMHO is that re-using software has an analogy
in a historical paper footnote or explicit cite. The model is
that the work involved on the engineering side is to develop the {hardware and/or software system} which in turn can be used by other systems in modular fashion. On the history side, a historian writes a research paper or book, which in turn can be referenced or explicitly cited by a different research paper or book. The second paper usually depends to one degree or another on the first paper, in a manner analogous to the way that the second system is built incorporating the first system as a subsystem.

In both cases, the user, or reader, directly accesses the higher level product and indirectly makes use of the lower level product which is -- or should be, if things are working the way they normally are intended to work -- at the modular building block level.

Let me carry the analogue one step further. If a composite engineered system fails, where is the problem? The CRT or LCD user interface screen suddenly goes "blue", or the rocket veers and craters into the desert. It could be within either the higher level system.

For the history case, a consistency problem develops with the theory put forth by the latter paper. Perhaps the paper itself makes an argumentative or quantitative error. Or, perhaps one or more references/citations turn(s) out to be based on something other than fact, in part or in whole, in such a manner as to affect either the main theme, argument, or reader's perception to one degree or another (I include the latter because to some degree history differs from the hard sciences and engineering disciplines in that there is a subjective component of historical research which is not quantizable to the degree that is possible with spec sheet verification of an engineering system; subjectivity naturally involves the reader's perception of overall credibility, etc., as well as the material).

In software engineering there is a rule of thumb that the longer the bug remains in the system through its product lifecycle, the more expensive the bug is to find and fix. This introduces a time component to the efficient (eg, price/performance/time-to-market/maintenance-costs) handling of the problem.

In the history world I observe that the concept of faulty or fraudulent research does not seem to be examined in quite the systematic and efficiency-conscious light that is prevalent in (technically competent, well-managed) computer firms. That is, historians as a group seem prone to glossing over the hidden costs of fraudulent research, and in particular, the cost of ferreting out such research at a stage much later in time than when it is first introduced. The historian discipline seems to honor in its place the expectation that peers are responsible for detecting errors (ie, not the general public readership as a rule, for the latter is apparently not considered well enough qualified to devote historian time and attention to bother with, on the apparent presumption that peer review is adequate and sufficient to detect problems), and also that historians as a group should be relatively immune to the general expectation that problems involving research fraud should be detected early to prevent more serious problems later on in time. Specifically, the longer fraudulent research remains undetected in a work, the more references or citations that work accumulates over time, if the work itself is sufficiently distinguished from other works that its uniqueness and relevance elevates its importance in such a manner that other works rapidly use its conclusions to go on to become the basis for derived arguments, theories, and even research directions. Meanwhile the general public at large, who are the end users of any really relevant historical research output in any given established culture, are left dangling (so to speak) and bereft of the advantages of learning the actual historical reality that is masked by the fraudulent paper and the partially derivative work which references or explicitly cites it.

The problem becomes more acute (expensive in terms of time, effort, attention, money. etc.) when the end consumers include columnists, editors and reporters for the news media. It is embarrassing to have to retract an editorial opinion or analysis based on faulty historical research, and furthermore, the reader may miss the correction notice or article if he or she is not paying attention to the particular medium at the time the retraction or correction is presented, leaving the reader in danger of permanently being subjected to a falsely justified and presented opinion or analysis. The problem becomes more acute in the situation of judges and clerks, charged with the responsiblity for writing legal opinions-- and the judicial bench is very often swayed by prevailing public opinion to some degree if the case is hot, which creates a situation that is even more difficult to counteract and correct given the complexity of the societal interactions and the fact that case law tends to be cast in concrete once it is poured. (Prosecution and defense lawyer research must also be entered into consideration for generating/sustaining formal charges and defense strategies whereever the intent of the law may be considered relevant, and it almost always is considered relevant.) The educational process must also be considered, because students form opinions based on history textbooks (even those in the library used for assigned class papers, etc.) that are presumed to be accurate unless otherwise flagged.

I think some expression was given at the AHA meeting to the notion that the most serious crime a historian can commit is plagiarism. The analogue of plagiarism in the engineering world is software piracy or hardware theft.

As has been recently noted by someone other than myself in a different hnn article discussion thread, the consequences of piracy or theft are not usually as serious, at least to the end user, as is a fatal system bug. Think of a bug in the computer system of an early rocket with human occupant(s) and the potential consequences of a bug causing a general system shutdown and reboot. Such a bug would crash the computer, which in turn would crash the rocket and likely kill the human occupant(s). On the other hand, a "borrowed" software routine or a stolen card or reverse-engineered technology would not result in the death of the human passenger, provided that the system was good enough to be worthwhile stealing in the first place. Why steal a buggy system for the rocket, if more robust systems are available for the stealing and would result in less chance of human occupant injury or death? Likewise, a plagiarized bit of writing is not likely to lead the reader astray since the plagiarist author probably cherry-picked the piece that was copied on behalf of making his or her derivative point or supporting theory; there is little or no incentive in general for plagiarizing less than top quality writing, because such writing would result in lowering the quality end product with the author's name on it in the estimation of readers (presuming the plagiarism is difficult or impossible to detect by the readers, and the author gets away with it and receives improper credit for the plagiarized portions). To continue the analogy, legal cases would not be seriously affected and students would not learn history lessons if some historical material that was used in the cases, or classes, was only to be missing an occasional footnote or two, or contained an otherwise good passage which was copied instead of paraphrased. Sure, the original historian might not get full credit for the derived work, but at least end consumers would not be led astray as to the facts and analysis of the topics dealt with by the incorporating material itself.

This apparent dichotomy of professional ethics outlook on analogous problems is a phenomenon that I, a lowly "end user" of sorts with regards to historical research (being a member of the general public and an interested reader of selective historical topics), find troubling.

Is my concern misplaced? And yes, I do have Rakove, Finkelstein, and Bellesiles specifically in mind. As well as the AHA's formal standard of professional conduct.


Continuing with the analogy, I find it in my opinion noteworthy that so many in the computing professions (for examples, Clayton Cramer, Don Williams, and Josh Greenberg, among what are certainly many others in evidence both on this web site's discussion threads and elsewhere) appear to have taken a leading role in finding and detecting fraudulent historical research (again, this is in regards to the Bellesiles -- and related --situations that the profession seems to be having considerable difficulties recognizing and efficiently handling).

I do not believe that the leadership displayed by such people is entirely a random phenomenon.

Computer engineeers are highly dependent on the software systems that they use, and help build and modify. They want to see, and are often tasked to ensure, that end users' needs met, and met quickly and reliably. This tends to make the best of these professionals highly sensitive to detecting -- and resolving -- system problems. With systems of increasing complexity over time as the technology progesses and improves with competitive market pressures, the engineers need to be fast at handling these tasks prior to shipping product.

A problem is found at the factory or user site by exhaustive functional, QA, stress, alpha, or beta testing. Systems are checked and rechecked for consistency, ruggedness, and fit with other systems, as much as possible, prior to delivery. A problem found after delivery involves a "recall", and recalls are expensive to the company, especially considering downtime MTTR contract guarantees, substitution at the end user site(s), shipping charges, and sustaining engineer overhead. Most of these factors need to be multiplied by the number of units shipped and already in the field, unless onsite upgrades can be arranged (again problematic in the case of a passenger carrying rocket or shuttle).

The net effect is that all of the design, people and processes tend to be fine tuned to find problems in engineered systems at the earliest possible stage commensurable with the "sweet spot" in the price performance curve for that system's production overhead costs. Besides the apparent lack of similar upfront considerations being applied to the work products of the historical profession, perhaps the skills of the*people* involved in the implementation, design, testing and sustaining of complex engineered systems are immediately transferrable to the tasks of ferreting out historical research fraud. In particular, better computer engineers tend to develop an *instinct* for finding the root cause of system problems buried somewhere deep in layers of modules from vague hints at post-mortem crash debug time. A stray pointer? A flakey hardware register? Wrong I/O? Timing window race condition? Faulty connection? Burned out noise suppression circuits? Or maybe even a design flaw?

In practice, the problems involved in debugging large systems are too complex to permit a deductive, methodological analysis. The system is often behind schedule for shipment, and must go out the door *this week*. Or worse, *yesterday*. The engineer can't spend the time to examine every single line of code in an operating system involving millions of lines of source code, translated into more millions of instructions by the compiler, to spot a flaw hidden deeply in an I/O driver. He or she is paid, in the ideal, to use his or her experience and intuition to recognize the faulty module intuitively, (typically) using partial data and inadequate clues, along with analysis and judicious, often specially-designed, bench tests. The analytical route would break the company's piggybank and time schedule, resulting in company failure.

Thus pattern recognition becomes an important tool of the trade for debugging complex systems. Pattern recognition along with high level awareness of system design (component breakdown) can be used to circumvent a time consuming, expensive debugging session and repair, leading to a minimization of MTTR and ultimately better end user satisfaction and perceived, and qualitative and quantitatively measurable, product quality.

I think perhaps some of the same qualities could be applicable to detecting fraudulent historical research. First, and foremost, does the end conclusion seem plausible? If not, either the factual data or analysis, or references or citations used, are wrong. But as Carl Sagan stated, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Is the evidence not only good, but above the norm to the point of being beyond reproach? Or does a spot check of the data and/or citations show selected evidence of being non-factual and/or incorrect? Are the problems in the references alone, or do they extend to the omission of contradicting evidence? Have all possible consistency checks with other external known "solid" research and prior work been performed by the author, and are documented in explicit written form as turning up "nominal"? Or are such checks missing? Are any of these problems sporadic, or are they pervasive and show a consistent leaning in one direction or another? Are interdisciplinary cross-references (eg to law journals and case law) involved, and if so, how could they be affected (in terms of maximal potential damage) and to what extent? What steps could be taken to ameliorate or solve such interface issues up front, using warning notifications, consensus, voluntary pre-arranged cross-disciplinary exception handling practices, formal correction and retraction processes, and so on? All these questions have their direct analogues in the engineering system test and debug arena.

Processes such as general and special case, white-box and black-box testing have their analogues in the history research world. Submitting copies of primary sources and/or portions of raw data can be added to the peer review process. For robustness, consider instituting a post-publication review process and open it to other disciplines and the general public. Accept input (for goodness' sake) from the general public, and design and implement processes which take the input, filter it for worthiness of more detailed study, and then *accept it* and *act on it* in a *timely manner* (in contrast to ignoring it or tossing it in the trash en masse). Sometimes outsiders see what insiders don't, as almost every halfway decent engineer will admit up front! Use technology for storage of raw data in compact, easily retrievable form for later testing when the conditions warrant. Mandatory enforce the storage at the peer review stage, with full access rights to the reviewers. And so on...

Perhaps, therefore, it is not a total coincidence that the first and possibly foremost Bellesiles critic (referring to Mr. Cramer, though not to detract from the great contributions of many others, both inside and outside of the historical research community) was (or eventually entered) in the computer engineering profession. In any case, the skill sets seem similar enough that the historical research profession may significantly benefit from the testing and system debugging methodologies and training regimens employed in the engineering disciplines. As a temporary corrective measure, perhaps seminars could be arranged which could help to improve and upgrade the level of peer review process that currently exists.

Finally as a coda I reiterate a concern for the deleterious effects of letting historical fraud fester in publication without *immediate* and *forceful* correction mechanisms employed to address the considerable downside damage that may occur. Today we have at our disposal much technology at our fingertips-- the Internet, the WWW, email, imaging, computer translation, and so on. Most other professions have taken full advantage of the computational resources that are available to the academic community at large. Perhaps it is time for historians to step up to their responsibilities and make full use of the technological tools that lay at their feet, waiting to be picked up and used effectively and efficiently, in contrast to permitting yet another category of excuse for not catching problems sooner and with less effort, or both. A historian who does not keep up with at least the minimal technological advances used by the average 7th grade student is a possibly a historian that might better serve society and the community of his peers by stepping aside and letting someone else with more efficient net productivity take his place.

And one more final concern-- it hardly needs to be stated, I imagine, outside the walls of academia, but I think that the damaging effects of pervasive institutional ideological bias needs to be addressed in some meaningful (perhaps methodological) way if the profession aspires to recover a part of the trust it has lost with the public in recent years. In this case, I am not limiting consideration to Bellesiles and his numerous advocates within the historical and legal professions (and for that matter, non profit funding foundations). And formal mechanisms must be put in place to detect the most egregious forms of ideological bias to permit at least self awareness of the problem at all levels of association within the profession. Give yourselves a break; probably the majority of you do commendable work, and it is the missteps of a few, and the lack of process to handle such missteps, which may tend to taint the work of the entire profession in the public eye. Let denial be once again known, from within as well as without, as just a river in Egypt, not the singular most recognizable characteristic that makes contemporary history departments the source of unintentional and unflattering entertainment outside the once-vaunted departmental halls.

[/end rant]

[mithril underwear donned :-)]

Garson Poole - 1/10/2003

Current plagiarists are apparently blissfully unaware that the probability of detection is growing rapidly, and that it will be nearly unavoidable in the future. The corpus of documents available in electronic form is enormous and rapidly expanding. Even primitive tools such as "Google" give a preview of the speed and power of search on huge databases. First generation companies specializing in detecting plagiarism such as turnitin.com already exist.

Intellectuals have been remarkably tardy in demanding that the Library of Congress electronically scan its entire collection for easy and universal access. Certainly, this should be done immediately for all documents in the public domain. Also, for full-text searching and indexing purposes it should be done for all documents even those which are copyrighted.

Optical character recognition is an imperfect technology, but it allows the extraction of searchable text from scanned printed documents with 98 or 99 percent accuracy. This is adequate for finding verbatim and near-verbatim plagiarism of text passages through the use of flexible approximate matching algorithms. (It will not, however, catch extensive paraphrasing.)

New automated tools will help shame thieving miscreants by comparing candidate documents against all the documents in a super-corpus which includes the current web, archives such as the "Wayback machine" archive.org, and the printed texts in Library of Congress. Historians will be able to judge the "originality" of historical figures and previous historians with perhaps fascinating revelations.

Peter C. Rollins - 1/9/2003

Film & History is a journal which has published articles about the connections between media and history for over thirty years.
The session for The Historians Film Committee (publisher of
Film & History) focused on filmmaker Michael Moore and drew an
audience so large that the room temperature went up to uncomfortable heights. (Participants were using the handouts as

John E. O'Connor (for whom the O'Connor award of AHA is named)
Chaired the session and led the discussions.

Jeffrey Chown and Gary Burns of Northern Illinois U gave wonderful presentations on the politics, aesthetics, and economics of Michael Moore's work. Addressed were the following topics, with special attention to ROGER & ME (1989):

1. What is the essence of Moore's critique of American business?
Is he a serious social commentator or just a humorist?
Where does he fit in the history of American satire; for
example, is the the Will Rogers of our generation?

2. What cinematic techniques of editing, symbolism style make the
the message more effective?

3. Has Moore's success--he has made millions from his films and
books--blunted his satire?

Using clips and discussion, the Moore experts created a good atmosphere for a lively exchange after the talks. The room
was set up to accommodate 150 participants; there were over 200
present and many more standing in the doorway.

Most of the scholars involved were under 35, perhaps a sign of the times and an indication of the importance of media to younger
members of the profession.

Submitted by...

Peter Rollins
Film & History

Lewis Bateman - 1/7/2003

The panel at the AHA meeting dealing with plagiarism seems to have been very successful. It would have been more so, if someone from the university press world spoke as well. This is becoming a widespread problem.

Lewis Bateman
Senior Editor, Political Science and History
Cambridge University Press

James Lindgren - 1/7/2003

1. Judge Posner mentions one instance in which plagiarism is generally permitted--a clerk who writes an opinion for a judge. Judge Posner, by the way, is known for being one of the rare judges who writes all of his own opinions, but no judge routinely credits the research and ideas of his or her clerks in the judge's opinions.

2. Judges borrow ideas, research, and often language from litigants' briefs, typically with no credit.

3. Celebrity Books. Books are ghost-written for politicians and celebrities. This causes problems only when they win prizes (e.g, Profiles in Courage).

4. Speeches. Speechwriters write speeches for their bosses, though Joseph Biden got in trouble for borrowing from another politician (or his speechwriter).

5. Survey questions. In designing questions for research surveys, one is trained to borrow questions verbatim from other researchers. This makes your results comparable to others' and builds on any feasibility testing done on question wording. Originality in question wording is not favored. Credit is rarely given.

6. Exam questions. Exam questions sometimes circulate among professors and are reused without credit given.

7. Journalists. Although journalists frown on borrowing language from other journalists, there is usually no similar bar on borrowing language from sources they interview.

Jim Schmidt - 1/6/2003

I am not a historian by trade. I am a computer programmer. I use the resources that I obtain from my being a computer programmer to finance my avocation as historian. So let's say that I have one foot in the field of computer programming and maybe half of the other foot in the field of history.

Both fields are highly intellectual fields, requiring a mastery of language, and an ability to translate abstract concepts into something real. In history, the tradesperson takes the facts of an event and places them in a context that both informs and entertains. In computer programming, the tradesperson takes the facts of a human process and translates that in such a way that a machine can assist in the completion of a process or to entertain.

I do not think I need to dwell too much on the difference in the economic rewards between the two fields of history and computer programming. A well-written and useful piece of computer code can bring to the programmer millions of dollars. How many historians are millionaires? How many historians are billionaires? The stakes involved in the product of the computer programmer are much higher than that of the historian.

But in general, the attitude towards plagiarism is much different in the two fields of history and computer programming. I write computer code. This is how I make my living. I want others to use my code. I want others to plagiarize my code. But this is not true of my work as a historian. I would be very upset if I found that someone plagiarized my work in history. What is the difference?

For the sake of this discussion, let's look at all of the places on the Internet where one can download free computer software. Computer programmers are, generally, very open to others using their code. Believe me, these individuals spent hours developing this code. Yet, they offer this code for free. The "open source" movement is based on this accessibility to the programming of others.

In the field of history, the sentiment of "open source" does not exist. In the field of history there is a strong sentiment that one's use of language is proprietary.

Yes, I know that there are many companies in the computer industry that view the code developed by the programmers that they employ as proprietary. But that only serves to help prove the case that I am about to make. I assure you that the individual programmers feel joy when others use the words that they have written.

Why should there be the difference between the attitudes of computer programs employed in the computer industry and historians employed in the academic industry?

In order to write a computer program, the computer programmers have to study people, their lives, and the current process that they are engaged in. It is not historical, because it is for now, the present. Historians have to study people, their lives, and the life processes that they were engaged in. Historians have to do this for the past.

However, what historians and computer programmers do is very similar. They both have to understand people and how those people act and behave in various circumstances. The difference is historians describe what they find and computer programmers implement what they find.

This, I think, is what is different and what helps us to understand why one field, history, is so obsessed with plagiarism and the other has a much different perspective on this issue.

The product of a computer programmer has two moments of reckoning. The first is the compiler. The compiler determines whether or not the work of the computer programmer meets the minimum requirements. The second moment of reckoning for the work of the computer programmer comes when a human being actually tries to use the computer program. There are no moments of reckoning in works of history.

Here, I think, is where the difference is. Computer programs are produced for the benefit of others. Works of history are not. Works of history are produced for the benefit of the author of that work.

I love knowing that someone has plagiarized my computer code. But, I would not be so thrilled to know that some one has plagiarized my historical work. My computer code was written to help people in their lives. Thus, any evidence that what I have written as a computer programmer is used to help another would bring me happiness.

My historical works were done for me. Thus, any plagiarism of these would be to me very hurtful.

This is what I think is the difference. Historians in the history profession are centered on the self and on a gratification of the desires of the self. Computer programming is centered on helping people and on the gratification that comes from knowing that you have helped people make it easier to earn money, put their kids through school, and to live a good life.

Jim Schmidt

Ralph E. Luker - 1/6/2003

I am fascinated by Professor Boyer's anecdote. When I was teaching at a good liberal arts college some years ago, we decided that the department should have some departmental guidelines for students about writing a research paper. One of my senior colleagues was appointed to handle the matter. After the guidelines were promulgated under the department's name, we learned that my senior colleague had simply written around to a number of departments, received a set of guidelines which he thought quite satisfactory, and put our department's name on them.

Paul Boyer - 1/6/2003

Nothing profound, but just another anecdote to add to all those already in circulation. Some years ago I was a visiting professor at a major research university, and among the materials I received was a statement on plagiarism written for undergraduates, explaining what it is and why it is so bad. I thought the statement was excellent, so after returning to my home base at Wisconsin I wrote to the chairman at the university where I had been a visitor, requesting permission to reprint it and asking for full information about the author, so I could give proper credit. Some time later I received a rather embarrassed reply from the chairman explaining that after inquiries he had discovered that the statement had apparently originated at some other institution, and no one had any idea who the original author was! I decided not to use it.