Should Jayme Sokolow Still Be Published?


Mr. Sucharski is an intern at HNN and a student at the University of Washington.

In the midst of all the controversies concerning historical writing over the past year, an old face has resurfaced--an historian about whom serious scholarly questions involving plagiarism were raised over 20 years ago. Apparently unaware of Jayme Sokolow's tainted reputation, a scholarly press named M.E. Sharpe has published a new book by him, The Great Encounter: Native Peoples and European Settlers in the Americas, 1492-1800. It was on display at the publisher's booth at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association when it was spotted by an alert HNN reader who wondered how Sokolow had managed to persuade a publisher to give him another chance.

Did the publisher know about Sokolow's past when the manuscript was acquired or in production? That's unclear. According to Patricia Kolb, editorial director at Sharpe, editor Peter Labella, who signed up Sokolow and worked with him during the revision process, has left Sharpe for a position at Oxford University Press. Andrew Gyory, Labella's successor, who eventually oversaw the book's publication, says he "was not aware of the plagiarism issue until very recently."

Kolb, also unaware of the controversy until very recently, told HNN that "having had publications of our own plagiarized in the past, we are very sensitive to this issue and we are vigilant about it. We are committed to the scholarly integrity of all our publications." She added, "If you can direct me to anyone who has a charge to make against The Great Encounter, we will pursue the complaint promptly."

The Sokolow story begins in Lubbock, Texas, where the young historian joined the history department at Texas Tech University in the fall of 1976. Sokolow arrived at a time when academic jobs were scarce. Because of a troubled economy, would-be professors often traveled far and wide in search of faculty positions. This competition for jobs precipitated an environment in which the pressure to publish was intense. And Sokolow responded by publishing an impressive volume of material on a remarkably diverse range of topics.

His career began to unravel in the fall of 1981 when Jacquelin Collins, a member of the history department, became suspicious after reading an article by Harry Hill Walsh that criticized a piece published by Sokolow four years earlier entitled, "'Arriving at Moral Perfection': Benjamin Franklin and Leo Tolstoy." According to Thomas Mallon, whose book Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism features a lengthy chapter on the Sokolow case, Walsh observed that there was a similarity between Sokolow's article and that of Eufrosina Dvoichenko-Markov, published in 1952. Collins, intrigued, found a copy of the earlier study and underlined "several passages where Sokolow's argument and language, a generation later, ran curiously parallel." While Sokolow's piece acknowledged the article by Dvoichenko-Markov, it "would soon be seen as Sokolow's habitual modus operandi: mention a source, amid a number of others, giving an impression of both wide-ranging scholarship and the customary proprieties, while not indicating the extent or specificity of indebtedness."

In and of itself, the contents of Collins's initial discovery were not startling enough to warrant action; they were enough, however, to trigger a series of events which would lead to more revelations about Sokolow's scholarship.

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Lawrence Foster of Georgia Tech was evaluating a new article Sokolow was peddling when he realized there were striking similarities to Stephen Nissenbaum's new book, Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America. Foster would call Sokolow's article "the most blatant and brazen case of pure plagiarism that I had ever encountered in the historical profession."

Eventually, the parallels with the Nissenbaum book were brought to the attention of the Texas Tech committee reviewing Sokolow's application for tenure. As the committee dug deeper, new parallels were found with other works. Even his doctoral dissertation at NYU was allegedly flawed by inappropriate borrowings.

But what is most significant about the Sokolow case, in Mallon's opinion, was not his failure to procure a tenured position, but rather the manner by which he escaped the incident relatively unscathed. Though some professors in Lubbock felt that Sokolow should be immediately dismissed and wanted to make their findings about his suspect work public, he was allowed to withdraw his application for tenure and resign at the end of the academic year. While in a strictly practical sense this solution achieved more or less the desired end, according to Mallon, it "never solved the problem of Jayme Sokolow. [It] exported it."

In other words, Sokolow's self-defense, using phrases like "sloppy note-taking," ensured him a departure with his credentials still intact--without a formal dismissal or denial of tenure stapled on his sleeve. In the years following he secured a prestigious position at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Fairleigh Dickinson University Press eventually published his book, Eros and Modernization, despite strong evidence that the original version included passages that appeared to bear a striking resemblance to those in Nissenbaum's book. Eros and Modernization received a favorable review in the December 1984 edition of the Journal of American History.

Lawrence Graves, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech when Sokolow was there, reported that there was a reluctance to press claims against Sokolow because of the possibility of a lawsuit. No one seemed to feel it was their responsibility to notify Fairleigh Dickinson, the NEH, or even NYU, which had granted a Ph.D. for a dissertation of possibly questionable merit.

The whiff of controversy trailed Sokolow. The Professional Division of the American Historical Association and the American Association of University Professors were informed of the Nissenbaum problem and investigated. Sokolow, however, deflected the move to take action against him. In an 18-page long statement he offered to write a letter to both the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History admitting that Eros and Modernization included "insufficient documentation." He also promised to add an errata note providing five more footnotes giving Nissenbaum fuller credit. Once again Sokolow succeeded in eluding punishment. "Always," says Mallon, "it was fear of [litigation] which kept Sokolow afloat."

Sokolow told HNN that "The Great Encounter should be judged on its merits." He is scheduled to speak at the 2003 Performance Measurement, Evaluation and Auditing Forum for Grants Programs at the Performance Institute in Arlington, Virginia this May.

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More Comments:

Peter Harrison - 2/20/2003

...if there's a more slipshod and unprofessional imprint anywhere, I've yet to hear of it. I stopped assigning books published by them years ago: got burned too many times.

S. Truth - 2/19/2003

Sokolow was also thought to have plagiarized still another MSS. He circulated a book MSS that appeared to be based on a long-unpublished but respected dissertation in late 19th c. American history. This occurred nearly simultaneously to the uncovering of his plagiarism of Nissenbaum's then-unpublished dissertation. Fortunately the university presses shared the info among themselves and all of them rejected the MSS.
I saw the ads for this new book (but not the book itself) and wondered how he managed to get it published, with his track record. I guess even historians and editors forget. . . .

Derek Catsam - 2/18/2003

Perhaps a better question would be "should serial plagiarizers be read?" If a publishing company wants to put out a book, it is certainly their right to do so. But we should take these charges seriously -- writing a book or article is exceptionally hard work. To know that ideas can simply be stolen or appropriated without reasonable attribution is a scary thing. The overwhelming majority of historians work hard and scrupulously, and rather than circle the wagons around some of our more noxious brethren, maybe we are the ones who should be most appalled and most vocal when transgressions have occurred. This does not mean that we should deny due process or engage in witch hunts, but we should take seriously such charges and should make sure that those who transgress are not rewarded for it.