HNN Poll: Should the American Historical Association Stop Investigating Scholars Who Commit Fraud and Plagiarism?


On May 5, 2003 the American Historical Association (AHA) announced that it would no longer investigate charges of plagiarism and fraud leveled against historians. The organization explained that it"does not believe that the modest benefits to the profession justify the time, energy, and effort that have gone into the process."

Some historians immediately denounced the decision, arguing that now more than ever--after Ambrose, Goodwin, and Bellesiles--a forum is needed in which allegations of misconduct against historians can be investigated and adjudicated.

The AHA insists that in fact investigations often accomplished little:

Because AHA adjudication was confidential, it had virtually no public impact on the profession. For the most part, only those who complained or were complained against knew the outcome of complaints. Adjudication has not promoted a wide public and professional understanding of what historians mean by scholarly integrity.

Because the Professional Division only considered formal complaints, this complicated and time-consuming process failed to address many cases of obvious plagiarism and professional misconduct.

Because the AHA had virtually no sanctions for misconduct, it was difficult to demonstrate that adjudication had serious consequences even for individuals clearly guilty of egregious professional misconduct.

Because of its wholly appropriate effort to maintain neutrality, the Association felt constrained from commenting publicly about professional misconduct that might come before the Professional Division as complaints. The procedures of the Association rendered it ineffective—indeed, almost silent—in criticizing such behavior.

Are the AHA's energies best devoted elsewhere, or is it shirking its responsibility at a time when holding historians to high ethical standards is of the utmost importance?


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Brett Bellmore - 10/10/2003

Heck, as opaque as this site's design is, it's remarkable that anybody found the poll.

Emiliana P. Noether - 8/2/2003

By deciding not to investigate cases of scholarly fraud and plagiarism the Professional Division of the AHA is shirking responsibility. Admittedly, the inquiry had no binding effect, but the mere fact that the AHA had investigated such cases carried some weight in the profession. Shame on you, AHA!

Mark A. Lause - 7/5/2003

The AHA never did much on this anyway. In general, it never recognizes problems in the profession until they affect the elite universities.

Michael Burlingame - 6/7/2003

The AHA's decision to stop investigating plagiarism did not surprise me, for I was told by a knowledgable staffer at the AHA that when the organization issued its timid non-decision in the Oates case (in which I was one of five complainants) that members of the AHA board scurried to tranfer their assets to spouses lest they be sued by Oates (who threatend me, the AHA, and the other four complainants with libel suits). The fear of such suits deters organizations and individuals from calling attention to scholary misconduct.

Editor - 6/5/2003

This was an HNN Poll. We kept it up on the homepage for weeks.

Usually polls attract more responses.

Josh - 6/5/2003

fewer than 25 people post on most HNN forums. How is 25 number a small response?

Ralph E. Luker - 6/5/2003

Mr. Taranovski, Consider a couple of points:
1) if you as the chairman of a history department feel that it is no professional handicap to you not to belong to the AHA, surely no one who violates professional standards will consider it any enormous threat to their professional well-being to be excluded from the AHA;
2) the VanDeMark case is instructive. Substantial evidence presented in the public sphere and made available to the publisher. Concerned about its reputation, Little Brown makes a considered expeditious decision to withdraw the book from circulation. Provision for an AHA consideration of the case would have been time wasted.
3) the appropriate authority for considering a case of professional misconduct may vary, depending on the nature of the offense. Obviously, a publisher should not be expected to deal with a case like that of Joe Ellis, who falsely represented himself to his students. That was a clear case in which his own academic institution had to accept responsibility. Do you think that the AHA should have opened an inquiry in that case?
4) there is, to my knowledge, no licensing procedure for historians, which makes our situation unlike that of doctors, lawyers, dentists, veteranarians, psychiatrists, morticians, barbers, or beauticians. We simply have not found that there is a prevailing state interest in deciding who may and who may not "practice" history. If you think about it, you may not believe that the state should be in the business of deciding who may and who may not do that.

Theodore Taranovski - 6/4/2003

Mr. Luker,
In a best of all possible worlds, a suspected case of plagiarism or other academic fraud would produce an official inquiry by AHA (of which I am not a member) that would result in public condemnation proportionate to the severity of the offense and professional ostracism (AHA would urge the academic employer of the culprit to apply disciplinary sanctions, the press that published the work would be urged to withdraw it from public domain, etc.; lack of consequences would also be noted and, for example, other historians would be encouraged not to publish their work with the press with lax standards or academic departments to hire an individual with such a record). While I have no illusions that this would really affect somebody like Stephen Ambrose, it would at least embarass them, or might stop future Mr. Ambrose's at the beginning of their careers in the historical profession. I certainly would not hire Mr. Bellesiles in my department. Even moral condemnation is better than figurative shrugging of one's shoulders, which is what the AHA has done, and implying that nothing can or should be done.

Editor - 6/2/2003

In History Grapevine we have asked readers to explain the tepidness of the response to the AHA's change in policy. Reply to this post if you have a comment.

Hamilton Cravens - 6/2/2003

Perhaps the change in AHA policy on plagiarism ought to be forming distinguished panels of scholars who review such of cases of alleged plagiarism and make the results public since, after all, such cases now become public anyway. We would not want the AHA to give the impression that its officers and members are unwilling to devote the time and sweat to dealing with instances of this very serious offense against our profession's standards. Then otherwise what value would the AHA have? Certainly not a very high one beyond publishing the review and holding the meeting.

I am afraid that dodging the issue is not sufficient. This is an age in which expertise is attacked from many quarters. We historians should work very hard to ensure that our professional standards are of the highest order, and that peer review has meaning and significance.

Hamilton Cravens, Professor of History, Iowa State University.

Dr Bill Wilden, DDS MPA - 5/22/2003

The current state of affairs, in the light of the recent scandalous behavior of some historians, ought to make you at HNN shudder at the thought of NOT participating in an ongoing investigation.

Once this rot takes root, it requires much more energy to undue (N.B. Bellesiles and the chaos he created and now the Jayson Blair affair!!!)

You may indeed be strapped for funding but what better way, I ask, could you advance the integrity of the profession than to safeguard its ethics by exposing those who would trample them???

Anon - 5/22/2003

Of course, it's worse than that. The AHA first sided with the person who was in violation of its rules--irresponsibly expressing their "support" for a book that contained falsified work and pretending to have "seen" things that they only heard about from the miscreant. I think that the AHA got out of the business of investigation because the AHA realized that they were as likely to enable fraud as to investigate it.

Given the AHA's appalling and irresponsible behavior in the case to which Mr. Cramer refers, perhaps it's just as well.

Mr. Cramer, to your knowledge had anyone filed a complaint against the miscreant with the AHA? Were they dodging a particular complaint or was the AHA simply recognizing that their process was too corrupted by bias to function anymore?

Ralph E. Luker - 5/21/2003

History News Network would be one place where you might "publicize the issue."

Martha Hildreth - 5/21/2003

I believe this to be a very bad decision. I cannot think of anything more important for the AHA than maintaining ethical standards for professional research and publication.

I discovered a very blatant case of plagairism myself - whole pages reproduced from a previously published work reproduced in a recently published work. I called the AHA and was advised to contact the publishers of both works. This I did. The publisher of the work containing the plagiarism responded in a timely and thorough matter, taking the book out of print immediately. However many copies remain out there and there is no way for anyone to know the truth about them. This case was so blatant that really no further investigation was needed, just a place to publicize the issue.

-Martha Hildreth

Clayton E. Cramer - 5/21/2003

They finally have a good, juicy example of really gross fraud in American history--the first time anything anywhere near this absurd has happened in at least a decade--and they decide to get out of the business of professional standards. Wow, am I surprised!

This just demonstrates that integrity has no significance to organizations like the AHA. At least if they stop pretending that they do something, there won't be any illusions that they perform some useful function in this area.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/20/2003

Mr. Taranovski, What penalty do you propose? Threatening to toss someone out of the AHA has all the professional weight of Br'er Bear threatening to toss Br'er Rabbitt into the Briar Patch.

Theodore Taranovski - 5/20/2003

The AHA decision not to adjudicate and penalize historians who engage in plagiarism and other forms of academic fraud is a cowardly recusal from professional responsibility and accountability. Alas, I fear that it reflects not only declining sense of scholarly standards and academic responsibility within the historical profession but also broader societal attitudes.

John Sayle Watterson - 5/19/2003

Unlike other associations, the AHA and OAH are not authorized to license historians. I suppose that degree-granting institutions serve that function, but they lose their authority once the the M.A. and Ph.D. are granted.
If the AHA will not investigate, who will? Certainly institutions can pass judgment on their own faculty and revoke--or refuse to grant--tenure for unethical behavior, something that has occurred from time to time. Of course,such a course takes moral discipline that most departments unfortunately lack. So I don't really think that this will be effective unless public pressure forces colleagues to act.
What then is my alternative? Not one that would provide much due process. If there is enough discussion in forums such as HNN, the institution may feel compelled to investigate. Once serious questions have been raised, it is difficult to walk away from them.
Anyway, what historian wants to wear a scarlet P for the rest of their career, even if it is not handed down by the AHA? It may not be pretty, but such an approach may serve to curb the worst abuses by making the abusers think twice. And it may flush a few plagiarists simply by bringing their lapses to light.

David Allen Harvey - 5/19/2003

Ralph Luker writes: "it is neither obligatory for a historian to have an academic degree..."
Really??? Then I sure wasted all of those years in graduate school!
The fact is, our credibility as scholars is all that we have going for us. We don't produce new technologies. We don't cure diseases. We don't even manufacture widgets. The scholarship that we produce, and the guarantee that it is both original and legitimate (in the sense that it is based on actual primary or secondary sources that can be verified by our peers), is the most fundamental characteristic that defines us as a profession.
It is, as the AHA has remarked on more than one occasion, becoming increasingly difficult for historians, especially junior scholars just starting out, to get their works (often the fruit of many years of painstaking effort) published. It is an affront to the many honest, unemployed or underemployed young historians, who play by all the rules and make great personal sacrifices for the sake of the craft, for the AHA to allow plagiarism to go on with impunity. Furthermore, the status of history (and the liberal arts in general) is increasingly threatened within the American academy by a narrowly utilitarian, pre-professional focus. We historians need to put our house in order, or else, should we find ourselves marginalized and unrespected, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Kevin Russell Cook - 5/19/2003

Mr Boyd is correct.

In refusing to remain watchful of plagerism the AHA is relinquishing is right to call itself a professional organization. This is true in fact, and definitionally true.

To the AHA board: Is this what you want?

Joan R. Gundersen - 5/19/2003

I protested the decision directly to the AHA. There are two major flaws in their decision: 1) One of the main reasons they stopped is that the process was time-consuming and secret, thus no one learned about the outcomes. Other organizations publish the findings when fault has been found (much as the committee selected by Emory did in the "Arming America" case). I suggested that if procedures were faulty then the best solution was to correct the procedures, not wash your hands of the business. 2) The AHA suggested the proper forum for handling a complaint would be an investigation by the institution that employed the historian charged. The problem is that given the job market for the last 30 years many historians are NOT employed in history or higher education institutions. Some are independent scholars -- who will investigate and either clear or rebuke them? The AHA has abidcated an inportant responsibilty of a professional organization.

Byron Boyd - 5/19/2003

It is the responsibility of any self-respecting organization of professionals to make every reasonable effort to ensure that its members adhere to minimal standards of conduct. We have seen too many instances in recent years of the consequences when organizations in other fields, ranging from accounting to the Catholic church, have abandoned this responsibility. I do hope that the AHA will reconsider its decision.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/19/2003

The AHA professional division had a difficult, perhaps a very telling experience, with a very well known inquiry some years ago. The evidence of plagiarism was well known to the academic community, but the repeated threats of legal action by the accused and the acquiesence of his institution rendered the proceedings largely moot. I suspect that for officers of the AHA, if there is no substantial consequence to an extended and very time consuming inquiry, one has to ask if it is worth the effort.
Professor Burner and others here may be correct in suggesting that the AHA has defaulted in its professional responsibility, but they do not address the causes outlined by those who advocated the adoption of this change in policy and the change may be a function of ways in which academic professional organizations are quite different from a bar or a medical association. I do not know that there is any process by which a historian can be "disbarred."
Having said that, the fact that other academic professional organizations have not followed the AHA's example suggests that there is reason to think very carefully about taking this important step.

Brett Kottmann - 5/18/2003

is what History will be grouped with it doesn't police itself.

The fact that scandals have been relatively few is something the profession should be proud of. To use it as a justification to bury our collective heads in the sand is outrageous.

Did we already forget the lessons of Anderson and Enron? Oversight is necessary so those who do not know their history can trust the words of those who do.

Lawrence B. A. Hatter - 5/18/2003

In the words of Edwin Starr, what is the AHA good for? Without acting as a check, at least, on the machinations and wild imaginations of the more unscrupulous members of the profession one might well agree: "Absolutely nothing".

This is not to suggest its sole role is to stage midnight raids on those accused of professional misconduct (although should not a professional organization police its own ranks?) or stage elaborate trials. However, without taking a stand to protect ethics within the academy anything else the AHA tries to do lacks both creditbility and authority.

The AHA might not always be able to resolve accusations of plagarism, but the threat of having one's research and dirty laundry aired in public might encourage an historian to be doubly careful in their research methods. It might even met out a little justice once in a while preventing liars and cheats from prospering above the honest fellow. If nothing else it is entertaining to watch the egos try and squirm their way out of it.

David Burner - 5/18/2003

I can scarcely think of anything more important for the AHA to do than continue to investigate serious charges of plagiarism (frivolous ones can be rejected). I wrench every time I see Doris Kearns Goodwin appear on Meet the Press or other still vaguely respectable news outlets.
What can I do about it? Discontinue my support for the AHA including persuading my small publisher not to exhibit at the annual convnetion at a cost of a thousand some dollars. Please let me know if there's any reconsideration of this decision being scheduled, for it's time to submit requests for booths.

William A. Henslee - 5/18/2003

The American Medical Association professional responsibility process has most of the same limitations as those cited by the AHA board, but no one would think of leaving complaints in the hands of interested parties like the hospital staff.

Shirking responsibility is no way to go. Professional shaming of malefactors is the only and best protection for historians.

Kevin M. DeVita - 5/18/2003

I see my disgust with the AHA continues and I am even more satisfied that I was correct about the deteriation of this once proud organization. I cancelled my membership last year, with no regrets either.

Clive Chalmers - 5/17/2003

The decision reminds me of the decisions made by many institutions of higher education that the grades awarded by professors in their ocurses will no longer be a part of tenure decisions or annual merit evaluations.

But the evaluations of the professors' courses made by their students will of course remain part of both records.

Josh Greenland - 5/16/2003

"As the article indicates, the AHA may not "publish a finding of guilt." Under current policy, it may only send a letter outlining its findings to the accused and to the accuser. It apparently follows this procedure in order to avoid the threat of expensive litigation. Given this restriction, it is hard to argue with the position that inquiries which hold no threat of consequence are a futile exercise.

"It appears that the employer of the accused, the publisher of the accused, or the civil courts are the only agencies capable of meaningful action."

What's to stop the accuser or the accused from publicizing their letters?

Given the gossipy nature of academic society, I find it hard to believe that publicizing an AHA finding of innocence or guilt would be futile or not have meaningful consequences. If the finding is one of guilt, the accused may have the full support of his/her PRESENT employer and publisher, but what if s/he wants to move onto the another university or publisher? And, do you really mean to imply that it doesn't matter what one's colleagues or department head think of one?

"I do find it troubling that professional organizations of other academic disciplines have not chosen to follow the example of the AHA."


Charles V. Mutschler - 5/16/2003

I see that the subject is being picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education for the new subject of its on-line disucssion for the week.

Perhaps we should be discussing the questions: What is a professional organization, and what does it do for (a) its membership, and (b) the profession as a whole? Is the AHA meeting those needs?

Charles V. Mutschler

Clyde W. Howard III - 5/15/2003

Agreed with Mr. Mallon. A gross dereliction of duty and abandonment of a function the AHA should be performing.

Unfounded accusations should be exposed for what they are - unfounded. Founded ones should be made matters of professional knowledge and public record.

Clyde W. Howard III
Attorney at Law

Marc A. Mallon, Esq. - 5/13/2003

Shirking professional responsibilities, not to mention moral obligation.

Thomas Hagedorn - 5/13/2003

Mr. Brennaman, I am taking your post literally. Go to the AHA homepage and you will see that they have decided to do precisely what the question asks. To someone new to the academic world (such as myself), it does seem a bit strange.

Ernest Brennaman - 5/12/2003

Of course it should continue to investigate unethical practices in the study or teaching of history. Why would anyone even ask such a question?

E. B.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/12/2003

Mr. Hagedorn,
What is the licensing procedure for a historian? The granting of a graduate degree is the closest approximation to that for historians. But it is neither obligatory for a historian to have an academic degree nor that she or he belong to a professional organization. That is, I think, where your analogy to other professions breaks down.

Thomas Hagedorn - 5/12/2003

I am a former CPA, now a graduate student in history. I am also a bit familiar with professional ethics and enforcement in the legal profession. With the recent "foibles" in accounting and auditing, I am confident there will be professional sanctions forthcoming for many of the accounting perpetrators. But great damage to the profession's public image has already occurred. I can't imagine what the public reaction would be if the AICPA and the various state CPA societies simply threw up their hands and said we'll let the courts and their employers handle this.

Isn't an enforceable code of conduct a prerequisite for any discipline that calls itself a profession? If cosmetology can do it, why not us?

Ralph E. Luker - 5/12/2003

As the article indicates, the AHA may not "publish a finding of guilt." Under current policy, it may only send a letter outlining its findings to the accused and to the accuser. It apparently follows this procedure in order to avoid the threat of expensive litigation. Given this restriction, it is hard to argue with the position that inquiries which hold no threat of consequence are a futile exercise.
It appears that the employer of the accused, the publisher of the accused, or the civil courts are the only agencies capable of meaningful action. I do find it troubling that professional organizations of other academic disciplines have not chosen to follow the example of the AHA. They may do so down the line.

Josh Greenland - 5/12/2003

I think morality needs to be enforced in the historical profession against the minority of sleazy historians. The AHA used Emory's actions against Bellesiles as its excuse for getting out of this responsibility. But Emory was getting a great deal of public pressure on Bellesiles. If his misconduct had been less notorious, especially if the William and Mary Quarterly hadn't published those critical articles in early 2002, who can say if Emory would have bothered to investigate Bellesiles?

I think AHA is indispensable as a misconduct-investigator of last resort. The shirkers in AHA may use AHA's inability to fire any historian they find guilty as an excuse, but simply publishing a finding of guilt would have an effect in the collegial (clubby) world of academia.

John Kipper - 5/11/2003

While I agree that disseminating information about standards is important, I have to ask why highly educated professionals need this remedial course. Shoulddn't they have learned it in their professinal training? And if the largest, most prestigious spokesman for the profession will not enforce accepted academic standards, what does it say about the profession and its practioners? Will this abdication of responsibility reflect creidt upon the noblest of the liberal arts? I think not.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/10/2003

I would have to agree that clear articulation of standards and promotion of institutional review processes on the part of individual colleges/universities would be more positive over the long term. But over the long term, intellectual property law being what it is, these cases will increasingly be handled by lawyers. So maybe we should focus on instilling intellectual integrity in our pre-law students..... oh, and our history majors.