Clio's Malpractice; or, What's A Fallen Girl To Do?


Mr. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is the author of The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912 and co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King. Click here for his blog on HNN.

The Journal of American History's editor, Joanne Meyerowitz, says that its March 2004 issue will not"directly address the [Michael] Bellesiles case." Rather, it will respond to a commitment by the Organization of American Historians' executive committee in the wake of multiple professional embarrassments. The Journal has commissioned"several authors to write short essays on issues of historical ethics, and [will] publish them in March 2004." The names of the authors are unknown and their essays are still in process, but they"deal more generally with questions of ethics in historical practice."

Shortly after Meyerowitz's announcement, I marveled that "while Bellesiles lost his position in the history department at Emory University, the Bancroft Prize for his book, Arming America,was revoked, and the book was withdrawn from sale by his publisher, he continues to hold the Binkley-Stephenson Prize for having published the Journal of American History's 'best article of the year' for 1996 and the JAH will apparently take no action to acknowledge the flaws in the article that launched the book. " (1)

What's going on here? Just when the American Historical Association announces that it will no longer monitor breaches of ethics in the profession, have both the Organization of American Historians and the Journal of American History ducked all responsibility for the biggest embarrassment to the profession in the 21st century? Editors of history journals maintain that flawed manuscripts are well screened in peer review, though the details about particular manuscripts are confidential. Occasionally, a flawed article is published. Part of the reason for the JAH's decision is that, unlike medical and science journals, history journals have no well established practice of repudiating published articles that are subsequently found to be seriously flawed in one way or another. (2)

As a graduate student, I read an article in the New England Quarterly by Charles C. Cole, Jr., on the racial thought of a major nineteenth century New England theologian, Horace Bushnell. After reading the original sources, I knew that Cole had seriously distorted what the theologian had said. The distortion was so severe that it reversed Bushnell's meaning. So, I wrote an article correcting the mistaken reading. The editors at NEQ saw the legitimacy of my point and published the article, but they did not repudiate the earlier one. Subsequently, Forrest Wood, a thesis-driven historian if there ever was one, found Cole's article supported his thesis better than mine did. My article was in his bibliography, but Wood repeated Cole's misunderstanding of Bushnell and cited Cole's article without qualification.(3) So, even publishing a correcting article can't guarantee that, once in print, a calumny won't perpetuate itself. Yet, the editors at NEQ did the best they could, for our tradition of scholarship is a process, not a finding or a conclusion. Still, that doesn't answer the problem of how best to acknowledge a deeply flawed step in the process.

If you look at how history journals have treated flawed work against a background of changes in the profession in the last 60 years, the lack of powerful precedents and the need for a re-examination of professional practice become clearer. It is a story of lines -- lines of control, of power, and lines to be crossed and not crossed.

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The grandfather of stories about how history journals have handled plagiarism in their pages is the one about Allan Nevins, Fred Harvey Harrington, and the American Historical Review. It is a remarkable incident because of its cast of characters: Nevins, the author of about 50 books and one of the 20th century's most widely read historians, Harrington, a future president of the University of Wisconsin, and the AHR, our most prestigious journal. Nevins had published a biography of John C. Fremont in 1928, when he joined the history department at Columbia University. A decade later, the AHR was edited there. Its managing editor, Robert Livingston Schuyler, and a member of its board of editors, Dumas Malone, were Nevins's department colleagues. They asked him to read an article about Fremont submitted by Harrington, then a young historian at Wisconsin. Nevins was rewriting his biography of Fremont for another publisher. According to lore, Nevins recommended that the AHR not publish Harrington's article, but he incorporated Harrington's findings into the new edition of his Fremont biography.

When the biography was published, a shorter version of Harrington's article appeared in the AHR with this odd editorial footnote:

In the summer of 1937, Professor Allan Nevins read by request the manuscript of a longer version of this article, entitled"The Fremont Nomination of 1856", [sic] which Dr. Harrington had submitted for publication in the American Historical Review. Mr. Nevins in his recently published Fremont, Pathmarker of the West has incorporated a considerable amount of Dr. Harrington's material here published as well as parts of his longer manuscript not yet published. Mr. Nevins's impression that this material had been published was mistaken, and the reference on page 427 of his Fremont to an article by Dr. Harrington on"Fremont and the Nomination of 1856" is incorrect. Acknowledgment to Dr. Harrington will be made in a new edition of Mr. Nevins's book. - Ed.
Nevins had, indeed,"incorporated a considerable amount of Dr. Harrington's material here published" in the second Fremont biography. Compare, for example, these sentence fragments:

"... they hoped that by setting their convention for June 12, five days before the Republicans were to meet, they could dictate the choice of an anti-slavery presidential candidate."-- Harrington,"Fremont and the North Americans," p. 842.

"... they called this convention for June 12th, five days before the Republicans were to meet. It was evident that they hoped to use it to dictate the choice of a candidate for both parties!" -- Nevins, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West, pp. 429-30. (4)

Worse than the obvious textual dependency, Nevins's heavy reliance on Harrington's narrative thread apparently complicated negotiations about publication of a young historian's article. Originally a distillation of his dissertation at New York University, Harrington's article was reduced to a research note by Nevins's theft. There's cruel irony in both the Economic History Association and the Society of American Historians giving an"Allan Nevins Prize" for best dissertations. It's rather like giving a"Bill Clinton Prize" for best internship. But this vignette is a glimpse at the profession itself at World War II's beginning -- where control of it lay, who exercised it, how they protected each other, and how they exploited young turks in the hinterland. All the actors and their subjects were white, male, elite, and, except for their subjects, well beyond suspicion of professional malpractice. By publishing Harrington's foreshortened article, Nevins's colleagues at Columbia both exposed his plagiarism to those who cared to look and protected him from any consequence of exposure.

After World War II, change in the history professorate was symbolized by the retirement at Columbia of the older white American, Robert Livingston Schuyler, and the hiring of Richard Hofstadter, the son of a Jewish father and a Lutheran mother. Technically, he was not Jewish, but he was brilliant. Columbia was then taking very small steps into its future, but Hofstadter was largely indifferent to the politics of controlling a profession. As it became more diverse, control diversified and became less personal. By 1977, both the AHR and its little sister, the Journal of American History, had moved to the hinterland, Indiana University at Bloomington. But the legacy that protected those who belonged to the club meant that there were few precedents for even-handedly applying standards of professional practice.

African American history had developed in its own ghetto, a shadow of white practice. Between 1956, when he became chairman of the history department at Brooklyn College, and 1964, when he became chairman of the department at the University of Chicago, John Hope Franklin became the profession's African American man for all seasons. We learned that he was more than that, but most of his African American colleagues still labored in their racial ghetto. It had its own scandals and its own club, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.(5) Its Journal of Negro History(JNH) also lacked any well established practice of repudiating flawed articles.

In the spring of 1968, just before Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis, John W. Rathbun published one of the first serious academic articles about King's philosophy,"Martin Luther King: The Theology of Social Action," in American Quarterly (AQ). Three months later, Mohan Lal Sharma recycled it as a memorial to the slain civil rights leader and Great Recycler:"Martin Luther King: Modern America's Greatest Theologian of Social Action" in the JNH. Sharma was a native of India who taught at Pennsylvania's Slippery Rock State College. Nowhere did Sharma acknowledge Rathbun's earlier article. At his best, however, Sharma grouped his own paragraphs and quotations around close summaries and paraphrases of Rathbun's article. At his worst, Sharma simply repeated Rathbun's primary source quotations, used Rathbun's words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs without quotation marks, and appropriated Rathbun's footnotes as his own parenthetical notes. In all, 11 of Sharma's 26 paragraphs were either overly close paraphrases of Rathbun's article or mere replications of it. (6)

Both American Quarterly and the Journal of Negro History had new editors by the mid-1970s, when AQ's Bruce Kuklick at the University of Pennsylvania learned of Sharma's plagiarism in the JNH. He contacted its new editor, Alton Hornsby of Morehouse College. By then, the ASNLH was in crisis. Its reliable constituency in the ghetto was draining, as history departments which had shunned them now scrambled to find their own John Hope Franklins. Yale only found its Franklin in 1970, when it hired John Blassingame, one of its doctoral students. Franklin had labored in ghetto vineyards for years and Blassingame had earned his undergraduate degree and a Master's degree in them, but they were crossing over. The ASNLH and the JNH remained creatures of the ghetto, its weak funding and draining networks. Briefly, white scholars established their credentials for right-mindedness by publishing in the journal. By the mid-1970s, however, Hornsby was both learning to be an editor and managing a JNH financial crisis that threatened its existence. The journal went unpublished for years. Hornsby never acknowledged any problem with Sharma's scholarship to Kuklick or in the JNH's tardy pages. (7)

As the profession diversified, however, editors of other history journals actually embraced and vented charges of malpractice by bringing them into their pages. They established precedents which the JAH might have followed in the case of Michael Bellesiles. In 1971, Labor History published James S. Morris's charge that Philip Foner had plagiarized Morris's work on the Joe Hill case and Foner's denial of the charge. In 1977, Kenneth G. Madison accused J. R. Lander of"self-plagiarism," that is, re-publishing his own words in a number of different places, and Lander replied in the pages of the British studies journal, Albion. In 1990, Frank Chin, Karen Leonard, and Ron Takaki aired charges of professional misconduct in Amerasia Journal. (8) Respectable enough, however, these were not among our most influential journals and the accusations against Lander seemed a parody of professional self-scrutiny.

Perhaps better than anyone, Gerda Lerner represented the further diversification of the history profession. By escaping from prison and being a refugee from Nazi occupation of her native Austria in 1938, she too had crossed over. Lerner returned to school at Hofstadter's Columbia, finished a doctorate there in 1966, and spent her career in the hinterlands, at Harrington's University of Wisconsin, Madison. Immigrant, Jewish, a former Communist, and female, she wrote about the African American experience, but made her reputation as a historian of women. Indeed, Lerner was at the heart of the feminization of the history profession. In 1981, she was the first woman to be elected president of the Organization of American Historians in 50 years.

As women crossed lines previously drawn against them in the history profession, one of them was accused of crossing forbidden lines. In 1971, a student of John Hope Franklin and Richard Hofstadter, Ann Lane, was accused of plagiarism in her dissertation and a book manuscript on the Brownsville Incident. For Lane, as for Nevins, however, the personal was both political and professional. She lost her job at Douglass College, but she survived the scandal. Knowing the right people brought her another job offer and she is at the University of Virginia today. Lane's incident was so largely forgotten, however, that when Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism early in 2002 you could almost hear the sighs of relief coming from the men's rooms in history departments all over the country. Few of us remembered that a female historian had ever been accused of professional malpractice until Kearns Goodwin's moment of fame. She shared the spotlight with a dozen men, but another woman had joined the club of the accused.

Persistent rumors hold that one tough-minded female historian cast the only vote against Michael Bellesiles's promotion to full professor at Emory University and that another tough-minded female historian single-handedly prevented Arming America from winning the Pulitzer Prize. It was propitious, too, that when the scandal about Michael Bellesiles broke, the Journal of American History had its first female editor, Joanne Meyerowitz. In many ways, she represented changes in the profession since the days of Dumas Malone, Allan Nevins, and Robert Livingston Schuyler at Columbia. Jewish and female, she was the professional granddaughter of Richard Hofstadter and daughter of Gerda Lerner. Like Lerner, she seized the notion that the personal is political and made a career of it in two smart books, Women Adrift (1988) and Not June Cleaver (1994). Like Lerner and her professional uncles, John Hope Franklin and John Blassingame, she also knew about crossing over. She told us about it in How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality (2002).(9) She knows that historians have long had our crossovers and transgressors. For some of them, an editor of the JAH who talked and wrote about such things in public would be unthinkable.

When Michael Bellesiles crossed the line in the JAH, it wasn't on Joanne Meyerowitz's watch. David Thelen was its editor in 1996. Neither of them gave Bellesiles his Binkley-Stephenson Award for the"best article of the year" in the JAH. A committee of its sponsoring Organization of American Historians made that decision. After the Prize was awarded, Clayton Cramer submitted his paper, "Gun Scarcity in the Early Republic?" which might have signaled that there was a problem. The problem with Bellesiles's article wasn't plagiarism, where comparing one text with another can often decide an issue, however. The problems were more complex. In fairness to Thelen and peer reviewers of"Gun Scarcity," Cramer's article did not challenge Bellesiles's quantitative evidence, which Meyerowitz believes was"the key clue (and perhaps the only clue) to the questionable research in Bellesiles's 1996 JAH essay...."(10) Her comment indicates the degree to which trust is elemental in historical research. Ordinarily, we need a clue to alert our suspicions. The flaws in Bellesiles quantitative Table I were"perhaps the only clue" which on the face of things ought to have signaled a problem with the article. The JAH might have published Cramer's challenge to Bellesiles's qualitative evidence, as the NEQ published my challenge to Charles Cole's article. Had it done so, however, that would not have kept a thesis-driven historian from citing Bellesiles's earlier article. Among Thelen's last acts as editor was to return Cramer's manuscript to him unaccepted. Was that comparable to Alton Hornsby's refusal to acknowledge a problem with an article previously published in the JNH?

Whatever the answer to that question, when Joannne Meyerowitz became editor of the JAH, there was no manuscript on the table challenging Bellesiles's 1996 article, Arming America had yet to be published, and Columbia University's Bancroft Award had yet to be given it. By then, James Lindgren and others had joined the chase and would publish their work elsewhere. Among history journals, the critical work was done in the William and Mary Quarterly.

The Bellesiles story developed in tandem with a number of other high profile accusations against historians. In June 2001, the Boston Globe charged Joseph Ellis with pretending to be something that he had not been. In September 2001, David McCullough was accused of misattributing a quotation and publishing historical bromides. In October 2001, the William and Mary Quarterly began a two-part series which led to the withdrawal of Edward A. Pearson's book, Designs Against Charleston for misreading evidence. In January 2002, the WMQ published its symposium,"Historians and Guns," on Bellesiles's Arming America and the Weekly Standard charged both Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin with plagiarism. In February 2002, Louis Roberts, a classicist at SUNY, Albany, was accused of plagiarism. In June 2002, Paul Buhle was accused of manufacturing evidence. James Lindgren's first inquiry into Arming America circulated privately well before publication and the second was two months delayed in appearing on the Internet where it had astonishing impact, but both studies also appeared in print in June 2002.

In truth, charges serious and not so serious fell on some of the best and, apparently, some of the worst of us. They seemed to fall so randomly that no one knew who would take the next hit. Seen in that context, the one that took out Michael Bellesiles was only the most devastating. It was the most devastating to him personally. As the only one of the scandals to have had its origin in our journals, it indicted both our peer review processes and our judgment in awarding prizes to outstanding work. In short, it was the most damaging of the scandals to the profession itself.

Finally, the precedents for dealing with charges of professional malpractice in our historical journals are not well established. In the AHR, for those who cared to look, we published the evidence against Allan Nevins and protected him from any consequence of it. In the JNH, we altogether ignored the problem. We have aired the charges and defense against them in Labor History, Albion, Amerasia Journal, and, finally, the William and Mary Quarterly. At one point or other, we have deferred, denied, embraced, and excused the problems.

Our profession has undergone dramatic changes in the last 60 years. Our increasing diversity was no cause of recent scandal. External factors, such as the commercial book press, which may avoid peer review altogether and is pre-occupied only with sales, is surely an enabler of scandal and the gun enthusiasts' powerful influence, which forced us to confront it even if we would have preferred to handle matters privately, seemed to play larger roles at both ends of scandal than has our diversity. But for good or ill our diversity surely means that our handling of malpractice in the future will be more impersonal than it once was. The charges have recently fallen thick and fast among us and our treatment of them must be such that we are willing to live with the result if we are the accused, for surely some of us will be. The precedents for dealing with professional malpractice in history are not fully established. They offer little assurance that the"punishment fit the crime" in the past and uncertain guidance for action in the future.

It makes sense for the Organization of American Historians to ask the editorial board of the Journal of American History to commission an essay or a roundtable to address"the ethical issues of this and other recent cases and how much historians rely on trust in practicing their craft." (11)The task of the editor of the JAH, her board, and the authors of those essays, however, is the more challenging because, when it might have followed the precedents in Labor History, Albion, and Amerasia Journal, the JAH mismanaged or ignored our major scandal for so long. The anonymity of the authors and the undefined nature of the essay's subjects is not a good omen. It's a lurking remnant of the good old days when good old boys made crucial decisions in private and informed us when they were good and ready. Our engagement with these ethical issues must safeguard and promote honest disagreement about historical issues. It must also raise high walls against deceit, fraud, and theft. Can it do both? That's the tough question, but the engagement must be tough in both directions.

Note: I am indebted to David Garrow, Richard Jensen, KC Johnson, Bruce Kuklick, James Lindgren, and Rick Shenkman for suggestions about this article. Some of them disagree with parts of it and, of course, they have no responsibility for it.

1.Luker, "Welcome to My World ...," 09-09-03.

2. Repudiation of flawed research findings is a common practice in medical and science journals. The most notorious example is a case in which the Nobel Prize winning scientist David Baltimore was implicated with a careless research assistant. Only after ten years of humiliating scrutiny were Baltimore and his associate exonerated. See: Daniel J. Kevles, The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998). In conversation with me in the Spring of 2003, Michael Bellesiles drew parallels between his own case and that of David Baltimore.

3. Charles C. Cole, Jr.,"Horace Bushnell and the Slavery Question," New England Quarterly, 23 (March 1950): 19-30; Luker,"Bushnell in Black and White: Evidences on the 'Racism' of Horace Bushnell," New England Quarterly, 45 (September 1972): 408-416; and Forrest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), pp. 4-5 and passim.

4. Allan Nevins, Fremont, The World's Greatest Adventurer. 2 vols (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928); Nevins, Fremont, Pathmarker of the West (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1939); Fred Harvey Harrington,"Fremont and North Americans," American Historical Review, 44 (July 1939): 842-48; and Rick Shenkman,"Reporter's Notebook: Impressions of the 117th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Chicago, 2003."

5. See, for example: Tony Martin,"Did W. E. B. Du Bois Plagiarize?" Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, 6 (1982): 51-53.

6. Rathbun,"Martin Luther King: The Theology of Social Action," American Quarterly, 20 (Spring 1968): 38-53; and Mohan Lal Sharma,"Martin Luther King: Modern America's Greatest Theologian of Social Action," Journal of Negro History, 53 (July 1968): 257-63.

7. David Garrow to author, 09-09-03; and Bruce Kuklick to author, 09-11-03

8. James S. Morris and Philip Foner,"Philip Foner and the Writing of the Joe Hill Case: An Exchange," Labor History, 12 (Winter 1971): 81-114; Kenneth G. Madison and J. R. Lander,"The Troglodyte Connection: A Case of Self Plagiarism," Albion, 9 (Summer, 1977): 188-194; and Frank Chin, Karen Leonard, and Ron Takaki,"Viewpoints on Strangers from a Different Shore," Amerasia Journal, 16 (1990): 133-54.

9. Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1889-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Meyerowitz, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); and Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002).

10. Luker, "Welcome to My World ...," 09-09-03.

11.Organization of American Historians, Press Release, 21 November 2002.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 11/27/2003

Mr. Ward, Your point, I take it, is directed to Don Williams rather than to me. I still read and admire John William Ward's work very much.

David C. Ward - 11/24/2003

Just for the author's information, John William Ward was a Marine during World War II and knew a great deal about heavy weaponry. But he would have been the first to argue that the requirement that only veterans should write military history would only further balkanize an already fragmented field.
And you rather miss the point of his chapter "The Hunters of Kentucky" in the Jackson book. Glad you're still reading it though! Hope you noticed that Teddy Roosevelt's naval history of the War of 1812 makes the same point about cannon fire -- but we don't want to give up our myths do we?

Jonathan Dresner - 10/1/2003

Mr. Williams,

There has always been a place in history for non-academics (in fact it is the only field I can think of in which non-professionals' writings are read with respect, particularly writing based on specific professional expertise) and there will always be, I think (especially as sites like this one broaden the historical discourse). Your disdain for the field because it doesn't address your issues the way you think they should needs to be channelled into production, not sniping, advocacy, not avoidance.

Historians have and will continue to answer the questions they find interesting. There is no scam. Only a lot of people trying their best to teach and learn and share their understanding of the world in a society which undervalues their activities and their knowledge.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/1/2003

Good question. I know at least two historians who have made whole careers out of reframing or restating something they once said early in life. If that one thing is important enough, that one thing might be worthy of re-iteration. There are other historians who have said a great deal -- none of it worthy of repetition.

Sue Miller - 10/1/2003

Where exactly does the historical profession stand on the issue of so-called "self-plagiarism"?

Don Williams - 9/30/2003

would survive the cut in public and parental funding that would occur if Americans ever caught onto the scam. hee hee

Ralph E. Luker - 9/30/2003

Don, The Corps of Engineers has been such a blessing to historic preservation that I'm surprised that you admit to being one. The history profession is likely to survive both your criticism and your child's not joining it. There are too many of us already. Sorry you don't like our work.

Don Williams - 9/30/2003

My reference above to "Captain Andrews" at the battle of Cowpens should have been to "Captain Andrew Wallace".

Don Williams - 9/30/2003

1) Can you point out any history book published in the last 40 years re The Battle of New Orleans (in 1815) which is superior to the account written by Arsene Latour circa 1816?

2) Consider Bellesiles' claim that "cannon, not firearms, won the Battle of New Orleans". Do you think that Bellesiles or John William Ward had the slightest idea what the shot pattern of a 12 lb cannon is in the range of 30 to 200 yards? Or how the ballistics of a musket ball compare with canister shot?

3) This Battle was a pivotal point in US history --if a foreign power had kept control of New Orleans, the states in the Mississippi watershed might well have formed a separate country due to the economic imperative of using the Mississippi for transportation of heavy, bulk cargo.

If a second country had risen, we would have had the constant warfare characteristic of Europe -- and our Constitution, respect for civil rights, and our democratic republic might have fallen into a militaristic monarchy under the pressure of that constant warfare.

So why have historians done little to improve our knowledge of the Battle --and it's context --since Latour? Why have they done little more but shuffle the same pile of paper over and over in the past 190 years?

Given the large financial support Early American historians have received over the past 100 years, why have there been no archaelogical excavations of Chalmette battlefield? The heavy lead projectiles would have probably have sunk in the mud, been covered with alluvial deposits , and would have lain undisturbed in the past 190 years. A cheap scan with subsurface radar would confirm their existence and verify their location. Their disposition and distribution would reveal much about the battle.

Why hasn't this been done? What are you guys good for?

4) My contempt for the modern day history profession is minor compared to the contempt that professional historians seem to have for the profession itself. Your peers seem so lost in nitpicking specialism and careerism that you seem to have lost all sense of history's grandeur and of it's practical value/utility.

Your profession has far greater problems than questionable ethics and behavior of a few practioners. Those are merely symptoms.

5) Science and Engineering have specialization --but people in those disciplines have worked for centuries to build a large edifice which accumulates more and more Truth/Knowledge as time goes on. Every fact in the edifice has been subjected to documented scrutiny. Practioners focus on details but they also understand the structure as a whole.

Each generation in Science and Engineering has left a body of knowledge measurably better and larger than what it received.
I do not think this is true in History -- certainly it does not seem true of the past 50 years. John William Ward's muddled claptrap should have been discared long ago --certainly not cited as the primary reference of a description of the Battle 50 years later. Don Higginbotham's mistaken description of Captain Andrews as militia at Cowpens should have been corrected long ago --not left to be cited by Bellesiles 40 years later. How many
young scholars will be misled by Arming America in the decades to come?

6) Another problem is that modern historians are ..er..historians. They are not soldiers, politicians, spies, businessmen, farmers, or inventors -- and they seem to have no
interest in talking to such. John Shy's description of the American militia is more profound than Bellesiles -- and I think part of that is due to Shy's collaboration with the

My citation of Thucydides, Tacitus, and Edward Gibbon was not an accident. Those were men of affairs -- a Greek general, Roman Senator, and Enlightenment Gentleman -- who had broad prospectives and experienced judgment. Out of a huge mass of material , they could identify the important facts and assemble them into a coherent whole. Today's historical articles seem
lost in a maze of irrelevent random trivia, by comparison.

7) I encourage my son to read history. I do not think I will encourage him to take college courses in the subject and I certainly will not encourage him to adopt it as a profession.

I might encourage him and other young men to consider writing history in their advanced years -- after they have had experience of life and have accumulated enough savings to be independent of the monetary coercion in academia. History is of great value but I suspect that it will have to be saved by nonhistorians.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/29/2003

Here, as perhaps elsewhere (i.e., attitudes toward Israel), you seem to find wisdom in Henry Ford. For some reason, I doubt that Tacitus, Thucydides, and Gibbon would. You are, at least, consistent in your need to improve your self-image with broad gage smears of contemporary historians.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/29/2003

Since I was merely reporting rumor, I don't think it is appropriate for me to confirm or deny this.

Don Williams - 9/29/2003

Was it perchance Pauline Maier? Jack Rakove made the following
comment re Arming America on H-OIEAHC on January 27,2003:

"In retrospect, I wished I had been as skeptical and keen-eyed about the substance of the analysis as my friend Pauline Maier, with whom I have periodically discussed the matter, has told me she was when she was serving on the Pulitzer jury (I believe). "

See http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=lx&list=H-oieahc&user=&pw=&month=0301

I prefer facts to rumors but I'm not sure I want to cite Rakove as a primary source.

Don Williams - 9/29/2003

One of the things that surprised me in checking Arming America was
the untrustworthiness of modern histories -- the frequency with which my view of a past event changed when I checked primary sources against current histories. I was also surprised to find that some histories written 100 years ago were superior to many of the current books on the same subject. Your modern day
historians leave a lot of stuff out -- and miss much important context. They sometimes seem like 12 year olds attempting to comment on national politics or the economy. Thucydides, Tacitus, and Edward Gibbon would not be impressed.

Josh Greenland - 9/29/2003

"The lesson of the Bellesiles/Cinel debacle is that the historical profession will simply not give up its clubby ways without an assist from a big, mean lobby such as the National Rifle Association."

The NRA wasn't working against Bellesiles. It made a comment or two about him but otherwise stayed out of it. The assist came from undirected, unorganized grass roots gun rights supporters.

Sebastian Fichera - 9/29/2003

If I may add a footnote to Mr. Luker's article. I wrote an expose' of From Italy to San Francisco in April of this year, showing that the book was, shall we say, more fiction than fact. I admitted at that time to being troubled by the lackadaisical quality of the history peer review process with reference to Dino Cinel's book. Now, months later,
I am back to report that the historical profession's response to my article has been somewhat less than overwhelming. No historian having anything to do with publishing or endorsing of the book (or its author's academic career) felt he had to step up to the plate and defend it, admit to an error or explain anything at all. The book remains named as a winner of the Bancroft award and on recommended history course reading lists at the University of Wisconsin and at Binghamton, among others. If anything has changed for the better as a result of my article, I haven't seen what it is. The lesson of the Bellesiles/Cinel debacle is that the historical profession will simply not give up its clubby ways without an assist from a big, mean lobby such as the National Rifle Association. Subtract such a powerful external force from the equation, and academic history goes right back to business as usual. Or is it simply that historians lack confidence in their ability to draw a line between fact and fiction? President of the AHA, James McPherson, chastised the White House spinmeisters recently for their use of the term "revisionist historians." He wrote with commendable forthrightness and clarity but I can't help but wonder if the AHA is not being more zealous in upholding standards for the White House than it is in upholding them in the House of History.
Sebastian Fichera

Josh Greenland - 9/27/2003

You haven't proved that evidence fabricators don't habitually practice their pathology. And what you've said about a single wrong footnote could be said about a single instance of plaigarism, that it's an isolated mistake that might not compromise the integrity of a book or article.

Are people in the field trying to discredit whole books bases on a single act of unattributed copying? Well then is anyone trying to discredit whole history books with accusations of fabrication based on a single evidentiary error?

Josh Greenland - 9/26/2003

Depending on where you start the story, the fall of Bellesiles wasn't all that quick. He submitted the article to OAH on which he based Arming America in 1996. Critics were trying to publicize substantial problems with the article then and were ignored, and OAH give the article its Binkley-Stephenson prize. The book came out in 2000, the critics were ignored again, and it got its Bancroft prize in early 2001.

Up to this point everything was traditional: the academy insulated itself from outsiders and lionized one of its own, according to its own prejudices on a social issue. L'affaire Bellesiles could have been swept under the rug for many years from this point. Degreed historians critical of Arming America by themselves didn't have enough political muscle to challenge the AHA, the OAH or the Bancroft Prize committee.

Where I'd say you are right, Cassandra, is from this point onward in the story. I think the interest of and pressure from pro-gun rights individuals through the middle and end of 2001 directly and indirectly created enough publicity for Emory University and the history establishment that the former started the process of investigating Bellesiles by requiring him to respond to critics, and the William & Mary Quarterly planned a series of articles on Arming America for spring of 2002, and then rushed to get the articles out a quarter earlier. Internet ferment and activism may have been the single factor most responsible for bring down Bellesiles in a relatively timely fashion after he won his Bancroft Prize.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/25/2003

I agree with Jonathan that the discussion about this article is a separate one from that going on over on my blog. I have not accused Christine Heyrman of malpractice. On the other hand, I do not agree with Timothy Burke that the discussion of Heyrman's book is merely questions of interpretation. If the numbers referenced in a historian's source do not add up to what the historian says they do, that isn't merely interpretation. If a quotation is ellipsed in such a way as to change its meaning entirely, that isn't just a question of interpretation.

Jonathan Rees - 9/25/2003

I think this is a valuable contribution towards starting a necessary but difficult discussion. However, lumping plagiarism with what might be called "evidence fabrication" and some sort of generalized objection to "misinterpretation" makes me nervous. 

Thomas Mallon in his book on plagiarism, Stolen Words, makes it clear that plagiarists do not dabble in this activity.  Plagiarists demonstrate a tendency to plagiarize in just about everything they do.  Besides the cases Mallon mentions (the book is from 1989), Stephen Ambrose fit this pattern.  So does Doris Kearns Goodwin (that scandal centered on her Kennedy book, but the Los Angeles Times took apart No Ordinary Time in an article that should have been picked up elsewhere). For this reason, repeated instances of plagiarism in a work threaten the integrity of everything the author writes, even if it contans a lot of original wording and analysis.  The other thing that makes plagiarism different from these other problems is that once you find it, it is basically impossible to dispute.  Lay multiple instances of matching passages down and the guilty party can make excuses, but they can't really refute the charge. 

"Evidence fabrication" would not work the same way.  Just because you can follow one footnote to the original source and not find it there does not mean that every footnote in the work is wrong.  In fact, the more research a historian does, the more likely it is that they will make at least one error.  Furthermore, the fact that someone makes an error in a footnote does not necessarily disqualify everything they have to say.  If the footnote is not pivotal to the argument, the book or article should still stand.  And certainly this goes double for their entire body of work.  John Hope Franklin may have gotten a story wrong, but that does not mean that nobody should believe his other fine scholarship.

With regard to questions of evidence interpretation, things get very subjective. Here I would refer anyone interested to a comment by Timothy Burke which Ralph recently posted on his blog. The way I read it, Burke suggests that arguing about historical interpretations is what historians are supposed to do. If the arguments against a particular interpretation are good, then the work drops off into obscurity. Bad interpretations are not unethical. They're just bad. Having a bad footnote isn't necessarily unethical either. Handling plagiarism with these other two subjects is painting with a very broad brush.

Each of the problems covered in this article is worthy of further consideration.  I just wouldn't do it at the same time.

Jonathan Rees

David Salmanson - 9/25/2003

Also, they are loosening up the rules for accusations in book reviews with the intent of making it easier to expose plagiarism and malfeasance in general.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/25/2003

First, welcome back to HNN! You've been missed.
Your suggestions, as usual when you're being constructive, are good ones. You understand the constraints on their likelihood as well as I do. The anonymity of peer review is enormously prized and, in part, for good reason. It shelters precious values and excrement indiscriminately. I think that I knew about the point you make about the lingering error in John Hope Franklin's text at some point. It's really devilishly difficult not to have errors in a text, as I've just demonstrated on my blog!

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/25/2003

Nice work. Among the policy prescriptions I would suggest is a major prize for uncovering malpractice -- as the economists say, incentives do matter. As it stands now there are mostly disincentives for exposing mapractice.

Another suggestion might be publishing, at the bottom of the title page, the names of those vetters who recommended publication. People seem to more careful when their name is attached.

You bring up John Hope Franklin, the "African American man for all seasons", perhaps as contrast to the sometimes sloppy work of the JNH. John has his own sloppiness sometimes. All 6 previous editions had an erroneous account of Palmares -- the characteristic errors pointing back to a late 19th century Brazilian historian whose work, without attribution, was used by a young Berkeley historian for an article in (I believe, as I'm working from memory) Phylon (or maybe it was JNH), which Franklin cites. In any case, there the bad seed lay, through six editions, through R.K. Kent's groundbreaking synthesis of 1965, and through the further work of Stuart Schwartz. And there it still lies in the 7th edition, though with even the secondary source airbrushed from the notes. And so it goes.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/24/2003

Thanks to Mr. Alpers for correcting my abbreviation of the AHA's decision.

Ben Alpers - 9/24/2003

Just a small, but important correction. What the AHA has announced, in the press release to which Mr. Luker linked, is not that "it will no longer monitor breaches of ethics in the profession" but rather that it will end its formal adjudication of cases of misconduct.

The AHA has only been adjudicating such cases for fifteen years. Although this experiment in dealing with ethical breaches was very well intentioned, it failed for a number of reasons. Most notably, since all cases -- and potential cases -- had to be kept strictly confidential, the AHA's Professional Division was enjoined from issuing any public statements on the many controversies of the sort that Luker is writing about.

Monitoring breaches in professional ethics is one of the core missions of the AHA's Professional Division. By ending its formal adjudication process, it will be much more free to engage in the sort of public coming to terms with these problems that I believe Mr. Luker is asking for. Of course, only time will tell whether or not it will actually do so.

Willia.m H. Leckie, Jr. - 9/24/2003

I can add a further riff on an answer to Gallatin's comment and Ralph's reply:

Working with the established secondary sources on colonial St. Louis and Upper Louisiana and checking their footnotes and pursuing my own independent research, I have found bowdlerized or ignored documents and uncritical reliance on what is clearly a documentary hoax. In addition, when a primary sopurce has contradicted the orthodoxy of regional historians and antiquarians, it has been dismissed with citation to an antiquarian whose work is suspect. In part the persustence of the problem may be a result of historians in one of my fields--American urban history--not having the language skills to handle sources in Spanish and French (it has certainly led to neglect of German sources in a city with a significant population of Germans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, severely distorting the past of a city poorly studied and understood anyhow).

Archival material has been preserved in sufficient quantity--almost guilelessly, it appears--to raise serious questions about documentary publications used by regional historians today still--John Francis McDermott's The Early Histories of St. Louis and the much more widely known Before Lewis and Clark, attributed to Abraham P. Nasatir but largely McDermott's work, both subsidized by a private donor.

For more cosmopolitan historians, use of the former is, I suspect, a product of laziness and lack of intellectual imagination, of not checking published sources and accepting local orthodoxy, and not distinguishing antiquarian tradition from serious historical scholarship. To publish questions about all this could, to say the least, create embarrassment, and I can recall submitting just the draft of a study of them that received the written equivalent of howls of rage. Before Lewis and Clark survives because professionals simply are unaware of circumstances surrounding its publication, and those professionals familiar with the thing have hitched their wagons to it and, in a few cases, to mentors who have ill-served them.

As well, there are ideological reasons: In the St. Louis case, its leading historians generally embrace a view associated with local boosterism, projecting back upon a colonial society the odd notion that it functioned as a go-getting entrepreneurial comunity. And, since all these factors are linked to institutional ones in which class--the sustaining of orthodoxy by by wealth and power, I suspect there's been no small measure of deference involved.

Add to the mix "academic overproduction" with fashionable epistemological skepticism as an excuse for sloppiness and you have an intractable problem that cuts across philosophical, professional, institutional, social, political, and personal circumstances. It's my own view that "back to the basics" of solid and careful source criticism and renewed respect for the the idea that truth is still out there--plus some guts--might help, but I won't hold my breath until I see them.

Linnea Goodwin - 9/24/2003

This article raises a great many concerns about the hidden process of publishing materials that contain plagiarism. We need to have an open and frank discussion if the profession is to grow and welcome new recruits. Most historians are good practioners, it is the few that make us all nervous about the quality of our work. I am personally pleased that the dialogue has begun.

cassandra - 9/24/2003

Underlying causes is a venemous and very political snakepit. But if you are looking for policy prescription, look no further than the Internet. I cannot recall a case of a historian brought down so quickly and dramatically as Bellesiles, and I doubt it would have happened but for the Internet discussion groups where challenges to his research erupted.
As for incompetent and lazy publishers, there has been a noticeable slowdown in history book production this year. Perhaps it's the recession, but it may be connected to publishers being more aggressive vetting manuscripts before they commit their reputation and profits to publishing something they might have to later recall and pulp.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/23/2003

Mr. Gallatin, One common form of history is narrative, a linking of "anecdotes," which you believe this is. A common critique of it is that it lacks analytical power. I have no special access to the interior minds of Nevins, Sharma, et al, but if it is "underlying causes" you seek, I would look first to avarice. It resides in most people, including historians. Why it overcomes restraints in particular historians is more difficult to say. I do suggest that the commercial book trade enables it (Nevins, Ambrose, Kearns Goodwin, Bellesiles, Oates, Haley and others were publishing commercially), but that is an analysis of co-dependency, not of first agency. Clearly, there is something amiss with reward systems when some historians claim credits for work they have not done, achievements they have not earned, etc.

Thomas Gallatin - 9/23/2003

In this long laundry list of anecdotes, none of which the non-specialist could hope to verify, there is scarcely room for addressing the underlying causes. We get hints - over-bureaucratized professional organizations, incompetent publishers, etc.- but little real analysis or policy prescription. This may not be the forum for such concerns, but if Mr. Luker is indeed committed to tackling the very real problems touched on in his article, there is a long road still ahead.