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Jan 29, 2005 6:33 pm

Narrowing the Definition of Plagiarism ?...

At my age, the familiar often looks pretty good and the innovative is often suspect. So, I look on the American Historical Association's new Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct with some skepticism. It comes in the wake of headlining scandals several years ago and the decision by the AHA's Professional Division that its energies are better directed at education than at adjudicating charges of professional misconduct.

I'm generally prepared to defer to the expertise of my professional colleagues who probably understand these things better than I do. There have been widespread discussions of these matters and the new Standards were approved by the Professional Division in December 2004 and adopted by the AHA's Council, meeting in Seattle, in January 2005. But I have a question about the new Standards' definition of plagiarism.

The definition of plagiarism with which I am familiar is one close, if not identical, to one found in a standard dictionary. These are from Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1988):"plagiarism ... 1: an act or instance of plagiarizing 2: something plagiarized" and plagiarize ... vb 1: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own: use (a created production) without crediting the source ... vi: to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." (p. 898)

What surprises me in the new Statement on Standards, as it surprised me in Peter Charles Hoffer's otherwise fine articles about plagiarism in the AHA's Perspectives (here, here, and here), is that the definition of plagiarism seems to have been narrowed to the theft of words. How, why, when, and where did that happen? More importantly, is this a step in the right direction? Or, is it merely an a further accommodation to the adjudicatory problem?

I understand that, while often time-consuming, the trace of stolen words is considerably more secure evidence of theft than the trace of stolen ideas. But isn't the theft of an idea even more egregious than the uncredited borrowing of a few phrases? Let me cite an example from my own field, American religious history. I published a piece at HNN some time ago which was rather harshly critical of Christine Heyerman's Bancroft Prize winning book, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1998). Much of Heyerman's argument relied on a point made about 18th and 19th century evangelical preachers in North America by Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith (1990). Butler observed and demonstrated that they commonly gulled their listeners into believing that they possessed magical shaman-like powers, capable of casting out demons and even controlling the weather. In her book, Heyerman pursued the same theme and, rightly, credited her interest in it to Butler's book. Thus, under a traditional definition of plagiarism, she was clearly on solid ground. Indeed, my criticism of her work was not that she had plagiarized Butler's idea, but in some ways just the reverse -- that she had cherry-picked and misconstrued her primary sources in order to find evidence that sustained the argument she acknowledged borrowing from him.

But, what if she had not cited Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith as the source of her determination to find evidence of evangelical preachers claiming to be able to cast out demons and control the elements? What if, as I believed then and believe now, Butler's insight had not only found its way into her book, but had actually driven much of her research agenda? Wouldn't a failure to cite Butler's book as the source of her inspiration have been an outrageous breach of good faith?

My concern here is obviously not to berate Christine Heyerman yet one more time. I've already declared her innocent of any charge of the theft of an idea. My concern here is for that busy community college instructor, or graduate school professor, who receives a well argued and well written paper from a student, or even that professional peer reader of a book manuscript or a reviewer of a published work, for that matter, but who recognizes that the primary idea behind the work relies in large part on the insight of an earlier historian. Under the AHA's new definition of plagiarism, what ground does the reader have for saying: this work commits an act of plagiarism? I understand that genuinely new ideas are rare and that tracing their lineage is sometimes a complicated challenge, but if the AHA's new Standards do not preserve our obligation to acknowledge the inspiration and insight of those who've pioneered innovative ideas and inspired our work, they will have done us a disservice.

Addendum: Another case in point would be Diane McWhorter's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Carry Me Home, about the civil rights movement in Birmingham. When it was published, there was considerable back-and-forth among civil rights historians about what appeared to be McWhorter's fairly niggling citations to the work of two earlier historians of the movement there. It seemed fairly obvious that she had made use of their work at key points -- she would have been foolish not to -- but there was little accrediting of it. There was no obvious lifting of language, however. Attorneys were consulted and they made a decision not to press charges. Under the AHA's new standards, there is no adjudicating agency other than the courts, because McWhorter is not employed as a faculty member.

On further reflection, Sharon Howard's comment leads me to think that the new Standards statement may be an improvement on the old"words and ideas" definition of plagiarism. There are many things that one might use without proper attribution, such as research findings, that don't seem to fit comfortably under a definition of"ideas."

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Ralph E. Luker - 1/31/2005

Good cite, Greg. Whether or not D'Emilio cited Dellinger or not, it seems to me, would make all the difference in the world in whether this is a case of plagiarism or a case of ungraciousness.

Greg James Robinson - 1/31/2005

I think that if you take what is a distinctive and clear-cut idea from someone else as your own, then that is plagiarism. Let me cite a case in point: John D'Emilio's RADICAL HISTORY REVIEW article some years ago on Bayard Rustin, which subsequently was expanded into a full-length prize-winning biography, is centered on the idea that Rustin's apparent turn to the Right during the 1960s, especially his refusal to ally himself with the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, grew out of his honosexuality, which meant that he was unable to find any institutional link in the Left. This idea was earlier explored, and in some detail, by Dave Dellinger in his autobiography. D'Emilio may have cited Dellinger's book in a footnote--though my memory is unclear even on this much--and her certainly did not credit Dellinger with this basic insight.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/29/2005

Sharon Howard's point brought to mind another instance, in which questions of plagiarism had been considered. To a very large degree, charges were not brought in it because there were no clear cut instances of the theft of language, but the author had pretty clearly made significant use of other historians' research findings and very limited reference to their work. The work was right at the edge of what is merely ungracious and what is unaccredited lifting of the work of prior historians.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/29/2005

Thanks, Sharon, for calling my attention to that passage. I'm going to look back over it. As in so many things, you may be right! And, ah, I may be wrong.

Sharon Howard - 1/29/2005

But, Ralph, on reading through the Statement and especially the section on plagiarism, I don't interpret it as referring only to 'words' at all. (I haven't had time to read the other articles you link, however.)

"The expropriation of another author’s work, and the presentation of it as one’s own, constitutes plagiarism and is a serious violation of the ethics of scholarship... Plagiarism includes more subtle abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism can also include the limited borrowing, without sufficient attribution, of another person’s distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations... More subtle abuses include the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences..."

The general term 'work', plus 'interpretations' and 'concepts' - they seem to me to cover quite clearly the theft of ideas ('disguised in newly crafted sentences'), not just of words.

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