Would you buy a new idea from this man?
There are three ingredients in a published work of history (intending that term in its broadest sense): fact, interpretation, and expression. We might add the professional persona of the author as a fourth related category. All four need care from the ethical practitioner. All have their characteristic forms of dishonesty. Plagiarism in the strict sense is dishonesty in matters of expression. The concept can be stretched to cover one or more of the other categories, but doing so can lead to confusion when judging cases. It may help to consider briefly all four categories.
Fact is not invented, but must be ascertained. If the author has ascertained facts by direct investigation, that investigation will be the substance of the work, and requires no citation. If established in an earlier work, including a work by the same author, that work should be cited (see the Citation Conventions page). If archive data is used, the location and access code for the data should be given. If interviews, their date and the present location of any transcripts. If objects, their provenance and present location. Needless to say, reference to nonexistent sources, and incorrect citation of facts, are fundamental violations of professional ethos. They are not plagiarism, rather, they are fraud of the most blatant sort. Basic lying. A classic case is the forged document called the Donation of Constantine, masterfully exposed by Valla. But antiquity has no monopoly: a recent case is the gun ownership study of Michael Bellesiles.
There is a reasonable limit to the requirement to give sources for facts. We do not routinely cite the dictionary for the meanings of words, or the encyclopedia for commonly known dates (unless as a basis for challenging a commonly known date that happens to be wrong). There is a zone of public information. Above the level of that zone, and it can be a nuanced question to establish it, the facts on which an argument rests are part of the argument, and a reader should be able to judge the argument by examining the facts. Citation of sources is how we make this possible. Citations may exasperate the general public, but that is the general public's (and the general publisher's) problem. We can reduce the exasperation by making the citations more graceful, but they must be there if the work claims historical value.
Interpretation is the work of an individual. Often an interpretation, whether right, wrong, or controversial, is the only substantial thing that an individual has to show for his life: Jaspers's Axial Age, Turner's Frontier Thesis, Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism, Sekino's Iron Age Theory, Lachmann's Ur-Markus. Such contributions to the ongoing understanding of the past need to be properly credited (or discredited, but at any rate, acknowledged). Appropriation of the ideas of others is intellectual theft rather than plagiarism.
Intellectual theft is very common in our world. It may take the form of a professor publishing his student's work as his own, or a professor mining the good ideas of a lower-ranking professor's dissertation, or a scholar appropriating the leading theses of a colleague's unpublished paper. The dissertation in particular, though at least in the US it is a published document (you can buy a copy from UMI), is by long but vicious precedent treated as unpublished, and thus as available for the taking. This is especially true in European context (as witness the Courant/Robbins authorship dispute, which exposed a cultural difference rather than a dispute as to fact), but it is widespread on all sides of the pond. Intellectual theft is the most sensitive crime in the intellectual world, including the scientific corner of the intellectual world. Due care is recommended, for those who seek good standing in that world.
Expression is an individual's way of putting fact and interpretation down on paper. Expression is protected by copyright law, and appropriation of the expression of an earlier writer is an actionable offense. An action becomes legally practical if large sums of money are involved. Failure to give sources for facts, or credit for ideas, are sometimes lumped under "plagiarism," but that term is strictly most applicable to this third intellectual crime: the incorporation of other people's prose. Popular historians are increasingly disposed to blend into their own work whole stretches of the felicitously wrought work of previous writers. The exposures of Stephen Oates, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Ambrose are recent examples. These people go beyond "author" and enter the realm of "packager." But even packages need a bill of lading.
Persona is the perceived reputation of the author, as contributing to the acceptance of his work. The curious personal misrepresentations of Joseph Ellis may confer unfair advantage in the tenure and promotion race, or on the lecture circuit, but they are not technically plagiarism. Still, fraud of any sort by one historian tends to diminish the credibility of all historians, and persona fraud is thus a matter of valid professional concern. At the lower end, it takes the form of lying about credentials on a job application, which has become extremely common (the rate has been estimated at 40% of all job applications). Institutions have been slow to react to this problem, and have treated credentials as a merely perfunctory matter. The most discouraging thing about l'Affaire Ellis is that the institutional censure of Ellis, such as it was, occurred not on institutional initiative, but only under the pressure of continuing public outrage.
Recourse for the individual whose ideas or expressions have been appropriated, or by a readership which has been misled by false information or spurious repute, is unfortunately limited; see the Ethics page in the Methodology section. The wry story of the fraud victim in Lyedz is sufficiently emblematic of the general position. In brief, the only options are legal action, institutional complaint, and public exposure. The only ones of which the offending parties are afraid are the first and third. The individual is rarely well situated to use any of them. At any rate, the viewer is now equipped to understand, and vicariously to enjoy:
Peter Charles Hoffer. Past Imperfect. PublicAffairs 2004
But not too much. It seems that, in the ethics department, the public as a mob is far ahead of the professionals as a guild. The auspice for professional history could scarcely be more dire.
29 May 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page