Plagiarism and primary sources

Week eight: what accounts for the recent spate of scandal surrounding “facts, fictions, and fraud” in American historical scholarship? How might knowledge of these episodes affect or alter the way you pursue your own scholarship?

In “Past Imperfect” Hoffer (2004) offers a number of arguments as to why there have been so many incidents of alleged fraud in the historical profession: the aspirations of authors to write to the popular market, the almost industrial system – employing many assistants – with which books are researched and authored, the demands by publishers for more books, the popular audiences’ demand for entertainment rather than scholarship, the eagerness of the ideological opponents to take these authors down a notch, and an inability for the profession to police itself.

While authors such as Michael Belleselis, who falsified data in order to argue that gun ownership was not common in early American history, deserve rebuke and sanction, I felt sympathetic to some of the authors (i.e. Stephen Ambrose) who got into trouble for borrowing primary source quotations and tweaking the surrounding secondary material and presenting it as his own with a citation to the secondary source. Was the problem:

  • Ambrose was not specific enough in a citation? Hoffer implies that by using a range of pages in a citation such plagiarizing authors make it more difficult for readers to identify the secondary source text has been lifted and slightly altered.
  • Ambrose did not alter the text sufficiently so as to no longer be considered plagiarism? What then is the right threshold? I ask this myself sometimes when I find I can easily make an improvement by reworking a sentence from a secondary author but some sequences of words from the secondary source author are sufficiently generic and appropriate such that they can’t be written in a different way without being awkward.
  • Ambrose appeared to have access to the primary source, when in fact he did not. This is the complaint I most sympathetic to because one of the safeguards built into scholarship is we do not necessarily take everything others have said for granted. However, this issue, too, has presented some difficulties to me. While citation guides in the various publishing styles out there are always quite explicit in how to cite primary sources, they often lack information on citing primary sources found in secondary sources. With the availability of sources on Google Print and Amazon, one of my practices is to find the primary source on the Web – often another secondary author. So for example, if I find an interesting excerpt cited in a secondary source, I can then investigate the primary source, what was actually written, and whether I want to read that book. However, in some cases I don’t feel the need to read the book but have read the appropriate chapter, section, or series of pages in which the excerpt occurs. Can I then use that excerpt as a primary source? I sometimes do. However, by making a primary source citation and including it in my bibliography, do I give the appearance of having read that whole work? (Indeed, in many of my graduate courses the professors supply two or three chapters out of the book for the students to read. I frequently cite such materials.) In fact, can the readers assume that an author has thoroughly read every work appearing in a bibliography? (One way address this problem is to note and include in the bibliography specifically which chapters or pages one has read.) I think not.

However, regardless of how one might answer any of these questions, my concern is with the veil that shrouds practical discussion about these issues. For example, I feel quite vulnerable in discussing my usage of Google and Amazon above. I feel as if in raising these questions I’m making myself suspect. It is as if everyone assumes we know exactly what is right, when in fact there are many gray areas. (And the topic of plagiarism is not the only one shrouded in this mist, there are gray areas around how we make use of copies of copyrighted works in the academy, as well as how to finesse “human subjects” review board bureaucracy.) Typically, these issues, when abuse is finally caught, are addressed by overly strident, sometimes impractical, norms and bureaucratic procedures. Instead, they should be addressed at the out-set as challenges that all researchers must grapple with, and with which we can feel free to share our strategies and concerns.

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