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HNN Poll: Brian VanDeMark ... Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

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Last spring historian Brian VanDeMark, a tenured professor at the Naval Academy, was accused of plagiarism in a story broken by the NYT. Five scholars alleged that he had improperly borrowed passages from their work. The passages appeared in VanDeMark's Pandora's Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb (2003). Little, Brown, the publisher, immediately withdrew the book.

This week the Naval Academy announced that it had found that VanDeMark was guilty of plagiarism and withdrew his tenure, reducing him in rank to an entry-level assistant professor. His pay will be cut from $73,317 to $63,043. Dean William C. Miller, according to an account in the Washington Post, declared at a news conference,"I relied very heavily on the judgment of the professors we used to consider this inquiry [and they found that] the whole approach to documenting the sources of the book was flawed." He added that VanDeMark did not seem to have intentionally plagiarized the other scholars' work.

Little, Brown says it is reissuing a revised edition of the book.

Reaction to the Naval Academy's decision was mixed. William Lanouette, one of the authors who was plagiarized, told the Post that the punishment was too light:"I speak from three decades in journalism, where if you commit plagiarism once, you can be fired. This doesn't seem to be -- I think it was called carelessness? It seemed to a number of us that were ripped off that it was deliberate, even predatory. . . . I think it's a very poor compromise."

Gregg Herken, who was also plagiarized, said that he approved of the punishment:"I'm relieved he wasn't fired. That would have been too severe."

Robert Norris, another historian who was plagiarized, wrote in a post on HNN's discussion boards, that the punishment did not fit the crime:"You either uphold standards or you don’t. In my opinion the Naval Academy failed its responsibility to abide by its own stated principles and has condoned an egregious case of plagiarism. This is not the Academy’s proudest moment and it may come back to haunt them."

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Peter N Kirstein - 11/6/2003

I am aware of the misspelling of my first name. Sorry

I realize I am breaking my own rule in commenting publicly on historians swept by controversy. However, I must say the following.

His punishment can hardly be construed as insignificant. A loss of tenure, a reduction in rank and a commensurate reduction in income I am sure is devastating to this professor. Unlike other historians accussed of plagiarism, it appears that Professor VanDeMark did not stonewall or deny his actions. The issue, in part, becomes one of mercy and forgiveness.

Whether he should have received more severe sanctions or not, such as a suspension from his classroom, I will let others debate.

Peter N Kirstein


Peer N Kirstein - 11/6/2003

I realize I am breaking my own rule in commenting publicly on historians swept by controversy. However, I must say the following.

His punishment can hardly be construed as insignificant. A loss of tenure, a reduction in rank and a commensurate reduction in income I am sure is devastating to this professor. Unlike other historians accussed of plagiarism, it appears that Professor VanDeMark did not stonewall or deny his actions. The issue, in part, becomes one of mercy and forgiveness.

Whether he should have received more severe sanctions or not, such as a suspension from his classroom, I will let others debate.

Peter N Kirstein


Anthony Roach - 11/6/2003

As a 1994 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, with a B.S. in History, I wholeheartedly agree that the punishment does not fit the crime. The punishment meted out here was completely de minimis when compared to the punishment that would have been given to a midshipman.

Unlike, VanDerMark, a midshipman would have more excuses, lack of training in proper citation, fatigue as a result of tremendous hazing and extracurricular activities. VanDerMark's explanation is completely unacceptable.

The Naval Academy's double standard, evident with the Electrical Engineering scandal that permanently tainted my class, is apparently well entrenched. I can speak from experience that Naval Academy faculty have a long history of plagiarism, including their own students' work.

On behalf of graduates everywhere who are ashamed of this type of behavior, I offer my deepest apologies to all of the historians who were plagiarized by this menace.


F.H. Thomas - 10/31/2003

The above post may be interesting, but it certainly wasn't written by me


Jonathan Dresner - 10/31/2003

Ms. Ronan,

I think you're the first secondary educator I've ever seen on the HNN boards, and I'm thrilled to have you join the conversation.

There is no good answer to your question. All I can say is that we have to help inculcate high standards. What I find is that most students, exposed to the definition of plagiarism, have an immediate and powerful reaction against the idea (particularly if they realize they've been doing it, because nobody taught them otherwise).

As a more recent bolster to the "honesty is a good thing" argument, I've been pointing out that intellectual property rights are becoming more strictly defined, and so plagiarism is coming closer to outright theft. That gets their attention.


Nancy Ronan - 10/31/2003

I am a teacher of world history at the secondary level. How are we to be successful in teaching our students that plagiarism is wrong when the consequences received for plagiarism as blatant as VandeMark's are so slight? Is it any wonder that such a large majority of high school and college students think "So what? Everyone does it!"


Ralph E. Luker - 10/31/2003

Professor Dresner's comment makes much more sense than the alternative which may be implied by the question: i.e., that graduate programs in history are the training grounds for plagiarists. For all the embarrassments over the past two or three years, they've involved a tiny fragment of the profession. I suspect that some of us remain on the loose in the libraries somewhere, but they are still a very small part of the whole.


Jonathan Dresner - 10/31/2003

There are a lot more academic historians writing, including writing "popular" history than there are non-academics, and their writing receives substantially more attention from people who are actually interested in things like footnotes and source integrity. Plus they are often read by the people from whom they are stealing (which you would think they'd figure that out beforehand), whereas non-academic historians' work isn't as consistently read by their peer writers. And non-academic historians don't have academic colleagues to deal with, who take a particularly dim view of these matters and who are responsible for not just working together but deciding things like promotions.

Honestly, I do think plagiarism is a serious problem (http://www.uhh.hawaii.edu/~dresner/plagiarism.html), but my experience is that historians take it more seriously than most disciplines, so it gets caught more, and history is more popular than most disciplines which is why it's talked about more. The nature of history is reading and processing and arranging other people's words: it's tough to do that without slipping, and it's a slow difficult process that someone under pressure could decide to shortcut.


Herodotus - 10/30/2003

It would seem hard to sustain a prominent position after this incident at a place that inculcates "honor" as much as the service academies do. Perhaps this is a face-saving measure for an Academy already rocked by problems. Last year they had to replace the Commandant on short notice; we may yet see this professor leave.


Ian - 10/30/2003

agreed. this is really a horrible case. the naval academy has disgraced itself by failing to fire this individual.

the irony is that the naval academy, a few years ago, had to come to grips with a cheating scandal affecting large numbers of midshipmen. this episode will only reinforce the impression that many people must have of an institution in which academic standards have gone, as they say in the navy, "by the board."


Ian W. - 10/30/2003


Does it strike anyone as significant that the most egregious cases have been connected with professionally trained historians, rather than writers of history who are not history professors with doctoral degrees?

I would have expected the reverse, giving the close peer scrutiny applied to academic historians' work from the graduate careers forward. And yet all of the major cases in recent years have been from authors with PhDs, though in several cases the authors were publishing for a broad, popular audience.


F.H. Thomas - 10/30/2003


At the Naval Academy, the honor code requires expulsion for this sort of dishonesty. How can they run the place with this guy still on staff?


Jonathan Dresner - 10/29/2003

Cutting his pay by 1/7th and stripping him of tenure doesn't seem like enough for what appears to be extensive and deliberate plagiarism.

Does this mean that he has to go through the tenure process again, and if so, how will they count his other publications, not to mention the revised "Pandora's Keepers"? Perhaps the expectation is that he will take the hint and leave quietly, thereby becoming someone else's problem. Perhaps they will just use the probationary review process to drum him out. But they are leaving themselves wide open to a lingering and embarassing process.

He gets to keep his office, he gets to drag out his old business cards, he still is one of the highest paid professors in the business (certainly top 10%, and he's off the scale for Assistant Professors).

If I were a cadet, committed to the USNA Honor Code, I would refuse to take courses with VanDeMark. Of course, that will decrease his workload even further.....


Robert S. Norris - 10/29/2003

In reflecting upon the USNA's decision I have a few comments to make.

1. You either uphold standards or you don’t. In my opinion the Naval Academy failed its responsibility to abide by its own stated principles and has condoned an egregious case of plagiarism. This is not the Academy’s proudest moment and it may come back to haunt them.

2. If it were just a few examples it might be explained as “carelessness” but the large number of passages involved and the apparent calculations that went into the theft suggest deliberate intent. To take one revealing example.

I said on pages 216, 221-222 of Racing for the Bomb:
“Eventually Hanford would grow to more than 428,000 acres – five hundred square miles in area, half the size of the state of Rhode Island. . . . The numbers at Hanford, as with most things connected to the Manhattan Project, were staggering: 540 buildings, more than 600 miles of roads, 158 miles of railroad track, vast quantities of water, concrete, lumber, steel, and pipe. Approximately 132,000 people were hired over the period (working 126 million man-hours)—eight times the number that had built the Grand Coulee Dam, and almost as many as had worked on the Panama Canal. . . . The total cost to build and run Hanford during the war was $358 million, or $4.65 billion in 2001 dollars.”

VanDeMark said on page 69 of Pandora’s Keepers:
“Eventually the Hanford facility would grow to more than 428,000 acres – 500 square miles, half the size of the state of Rhode Island. . . . The statistics were staggering: 540 buildings, more than 600 miles of roads, 158 miles of railroad track, vast quantities of water, concrete, lumber, steel, and pipe. Eventually, 132,000 workers (working 126 million man-hours) were hired—almost as many as had worked on the Panama Canal. . . . The total cost to build and run Hanford during the war would reach $358 million, or nearly $5 billion in 2003 dollars.”

Is it just “carelessness” or deliberate intent that caused VanDeMark to change the current dollar cost from 2001 to 2003?

3. Plagiarism is pretty much like pornography, you know it when you see it. Everyone I have spoken to who has compared the more than 60 passages side-by-side of the half-dozen authors has concluded that it is a blatant case of plagiarism conducted on a grand scale. Apparently the only ones who failed to recognize this were the History Department’s investigating committee and the Academic Dean.

4. What will the History Department do when a midshipman, caught in a similar theft, says it was just “carelessness?” So the new standard at the Academy seems to be that plagiarism is OK as long as it is not intentional, an oxymoron if I have ever heard one.

5. The academic dean, William C. Miller says, “It was just very sloppy scholarship." "But they was no evidence of a deliberate effort to pass off the works of others as his own.” This is gobbledygook. There was enough sloppy scholarship in the rest of the book but what must be examined are the plagiarized passages and how they got there. Of course there was a deliberate effort on VanDeMark’s part to pass off the works of others as his own. That’s what plagiarism is. The words didn’t get there by some supernatural process or fall from the sky. The History Department’s Statement on Plagiarism says. “It [plagiarism] involves using the words, information, insights, or ideas of another without crediting that person through proper citation.” That's what he did. What else could it be but deliberate or intentional. The opposite of deliberate is unintentional and unintentional has the meaning of being, accidental, involuntary, inadvertent, unpremeditated, or spontaneous. Is this Dean Miller’s explanation of how several thousand words of a half dozen authors ended up in VanDeMark’s book?