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

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lost his position in the history department at Emory University, the Bancroft Prize for his book, Arming America,was revoked, and the book was withdrawn from sale by his publisher, he continues to hold the Binkley-Stephenson Prize for having published the Journal of American History's 'best article of the year'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.