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Investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education: 2 Historians Accused of Plagiarism

Thomas Bartlett and Scott Smallwood, cin the Chronicle of Higher Ed (subscribrs only) (12-13-04):

Editor's Note: In their article about plagiarism, Bartlett and Smallwood highlight four cases they came across in an investigation of "plagiarists you've never heard of." Two of the four involve historians: Benson Tong and Donald Cuccioletta. The others concern a geographer and a political scientist. In a separate article, Scott Smallwood briefly relates"What happened to six scholars accused of plagiarism." Two of the six are historians: Brian VanDeMark and Jayme A. Sokolow.

Benson Tong

If one scholar plagiarizes another, but everybody keeps quiet, did it really happen?

In 2002 Judy Tzu-Chun Wu came across a newly published anthology on the American West. Ms. Wu, then an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University's main campus, often wrote and taught about the American West, so she began flipping through the book. She was surprised when she saw a chapter on Margaret Chung, the first U.S.-born female Chinese doctor, who also happened to be the subject of Ms. Wu's 1998 dissertation.

"I remember thinking it was odd that someone else was working on Margaret Chung," says Ms. Wu. "I thought, How does this person's take compare to mine?"

This person -- Benson Tong, then an assistant professor of history at Wichita State University -- had a similar take. Very similar. In fact, as she read, Ms. Wu's curiosity turned into anger: The chapter was nothing more than a condensed version of her dissertation, she believed. There were phrases and descriptions that seem to have been lifted nearly verbatim, along with unattributed facts Ms. Wu had spent long hours pinning down.

It was not that Mr. Tong had simply claimed large blocks of Ms. Wu's dissertation as his own. He cited Ms. Wu's dissertation multiple times. Those citations, however, don't tell the whole story.

Ms. Wu went through Mr. Tong's chapter word by word. She highlighted in yellow those portions of the text that were borrowed directly or altered slightly. She highlighted in green those sections that were paraphrased versions of her arguments and research. When she was finished, only one paragraph of the 15-page essay had escaped the highlighter.

But the most damning evidence could be found in the footnotes. If Mr. Tong's list of sources was to be believed, he had gone to the same archives, reviewed the same unpublished manuscripts, oral histories, and newspaper articles as Ms. Wu and then chosen to quote identical passages from that material. "Almost all of the citations in Tong's essay exactly replicate the sources and page numbers that appear in my footnotes," Ms. Wu wrote in a complaint to the American Historical Association.

Despite the compelling evidence, some of her colleagues told her to forget the matter. Pursuing it could damage another scholar's career and would no doubt be a long, exhausting process.

Ms. Wu ignored their advice. She submitted a 21-page complaint to the association and wrote a letter to Scholarly Resources Inc., the publisher of Mr. Tong's book. Mr. Tong offered a rebuttal to Ms. Wu's charges, and Ms. Wu countered with a response of her own, again laying out the evidence against him. She describes the experience as "emotionally draining."

The process was difficult and tiresome, just as some of her colleagues had predicted. In the end, the historical association ruled in her favor, finding that Mr. Tong "appears to have borrowed most of his research and overall analytical framework from Ms. Wu's work without sufficiently indicating the extent of his indebtedness." The group concluded that Mr. Tong had indeed committed plagiarism. Not long after, the association stopped investigating plagiarism cases, saying it was not a good use of its resources.

As was the association's custom, it sent a letter to Ms. Wu and Mr. Tong informing them of its decision about Ms. Wu's complaint. There was no press release, no notice on the association's Web site. Today, more than a year afterward, the association won't even confirm that it conducted an investigation.

As a result, Ms. Wu felt it was her responsibility to publicize the findings. She had the chairman of her department fax the association's letter to the chairman of the history department at Wichita State.

That was particularly bad timing for Mr. Tong, who was coming up for tenure. He was turned down. After sticking around Wichita State for another year, he was hired by Gallaudet University.

When contacted recently at the university, Mr. Tong asks the caller to hold on while he closes his office door. He contends that he "didn't make any mistakes" in the essay and says he refuted Ms. Wu's allegations. When asked if he was guilty of plagiarism, he responds, "No, I don't think so at all."

However, he declined to discuss any details, saying the matter had already been put to rest. When asked whether his new employer was aware of the historical association's finding, he said: "I guess they know about it. The word does get around."

Apparently word had not gotten around to the chairman of the government and history department at Gallaudet, Russell Olson. Upon being told that a newly hired member of his department had been found guilty of plagiarism, Mr. Olson groans. When asked if this came as a surprise, Mr. Olson answers, "Total." He went on to say he would "do something" but declined to be more specific.

Except for acknowledging the receipt of her first letter, the publisher of Mr. Tong's book never responded to Ms. Wu's letters and e-mail messages. This year Scholarly Resources was acquired by Rowman & Littlefield. Kelly Rogers, the director of permissions at the publisher, was unaware of the plagiarism charge. "I would be the person who would know," she says.

As for Ms. Wu, she feels somewhat vindicated by the historical association's ruling. Still, she remains frustrated that Mr. Tong's book has never been retracted. "It's still out there," she says.

Her dissertation is scheduled to be published next year by the University of California Press. Ms. Wu worries that Mr. Tong might even be asked to review her book. After all, he's written on the same subject.

Donald Cuccioletta

As the Tong case illustrates, charges of blatant plagiarism often do not follow professors to their next job. Without a public outing, how could they? Donald Cuccioletta, a historian who taught at two universities, even managed to get caught by one institution but kept the news from the other.

In 2001 Mr. Cuccioletta edited a book called L'Américanité et Les Amériques. He also wrote a chapter for the book, which includes articles in both English and French. His begins: "The idea that the Americas -- North and South -- have a shared common historical experience is not a recent discourse."

That mirrors the first sentence of the introduction to Do the Americas Have a Common History?, a 1964 book written by Lewis Hanke, a Columbia University historian. Mr. Hanke began: "The idea that the Americas -- North and South -- have shared a common historical experience developed slowly in the nineteenth century."

Mr. Hanke follows that sentence with a long quote from a former president of the American Historical Association. Mr. Cuccioletta uses the same long quote.

Mr. Hanke then, in two sentences and 85 words, briefly summarizes contacts between burgeoning Western Hemisphere independence movements in the early 19th century. So does Mr. Cuccioletta -- with nearly the exact same 86 words (he uses an extra "that").

Mr. Hanke then quotes from what he calls a "blunt statement" from 1821 in the "influential" North American Review. Mr. Cuccioletta quotes from the same "influential" journal, although he describes it as a "blunt review." Mr. Cuccioletta uses the same 186 words from the same 1821 journal article, complete with two elisions in the exact same spots.

Mr. Cuccioletta does not directly cite Mr. Hanke, who died in 1993, although he does include his book among the 28 items listed in the bibliography.

A history professor at the University of Quebec, where Mr. Cuccioletta had taught as a part-time lecturer for 10 years, discovered the similarities in the two books in 2002, according to Le Devoir, a Montreal newspaper.

After the department chairman learned of the alleged plagiarism, according to the newspaper, Mr. Cuccioletta was not rehired. But the news did not travel 60 miles down the highway, where Mr. Cuccioletta was also teaching at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

Mr. Cuccioletta has taught at Plattsburgh off and on for the past seven years. This year -- two years after his borrowing was first caught at the University of Quebec -- he was named interim director of Plattsburgh's new Institute on Quebec Studies.

Then his secret got out. Officials at Plattsburgh learned of the purported plagiarism when it was briefly recounted in Le Devoir this fall.

Now an administrative committee has begun an investigation. And a college spokesman says Mr. Cuccioletta has been removed as interim director, although he is still teaching his courses for the semester.

Mr. Cuccioletta says the matter was dealt with at the University of Quebec and that he has admitted his mistake. "I'm still troubled by it," he says. "I just got confused. I was writing many articles at the time." Then he stops speaking, saying he is not going to discuss the incident any further. "To me, it's a closed subject."