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The Bancroft and Bellesiles

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Below is an official announcement released Friday, December 13, 2002, by the Columbia University Board of Trustees.

Columbia University's Trustees have voted to rescind the Bancroft Prize awarded last year to Michael Bellesiles for his book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The Trustees made the decision. Based on a review of an investigation of charges of scholarly misconduct against Professor Bellesiles by Emory University and other assessments by professional historians. They concluded that he had violated basic norms of scholarship and the high standards expected of Bancroft Prize winners. The Trustees voted to rescind the Prize during their regularly scheduled meeting on December 7, 2002 and have notified Professor Bellesiles of their decision.

The Bancroft Prize, which was first offered in 1948, is to be awarded for works in American history of "distinguished merit and distinction." The selection criteria for the Prize specify that it "should honor only books of enduring worth and impeccable scholarship that make a major contribution to our understanding of the American past." Professor Bellesiles' book seemed to fulfill these criteria at the time of selection. However, it has since been the subject of substantial debate within the community of American historians that included charges that Professor Bellesiles had committed scholarly misconduct in the use of some of his primary source materials.

In response to these charges, Emory University, where Professor Bellesiles holds an appointment, established a panel of three distinguished scholars from other universities to conduct a review. On October 25, 2002, following this review, the panel issued a report. In it, the panel members found "evidence of falsification" with respect to one of the questions they were asked to consider; spoke of "serious failures of and carelessness in the gathering and presentation of archival records and the use of quantitative analysis" on two others; and questioned "his veracity" with respect to a fourth. They also concluded that he had "contravened" the norms of historical scholarship both "as expressed in the Committee charge and in the American Historical Association's definition of scholarly 'integrity.'"

Columbia's Trustees considered the report of the Emory investigating committee and Professor Bellesiles' response to it. They also considered assessments by professional historians of the subject matter of that report.

After considering all of these materials, the Trustees concurred with the three distinguished scholars who reviewed the case for Emory University that Professor Bellesiles had violated basic norms of acceptable scholarly conduct. They consequently concluded that his book had not and does not meet the standards they had established for the Bancroft Prize.

In making their decision, the Trustees emphasized that the judgment to rescind the Bancroft Prize was based solely on the evaluation of the questionable scholarship of the work and had nothing to do with the book's content or the author's point of view.