A Scholarly Crime Wave. (the Periodical Observer)

Article excerpt

A Survey of Recent Articles

"Teachers are supposed to be role models in students' lives," declared Roy Groller, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. "They should try to lead by example."

He was explaining to a New York Times reporter (Jan. 15, 2002) his opposition to the use of historian Stephen Ambrose's books in university classes now that the emeritus professor at the University of New Orleans stands accused of plagiarism. After an expose by Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard (Jan. 14, 2002), the best-selling author of The Wild Blue (2001) and seven other books since 1997, denied having committed plagiarism. But he acknowledged having "used" extensive passages from another author's work while making only footnoted references to the source. He promised to use quotation marks in future editions.

Ambrose soon was joined in the media's dock by another popular historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who had taught for 10 years at Harvard University. She, too, denied the plagiarism charge, but said that, yes, mistakes had been made in her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and would be rectified.

Those are only two of the scholarly scandals of recent months. The other cases appear much more serious.

One involves Michael A. Bellesiles, a professor of history at Emory University, and his celebrated Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (2000). The work, seemingly based on exhaustive research, was acclaimed by the eminent historians Edmund Morgan and Garry Wills, and last year won Columbia University's prestigious Bancroft Prize for history. Bellesiles contends in his book that, contrary to popular myth, no "gun culture" existed in early America, that until the mid 19th century only a minority of white men -- 15 percent prior to 1790 -- owned firearms. When local militia were summoned, government had to supply the guns.

Arming America lent credence to the view that the Second Amendment was meant to protect a collective, rather than an individual, right to bear arms. It was swiftly embraced by gun-control advocates and furiously attacked by the National Rifle Association. Then James Lindgren, a law professor at Northwestern University, and other scholars began to question Bellesiles's methods, zeroing in on his use of county probate records to support his contention that private ownership of firearms was rare.

"It is unprecedented for such a celebrated work of scholarship to contain as many errors," Lindgren tells Danny Postel of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 1, 2002). Don Hickey, a professor of history at Wayne State University, in Nebraska, who originally supported Bellesiles's thesis, now views the book as "a case of genuine, bona fide academic fraud."

Responding to his critics in the Organization of American Historians' OAH Newsletter (Nov. 2001), Bellesiles minimizes the importance of the five paragraphs devoted to the probate records in his 444-page text, and says that a flood in his office "turned most of the legal pads on which I had taken notes into unreadable pulp."

But Lindgren and others, after examining some of the original probate records, were unable to replicate Bellesiles's findings. And some records he cited apparently do not exist. "Bellesiles claimed to have counted guns in probate records of the estates of people who died in 1849 or 1850 and 1858 or '59 in San Francisco," writes Melissa Seckora, an editorial associate at National Review (Oct. 1, 2001). "The problem is that, according to everyone who should know, all the probate records that Bellesiles allegedly reviewed were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire," Emory launched a formal inquiry into the Bellesiles case in October. …