Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy/Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower

Article excerpt

Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy

By Ron Robin. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004

Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower

By Jon Wiener. New York: The New Press, 2004


Everybody loves a scandal, at least if it doesn't have serious consequences. A voyeuristic pleasure accompanies the spectacle of the mighty brought low by their own misdeeds. So it's no surprise that recent revelations of plagiarism and other forms of fraud among wellknown writers and academics have spawned their own mini-industry of analysis. An earlier day would no doubt have dealt with these cases as personal matters, perhaps a subject for psychologizing about why good scholars went bad. In today's contentious world of academe, however, the scandals have taken on broader meanings-cultural, if you subscribe to Ron Robin's interpretation, or political, if you buy intojon Wiener's.

Both authors deal with many of the same cases. In Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven cases That Shook the Academy, Robin describes the plagiarism of "celebrity historians" like Stephen Ambrose, Stephen Gates, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, the misuse of evidence by historian Michael Bellesiles, and the manufactured Vietnam experiences of Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis. He also covers three controversies among anthropologists and the hoax perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal on the postmodernstudies journal Social Text. In Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower, Wiener sticks to his own field of history, adding a few more stories of fraud and sloppy research to the ones Robin recounts as well as looking at some well-known scholars whose misdeeds seem to have gone unpunished.

Unanswered questions abound. We do not know, perhaps cannot know, whether the incidence of academic fraud has increased over the past few years. As Wiener cogently explains, we have no baseline for determining how often scholars have faked their footnotes or borrowed the language of others without attribution. It seems likely that the vast majority of such cases escape detection. After all, historians rarely go over their colleagues' footnotes with the kind of intensity that his opponents in the gun lobby turned on Bellesiles's account of firearms in the early American republic or that Yale historian Henry Turner, Jr., applied to the documentation of former Princeton history professor David Abraham's treatment of the fall of the Weimar Republic. Unless-and this, according to Wiener, is a crucial "unless"-some group or individual with a special agenda is on the case, most revelations of wrongdoing surface when the author of the original text encounters its burgled version, as happened when investigative journalist Lynne McTaggart recognized her own material in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 1987 The Kennedys and the Fitzgeraids.

What does seem to be new is that these misdeeds are now front-page news and get blogged throughout the cyberworld. In some cases the culprits are already in the public eye, like Goodwin or Ambrose; in others, the people who expose these scholarly lapses are themselves media savvy, like the journalist Patrick Tierney, who castigated several leading anthropologists for mistreating the Yanomami people of Brazil. At the same time, as Wiener demonstrates, many of the most flagrant cases of plagiarism and professional misbehavior escape media attention and are concealed even from other people in the field. If Mount Holyoke historian Joseph Ellis had not won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his best-selling biographies, it is unlikely that the Boston Globe would have exposed how he lied to his students about participating in the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Similarly, Robin notes, anthropologist David Stoll's contention that Guatemalan peasant activist Rigoberto Menchu falsified some of her autobiography would not have gotten much attention had Menchu not received a Nobel Prize and her memoir not figured in the culture wars over the canon at Stanford University in the early 1990s. …