Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Lack of Attribution: The Misuse of Information Is Pervasive and Professionally Challenging. (Legal Issues)

By Ardito, Stephanie C. | Information Today, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Lack of Attribution: The Misuse of Information Is Pervasive and Professionally Challenging. (Legal Issues)


Ardito, Stephanie C., Information Today


Stephen Ambrose. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Michael Bellesiles. Award-winning historians accused of plagiarism. Goodwin hit me particularly hard; I thought she was above reproach. It hurts when one of your idols falls.

From the time we write our first papers in grade school, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," we are taught not to copy the works of others. Throughout the educational process, teachers and professors provide a steady stream of warnings about the consequences of plagiarism. If we must cite, then quotation marks or indented paragraphs are the accepted style, with references, footnotes, or some evidence of attribution appearing in the text. If we are caught, we will fail a grade, not receive a diploma, be expelled, incur the disrespect of colleagues, lose our job, or be sued for fraud or copyright violation.

Over the years, documented cases of plagiarism among notable newspaper reporters, broadcasters, poets, and novelists have been reported. In 1998, Mike Barnicle was first suspended from The Boston Globe for using George Carlin jokes without proper attribution and was then forced to resign from the paper for making up a story. In 1972, Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio was accused of plagiarizing paragraphs from a Washington Post story for an article she wrote for the National Observer. Samuel Taylor Coleridge has been accused, as has Alex Haley. These "celebrities" escaped largely unscathed. Once the initial furor died down, all went on to have successful careers. (1, 2, 3)

How the Stories Broke

The Weekly Standard (http://www.weeklystandard.com) is a consumer publication that's known for its political news coverage. In January, it blew the whistle on Ambrose and Goodwin. (4, 5) In reporting the plagiarism, The Weekly Standard compared passages from Ambrose's book, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany (Simon & Schuster, 2001), with Thomas Childers' book, Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II (Perseus, 1995). Within a short time, Forbes.com produced its own story regarding three additional instances of plagiarism that were discovered in Ambrose's books, including one title published by Doubleday and two by Simon & Schuster. These cases were followed by further incidences of plagiarism and factual mistakes that were exposed by The New York Times and other news organizations. On May 10, Forbes.com claimed that "the problems in Wild Blue reflect a pattern that can be traced all the way back to [Ambrose's] University of W isconsin doctoral thesis from 1963." (6)

Ambrose remains defiant about admitting any guilt, perhaps because he has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and is concentrating his writing efforts on finishing his memoirs. When interviewed, Ambrose claims that the number of pages without attribution in his total body of work is minuscule.

In the Goodwin case, her plagiarism was brought to light by The Weekly Standard within 2 weeks of its expose about Ambrose. In her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Simon & Schuster, 1987), Goodwin "borrowed" from Lynne McTaggart's title, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times (Doubleday, 1983). When the first edition of Goodwin's book was published, McTaggart recognized her own words and reached a private "understanding" with Simon & Schuster. Subsequent editions of Goodwin's book include footnotes that acknowledge passages from McTaggart's book.

Follow-up reports by leading newspapers and magazines prompted Goodwin to admit that she had "borrowed" from other authors as well. Her punishment? She is on leave from PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, a number of universities and organizations have withdrawn their speaking invitations, and The Harvard Crimson has called for her resignation from Harvard's board of overseers. In addition, Goodwin resigned as a member of the Pulitzer Prize board, and the board has been asked to rescind her 1995 Pulitzer for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. …

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