Who, me?

A bit of a paraphrase from Alfred E. Newmann, but I think it’s apropos.  Kevin Levin blogged yesterday about about a plagiarism scandal that has hit the Civil War/history community.  There, and also on Eric Wittenberg’s blog and the comments on both sites, you can read the details of the story and find pertinent links.  I don’t want to address the details and mechanics of this particular situation here, but rather the concept behind it all.  It’s something that I’ve previously meant to post about in a general way anyway.  When something like this happens, it leaves me shaking my head, of course – but not simply because of the accusations of plagiarism, but because of the obvious fundamental problems in the researching/writing processes of a particular “historian.”

Despite Prof. Fred Ruhlman’s protests to the contrary, it seems evident to this blogger that he did no less than have William Marvel’s previous book beside him as he wrote, simply re-wording sentences here and there.  For Ruhlman to think that his feeble protests to the contrary will convince anyone is the height of idiocy and is also quite insulting.

We’ve heard his same excuses in other such cases – that someone else’s previous work made “such an impression” on him, that as he wrote his own, similar wording came out of his brain.  Uh huh.  Pardon me while I pause to watch a delightful covey of pigs flying across the sky.

Doris Kearns Goodwin made the same excuses when called on the carpet regarding her FDR book.  In her case, the impression made upon me was the same – you have to take me for a complete idiot to think I’d believe it.

So here’s that fundamental problem I mentioned – it is absolutely beyond me that this happens at all.  In my case, before even thinking about writing on a particular subject, I have a personal desire to know it inside and out.  I gather all available sources – both primary and secondary – and sift through them over and over.  I make comparisons and contrasts, and attempt to construct the story that I feel is accurate, placing the subject in context with surrounding events.  By the time I’ve grown comfortable with the idea of beginning to write – the process can take weeks or even months – I feel that the story is now “mine.”  If I couldn’t already stand up in front of a crowd and lecture for several hours about the subject without notes, I don’t feel I’m ready to write yet.

That, I feel, is the familiarity one must have to commit pen to paper.  Taking such time and effort allows me to appreciate the nuances and tiny details of a subject, something I couldn’t attain if I didn’t invest that time and effort. 

Case in point – my previous published magazine articles have all been on topics that I’ve researched for years, and in most cases crawled over the pertinent terrain like an ant.  My and Eric’s book on Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg was the product of years of research, visits, tours, discussions, debates, arguments, previous writing, and everything between.  Articles and books that I’m currently working on are subjects that I feel the utmost familiarity with.

So when I see cases such as Ruhlman’s, I can tell that there is a fundamental flaw in his mechanics.  And the very idea of writing about a topic becomes especially dangerous when there is already a good, modern scholarly work on the same or similar subject (such as Marvel’s).  To the less-disciplined writer, it’s too easy to rely so heavily on it.  Then they get caught, and start spewing all sorts of lame excuses.

When you explore this story through articles and links on other sites, you’ll see the comments about Ruhlman’s doctorate apparently coming from a diploma mill (the University of London) and that he’s a temporary staffer at the University of Tennesee at Chattanooga.  All that aside, Ruhlman’s actions shouldn’t reflect on the recent debate over academic historians vs. non-academics.  Ruhlman’s impropriety, if true, were his actions and his actions alone, and he alone should suffer the consequences if found culpable. 

And in my opinion, the consequences should be severe.  Termination (better yet, resignation), and censure that ensures any future work by Ruhlman be looked at closely.  It should be tough for this fellow to ever write again.

I’m very tough on plagiarism.  I have been the victim of it several times, and those who know me well know about them.  Most of the cases involve people using things from my website.  In one case, one “writer” had a biography from my website published under his name, and 90% of the article was a word-for-word cut and paste from my site.  After I brought it to the publisher’s attention, the writer had to issue a public apology to me on the front page of the magazine.  The writer’s excuse to me over the phone, however, was that he “didn’t know” it was wrong to simply use my copyrighted work as his own.  You wonder how some people are able to dress and feed themselves.

In another case, there exists a published book on officers at the battle of Gettysburg which contains several biographies lifted from my website, in many cases word-for-word.  Although references are provided in the book, there’s isn’t a single credit to me or my website.  In many cases, the sources provided by the author do not provide the material in his biographies.  They can’t – much of the material is from unique original sources in my collection, or information from descendants, etc.  The author simply cited general sources to make it look like the information came from somewhere, and to try to cover for the fact that the writing was stolen from me.  So, I obviously have a sore spot when it comes to plagiarism and the theft of intellectual property.

Let’s hope that incidents like these are held to a minimum.  Until that small minority of writers put the require effort into their research, we’ll unfortunately see this type of behavior again.

And I’m sure we’ll hear the same old boilerplate excuse, with the accused compounding their crime by assuming that the rest of us are gullible enough to believe it.

Published in: on November 15, 2006 at 11:37 am  Comments (8)