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)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. JD,

    Well put. And I couldn’t agree with you more….


  2. JD your comments (and Eric’s, and Kevin’s and Grimsleys, and Peter Carmichael’s…) are right on.
    May I copy them? 🙂 haha!

  3. JD,

    It is a shame that people took advantage of your website. It was once my favorite site.


  4. As J.D. knows, one of the first questions I always ask when he and I are discussing books on the Civil War is how well the book is footnoted. Am sure many have us have come across books that are very weak in this area, and it is something that bothers me.

    I may have sounded a tad harsh on Academicians on Eric’s blog yesterday, and can see I should not blame that whole “establishment” for the actions of those who break the rules. J.D. and Eric are most correct that most of the blame should be placed on the Publishers of these books, as it is hard to understand how they can let something like this happen.

    Hope all are well.

    Regards from the Garden State,

    Steve Basic

  5. Steve,

    Those were harsh words indeed. However, I do agree with you. As I have mentioned before, there is a great difference between “professional historians” and “untrained historians.” Many times a “professional” may view poring over countless documents, letters, official records, and diaries as “work.” On the other hand, an “untrained historian” generally has a great passion for the Civil War. Therefore, they actually enjoy the researching process. This explains the reason for most of the plagiarism coming from the “professional historians.”

    Often when we are at work, whatever one’s occupation, we tend to “cut corners” to save time. That is what Ruhlman did. However, in the field of writing this is unacceptable. Plagiarism is a serious offense. It is the deliberate (in rare cases unintentional) stealing of someone’s time, sweat, tears, hard work, and most importantly their thoughts.

    Do not listen to the arrogance of some professionals that believe that you must have a PhD in history to write about the Civil War. There are many recent fine examples to disprove this.


  6. As Eric stated in his blog comments regarding this topic, I don’t want to get into the professional vs. non-professional mudbog here either. There have been numerous examples of stealing on both sides of the aisle.

    Suffice it to say I think the difference between the two is that professionals research and write in the world of academia, where it is part of, or tangential to, their career work. The non-professional does not make a living from it and it is typically more of a hobby.

    Neither side, in my opinion, has a lock on stupidity, nor does either side have a lock on good scholarship. I have seen both the best and worst come out of both camps.


  7. Hey J.D.,

    Just a head’s up: the American University in London and the University of London are two distinct institutions. To say the least, it would be extraordinarily inaccurate to write something that conflated the well-regarded University of London with the “diploma mill” American University in London. Dimitri Rotov has already commented on your post and repeated your error, which is were it caught my attention.

    And so it goes with ‘Net memes. As a graduate of the War Studies program at King’s College, University of London, I hope we can agree that this one needs to be nipped in the bud.


    Shawn Woodford

  8. Hi Shawn,

    That’s fine – if there is a confusing of the two, then I certainly don’t want to perpetuate it. By the way, I’m actually repeating what others have said regarding the subject of a “diploma mill,” I actually not the one who began that comment.

    Either way, it’s obvious that Ruhlman disgraced the source of his PhD be it a respected university or a Kracker Jack box.


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