January 9, 2002
2:00 PM   Subscribe

Historian Stephen Ambrose, author of over 25 books, is accused of plagiarizing for a second time. Just last weekend, Ambrose apologized for not properly citing copied phrases in a book about WWII bomber crews over Germany. Sounds like a sloppy mistake from a respected historian, and it proves you have to be pretty careful to avoid plagiarism.
posted by msacheson (31 comments total)
Turnitin can help.
posted by Voyageman at 2:12 PM on January 9, 2002

It looks like Ambrose was sloppy rather than craven; somebody said there should be "misdemeanor plagiarism" in addition to the current "felony plagiarism" that seems to follow even the most minor borrowing of phrases (e.g. in political speeches, which used to have a strong tradition of such). In any case, Ambrose shows that apologizing quickly is probably the best way to inoculate oneself from having this be a millstone for the remainder of one's career.
posted by dhartung at 2:30 PM on January 9, 2002

It's obviously careless -- either because he thought he could get away with it without it being noticed, or because he was careless in how he incorporated his sources' information into his own work.

But I don't think it's that terrible an offense -- after all, each time he credited the source, and it's not like the passages in question are going to win anyone a Nobel Prize in Literature or anything (that is, I doubt he was trying to steal anyone's original, incomprable creative writing ability).

And his owning up to the mistakes and apologizing for them is praiseworthy. We all make mistakes; but, often, it's up to us if we let others define us by them, or by how we handle them afterward.
posted by mattpfeff at 2:42 PM on January 9, 2002

Funny how the "misdemeanor plagiarism" only comes up with Ambrose, who was the media's go-to person for Greatest Generation stuff before Tom Brokaw and has multi-million contracts with communications giants. It hasn't come up with dozens of other journalists and academics in the past few years. They were all fired, as far as I recall. Is this because plagiarism is a serious offense, or they don't have as much star power as Ambrose? Me, I couldn't help but notice that he repeated whole paragraphs verbatim, not little sections. Dhartung, you write a lot, at least as far as I can tell. Do you *ever* copy largish swaths of a work without attribution?
posted by raysmj at 2:46 PM on January 9, 2002

each time he credited the source

They weren't proper citations, by any standard. A reader would have no idea that entire paragraphs came directly from the book, unless he or she checked out the works in question. Besides, the attribution for the writing is all the way at the back of the book. And the "no award-winning" defense . . . where does that come from? Oh, you're stuff sucked, so we can copy it?
posted by raysmj at 2:50 PM on January 9, 2002

raysmj -- I don't by any means intend to defend the plagiarism, which it is indeed. All I'm trying to say is, I doubt that he was deliberatly trying to steal passages. If so, I expect he would have 1) stolen them from places he didn't credit at all; and 2) stolen passages that had some quality he himself couldn't have reproduced.

Given that neither is the case, I suspect he was just careless, that's all.
posted by mattpfeff at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2002

Doesn't this just expose an unoriginal writing method of patching together others ideas; that the author usually hides their sources well enough but this time didn't?

They were changed enough to show intent to obscure. I did that when I was 8, because I was lazy. Though with child labour laws being what they were it wasn't my job or anything.
posted by holloway at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2002

re: misdemeanor plagarism

I saw the term at Talking Points Memo, who's had a couple of entries about this little bru-haha.
posted by epersonae at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2002

Dang, I was just going to reference the reliable Joshua Micah Marshall- he always seems to scoop these issues before they become MeFi fodder. Good work, epersonae...
posted by hincandenza at 3:36 PM on January 9, 2002

I am no fan of Ambrose, but I think something needs to be said about the inherent obscurity of the notion of plagiarism. There are a lot of gray areas, of which Ambrose's borrowing of language from a text he cited is one.
Basically, texts are always made from other texts, they are always written by borrowing and transforming, more or less fully, what has come before. No historian does research in a vacuum, and no fiction writer makes things up totally out of his/her own head, without any influence or awareness of other books that existed already.
Shakespeare often stole language, as well as plots, from previously existing plays as well as volumes of prose.
Today, it could be argued that a lot of creative endeavor is woven out of what could also be called 'plagiarism.' Sampling in hiphop. Post-Warholian appropriations of commercial visual icons. Novelists like the late Kathy Acker explicitly rewriting previous texts.
This is one of the real dangers of making copyright protection as absolute as the recording and motion picture industries want to do--by disallowing copying, it would also pretty much make new creation impossible (unless you had the deep pockets of said companies to finance your borrowings).
posted by Rebis at 3:38 PM on January 9, 2002

Maybe David Foster Wallace was just ahead of his time, instead of a footnote fetishist, experimenting with non-linear storytelling. ;)
posted by dglynn at 3:52 PM on January 9, 2002

My two cents: Ambrose is a trained historian. Overwork and carelessness are not acceptable excuses. A lot of what passes for general history is not plagiarism but parasitism. Paraphrase after paraphrase, with no attributable sources. The fact that it's that more difficult to pin down only makes it more reprehensible, academically speaking, which we are.

My guess is he'll stop doing it. He's a wonderful writer and it's just stupid because nobody ever lost out by taking the care to fully acknowledge all their sources, meaning every book they've read which is relevant to the work produced. On the contrary.

And he knows it.

(I love the way this post covers all the available angles, allowing us to easily gloss over a wide range of available sources. The comments do it honour. Kudos, msacheson!)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:18 PM on January 9, 2002

My English professor would have me drawn and quartered if I was caught doing the things Ambrose did. Ironically, Ambrose spoke at my college the week before Sept. 11, talking about how the "greatest generation" had saved the world in WWII and prepared us for what he predicted would be our "most peaceful century ever."

What a blowhard.
posted by insomnyuk at 9:03 PM on January 9, 2002

I just had my first lecture with Thomas Childers, the professor who wrote the book that Ambrose plagiarized from (the first allegation to break). He barely touched on it in class but did joke that it was nice to see people who weren't lawyers or reporters. Interesting, he left Band of Brothers on our reading list (not the book in question, but another work by Ambrose) though other professors here have said that Ambrose has no place on a syllabus because of this.

All this has been quite the topic of conversation in the student newspaper, especially since many have pointed out that if one were to do that in Childers' class, the student could face suspension under the academic code of integrity
posted by Caz721 at 9:29 PM on January 9, 2002

Interesting point in Talking Points Memo about what we now call 'plagiarism' once having been acceptable. But then, what we now call 'copyright' once didn't exist, along with many other modern laws and norms. The main objections to plagiarism in the modern academic setting, as I see them, are that:

Undergraduates are awarded marks on the basis of their understanding of a particular field, and extra marks if they show real insight. If their work is nothing but regurgitation of another's words then they've demonstrated neither. This would be true any time an excessively-long quotation was used in an essay, properly attributed or not, but the absence of attribution is particularly objectionable because it hides the regurgitation. It potentially tricks the essay-marker (and through them, the university) into thinking that you understand something better than you do;

Research students are usually awarded their degrees on the basis of having made an 'original contribution to knowledge'. Copying another's words without proper attribution is the opposite of originality. And unlike first-year undergrads, postgrads can hardly claim ignorance as a defence;

Academics advance their careers primarily on the basis of publications, and academic publications are again intended to be 'original contributions to knowledge'. For the most prominent and senior academics, their reputations hinge on their track-records as innovative thinkers.

It's therefore no surprise that Ambrose's track-record is being questioned. A closely-paraphrased sentence might be considered 'misdemeanour' plagiarism, but whole paragraphs wouldn't.

I don't think it's that terrible an offense -- after all, each time he credited the source

Listing a work in a bibliography when you've lifted whole passages from it without proper attribution attached to each isn't crediting the source, it's claiming the credit.

I doubt he was trying to steal anyone's original, incomprable creative writing ability.

Using someone else's original creative writing without proper compensation (whether money or a simple attribution) is theft of intellectual property. Whether or not one agrees with current legal notions of IP, it's the basis of many industries and careers, not least in research and academia. Academics are in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge, and they get paid accordingly. Which is why plagiarism is taken so seriously in universities: it's not just theft, it's fraud.

And just think, by adding a couple of quotation marks Ambrose could have circumvented any suggestion of plagiarism. Intentional? Careless? Sloppy? Lazy? In any case, not the qualities a formidable academic reputation is usually built on.
posted by rory at 4:22 AM on January 10, 2002

Ambrose footnotes the paragraphs containing these words and phrases and he cites Monaghan as a source. But several times he presents Monaghan's words as his own, without quotation marks.

hmm. The school I went to let me get away with that. All my profs were ok with me citing like this:

-text-that-would-otherwise-be-considered-plagiarized-here- (author-last-name page#).

(significant words from title instead of last name if more than one work by the same author)

and at the end of the paper have a list of works cited.
but you didn't need footnotes or quotation marks.

and yeah I majored in English.
posted by juv3nal at 4:26 AM on January 10, 2002

Was that a formal policy, juv3nal? Did your profs explicitly state that you didn't need quotation marks? If so, they were condoning plagiarism. Or was your 'text-that-would-otherwise-be-considered-plagiarized' simply slipping underneath their radar? No professor can recognise every plagiarised sentence, and your inclusion of page references could have led them to think that all you had done was rephrase an author's point in your own words.

No quotes or reference = 'these are my ideas and words'.

No quotes, but reference given = 'this is someone else's idea/point/fact, but these are my words'.

Quotes and reference = 'these are someone else's ideas and words'.

It could be that you were plagiarising all along but assuming from their silence that this was okay, when it actually isn't. And even if they said it was, it isn't.
posted by rory at 5:28 AM on January 10, 2002

(It isn't okay in the context of submitting formal work in an academic setting, that is. The kind of looseness towards specific attribution that you describe is less frowned-upon in other settings, such as writing internal reports for an organisation... but it still isn't a good habit to get into.)
posted by rory at 5:32 AM on January 10, 2002

Tangentially, perhaps Stephen Ambrose has churned out too many books, interviews, speeches, etc. recently?
posted by Carol Anne at 5:57 AM on January 10, 2002

From Carol Anne's link:

The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s
over Germany

Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the
Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869

The Good Fight: How World War II Was Won
by Stephen E. Ambrose

Man, claiming someone else's words as your own is one thing, but claiming you single-handedly won World War II...
posted by rory at 6:12 AM on January 10, 2002

rory, just to clarify, I'm not trying to defend Ambrose, just observe that his behavior doesn't seem to indicate evil intent, to me.

Do you think that one plagiarist's copying passages, but crediting their authors with the research and understanding behind them, is truly comparable to another's stealing another writer's ideas and entire stories, without acknowledging the original writer at all ?

If Ambrose made a mistake (or two...), he made a mistake. His carelessness should be noted and, at the least, his future editors and publishers all the more careful. But it's hard to see this as a deliberate act of deceit.
posted by mattpfeff at 6:51 AM on January 10, 2002

Even more Ambrose charges from Forbes. Not the first Forbes article - a second one. A third charge of plagiarism, in other words. I still wonder why the authors had to include a quote from a reader who said he didn't care. The reader's opinion is irrelevant, except perhaps to show why Ambrose has been treated so gently so far.

(Ambrose, it is worth noting, also has slammed social reformers in prefaces to his books, including those against urban sprawl. In his after D-Day work, he even paints as effete and contemptible works like "The Organization Man," a classic work of sociology. In other words, if you're against conformity in organizations (much has changed since then, thank heavens) and in favor of more liberal arts education, etc., like the author of the above, and against urban sprawl, you're spitting on the graves of the dead of the Greatest Generation, since its men built the corporations and the suburbs.)
posted by raysmj at 7:16 AM on January 10, 2002

raysmj: Yes, how quickly some of the successful forget where they came from! "That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession,' by Peter Novick, Cambridge University Press, 1998:

"...Madison [Wisconsin] was the site of the first, and in many ways the most important, organized vehicle for the new historiographical left--the graduate student journal 'Studies on the Left,' which began publication in 1959. Young leftist historians, like Stephen Ambrose [emphasis added], the future biographer of Eisenhower, expressed a desire to publish in the journal, even though it would probably hurt his academic career in the South. To appear in 'Studies,' he wrote one of its editors, would be 'visible proof that I'm helping the cause, whatever that is.'"
posted by Carol Anne at 7:27 AM on January 10, 2002

Thanks, all, for your insightful comments and links!
posted by msacheson at 8:05 AM on January 10, 2002

Intentional? Careless? Sloppy? Lazy? In any case, not the qualities a formidable academic reputation is usually built on.

Ambrose seems both lazy and (IMO) unethical. In the cases when he's not plagiarizing, he appears to have trouble getting his facts straight (warning: minutiae alert). I'm curious about his editors. Did he have any? Why did no one check his sources? Or was his work just far enough removed from academia not to merit the proper fact checking?
posted by cowboy_sally at 8:27 AM on January 10, 2002

mattpfeff, I'm not saying that he's evil, but I do think that lack of intent (if such is this case) is no great defence; as I suggested, academic sloppiness shouldn't be acceptable from prominent academics.

Do you think that one plagiarist's copying passages, but crediting their authors with the research and understanding behind them, is truly comparable to another's stealing another writer's ideas and entire stories, without acknowledging the original writer at all?

Yes, I do think they're comparable, although on a sliding scale a complete lack of attribution is obviously worse. I don't accept that listing a work in a bibliography when you've lifted passages from it is due credit; nor, even, is a footnote or in-text reference when you haven't used quotation marks around quoted passages, for the reasons I've outlined in response to juv3nal - it's misleading.

What's the cut-off point for an 'idea'? Those passages of Childers' have ideas in them, even if they're ideas worth only a sentence rather than an entire book. Where do we draw the line? At the book level? Chapter? Page? Paragraph? Sentence? Personally, I've written sentences with self-contained ideas as asides in longer passages, and I'd be pissed off to see them lifted without proper attribution.

In fact, I was pissed off when I found some of my words plagiarised in an essay at a cheat site. The author had included my book in his bibliography, sure, along with dozens of others. And that gave no indication at all that he had lifted whole chunks from it and used them without attribution throughout the last third of his essay. Not just any words, either: the concluding words; the final paragraphs of a 120,000 word book; the ones I had slaved over to get the phrasing just right, to leave the reader on a high note. I could still remember the day I wrote them.

And that's partly my point. Unless you're the author himself, you have no idea which of his words mean the most to him. Maybe Childers' sentences don't seem that valuable to you, but you aren't the one who wrote them. When any of us publishes our words, we give other writers an implied but restricted right to borrow them - 'fair use' - and in academia those restrictions include using quotation marks where applicable.

Imagine if someone here copied the essence of some clever post from the archives and presented it as their own, and was found out? Would they still be considered a valuable and productive member of the MeFi community? Or would they be dragged into MeTa for a 124-comments kicking before you could say 'put it in italics next time'?
posted by rory at 8:49 AM on January 10, 2002

lack of intent (if such is this case) is no great defence

agreed -- I don't intend it as a defense. Obviously, he did plagiarize, and to be redundant, he didn't give proper credit for the passages in question, either. But I don't think that his offense is quite as reprehensible as more deliberate, deceitful acts of plagiarism.

If you see plagiarism as a black-and-white issue, I can respect that. But I don't. (I think I basically agree with the Talking Points Memo cited above.)

academic sloppiness shouldn't be acceptable from prominent academics.

Agreed again. (As I said above, I think that, at the least, any future publisher should ensure Ambrose can't get away with it again.)
posted by mattpfeff at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2002

If you take 'comparable' to mean 'absolutely equivalent', then okay, the two situations aren't comparable; but I was taking it to mean 'in the same ballpark'. I'm not saying it's black and white; it's shades of grey. The question of intent is a vexed one: sure, few people would brazenly steal a whole book or article and pass it off as their own; but that doesn't make 'unintentional' plagiarism any less objectionable. If a case of academic plagiarism really is 'unintentional', it still means that the plagiarist wasn't following the rules of their trade. Saying "I didn't mean to run over that pedestrian" is no defence when you're driving 80 in a 40 zone. That's why students get rules about using quotation marks drummed into them: to help them avoid any question of plagiarism, intentional or unintentional.
posted by rory at 2:18 AM on January 11, 2002

The New York Times today offers a good overview, including Ambrose's own thoughts on the subject. (The article is on the front page of the print edition). The most recent Talking Points Memo is also insightful.
posted by mattpfeff at 6:32 AM on January 11, 2002

rory: and your inclusion of page references could have led them to think that all you had done was rephrase an author's point in your own words.

That's what I had been doing. But I understand that if you do that without citing source it's considered plagiarism, no?
posted by juv3nal at 9:14 PM on January 11, 2002

That's what I had been doing.

In that case it's fine. But yes, you should cite the source.
posted by rory at 2:40 PM on January 12, 2002

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