YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Historian Broke the Rules, but Is That So Bad?

Plagiarism is not synonymous with inaccuracy.

January 13, 2002|STUART P. GREEN

The recent allegations against and admissions by historian Stephen Ambrose concerning alleged plagiarism in two books, "The Wild Blue" and "Crazy Horse and Custer," are a reminder of what a fluid and murky concept plagiarism can be.

In many of the questioned passages, Ambrose included footnotes to the works on which he had relied. What he failed to do was indicate when material was being directly quoted. In all likelihood, Ambrose did not intend to deceive his readers into believing that the words were his own. Rather, this prolific, bestselling and widely celebrated author of about 30 history books seems to have been guilty of more instances of sloppy note-taking than would be tolerated even from a college freshman.

Plagiarism, of course, is nothing new, although the Internet--particularly Web sites such as "cut and paste" features of word processing programs seem to have made it more of a temptation.

Some scholars have suggested that the concept of plagiarism is no older than that of "authorship," and that the idea of authorship, in turn, owes its existence to legal protections for intellectual property first enacted in the 18th century.

In fact, the idea that one has a moral obligation to cite one's sources is certainly older than that, dating at least to the medieval Talmudic text, Ethics of the Fathers, and allegations of plagiarism brought by contemporaries of the 15th century Talmudic scholar Isaac Abarbanel.

Recently, I sat on a university disciplinary committee hearing charges of plagiarism against a student who had copied long passages from various sources, often without quotation marks or footnotes. As I listened to his rambling explanation of how he had gotten himself into such a predicament, I felt a strange mix of contempt and sympathy for what he had done.

The fact is that all of us are influenced by those who came before us. None of us wholly invents the stories we tell, the metaphors we use, or the theories we espouse. Almost every creative writer or scholar feels, at one time or another, not only that he has been given inadequate credit for his own ideas but that he himself might have inadvertently failed to make proper attribution.

If anything has been consistent in the history of plagiarism, it is inconsistency. In the early 1980s, a young author named Jacob Epstein had the bad judgment to plagiarize plot elements and descriptive passages from a novel by Martin Amis. More recently, Susan Sontag was alleged to have lifted various phrases from mostly dead authors for her novel "In America."

Epstein was skewered by Amis in a scathing rebuttal that essentially ended his novel-writing career. Sontag was given a national book prize. Meanwhile, the hapless student plagiarist on whose disciplinary committee I sat was denied his degree and asked to leave the university.

So what to make of Ambrose's numerous lapses? Surely, he did a great disservice to the writers on whose work he improperly relied, and his practices cast serious doubt on his integrity as a scholar.

Ambrose's fellow historians have a right to censure him. On the other hand, Ambrose is a beloved figure whose numerous books have brought history alive to many thousands of ordinary readers. No one has claimed that his books are inaccurate or that they cannot still be a source of pleasure and edification. He did, after all, apologize.

In the future, Ambrose will certainly be more conscientious in his research and writing. And, in a few months, I suspect, whatever it is exactly that he did wrong will be all but forgotten.


Stuart P. Green is a law professor at Louisiana State University and chair-elect of the Criminal Justice Section of the Assn. of American Law Schools.

Los Angeles Times Articles