Plagiarism, Arizona style

March 5, 2014
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Last month a history professor sent me a note regarding plagiarism at Arizona State University:

Matthew Whitaker, who had received an expedited promotion to full professor and was made Director of a new Center for the Study of Race and Democracy by Provost Elizabeth Capaldi and President Michael Crow, was charged by most of the full professors in the History Faculty with having plagiarized throughout his corpus of work, copying from regular works of scholarship and from web sources. Indeed, in his response, which claimed that the petitioners were racist, Whitaker admitted to plagiarism in his work, defending himself in part by stating that he had not reviewed carefully the research and writing he had hired others to do. . . .

What bothered my correspondent was that Whitaker remains an ASU Foundation Professor of History despite all the plaig. According to Whitaker’s webpage, he “is also a highly sought after speaker, having offered commentaries on NPR, PBS, . . . and other media outlets.” Sort of like a sunbelt Doris Kearns Goodwin, I guess.

To spin this in a more positive way, I assume that Whitaker, like Goodwin, is a well-read, knowledgeable, and thoughtful person who can contribute a lot in the public discussion as well as in the classroom.  Maybe as a person who does not do original research, he is even more qualified as a commentator because he has no intellectual ties to any particular ideas or sources?

I asked my correspondent if I could blog this, and he sent me a longer version, which goes into some details and also addresses the racial politics involved in this case:

Over the past three years as a university faculty member, I’ve learned that a professor who plagiarizes blatantly and repeatedly can reap substantial benefits, while those who object to his fraudulent practices are subject to threats against their jobs and punishment from the administration. I’ve learned that the editors at a scholarly press will market a book to undergraduates, despite knowing that if those students were to use the book’s citation standards, they would be drummed out of their classes for violations of academic integrity. Perhaps most painfully, I’ve learned that the profession to which I have devoted much of my adult life professes high standards, but does not defend them.

The blog spot Cabinet of Plagiarism (cabinetofplagiarism.blogspot.com) provides the evidence for the varieties of fraud in Peace Be Still, by Matthew C. Whitaker.  Are you looking for old school, word for word lifting with no citation?  That’s a rarity these days, but this book offers it; please see Exhibit  A:  http://tinyurl.com/mjjd4xf  Do you want a more typical undergraduate model:  passages taken from the internet, a few words changed, and the occasional cite thrown in so that the student can say, “but I cited” if called to the professor’s office?  Please see Exhibit B: http://tinyurl.com/lvm9zda  There is also something to me more sinister, that one can only see if one still believes that scholars are expected to create knowledge, not simply repackage it. Peace Be Still offers entire sections in which words are changed, but every statistic, every primary source, every transition, even every gesture toward larger meaning, is cribbed from another book.  The strip-mined book is Hine, Hine, and Harrold’s African-American Odyssey.  Turning page after page, following along with the seemingly endless borrowings, one realizes that Peace Be Still contains no distinctive idea other than the author’s conviction that he needs to publish a book, and the University of Nebraska Press’s belief that it might make money from unsuspecting readers.  Please see Exhibit C:  http://tinyurl.com/kksl82p

The gross deficiencies of this book have been picked up by astute readers in review sites such as Amazon.com, and they point to the fact that Whitaker had already been accused of plagiarism in his previous work. Indeed, in that previous incident, he admitted plagiarism, excusing himself on the grounds that much of it was committed by the people he had quietly hired to do his research and writing. Yet it seems that nothing in that prior event raised any alarm at the University of Nebraska Press.  Nor were they troubled by the fact that, plagiarism aside, large stretches of this “scholarship for a new generation” is drawn from online encyclopedias, the very sources undergraduates likely to be assigned this book, are told not to rely on. (Such sources, unlike this book, are free to the user:  Nebraska is knowingly selling tapwater in Voss bottles.)

The triumph of this plagiarist suggests that the critics of the humanities may be right.  How do we continue to argue for humanities at the university level, if a university professor and a university press scrape their material from Wikipedia and from old textbooks?  Why are we charging students to sit at our feet and absorb our expertise, if our expertise consists of little more than the ability to rearrange words? Disturbingly, the plagiarist and his press are in no way arguing for a new model.  Instead, they insist on credentials, built on the old model.  Those few who defend the book note that the author is “Foundation Professor of History,” as if the honorific means the book must be worthy.  In their world, a book on “modern black America” that takes its description of affirmative action debates virtually word for word from “infoplease.com,” is a real contribution to thought, rather than a way for an academic historian and a press to make money.

There is another element to my education.  I hesitate to bring it up lest its power dispel all other elements of my story.  But, it does matter and it should be addressed.  That element is race.  The plagiarist writes about African-American history and is African American, and he has not hesitated to claim that those historians who have shown where he copied word for word from other authors were motivated by race, or, slightly veiled, motivated by envy over his success. When confronted by these charges, the only useful response is to ask the critics to look at the evidence, and hope that they will.  One can then point to the explicit standards of the historical profession about plagiarism, those the American Historical Association displays on its web page:  Please see Exhibit D: http://tinyurl.com/kdg8vem

So, there you have the central points of my education.  It is acceptable, nay profitable, to present others’ work as one’s own, while displaying in one’s syllabus the sternest warnings for students should they do the same.  It is acceptable for a university to reward an employee who sat down with someone else’s book, typing in passage after passage, changing just enough words to evade anti-plagiarism software and relying on Wikipedia for novel thoughts. It is acceptable for a prominent academic press not to edit carefully a manuscript from an author previously charged with plagiarism, to sell it to undergraduates, and to allow its author to use it as evidence of scholarship.  It is acceptable for the major professional organization of historians to proclaim its commitment to the highest standards of academic integrity, while doing nothing to uphold them.

Many good historians have recoiled at this book – as they have at Whitaker’s other work.  There are presses who refuse to publish his work, and principled persons outside the profession who see plagiarism—and the wilful ignoring of plagiarism—as real threats to any claim that the humanities can make a contribution to original knowledge.  But as long as there is a press that will publish fraudulent work, university administrators who will countenance fraud, and a professional organization without a backbone, all those who maintain these standards must be re-educated.  There is a new place for the Humanities, not just the one we hoped it would be.

I understand where my correspondent is coming from, as there’s something particularly frustrating when someone gets caught red-handed and still refuses to admit wrongdoing. And there’s always someone else around who’s willing to take the so-called mature, adult route and explain it all away.

One natural response might be to say, hey, plagiarism is no big deal. After all, Martin Luther King plagiarized. Then again, Martin Luther King was not a professor of history. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say that (a) in the grand scheme of things, plagiarism is a minor offense—it’s something you shouldn’t do, but lots of people do it—sort of like we might say that having an affair with an intern is bad behavior but we wouldn’t want to go so far as throw a president out of office for it, and (b) plagiarism is something that a professor of history really shouldn’t do. Then again, it seems pretty common to hear accusations that various big-name professors plagiarize, for example Laurence Tribe, Alan Dershowitz, and Ian Ayres—and I haven’t even left the faculty of Harvard and Yale law schools to compile that list. For whatever reasons, these guys’ offenses don’t seem to have bothered too many of their colleagues, and Whitaker’s do. I’m not sure why. Perhaps history professors are a more crotchety sort, compared to law professors or statistics professors (as I didn’t hear of anyone from the George Mason University statistics department complaining about you-know-who).

I noticed on Whitaker’s webpage that, in addition to various service awards, he’d received a research award in 2010 for one of the ten best articles of the decade from the Journal of the West. So I did some googling and found it.

I’m not a historian myself and it’s hard for me to evaluate the paper. At a very superficial level I was disturbed by various eccentricities in the writing (for example, referring to “the Ragsdales” in some places and “the Ragsdale’s” in other places), but ultimately that doesn’t mean much, nor do I know anything about that particular journal. So I can’t comment on the merits of the case. It’s just an interesting story.

Behavior that would result in a failing grade for a student . . . but leads to awards for a tenured professor

Let me close the discussion with the following juxtaposition.

First, from the Cabinet of Plagiarism:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.48.46 AMScreen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.48.59 AM

On the plus side; Whitaker removed the cliche’d phrase, “undisputed rulers of the roost” when copying from the online encyclopedia; on the downside, I don’t know what he was thinking when he rendered “Conservatives” with a capital letter.

Second, from a google search on *matthew whitaker syllabus*:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.41.03 AM

To be fair, though, this syllabus is from 2003. Perhaps policies have changed and academic integrity is no longer a “must.” A “may,” perhaps?

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