Two cheers for Tim


Two cheers for Tim Noah. And complete agreement regarding celebrity historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

As regular readers know, I’m always trying to put my history doctorate to some use on TPM. (Well, okay, in a few months it’ll be a history doctorate. But then historians in the public square seem to play pretty fast and loose these days. So maybe it’s okay to just say it’s a doctorate?)

Anyway, Doris Kearns Goodwin and plagiarism.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I think mistakes can be made either through innocence or sloppiness or disorganization. I think one can have a sentence or a phrase of someone else’s bubble back into one’s consciousness a few months later and not remember it’s not yours. As I wrote then, I think this should be called misdemeanor plagiarism. Worthy of a good whack on wrist, but not a firing or a career-ending offence.

What drives me &$#%#*$ nuts, though, is when TV historians have the unmitigated gall to say that this is actually okay to do. It’s not. No one has ever said that it is okay to do. Not until Steve Ambrose at least.

As Noah points out (as long as we’re being fastidious with handing out credit, the Kearns story was broken by Bo Crader in the Weekly Standard), Kearns says that you can lift a few sentences or a whole graf as long as you toss the author a bone in the form of a footnote.

It’s not. For better or worse, I was trained as a professional historian. And no one thinks this is true. Footnotes are about ideas and sources, not prose. That’s why we have quotes. What people do sometimes wonder about is if you are very heavily reliant on someone else’s ideas and merely toss them a footnote. At some point that crosses the line too. Not into plagiarism, but at least into scholarly inappropriateness.

No one thinks a footnote covers stealing prose.

There should be a reckoning for this sort of gall and deception.