Plagiarism website goes after Matthew Whitaker again

Historians in the News
tags: plagiarism, Matthew Whitaker


Surprisingly, we have them.  Readers, we mean.  In its heart, the Cabinet suspects some of their questions are rhetorical, such as the ones that begin with the phrase, "What the...."  But we are going to take a moment to answer some of them to the best of our ability, anyway.  Judging from the startling number of visitors to the Cabinet, there is a fascination to the spectacle of a scholar, a university press, and a university turning lead into gold -- or at least turning a grotesquely derivative text into a work of true scholarship -- through the sheer power of insistence.  Sure, they are invoking personal authority over empirical evidence, and sure they are chipping away at the fragile edifice of humanities scholarship every day they persist.  But they are saving themselves from having to admit error, and isn't that what academic scholarship is all about? 
But enough of the Cabinet's questions. On to the readers'!

Q: Does ASU not have an academic integrity policy?
A: It certainly does, displayed prominently on the provost's website.  The Cabinet in fact admires the statement's thoroughness and eloquence, particularly this ringing declaration: "ASU is an intellectual community focused on teaching, research and the values of the New American University. The creation, transmission, sharing and applying of knowledge are central activities of the community. Cheating violates fundamental values of the university community."  Quite so.  The university also seems to endorse the plagiarism standards set forth by the American Historical Association, standards that clearly identify passages such as those in Professor Whitaker's work, as plagiarism: in a news article about Professor Whitaker's scholarship, a university administrator  cited the American Historical Association's statement.  Sure, he chose to quote a fragment of the statement that explained that responses to plagiarism will vary depending on the case. But we are confident that the university endorses the AHA's thorough explanation of what plagiarism is and its "abhorrence" of the practice, not just the one clause of the statement that can be cherrypicked to justify repeated inaction.     

Q: Does the University of Nebraska Press not have a plagiarism policy?
A:  Here, the Cabinet can only share in our readers' curiosity.  The Press' public statements indicate a strange passivity.  From what we can tell, the Press believes that its own authors should promise not to plagiarize, and  that other authors, dead or alive, should come forward to complain if they believe their works have been used inappropriately.  The Press itself seems to bear no responsibility for its books.  But, that can't be right.  A university press could not possibly find scholarly standards to be simply a matter of personal avowals and the presence or absence of legal threats?

Q: Should a press really be expected to detect plagiarism?
A: A fair question, and one deserving broad discussion.  But Peace Be Still's problems are readily noticeable. Here's why: any editor reading this manuscript should have been disturbed by the telling  lack of a citation scheme.  Some facts that require no citation are cited -- birth and death dates of celebrities, for example -- while other far more distinctive facts, statistics, and arguments have no citation. That oddness is linked to the disturbing fact that some of Peace Be Still is fairly sophisticated, while other parts read like nothing so much as an undergraduate paper that's been cribbed from the web, then put repeatedly through plagiarism software, with the student adding some citations and changing some words on each pass in order to get it below a "percentage match" threshhold. The passages scraped from the web are thus a weird mix of citations (with the unscholarly nature of the sources veiled in a way too tedious to explain), odd locutions resulting from word changes, and, alas, passages that are still simply plagiarized. (It would have been SUPER time-consuming to clean up everything!!)  The borrowings from a textbook -- African American Odyssey -- are more extended and naive, because that book does not appear on websites.  Those borrowings, unlike the ones from websites, would not have lit up plagiarism software like a Christmas tree. Thus, there is no citation at all, even of far more specific information than that which triggers citation elsewhere in the book.  Did no one at Nebraska wonder why this was?  And did no one notice the odd shifts in tone and voice?  The Cabinet, frankly, is not terribly bright, so we feel that if we figured this out, a trained editor should surely have noticed.

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