Maybe Now We Should Start Outing All Writers


Ms. Keddie is professor emerita of history, UCLA, and founding editor of the journal Contention, 1990-1995. She is co-editor of Iran and the Surrounding World: Interactions in Culture and Cultural Politics (University of Washington Press, 2002).

Current discussions on Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Bellesiles remind me that the public is so far willing to accept far worse misrepresentations in authorship than these. Ambrose and, to a lesser extent, Goodwin, apparently failed to put in quotation marks or put adequate references to books that they did state they had used. While they may be faulted for trying to write too much too quickly and relying too much on secondary sources, I doubt their books would have been substantially different if they had used more quotation marks or paraphrased, with more footnotes, information that they in any case got from secondary sources, and did not pretend to have got from primary sources. A more serious charge against Ambrose is that he misunderstood and hence garbled beyond physical possibility a description regarding railroad construction in the snow given in a work by Alex Saxton, which the maker of the charge says was not accurate to begin with. This suggests that he and other popular writers should be much more careful in their use and understanding of secondary sources than they now are, and should take the time to do more primary work.

But the fuss over the above reminds me that the press, media, and public seem not to question far more serious deviations from who really wrote what. Autobiographies and other first person works are routinely ghost written, sometimes with co-authorship, sometimes with very minor and even misleading reference to the actual writer, sometimes with no such reference. Katharine Graham was asked many times in interviews if she was really the sole author of the autobiography that bore only her name, so unusual was this deemed to be. Collections of speeches, reports, and position papers written by other people than the credited author are also frequently published without any, or certainly without adequate, indication of who actually wrote them. Even some columns, reviews, articles, etc. are known by insiders to have been written by others than the named authors. Why does this not bring some outcry or demand for a set of standards whose violation should bring at least as much opprobrium as that given to the above authors?

The Bellesiles case is somewhat different, and is still being argued, but it seems to fall into a category that goes beyond different interpretations of primary material into one where scholars' viewpoints may make them misread or possibly misremember this primary material in some cases. It is not the only case in which such points have been made, but because of its subject matter it has got more publicity than others. Scholars are fallible, and even misreading of some primary sources is not always an indication that the scholar in question has not made primarily valid points, even though such a scholar should certainly be warned about his/her future work and fabrication of sources should not be condoned.

Again, there are much more serious cases that often go unpunished. I know of one where a book in an exotic language was paraphrased into a successful US dissertation, and I am sure this is not unique.

At a bare minimum there should be a campaign aimed at authors, editors, and publishers so that the author of record be the actual author of a work, with a threat of public outing when this is not the case, and more concern over major violations than over lesser ones, however prominent their authors or controversial their works. I for one do not see why Doris Goodwin's wonderful PBS commentaries should be suspended because of what she is alleged to have done, especially in view of the far greater authorial sins that are now accepted.

There should, in addition, be more serious questioning of the consequences of pressures that contribute to such authorial misdeeds, chief of which are the monetary, academic, and psychic rewards to authors and the greed (or" capitalist ethic") of publishers, who want a quick succession of profitable books without worrying too much whether their authors followed ethical procedures, or indeed whether the famous or celebrity author on the title page actually wrote some of the books they publish.

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Laurie Winn Carlson - 3/8/2002

I agree with Keddie, yet I wonder in spite of all the Ambrose material on HNN, why the site continues to promote his book, Nothing Like it in the World, in their list of books, with a connection to the publisher's website. This indicates either of two things: the issue of inaccuracy/plagiarism actually means very little to HNN, and is just a way to garner attention, or the Books feature is a paid-for spot. Neither idea is very comforting.

craig lloyd - 3/7/2002

The Little Brown series of books on famous Americans did not require authors to footnote sources or even quotations from other authors in the texts of these works. General acknowledgment of these authors was given in an essay at the back of the volume but did not specify how or where their ideas were appropriated. This was not deemed unethical in any way. Should it have been?

Edson T. Strobrodge - 3/6/2002

Professor Keddie wants to blame "the public" for being willing to accept far worse misrepresentations in authorship than those of Stephen Ambrose and his ilk. I cannot let her comment pass without calling to her attention that for several years members of the public have been trying to attract the attention of the media and academia to the "intellectual criminality" of writers like Stephen Ambrose to no avail. Not until the Weekly Standard brought national attention to Ambrose's plagiarism has the media become interested and belatedly has academia begun to raise their voices.

In the example Ms Keddie cites regarding Ambrose "that he misunderstood and hence garbled beyond physical possibility a description regarding railroad construction in the snow given in a work by Alex Saxton, which the maker of the charge says is not accurate to begin with" is a more than serious charge than failing to place a few quotation marks. You are too kind Professor Keddie. Why cannot a Professor of History not accept the fact that Stephen Ambrose has invented historical events, plunders and embellishes others work, and willfully and deliberately misinterprets events to make an interesting story whose only objective is to sell his books to millions of his readers. Ambrose is a liar by his own definition. He is quoted in Forbes magazine in his article "Old Soldiers Never Lie" as saying "Nothing is relative, what happened, happened, what didn't happen, didn't, and to assert it is to lie." "Historians are obsessed with what is true". Coming from Ambrose that statement is as hypocritical as one could be to say the least. His failure to do the research necessary to interpret and write an accurate history is a long standing trait of this man and his publishers dont care so long as they sell his books by the millions.

Nothing the "Public" has said or complained about so far has had much of an effect and to expect that the readers of these pop histories to care or know enough to realise when Ambrose and others work has been plagiarized, self invented or lied about misses the point. Dont blame the public, blame the professionals, the academics who know what has been going on and few have said or done anything about it. Even the American History Association has remained silent.

You have made some great points Ms. Keddie about holding scholars responsible for honest and accurate work and condeming ghost written books for what they are. I think you are on my side but you have failed your profession and the public by not doing something about it. I wish you would take the lead in challenging your profession to clean their own house, the country would certainly be better off for it. I can assure you that the American History Association, Academics in general know well that there is little the "Public" can do. They are victims of the dumbing down of America by your profession and continue to buy these pop histories because they are an easy read.

You might be interested that the Theodore Roosevelt Association still plans to award Stephen Ambrose their prestigious Distinguished Service Medal in October. This after their Executive Director has been provided with dozens of examples and documentation of Ambrose's errors, made up stories and lies. Frankly, if I were a professional historian I would be ashamed.

Edson T. Strobridge
Order of Minor Historians