Response to Stephen Oates
History News Network earlier this week published an extended conversation on plagiarism, a conversation that was sparked by Stephen Oates's account of charges against him reviewed by the American Historical Association's Professional Division. We strongly object to Mr. Oates's characterization of the work of the Professional Division as a"star chamber" proceeding, and welcome the opportunity this conversation presents to reaffirm both our concerns about the growing problem of plagiarism and our commitment to upholding the standards of our profession.
The AHA is not and cannot be the historical profession's police force. Its Professional Division reviews complaints brought to it using an explicit and publicly stated set of guidelines on a number of professional issues, among them recruitment and employment practices, freedom of expression in the presentation of historical research, and professional conduct, including plagiarism. The Division does not search out allegations of misconduct; rather it reviews those cases that are brought to it. And before agreeing to proceed with a complaint it explores fully the possibility of other, better venues for resolving a conflict or for conducting an investigation (either through mediation, or by forwarding the complaint to an organization with a more extensive investigative apparatus, such as the AAUP). When it does consider a complaint, the Division works from written materials submitted by both sides in a complaint, following procedures outlined in the Statement on Standards (available at http://www.theaha.org/pubs/standard.htm) at the time the complaint is brought to the Division. Proceedings are confidential from the time of initial inquiry until the complaint is resolved.
The members of the Association who agree to stand for election to the Professional Division and carry out its work, do so with the intent of improving practice in their profession and upholding high standards of historical research and writing. Even when it finds merit to a complaint, the Division can offer no substantive"remedy." The charging parties often simply want some acknowledgment of their work. The Division can provide that acknowledgement, and use what is learned to refine the statement on standards and clarify any perceived ambiguities.
Mr. Oates also suggests there is some ambiguity in the Association's Congressional charter. We do not agree. The charter explicitly charges us to act"for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts, and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history, and of history in America." As recent events have demonstrated, the public takes integrity in historical writing quite seriously. We can do no less.
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