Response by Walter W. Stewart and Ned Feder


The article below is a response to Stephen Oates's, I Stood Accused of Plagiarism.

Click here to read Oates's response to Stewart and Feder.

Click here to read Feder and Stewart's response to Oates.

There is broad agreement that plagiarism is the use of the ideas or words of others without adequate attribution. Judged by this customary standard, books written by historian Stephen Oates contain passages that are plagiarized. In this article we deal not with the copying of ideas, but with the copying or paraphrasing of words without adequate attribution.

Students at colleges and universities are formally notified that plagiarism is wrong and that those who are caught plagiarizing will be disciplined. Clearly professional historians should be held to standards that are no lower.

Some Examples of Identical or Very Similar Passages

Here are some paired passages by Oates and by earlier writers. The sources are identified below. Identical or very similar phrases are boldfaced.

On Abraham Lincoln

Lolling on the low deck, giving an occasional tug on the slender sweeps to avoid the snags and sandbars . . . . (BENJAMIN P. THOMAS, 1952, p. 17)

At last they came to the Mississippi and headed southward in its tempestuous currents, tugging on their slender sweeps to avoid snags and sandbars . . . . (OATES, 1977, p. 14)

COMMENT: Although Oates (in his reference notes on page 439) cites several specific sources for the writing on pages 14-17 of his book, he does not cite Thomas. He could easily have included Thomas among his citations and identified him as the source of the boldfaced phrase, but he did not.

On Martin Luther King, Jr.

Up to 25 profanity-laced telephone calls a day came to the King home. Sometimes there was only the hawk of a throat and the splash of spittle against the ear piece. (TIME magazine, Feb. 18, 1957, p. 19)

Then there were the obscene phone calls -- as many as twenty-five a day now. Sometimes there was only the hawk of a throat, the sound of spit against the receiver. (OATES, 1982, p. 83-84)

COMMENT: Although Oates cites the Time article, the striking phrase that is boldfaced would seem to the reader to have been conceived by Oates, not someone else. In his book, Oates could have marked the phrase and acknowledged its source, but he did not.

On William Faulkner's funeral

And I am deep in memory, as if summoned there by a trumpet blast. Dilsey and Benjy and Luster and all the Compsons, Hightower and Byron Bunch and Flem Snopes and the gentle Lena Grove -- all of these people and a score of others come swarming back comically and villainously and tragically in my mind with a kind of mnemonic sense of utter reality, along with the tumultuous landscape and the fierce and tender weather, and the whole maddened, miraculous vision of life wrested, as all art is wrested, out of nothingness. (WILLIAM STYRON, 1973, p. 262)

In the funeral procession, novelist William Styron found himself deep in memory, as Dilsey and Benjy and all the Compsons, Hightower and Byron Bunch and Flem Snopes and the gentle Lena Grove, all these people and scores of others came swarming back in Styron's mind with a sense of utter reality, along with the tumultuous landscape, the fierce and gentle weather, and the whole"maddened, miraculous vision of life" that had created them. (OATES, 1987, p. 321)

COMMENT: In this paragraph near the end of his book on Faulkner, Oates puts quotation marks around just one phrase -- maddened, miraculous vision of life -- and indicates in his reference notes that the phrase comes from a 1973 book by William Styron. This phrase was properly attributed. The other phrases copied from Styron could have been acknowledged similarly, but they were not. Someone reading Oates's description would wrongly credit Oates with this inspired writing. How would an undergraduate fare if he got caught doing this?

REFERENCES Lincoln: Thomas, Benjamin P. Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. New York: The Modern Library, 1952. Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Martin Luther King: Time magazine."The South: Attack on the conscience." Feb. 18, 1957: 17-20. Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1982. Faulkner: Styron, William."William Faulkner." This Quiet Dust. New York: Random House, 1973. p. 257-263. Oates, Stephen B. William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Plagiarism Judged by Lindey's Standards

Elsewhere on the HistoryNewsNetwork website, Oates defends himself by choosing Alexander Lindey (in his 1952 book Plagiarism and Originality) as his authority on plagiarism. If Oates's defense were widely accepted as valid, the result would be a profound change in the standards applied to the writing of students and scholars.

Oates quotes approvingly from Lindey's book, and he focuses on the third sentence of the following statement by Lindey:"Plagiarism is literary -- or artistic or musical -- theft. It is the false assumption of authorship: the wrongful act of taking the product of another person's mind, and presenting it as one's own. Copying someone else's story or play or song, intact or with inconsequential changes, and adding one's name to the result constitute a simple illustration of plagiarism."

In his article, Oates claims -- correctly -- that he did not copy someone else's story and sign his name to it and that he did not expropriate anyone else's sentences, paragraphs, and pages verbatim or with only inconsequential changes.

Many would agree with Lindey's definition of plagiarism (the first two sentences). Everyone would agree that Lindey's illustration (the third sentence) is an example of plagiarism. Oates and some others would apparently identify as plagiarism, subject to sanctions, only the most extreme and obvious examples. This is not reasonable.

Lindey -- who was a practicing lawyer in New York City -- drew his contemporaneous examples largely from show business (including motion pictures, radio, and television), other drama, music, art, and literature, where a certain level of unattributed copying was depicted by him as common and often more-or-less accepted -- frequently an occasion for jokes rather than condemnation. In many entertaining examples throughout his book, Lindey made clear his own personal tolerance of a moderate level of unattributed copying. Almost none of Lindey's many examples came from the writing of scholars of his period, nor did he pay much attention to this subject in his book.

It is understandable that Oates wants to be judged by Lindey's permissive standards. But these are in large part the standards of show business, not the standards by which scholars are judged. Nor are they the widely accepted standards that, when violated by a student, may lead to a reprimand, a failing grade in a course, or expulsion from college. Lindey's two-sentence definition quoted above is a good one, but his general views on the subject are out of line with modern scholarly standards.

The MLA Style Manual (as quoted on the Modern Library Association's website) states:"Plagiarism is the use of another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source. . . . The most blatant form of plagiarism is reproducing someone else's sentences, more or less verbatim, and presenting them as your own. Other forms include repeating another's particularly apt phrase without appropriate acknowledgment, paraphrasing someone else's argument as your own, introducing another's line of thinking as your own development of an idea, and failing to cite the source for a borrowed thesis or approach."

The MLA's standard of plagiarism or a similar standard is used by universities and colleges throughout the country. These standards are readily available on the institutions' websites.

In his article, Oates -- who could have drawn on any of hundreds of examples called to his attention -- has chosen three specific examples of phrases that represent possible plagiarism. He refers to"balcony of the Tremont house,"" cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue," and"gullied." To some readers, Oates's rebuttals may seem reasonable in these three instances, but we think there is a strong case that they represent copying without adequate attribution.

One pair of quotations, describing Lincoln on the way to his inauguration, is as follows. Benjamin Thomas (1952):"As the open carriage jounced over the cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue, Lincoln looked into the faces of the crowd that jammed the sidewalks." Oates (1978):"The two Presidents said little to one another as the carriage bumped over the cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue, part of a gala parade that featured horse-drawn floats and strutting military bands."

When Thomas wrote about Lincoln just before inauguration, he chose to mention -- among a huge number of possible topics -- the jouncing of Lincoln's carriage over the cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue. The image is vivid, and Thomas's choice of subject and his grouping of words are somewhat original and inventive. The conclusion seems unavoidable that when Oates wrote about Lincoln before the inauguration and chose to use some of the same words, he did not act independently of Thomas, but in fact was copying Thomas. There are several ways that Oates could have acknowledged Thomas's contribution, but he used none of them.

Some may argue that this example," cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue," does not constitute clear-cut plagiarism. If this were the only example or one of a few examples, we would agree, since it is only fair to give a writer the benefit of the doubt. If a book contains a few instances of short phrases that were apparently copied, there are possible explanations other than plagiarism. But this is not the case in Oates's writing. There are in fact many instances, and in some of them the copying without attribution is more obvious than in others. In his article, Oates chose and ridiculed three of the less obvious instances involving small amounts of copying.

Oates's Focus on Other Issues

In his article, Oates provides a lengthy narrative of his supposed mistreatment. He dwells at length on the motives of his critics and on the procedures by which his biographies have been judged.

Describing those who have criticized his writing, Oates uses colorful terms like ruthless accusers, Orwellian star chamber, unscrupulous verdict, cabal, zealots, perfidy, abuse of power, kangaroo court. The eloquence and sheer length of Oates's exposition may divert readers' attention from a simple question: Did Oates copy other historians' work without adequate attribution?

The Plagiarism Machine

Oates refers to the"plagiarism machine" as if we thought it provides proof of plagiarism. (In his article he writes:"Burlingame said he was convinced that I was guilty of plagiarism and asked [Stewart and Feder] to prove it by running my life of Lincoln and several of my other biographies through their plagiarism machine.") But the"plagiarism machine" does not have that capability, and the term itself is a misnomer.

In 1992 one of us (WWS) devised a computer program that examines digital files for groups of documents or books. The program recognizes and displays pairs of passages that are identical. The program recognizes only identity of language, not of ideas. This kind of computer program, novel at the time, is now commonplace.

The term sometimes used by reporters and others -- plagiarism machine -- suggests, incorrectly, that the computer program is somehow able to recognize plagiarism. It is not. Whether or not a particular duplication of words represents plagiarism is a judgment that must be made in every instance by a person.

Note: The views of the authors represent their personal opinions.

MR. OATES'S RESPONSE TO STEWART AND FEDER, 4-17-02 (Revised 4-27-02)

While the AHA professional division was secretly considering the Stewart/Feder charges against me, Feder wrote me an abusive letter--and sent a copy to the AHA--in which he cited what he and Stewart considered to be one of the worst examples of plagiarism in my work. It was a passage from my biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Let the Trumpet Sound (p.276 of the Harper & Row hardback and trade paperback editions).

In that passage, I describe the reaction of King's daughter Yolanda when King took her to a once-segregated Atlanta amusement park called Funtown, which had now been desegregated. I wrote:"King took his daughter there for a day of cotton candy and whirling rides, and clouds of uninhibited delight now replaced clouds of inferiority in her little mental skies."

This passage is not plagiarism. It is an"echo" of an earlier passage in my book. The earlier passage describes Yolanda's reaction when King told her that Funtown was segregated and that she could not go there. I quoted King (Let the Trumpet Sound, p.182):"One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her that Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized that at that moment the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental skies." The passage is enclosed in quotation marks. It is also fully referenced to the original source (King's interview in Playboy [January 1965], p. 66).

Now compare that passage to the"echo":"King took his daughter there for a day of cotton candy and whirling rides, and clouds of uninhibited delight now replaced clouds of inferiority in her little mental skies."

The"echo" is a literary technique widely used by writers of nonfiction and fiction alike. My"echo" in Let the Trumpet Sound is not plagiarism; there are no stolen words here.

Stewart and Feder accused me of lifting the words of my echo from a King quotation in a previously published book about his life. This quotation, however, is the very quotation that appears on p. 182 of my biography. The quotation in my book is the source of my echo on p. 276.

It is clear that Stewart and Feder never read my biography of King, or my biographies of Lincoln and Faulkner. All they know about them are the parallel passages, all taken completely and hopelessly out of context, which turned up on their so-called plagiarism machine. This is another example of the fallacy of the parallel passage as a method of determining plagiarism.


Above is a discussion by Oates (dated 4-17-02) of a passage in his biography of King. He contests the conclusion that this passage represents an instance of plagiarism. Oates's defense is not convincing, since some readers -- those not remembering the original"echoed" phrases 100 pages away -- would believe, incorrectly, that" clouds of inferiority" and"little mental skies" are Oates's words, not King's. It is precisely for this reason that, when a professional historian (or a student) writes a biography, this sort of copying requires a specific citation. Echoes and similar literary devices may be appropriate in a novel whose characters and situations are created in the author's imagination, but they are inappropriate as methods of citation in a history of actual events and real people.

However, because Oates's defense is somewhat plausible, we think he should be given the benefit of the doubt in this case.

In defending his position, Oates invokes the literary"echo" as a justification for copying without explicit attribution. However, his unusual justification applies only to this single instance, as far as we know. This leaves many other instances of copying to be explained in some other way.

There are many dozens of instances of copying by Oates, instances previously identified by us and others. Most or all of them appear to be actual plagiarism. Twenty-one instances are printed in Burlingame's April 15 response on this website, and dozens more are in articles by Bray, Burlingame, and Wollan in the Journal of Information Ethics, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1994). We note again, as we did in our statement of April 15, that it is not possible to be certain that plagiarism is the explanation for every instance of copying without adequate attribution.

Philip Nobile put it well in his comment of April 16:"Oates should say flatly whether he copied the passages that Burlingame identified, or not. And if not, how does he account for the similarities? Just a coincidence?"

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More Comments:

David Conklin - 11/7/2003

One possibility that few consider is that of cryptomnesia ("unconscious (sb subconscious!) plagiarism"). It is possible that Oates (and other authors accused of plagiarizing snippets of material) remembered the "echo" of the choice phrase without remembering that he had read it in someone else's work--apparently we can do one or the other but not both at the same time.

Richard Dyke - 4/17/2002

Stewart and Feder's analysis of what constitutes plagiarism in Oates' work is disturbing. Oates' use of "cobblestones of Pennsylvania Avenue" in discussing the Lincoln inauguration seems ethically defensible to me. I won't even call it sloppy. Would you rather he called it the "rocky road in front of the White House"? Would he still by Stewart's and Feder's definition be guilty because he disguised the use of an idea he obtained from Thomas?! For Pete's Sake! (Sorry, Pete. Note: I always use Pete as the whipping boy.) Where's the common sense in this?

Historians can not afford to document and justify every IDEA they use, and the spirit of what constitutes plagiarism is not using a finely turned phrase now and then because you can't find a better one (you may not remember where it came from or can't remember where you heard it from--you just like it). Documenting every idea in a book would require thirty or forty footnotes per page at a minimum, and every note would be paragraphs long as historians attempted to give attributions for ideas they had read in twenty different sources, and then a disclaimer that they may have copied a phrase here and there but there was no intent to deceive.

Historians expropriate words and ideas every time they do research. Did Stewart and Feder realize that by their definition even Benjamin Thomas must now be panned and his reputation destroyed because he was too sloppy and did not give adequate attribution for where he got his ideas?! A book without footnotes, it would seem to me, is a forgone case of inadequate attribution. Thomas obviously got his ideas from somewhere. And what about C. Vann Woodward's groundbreaking work on "The Strange Career of Jim Crow"? This book was initially a set of lectures, but they were put into a book that did not contain adequate attribution for all of the ideas in the book, so do we give Woodward the boot, too?

From experience I can tell you that there is nothing more insidious than a vaguely worded definition or policy that has potential to destroy reputations and careers. Such creations are very often used SELECTIVELY to achieve someone's political goal or destroy a political enemy or undesirable, or these creations can and certainly have been used for such purposes. It seems to me that the Oates case is a good example of a political attack on a popular historian in which there is no clear standard by which to judge guilt or innocence. Oates used some similar phrases, but he did not copy wholesale from anyone. He did not do what we tell students not to do. He is not a hyprocrite. When we tell students not to plagiarize, we do not go into every intellectual nuance about what constitutes plagiarism. We simply tell students not to copy whole portions of their papers from published sources, to use the sources but write it in their own words and credit the author. In writing in one's own words, it is almost inevitable that authors will pick up phrases here and there that they bring consciously or unconsciously into their story from their research.

While I think the AHA should clarify its policy and then give us all at least 1,500 different categories and kinds of examples of things it does not like to see (building on these examples until they are book-length, with proper attribution, which should take up an entire second book!), I don't seriously think they will. Even in national politics, after all of the hoopla about "high crimes and misdemeanors" in the Clinton impeachment, we are left without a clear notion of just what high crimes and misdemeanors are and are not. So shall it be (quoted from the Bible somewhere) with plagiarism. As Stewart and Feder note, only the most obvious examples of copying can be detected by machines, and all the rest is a matter of interpretation (just like history itself). And so, with an unclear plagiarism policy, we will continue to interpret and interpret and interpret, leaving bodies and controversy in our path. Like the rest of humanity, historians never learn any lessons from history, either, although they write about them all the time.