Blogs > HNN > Has Churchill Been Singled Out?

Jun 14, 2006 1:42 pm

Has Churchill Been Singled Out?

During lunch today I scanned over the investigative committee report on Ward Churchill.

The first thing I noted is the use of Wikipedia in the committee's report. Footnote 17 cites Wikipedia as a source for understanding the divisions within the American Indian Movement. If this elite committee on scholary misconduct is allowed to use Wikipedia as a source, why shouldn't students be allowed to use it?

The second point needs a little background.

Our assignment in my first-year methods class was to take a scholarly article, or chapter from a book, locate the sources, and check them against their use in the article or chapter.

We were all surprised at the level of fabrication, plagiarism and misrepresentation we found. The article I selected was published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, associated with Harvard. The historian whose work I followed up on is a tenured professor in the SUNY system. In this one article I located examples of fabrication of evidence, profound mischaracterization of evidence, and, while not word for word plagiarism, passages that were essentially plagiarized with only the most cosmetic of changes. These are the same charges being leveled against Professor Churchill.

While this sort of behavior is obviously indefensible I wonder how many other historians are guilty of the same shoddy work, but who don't get the same level of attention because their political views are more mainstream.

(Here is some more material about the Churchill case at the UC Boulder website).

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Thomas Brown - 6/15/2006

When I discovered that Churchill had fabricated his 1837 smallpox incident, I was appalled. I did not report it to anyone officially, but I did casually mention it to a few people who I thought might be interested. Going to Churchill's publishers would have been a waste of time, because they are essentially radical left vanity presses. I didn't go to CU, because it is a serious charge, and I would not make it without first doing more extensive research to back it up. Who has the time to spend fact-checking another scholar? What is the reward for that? I could see only negative consequences. There is no structural incentive to police these matters.

Manan Ahmed - 6/15/2006

One could raise concerns with the journal in question - along with the evidence - and let the editors follow up....

Ralph E. Luker - 6/14/2006

I wish I could share your confidence. The Bellesiles case was much more embarrassing to historians because we had published his trial-run article, which already was plagued with error in our primary American history journal in 1996. It was applauded by us and he won funding for research for his book in the subsequent years. We capped it off by putting the book on a fast-track to the Bancroft Prize in 2002. I don't know that we can show that the JAH is source-checking its articles more closely. I'm fairly confident that AA Knopf has not turned over a new leaf and started substantial peer-review for its books in American history. My point is that I don't know how much embarrassment it will take. The only significant change that's occurred is that the AHA has chosen _not_ to hold formal inquiries into professional malpractice charges. Somehow, that seems like a step in the wrong direction.

Kurt Niehaus - 6/14/2006

I agree with your point that if this esteemed body may use Wiki, shouldn't students also be allowed to? To clarify, however, they don't claim that they garnered info (they don't deny it either) from wiki. Rather, they claim that others may find useful the summery that Wiki provides. It really is quite a long footnote.
One of the most powerful things about the net, though, is that one may check sources. I feel confident that this current Churchill debate is only the beginning of a period of higher rigor.

David Davisson - 6/14/2006

I've wondered the same thing. I guess my first response is - Who has the time!? If I ever write about the same topic I might point our these errors of scholarship, but why should I spent my time rooting out someone else's fabrications when I have my own research that wants doing?

I used purposefully vague references because these are serious allegations and I haven't investigated the rest of this person's work. Also, as a grad student, it's a weighty proposition to make these sorts of accusations against a tenured professor. What I wondered as I was doing my research is why didn't the editors or peer-reviewers catch this? Some of the archival material I couldn't double-check, but I chose this article specifically because it used sources available at mid-sized research library and through the miracle of interlibrary loan.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/14/2006

Dave, I am always surprised when someone makes an observation like this. One reason that much of the public has become cynical about "our peer review processes" is that they no longer believe that we are rigorous about them. The case you cite is one more piece of evidence of that. Yet, your citation of it is also a second piece of evidence. When we know of malpractice that has taken place, why don't we make an issue of it, instead of hedging acknowledgement of it about with generic references -- Harvard-related journal, tenured professor at a SUNY institution? Why not use what you do know -- that this person has published work of ethically dubious quality -- as incentive to look at some of the rest of that person's work to see if there's a pattern of ethically dubious work? That's what did not happen with Ward Churchill _until_ the case became inflamed? Why isn't it standard practice to call foul -- or, at least, not call it until it becomes politically charged (Bellesiles, Churchill, etc.) -- on historians when we've done bad work?