Plagiarism and Historical Journals
Alan Lessoff, November 2007
The much-discussed decision of the American Historical Association's Professional Division to cease assessing specific accusations of plagiarism raised the question of the appropriate venue for assessing such situations. In 2004, my own journal (the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) confronted a plagiarism accusation that offers a cautionary lesson in how effectively historical journals can deal with these matters. In response to this circumstance and to the copious discussion in recent years about plagiarism in historical writing, the Conference of Historical Journals (CHJ) held a joint meeting in January 2005 with representatives from the AHA and then established an ad hoc committee on the subject consisting of Jeannie Whayne, then-president of the CHJ and editor of the Arkansas Historical Review, Martin Burke of the Journal of the History of Ideas, David Goldfield of the Journal of Urban History, and myself. The committee conducted a survey and submitted a report at the CHJ's annual meeting in 2006. What follows is a summary of key points in that report, along with guidance to editors concerned with the issue. Because of the legal considerations attached to plagiarism, both the CHJ and the AHA must emphasize that nothing here amounts to a statement of "best practices" or a model policy. We stress that journals need to develop their own approaches to the issue based on their own circumstances and judgment.
Of the 35 journals responding to our survey (19 from among the 78 CHJ members, and 18 from a number of non-CHJ journals), 9 reported dealing with plagiarism accusations at least once. Common sources of accusations are peer reviewers and aggrieved authors. Other sources include editors and book reviewers. When accusations emerge before publication, for example during peer review of a manuscript, journals are in a position to handle the matter informally, either by rejecting the manuscript outright or by asking for changes.
More serious are accusations that emerge during preparation of a book review, which anecedotal evidence suggests to be a frequent way that plagiarism charges come to the attention of journal editors. A journal that publishes a review containing such a charge risks involving itself in ensuing legal wrangles, including countercharges of defamation, which from the courts' perspective is a serious matter indeed. Still, a journal may be reluctant simply to tell a reviewer to take the issue elsewhere. One online publication devoted to book reviews developed a policy that it has used twice so far of submitting such charges to a review committee. In one instance, this process led to publication of the review containing the allegations along with a response from the author that conceded the problem but denied intent. In another instance, an outside expert in effect exonerated the accused author.
Most serious from a journal's perspective are plagiarism accusations related to already published articles. In cases when the accusation appeared substantiated, editors have secured letters or notes of explanation from accused authors that then appeared in the journal, along with letters of apology to aggrieved authors. In my own journal's case, the executive board and editors were very concerned with ensuring as much due process as possible to accuser and accused, both out of a sense of fairness and because the journal's reputation was at stake. After seeking outside advice, we created a policy, a revised version of which is posted at www.jgape.org/plagiarism.php. The main features of this policy involve a full presentation of relevant materials to as neutral a review committee as we can obtain. The policy removes the editor, who after all has worked with the accused author on the article, from direct oversight of the review. The policy also suggests possible sanctions ranging from disclosure of the review's findings in the journal to barring the author from again publishing with us. I should stress again that this policy does not amount to a model or "best practice" for other journals, who should develop their own approaches. (Incidentally, our particular review in the case cited above exonerated the accused author.)
The CHJ survey found, in fact, that very few journals have written plagiarism policies, and many journals are reluctant to develop them. One editor commented on the reality that plagiarism accusations are "rare and extremely sensitive from a legal point of view." A good number of editors noted that they relied on peer review to weed out plagiarism, though this method is clearly hit-or-miss. Publication agreements, either those provided by a publisher or the journal's own, generally require authors to warrant that their manuscripts are original and do not infringe on others' rights. Such agreements in theory allow journals and publishers to disclaim responsibility for misconduct by authors, making plagiarism, as some editors noted, an ethical and professional matter into which they have latitude to venture or not, rather than a legal matter that entangles journals unavoidably.
When asked about the need for an organized response on the profession's part, journal editors mostly expressed uncertainty or leaned toward a "decentered" or "case-by-case" approach, such as now in effect prevails. When asked about their main concerns with regard to plagiarism, editors conveyed expected concerns over "credibility, honesty, and legality," as pertains to the profession in general and to their journals in particular.
A few concluding observations: specific plagiarism accusations involving a particular journal may be rare, but they are time-consuming and problematic when they occur; so editors should at least think about how they might respond when a situation does arise. Within the limits suggested above, journals should be prepared to undertake their own reviews of charges and not rely on someone else to handle the matter. Publishers are notoriously wary to wade into this thicket. Please recall that courts take defamation at least as seriously as copyright violation, and with good reason. The current venues for adjudication most often discussed—universities and other employer—are not neutral parties. Depending on the situation, an employer might be inclined either to zealously protect its accused employee or to throw that person overboard too quickly. Moreover, with so many historians in insecure or marginal positions professionally, an employer who could play this disciplinary role in a dispassionate and thorough way frequently does not exist.
Finally, editors may wish to keep in mind the discretion entailed by their gatekeeper role within the profession. Perhaps too much recent writing about plagiarism adopts a tone of down-with-the-scoundrels. However appalled one might be by plagiarism, an overly righteous or overly zealous editor can slip into assuming the position of police, prosecutor, judge, and executioner, all at the same time. Fair-minded people denounce authority figures elsewhere in the public and private sectors who presume to such power. Plagiarism is a blot on the profession, but our methods of pursuing it must remain consistent with our principles.
—Alan Lessoff (Illinois State Univ.) is editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
This essay was developed in consultation with the Professional Division of the AHA. See also the CHJ's Open Forum on Plagiarism, Historical Journals, and the Profession at the 122nd Annual Meeting.
The AHR's Policy on Book Reviews