Publication Date

January 1, 1989

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Editor’s Note: This statement of plagiarism is a reprint of policy adopted by the AHA Council as part of the AHA’s Statement of Professional Conduct. Currently, the Association has been asked to address plagiarism in several cases. Please see Washington Notes, p. 2.


I. Identifying Plagiarism

The word plagiarism can be traced to its Latin roots: plagiarius, an abductor or plunderer, and plagiare, to steal. The expropriation of another author’s findings, interpretation, or text, presented thereafter as one’s own creation without proper attribution to its actual source, is a cardinal violation of the ethics of scholarship. By using someone else’s work with an intent to deceive, the plagiarist undermines the credibility of historical inquiry and betrays the code of the entire scholarly community.

In 1956 J. Bronowski, in his book Science and Human Values (Julian Messner, Inc.), declared that:

…all our knowledge has been built up communally…It follows that we must be able to rely on other people; we must be able to trust their word. That is, it follows that there is a principle which binds society together, because without it the individual would be helpless to tell the true from false. This principle of truthfulness. If we accept truth as an individual criterion, then we have also to make it the cement to hold society together.

Bronowski’s injunction applied to the historical profession with special force, since a critical knowledge of the source of everything we examine is so central to our craft. Accordingly, historians place a high value on procedures for continually weighing the origin and reliability of their work. Book reviews serve this purpose. We expect a bibliography to mark out the range of an author’s investigation and to aid the research of others. We require the approval of doctoral dissertations by several well-qualified readers and a further evaluation of manuscripts by expert referees prior to publication. Most especially, we depend on footnotes to validate evidence. By these measures we declare our commitment to accuracy, responsible judgement, and probity and thereby affirm our disavowal of shoddy endeavors whether born of haste, inadequate research, faculty calculations, or misrepresentation.

In addition to the harm that plagiarism does to the pursuit of truth, it is also an offense against the literary rights of the original author and the property rights of the copyright owner. Detection can therefore result not only in academic sanctions (such as dismissal from a graduate program, termination of a faculty contract, denial of promotion or tenure) but also civil or criminal prosecution. Civil action depends on the willingness of the injured author or publisher to sue. Criminal cases arise only if the authorities decide to enforce such applicable statutes as the New York State education law (213-b, from McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York Annotated, Book 16 [West Publishing, 1984]) against the sale of dissertations, these, or term papers by commercial entrepreneurs. As a practical matter, plagiarism between scholars rarely gets into court. Publishers are eager to avoid adverse publicity, and an injured scholar is unlikely to seek material compensation for misappropriation of what he or she gave gladly to the world. The real penalty for plagiarism is the abhorrence of the community of scholars.

Plagiarism tests our powers of discrimination because it takes many forms and appears in varying degrees. Most transparently, it involves the use of another person’s language and sources without citation. More subtle is the unacknowledged appropriation of concepts, data, and footnotes, all disguised in paraphrased or newly-crafted sentences. Alternatively, an artful historian can minimize a significant obligation by casually mentioning that work in an early footnote and thereafter regularly using its analysis without further attribution. What is demonstrably plagiaristic shades off into an unworthy disregard for the contributions of others.

Some types of historical writing, such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and popular syntheses, do not require a conscientious display of sources. As knowledge is disseminated to a wide public, it loses some of its personal reference. What belongs to whom necessarily becomes less distinct. But the prohibition against reproducing the sentences of others without quotation of acknowledgment applies just as strongly here as it does in academic discourse.

The threat of plagiarism is always present. The struggle for tenured positions is intense, while the moral responsibilities of individuals to one another are greatly unsettled. The temptation to gain unearned advantage becomes greater now that there are so many publishing outlets for highly specialized research, which very few readers can trace to an unacknowledged source. All those factors are commonly cited in accounting for the astonishingly widespread instances of fraud and plagiarism that have come to light in recent years in the natural sciences. The same factors affect historians.

II. Resisting Plagiarism

All who participate in the community of inquiry, as amateurs or as professionals, as students or as established historians, have an obligation to oppose deception actively in themselves and in others. This obligation bears with special weight on the directors of graduate seminars. They are critical in shaping a young historian’s perception of the ethics of scholarship. It is therefore incumbent on graduate teachers to seek opportunities for making the seminar also a workshop in scholarly integrity. After leaving graduate school every historian will have to depend primarily on vigilant self-criticism. Throughout our lives none of us can cease to question the claims our work makes and the sort of credit it grants to others.

But just as important as the self-criticism that guards us from self deception is the formation of work habits that automatically protect a scholar from plagiarism. The plagiarist’s standard defense—that he or she was misled by hastily taken and imperfect notes—is plausible only in the context of a wider tolerance of shoddy work. A basic rule of good notetaking requires every researcher to distinguish scrupulously between exact quotation and paraphrase. A basic rule of good writing warns us against following our own paraphrased notes slavishly. When a historian simply links one paraphrase to the next, even if the sources are cited, a kind of structural plagiarism takes place; the writer is implicitly claiming a shaping intelligence that actually belonged to the sources. Faced with charges of failing to acknowledge dependence on certain sources, a historian usually pleads that the lapse was inadvertent. This excuse will be easily disposed of if scholars take seriously the injunction to check their manuscripts against the underlying texts prior to publication. Historians have a right to expect of one another a standard of workmanship that deprives plagiarism of its usual extenuations.

The second line of defense against plagiarism is organized and punitive. Every institution that includes or represents a body of scholars has an obligation to establish procedures designed to clarify and uphold their ethical standards. Every institution that employs historians bears an especially critical responsibility to maintain the integrity and reputation of its staff. This applies to government agencies, corporations, publishing firms, and public service organizations like museums and archives, as surely it does to educational facilities. Usually it is the employing institution that is expected to investigate charges of plagiarism (or related offenses) promptly and impartially and to invoke appropriate sanctions when the charges are sustained.

Many learned professions are just beginning to think seriously about the need for general policies of fraudulent research and writing. Usually, employing institutions tend to respond to each case in an ad hoc manner, with responses ranging from extreme indulgence to uncompromising severity. Students are often dealt with more harshly than colleagues. One university recently revoked a Ph.D. awarded seven years earlier, on discovering that the dissertation author had plagiarized a research paper written by another scholar. In another recent instance, however, a student found to have misused the work of others was merely required by his doctoral committee to rewrite the offending passages. In one case a full professor was forced to resign for closely paraphrasing or copying passages from other historians without proper acknowledgement. But there is also a strong tendency to hush up lurid charges, and to rest content with a quiet, equivocal apology because of sympathy for a popular colleague assailed by a remote and seemingly mean-spirited rival.

It is right that penalties for scholarly misconduct should vary according to the seriousness of the offense. A persistent pattern of deception justifies termination of an academic career; some scattered misappropriations may warrant only a public disclosure. What is troubling is not the variation in responses but rather the reluctance of many scholars to speak out about the possible offenses that come to their notice. No one advocates hasty or ill-founded accusations, and the protections of due process should always apply. If, however, charges of plagiarism or gross impropriety are sustained by an investigating committee, its findings should ordinarily be made public. When appraising manuscripts for publication, reviewing books, or evaluating peers for placement, promotion, and tenure, the trustworthiness of the historian should never be overlooked. After all, scholarship flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and candor, which should, in our opinion, include the scrutiny and discussion of academic deception.

John Higham
The Johns Hopkins University

Robert L. Zangrando
The University of Akron