Publication Date

May 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

From the Professional Division

The Ethical Historian features the ’s reactions to the ethical and professional questions it regularly receives. We welcome suggestions for this column, which may be sent to the division members listed below at The will not reveal in this column the identities, or identifying characteristics, of individuals or institutions involved.

Thou shalt not plagiarize. This, perhaps, is the first commandment of scholarship. We proclaim it in our course syllabi. We drum it into our graduate students. We work hard to practice it in our own scholarship. And yet it is not always as easy to determine or as clear-cut as we might like. Anyone who’s spent hours trying to nail down the source for a suspected student plagiarism case knows this only too well.

In the past two decades, plagiarism has been dramatically transformed by the Internet. Students are now less likely to go to the library and plagiarize a passage in a book; instead they cut and paste passages from resources on the Internet. Because they are not “stealing” from a book, they often do not recognize such a practice as plagiaristic. Otherwise, why would they do it when detecting this form of cheating requires only a simple Google search?

On a website aimed at students, one major institution summarizes plagiarism as representing “as your own work any material that was obtained from another source, regardless [of] how or where you acquired it.”1 That’s a pretty good starting point, but how exactly do we determine this in instances where words and phrases are not lifted verbatim? That constitutes the crudest form of plagiarism we’re likely to encounter, but it may also be the least common, other than among students new to the academy. Among professionals, more muted forms of unacknowledged borrowing are far likelier.

One recent inquiry the AHA’s received asked whether quoting a primary source via another secondary source, rather than from a direct reading, was itself a form of plagiarism. For an inexperienced scholar anxious not to cross the line into plagiarism unintentionally, that distinction is an interesting one. It’s common for scholars to acquire references to primary sources via reading other secondary sources. We encourage graduate students to pay close attention to the archival listings and bibliographies in the books they read so that they can further their own research. Our intent is to help them see which archives they might need to visit themselves. There’s a good chance that after doing so they might quote many of the same primary sources themselves. In such instances, there is no need to indicate the secondary source as well, since you have yourself consulted the original and determined what’s relevant to your own work. (Of course, sometimes it’s appropriate to thank another scholar who has sent you to a source, but that’s generally done when the information comes to you personally rather than through reading it in a book or essay.) But sometimes we do quote without going to the source ourselves, and on those occasions—when the quotation is filtered through a secondary reference without consulting the original—it’s best to identify the source that led you there. That way you make no claim to have done research you haven’t done, and you’re also acknowledging the work done by someone else. But there are other reasons to cite that secondary source. The discipline of history is a conversation, a never-ending stream of dialogues about the past. Not least since we are historians, it is important to document the genealogy of our debates. In citing that secondary source, you not only give credit where credit is due, but you also allow readers to trace the life of the debate in which you are participating. And do be generous: the line between plagiarism and a lack of acknowledgment can run thin. When in doubt, use your footnotes to name those whose ideas have helped you generate your own.

Even famous historians can be guilty of plagiarism. In 2002, Stephen Ambrose was accused of copying passages verbatim in his The Wild Blue from another book written by historian Thomas Childers. Ambrose footnoted Childers but failed to put quotation marks around the passage he took verbatim. Critics faulted Ambrose for trying to produce too many of his best-selling books too quickly, hence engendering a kind of rushed sloppiness with his sources. While that may have been true, Ambrose defended himself differently. “I tell stories,” he argued. “I don’t discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a PhD dissertation.”2 Ambrose justified his actions by separating storytelling from scholarship. But authors also own the way they tell their stories, and should be acknowledged for that fact.

What should you do if you believe you have found a case of plagiarism? When it’s an instructional case, the answer is simple. Every institution has a protocol for reporting student dishonesty, and plagiarism (as so many of our syllabi point out) is regarded as one of the worst offenses a student can commit. Structures are in place that lift the problem out of the hands of individual instructors, whose job is merely to provide what they regard as proof of the offense. It is always worth reporting students who plagiarize since you have no way of knowing whether it is a one-off error of judgment or a pattern, and since a student who gets away with plagiarism because of a lack of reporting may well be tempted to keep doing it.

But what of cases in the world of publishing or at the doctoral level? Unlike at the undergraduate level, where the instructor is almost everywhere taken out of the case early on and where there is thus rather less risk of personal vituperation, the stakes are very different beyond such formalized institutional structures. It takes courage to make a claim of plagiarism since one might well face a backlash. Fear of misreading or misinterpreting will hold back many a troubled conscience. There are a number of routes to consider. One can approach a department chair or dean if the perpetrator holds an academic position either as a faculty member or as a (former or current) graduate student. One can contact the publisher. It might be wise to check discreetly with a trusted colleague or two to sound out if anyone thinks you might be overreacting. But above all, carefulness is paramount: be sure of your judgment, cautious in your claims, and unemotional in the reporting. Careers, after all, may be at stake. But plagiarism is, at the end of the day, one of the ugliest things scholars can do to one another, and staying silent will only make the problem worse.

The AHA’s collects and disseminates information about employment opportunities, helps ensure equal opportunities for all historians, and helps set guidelines for professional ethics. The division does not, however, adjudicate cases (see for more on why).

Members of the division are Catherine Epstein (Amherst College), Mary Louise Roberts (University of Wisconsin–Madison),Philippa Levine (University of Texas at Austin, and vice president, ), and Valerie Paley (New-York Historical Society).


1. Student Judicial Services, Office of the Dean of Students, The University of Texas at Austin, (accessed February 3, 2015).

2. David Kirkpatrick, “As Historian’s Fame Grows, So Do Questions on Methods,” New York Times, January 11, 2002.

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