U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Perlstein and the Faux Plagiarism Charges

I finished reading all 800+ pages of Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. My review of it will appear online soon, so I won’t evaluate the book here at this time. Rather I’d like to open up a discussion about the meaning of the ridiculous charges of plagiarism that have been leveled against Perlstein by Reagan scholar and right-wing publicist Craig Shirley. Most readers of this blog are no doubt aware of this faux controversy since it was covered in a fairly bad article in the New York Times—an article that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has since criticized because it “amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader.”

Since the charges are flimsy at best they seem politically motivated. The Invisible Bridge is an unflattering portrayal of the ultimate conservative hero Ronald Reagan so there is a vested interest in destroying Perlstein’s credibility as an author. Or Shirley’s plagiarism charges might be a clever PR stunt meant to draw attention to Shirley’s book on Reagan’s 1976 bid for the GOP nomination—a book that Perlstein cites dozens and dozens of times!

Let’s discuss this: What is the meaning of these charges? What are other examples of plagiarism charges being leveled at someone for reasons other than actual plagiarism?

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. These passages from Legal Realist Karl Llewellyn’s classic text The Bramble Bush: On Our Law and Its Study on the topic of “cititis” come to mind:

    “The only persons who seem to have been left out of the list of acknowledgments in the prior private printing {in 1930} are Adam, Euripides, Genghis Khan, Alpha Centauri and
    my cats.

    These errors of omission are obvious, but are they significant? The discussion here proceeds on a horse-sense basis to lay out for seeing various things which I take to be obviously so to any moderately experienced eye which will take time to look and think. Is a lyric poet to waste time giving acknowledgments to the first guy who happened to put on paper that a lily of the valley is a loveliness?

    The young man who prepared these lectures had sense enough to know that he was offering no original ideas, that he was merely drawing on and attempting to shape into a thing seen some stuff from a great and noble common reservoir of observation.

    What the young man had not yet discovered was that Cititis was a disease abroad in the land. Victims of this mental disorder hold the delusion that nothing is, except in print; and that even what is in print is taboo to use unless some print is cited. I have been fighting Cititis, especially in law reviews, now for many years. (The cure is to ask: Where did Aristotle get his stuff from?) I shall not here contribute to its spread.”

  2. I’m tempted to say that this fits into the contemporary “conservative” (Hofstadter would have said “pseudo-conservative”) discourse on liberalism, that imagines liberals as “takers” rather than creators, although what Shirley is apparently saying to Perlstein is “you didn’t build that.” Which I think Perlstein would be happy to admit–he relies, as all good historians do, on the work of others. It doesn’t help that Perlstein and his publisher have decided to put the notes online rather than in text. If all you have is the book in hand, you are apparently unable to identify the extent to which Perlstein explicitly cites Shirley. There are some genuine questions this raises about a kind of history that lies somewhere between scholarship and journalism–all of it is open to questions of insufficient citation, and as a consequence, “plagiarism.” And, of course, this fits into a set of scandals about prominent historians and the rigor of their standards that can then be deployed to discredit the point of view, claims, and argument that are being made–although I think there’s a big difference between attacking Michael Bellesiles and attacking Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin. For true believers on the right, the extremely weak examples of similarity of language in one passage and factual account in several others in Perlstein, are enough to convince them that the entire work lacks integrity and can’t be trusted. But they knew that already. If any shoddy work is being done here, it’s on the part of the NY Times reporter who rendered this a “he said/he said” story.

    The bigger question is really whether we are living through a major shift in the understanding of what constitutes plagiarism and whether the charge of plagiarism itself will come to seem old-fashioned or rooted in a conception of individual property rights that is out of date and out of line in a world of digital and crowd-sourced text. In this example, the use of the same anecdotes is taken as a sign, by Shirley, of plagiarism–Perlstein must have got them from his book, and therefore it is a kind of theft. But this concept of plagiarism which collapses the difference between the use of an idea and/or its particular expression and the use of factual material that has been provided in a secondary source, erodes the notion of plagiarism by conflating it with a failure to make specific citation rather than by a deliberate use of the ideas and language of another text. As “patch writing” and the uses of on-line sources become more and more common, and we have a strong advocacy for a “digital commons” of socialized knowledge production, I suspect that we will have more questions about exactly what plagiarism means.

    • Dan wrote: ” In this example, the use of the same anecdotes is taken as a sign, by Shirley, of plagiarism–Perlstein must have got them from his book, and therefore it is a kind of theft.”

      That this charge by Shirley gained any traction is is also a symptom of the larger lack of understanding about the importance of interpretation (i.e. perspective and emphasis) in historical thinking. At the very least, it shows that Shirley’s historical thinking is defective. – TL

  3. You know, I wonder too about how long plagiarism charges actually stick to someone and affect their reputation. I’m thinking of Ambrose and Goodwin, but also Alex Haley. I think it’s safe to say “Roots” is still beloved by many Americans, but I’m not sure if many people remember the plagiarism allegations against Haley. Do such charges affect how the story itself is perceived? I suppose it depends on what project we’re talking about. After all, Goodwin had plagiarism charges leveled against her in the past, yet still sells a lot of books.

  4. I saw Perlstein on MSNBC a week or so ago — can’t remember whose show — and the interviewer led with the “plagiarism” scandal. Perlstein deflected fairly well, and part of that deflection involved bringing up and then making light of the verbal similarities between a passage from Shirley and a passage from Perlstein involving windows festooned with bunting, or festooned with ribbons — festooned, in any case, with something, the key word being “festooned.” Perlstein said he was referring to the plagiarism charges as “festoon-gate.” As far as I can tell from the blogosphere (having read neither book in question), this particular passage is the only thing that would come remotely close to a verbal borrowing, and even so I think Shirley is cited — though, as Dan says above, the method of citation contributes to the confusion.

    From what I understand, the gist of Shirley’s complaint gets down to Perlstein relying on Shirley’s work in establishing historical facts — looking at the sources Shirley cites in making a factual claim, and using the same sources to make the same claims. This is not plagiarism, but it is instead a kind of plundering that is generally understood to be a feature, not a bug, of scholarly labor, especially in history. That is, our scholarly trailblazing (and our detailed documentation of the same) is supposed to make it easier for whoever comes along afterward to move forward from ground we have already traversed/cleared/established. The whole point of footnotes is to provide a trail of breadcrumbs that others can follow — not just to verify that we’re not just making shit up, but also to allow others to make their own sense of the sources we’ve used.

    I say this plundering is “generally” understood to be a feature because I can think of one academic convention which recognizes carves out an exception to the practice of footnote-plundering: dissertation embargoes. The point of an embargo, as I understand it, is to give a scholar time to present both his/her argument and his/her evidentiary trail in a more complete, more polished, more finished form. This is especially important if someone’s dissertation is drawing upon a new set of sources, or making new factual claims. That “discovery” work is a hard slog, and the scholar who does that work needs the opportunity to present it in a finished, polished form to the scholarly community before the plundering of footnotes can commence.

    While dissertation embargoes are apparently going away — a sign of transition in how we view and measure academic labor, authorship, etc — there are still other professional conventions that protect “works in progress.” For instance, a scholar presenting a paper at an academic conference can presume that s/he is safe in discussing a work in progress, and even in introducing “new” facts/information/sources, without having to worry that someone in the audience will cite the talk in his/her own forthcoming work.

    As far as that goes, Shirley’s book on Reagan is not a work in progress. It has been out for a while. So he has already had the opportunity to present his argument and his sources in a finished form, and Perlstein not only cited Shirley’s throughout but also acknowledged (if a little flippantly) how much time he had saved by relying on Shirley’s research. I don’t see grounds for complaint there.

    Having said all that, I would only add that if over-citation is a disease, then I’m turning into the Typhoid Mary of footnotes. One of my worst nightmares as a historian would be to inadvertently neglect to give due credit to another scholar upon whose work I have relied in some specific way in the process of constructing my own argument. Another equally awful nightmare: to cite some scholar, or some primary source, incorrectly. But even worse than making such errors would be to not have made them, be accused of it anyhow, and have the accusation hanging over one’s head. If I’m going to lay myself open to criticism (and I certainly am), I want it to be because there are holes in my argument, not doubts about my footnotes. So no newfangled citation styles for this girl woman — all Chicago, all the time.

    • Ugh — so unclear in that last paragraph. I don’t want any holes in my argument either! But a credible accusation of sloppy footnoting can cast doubt on the integrity of a work as a whole. “He who is faithful in little is faithful in much,” etc., etc.

    • LD: Once you’re confronted with a manuscript word limit imposed by a press, you’ll find extensive footnotes are less important than you originally assumed. Or at least, that’s what happened to me recently.

      • I suppose space/word count limits would dictate how — or how extensively — you could cite, but they wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) affect whether or not you cite a source at all. If you use it, cite it — isn’t that the rule of thumb? If that rule of thumb is changing, and changing due to publishing conventions, then this is yet another way that big structural transformations are squeezing out/thinning out scholarship.

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