Who Polices Scholarship?

Who Polices Scholarship?

Linda Gordon on Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble

Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower
by Jon Wiener
New Press, 2005, 260 pp., $24.95


Scandals about historians have grabbed public attention lately, most of all the plagiarism by popular pundits Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose. Academic scholars followed the coverage closely, and more than a few will admit to a smidgen of schadenfreude that such financially successful and celebrated writers were embarrassed. More serious charges, of fraudulent claims, dishonesty, and harassment, have received less publicity. Jon Wiener argues that powerful conservative interests silence academics they don’t like and promote those they do and that the professional organizations, such as the American Historical Association, do not sufficiently defend intellectual integrity. Wiener makes no claim to have surveyed or taken a fair sample of these allegations, but the stories he tells are sobering. They reveal not only scholarly misdeeds but also recent increases in threats to free debate and intellectual integrity.

Yes, of course, universities have always been influenced by politics. The cold war, for example, dampened free inquiry and shut off whole subjects from scrutiny; and in the 1960s and 1970s, radical social movements demanded and won more diverse and inclusive curricula in American universities and even many high schools.

In the last twenty years, however, allegations of academic malfeasance have taken on new patterns. In this very readable book, Wiener takes us through the cases of twelve different historians. The stories he tells of allegations, defenses, media coverage, and outcomes rest on considerable research, and most are revisions of articles that originally appeared in the Nation and the late Lingua Franca. He concludes that the outcomes are by no means always determined by the seriousness of the charges or the weight of the evidence or, for that matter, the reputations of the scholars accused. Instead, what most determined the resolution of these disputes was the presence or absence of powerful outside interest groups.

The most egregious case is that of Allen Weinstein. It stands out because it is the most overtly political, because the wrongdoing extends from 1978 to the present, and because Weinstein is currently the archivist of the United States. As head of the National Archives, he is in charge of keeping the historical record of what our government does. This record is a key source for writing history, but more important, the availability of these documents to the public is the guarantor of accountable government. This access has long been limited by the practice of “classifying” documents deemed potentially damaging to national security, and historians frequently do us all the favor of contesting those classifications. Archivists should guarant...

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