Lifestyles Left and Right

Plagiarists and Other Liars

Scarcely a week seems to go by nowadays without a disclosure of plagiarism, fakery by writers or résumé inflation by someone in a position of trust and influence.

11.10.02

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A few months ago the editors of this website were stunned to discover that a promising young writer had cribbed a large chunk of one of his articles for the site from the work of three other writers. He could offer nothing in mitigation, for what can be offered when it becomes clear that one's written words were stolen?

Scarcely a week seems to go by nowadays without a disclosure of plagiarism, fakery by writers or résumé inflation by someone in a position of trust and influence. Is it a product of the moral relativism of the times? After all, Clinton & Co. during their White House years polished moral relativism to perfection We'll have to leave that question to historians to answer -- if we can find an objective one.

Readers of the late popular historian Stephen Ambrose were shocked last January when it was revealed that several passages in Ambrose's The Wild Blue had been lifted from a book by a University of Pennsylvania professor. Ambrose apologized, explaining that proper credit was given in foot or end notes. That, alas, is not good enough. To quote another's words without putting them in quotation marks is plagiarism.

In recent years, Ambrose had been writing at lightning speed, presumably keeping research assistants busy digging up material for his books. When his plagiarism was discovered it was widely assumed he was driven by the demands of the marketplace for yet another popular book which could be turned into a television series or a movie. Yet it was later shown that Ambrose had borrowed material from other writers for at least four of his earlier books, as far back as 1975's Crazy Horse and Custer. Haste is no excuse. Ambrose knew what he was doing.

In the wake of the Ambrose revelations Doris Kearns Goodwin, frequently a guest on PBS's "NewsHour," had "borrowed" passages from others for the original edition of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. She claimed she had done so inadvertently and had corrected the problem in later editions. Nevertheless, she resigned from the Pulitzer Prize board and has kept a very low profile ever since.

The chairman of the classics department at the State University of New York in Albany resigned his post when he was confronted with the accusation that he had plagiarized 50-plus pages of Latin translations from other writers.

If you use someone else's words and palm them off as your own, you are lying. Lying of another sort was the downfall recently of Michael Bellesiles, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. His October 2000 book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, received many favorable reviews and was acclaimed by gun control advocates as putting to rest the notion that a large number of colonial and Revolutionary War Americans owned firearms.

Scholars soon raised questions about Bellesiles' research. Emory University appointed a committee of scholars from Princeton, Harvard and the University of Chicago to investigate. They concluded that Bellesiles's book included "exaggeration of data" and was "unprofessional and misleading."

Bellesiles claimed to have studied more than 10,000 probate records to come to the conclusion that only a small percentage of people of that era owned guns. Alas for those seeking to check these records, most had been lost in a flood, according to Bellesiles. Of those that could be found many had been used erroneously by Bellesiles to support his thesis. Fraudulent research, to serve a particular cause, is, like plagiarism, lying. Like Bellesiles, many writers of history show bias in their work (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s tireless promotion of liberal themes and denigration of conservatives comes to mind), but few are accused by their peers of "evidence of falsification," as Bellesiles was. The upshot: Bellesiles resigned from Emory.

Fakery of another kind is the doctored résumé, a form of lying found with distressing frequency in the business world. In the last month three chief executive officers were discovered to have been at it. One Bryan J. Mitchell, chairman and CEO of MCG Capital Corp., was stripped of his chairmanship and a $350,000 bonus by the company's board after it was discovered he had not graduated from Syracuse University as he had been claiming for 15 years. A routine inquiry from a journalist uncovered the lie.

At Bausch & Lomb, the optical company, Ronald L. Zarrella, the chief executive, lost a $1.1 million bonus for falsely claiming he had graduated from business school. Before that, Kenneth E. Lonchar resigned as the head of Veritas Software Corp. after he had falsely claimed to have earned an MBA from Stanford.

In all three cases the on-the-job performance of the executives was not in question. If, however, a CEO lies on his résumé the company's reputation for reliability and veracity is called into question. Like plagiarism, the lie cannot be erased, for the world can never be sure it will not be repeated.

What about the young writer at our website? He was terminated at once -- and permanently.

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