Dubious doctorates breed dodgy dossiers

Historians in Trouble
December 16, 2005

Historians have been in the news a lot recently", writes Jon Wiener, "and the news has not been good - accusations of plagiarism, investigations of research fraud and punishments for classroom misconduct have made headlines and in some cases ended up in court." In other instances, however, the accused have brazened it out - so successfully they gained preferment from the White House. Historians in Trouble is a sampler of both types.

Wiener treads lightly through this toxic territory. He is a historian at the University of California, Irvine, an institution hardly touched by the cases in question, except for the reflected glory of a unanimous vote in favour of hiring the falsely besmirched Mike Davis. He is also an investigative reporter for The Nation and a radio host at KPFK-FM.

He comes across as a straight-shooting progressive, somewhere between bluff and gruff; a sub-Studs Terkel for a new generation.

His writing is in the same voice. Many of the case studies here originated in pieces for The Nation , and still bear that stamp. Historians in Trouble is essentially a collection of reportage. Wiener provides a very readable digest and commentary on the proceedings, spiced with interviews with protagonists and close observers. The accounts are briefly topped and tailed to make a book, but the author is sparing in reflection and conclusion.

The cases cry out for more analysis. Wiener is impressed with Guy Debord's celebrated notion of The Society of the Spectacle (1967) - perhaps over-impressed, as one "classic media spectacle" follows another. Beyond that, the book is frustratingly short of ideas. Thomas Mallon's Stolen Words (1989), on plagiarism, and Peter Novick's That Noble Dream (1988), on "the objectivity question", offer more penetrating and suggestive treatments of such themes. Wiener is characteristically generous in acknowledging these works, and others, including one that overlaps substantially with Historians in Trouble , Ron Rubin's Scandals and Scoundrels (2004), but his own work suffers in comparison.

Links to the bigger picture are left largely unexplored. In the era of the "dodgy dossier", plagiarism is not only an academic concern but a political one. Ethical conduct, intellectual integrity, scrupulousness in the use of evidence: all this goes to the heart of the "war on terror". Wiener's book is, in one sense, a footnote to footnotes, but it is also a commentary on the contemporary culture wars and a barometer of the climate of the times.

It is not wholly successful, but some of the cases are corkers. In 1995 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a notorious anti-feminist at Emory University, was sued for violating the rights of a female subordinate. The case received considerable publicity. Before it went to the jury, Emory settled for an undisclosed sum, reported to be $1 million. Despite Fox-Genovese's well-documented record of misconduct, no disciplinary proceedings were instituted by the university. In 2003 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by the US President. The account has an appalling fascination. The pièce de résistance : Fox-Genovese's "Motion to exclude the dog training metaphor". Read it and weep.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Nottingham University.

Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud and Politics in the Ivory Tower

Author - Jon Wiener
Publisher - New Press
Pages - 260
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 56584 884 5

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