An historian apologises for failing to acknowledge his former tutor's contributions to book, writes Phil Baty
One of the most rewarding things about being an academic is seeing a student protege going out into the world and excelling in their chosen career.
Vic Gatrell, a history fellow at Cambridge University, had particular cause for pride at seeing his former student, Ben Wilson, launch what promised to be a stellar career as a historian.
In 2005, Mr Wilson published his first book, on the 18th-century satirist William Hone, to universal acclaim - just four years after graduating from Cambridge, at the age of just 25. The Guardian proclaimed Mr Wilson "a name to remember". The Scotsman said he was "bound for eminence", and The Observer described him as "already an exceptional talent".
But now Professor Gatrell's scope for pride in his protege has been severely compromised. After inquiries from The Times Higher , Mr Wilson this week issued a formal apology to Professor Gatrell for failing to acknowledge the role that his former tutor's "ground-breaking" research had played in his second book, Decency and Disorder: The Age of Cant, 1789-1837 , published this year. He said it had been a "genuine oversight" that would be corrected.
Although there is no suggestion of plagiarism, and while Professor Gatrell has been quick to acknowledge Mr Wilson's original research into the primary sources, the case raises searching questions about the implicit trust in the student-tutor relationship regarding the intellectual property of ideas used in teaching and shared with students. It also raises questions about the extent to which students acknowledge the debt they may owe to inspirational tutors, as well as matters of basic scholarly courtesy.
Mr Wilson sat Professor Gatrell's "special subject", "The Politics of Laughter: English Satirical Print, 1730 to 1840", in 2000-01, his final year as an undergraduate. The intensive programme was based on 18 weekly two-hour seminars and was examined by two three-hour exam papers.
Professor Gatrell was developing the research that he shared with students on the course into his own book, published late last year to great acclaim as City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London .
Professor Gatrell's publisher, Atlantic, confirmed this week that it had complained to Mr Wilson's publisher, Faber, about the matter but would not comment further.
The complaint was that the "broad narrative, leading ideas and dominant themes and sources" of Mr Wilson's book - and even its subtitle - were significantly influenced by Professor Gatrell's work.
Professor Gatrell's teaching bibliography, which students received, introduces the special subject. It says the satirical prints to be studied "reveal structures of sensibility in 'polite' society... manners, scandal, adultery and sex as subjects of contempt, mockery, mirth or fun. The paper also addresses the gradual tabooing of this tradition. In and after the 1820s... visual humour was sanitised in response to the rise of middle and middling-class gentility, the tighter codification of personal behaviour, and increases in social distancing."
The theme is similar in Mr Wilson's book, which, according to its publicity material, explores the point "when the British reputation changed from that of a boisterous, bawdy and plain-speaking nation to a respectable, restrained and sober one" - the transition from a "free-spirited and pleasure-loving people" to one that embraced "the kind of values that we know as Victorian moralism".
In each seminar for the course, Professor Gatrell gave out copies of his slideshow presentations, which were based on his own research in the field.
One presentation taught over four hours was titled: "The Age of Cant: The Reformation of Manners and the Domestication of Humour 1790 to 1840". The term "Age of Cant", which was coined by Lord Byron and used by Professor Gatrell to describe the period, appears as a chapter in City of Laughter .
Wilson's book is subtitled "The Age of Cant, 1789-1837".
The teaching material and Mr Wilson's book share a number of common motifs.
Both highlight the public moral backlash against Lord Byron - "the last of the libertines", as Professor Gatrell described him - after his separation from his wife and after he published, in 1819, the first two cantos of the epic comic poem Don Juan .
Both Professor Gatrell and Mr Wilson quote Byron's lament against "cant political, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant".
Lord Byron's complaint after Don Juan met with such intense criticism, that "the cant is so much stronger than the cunt, nowadays" was highlighted in Professor Gatrell's course as "as good a way as any of describing the cultural revolution now developing".
The quote is also used in the introduction to Mr Wilson's book to illustrate Byron's view that people hypocritically "tabooed words and suppressed their desires".
Professor Gatrell's teaching material includes a section called "The 1820s as a cultural watershed? Changing times and manners", which quotes from the autobiography of Francis Place, a fashionable master tailor who charted his transition from humble origins and youthful high jinks to respectable adulthood.
Professor Gatrell writes that "Place's life is emblematic of the upward movement to respectability in the 1820s".
Mr Wilson writes in chapter nine: "Looking back on his youth, Francis Place was convinced that there had been a revolution in the manners, morals and education of his contemporaries. People were more respectable, sober and ambitious."
Professor Gatrell's handouts also refer extensively to the 1821 book Life in London , written by Pierce Egan and illustrated by the Cruikshank brothers, which charts the fictional adventures of "three young swells, Tom, Jerry and Logic, as they make excursions into London's low life and high", as the course notes explain.
Mr Wilson dedicates an entire chapter to the book, titled "Slumming it with Tom and Jerry", as a way of highlighting "metropolitan excess" and to provide "insight into the recesses of secret vice, both high and low".
Professor Gatrell's publisher has complained that several other key motifs are common to the teaching material and Mr Wilson's book, including the "antecedent libertine promiscuity and conviviality, changing views of women, I the hardening attitudes to beggars, I evangelicals, anti-vice prosecutions".
Speaking from Italy, Professor Gatrell, now teaching at Essex University, said he had been very disappointed by Mr Wilson, who had been an excellent student, but he added that Mr Wilson, as a young scholar, should have been protected by his editor at Faber.
WHO REALLY OWNS AN IDEA?
The ownership of academics' ideas is a legal minefield.
According to Isabel Napper, head of the intellectual property team for education lawyers Mills and Reeve, it has never been made clear in law whether an academic owns the intellectual property from their ideas or inventions, or whether they are owned by their employer, the university.
"Under normal rules employers will automatically own whatever an employee creates, but there is a general exception in higher education. Through custom and practice, the lecturer normally owns their ideas. But this has only grown up through custom and practice - no one has ever really established what the boundaries are."
WILSON'S PUBLISHER REPLIES
"We are aware of Professor Gatrell's complaints and have spoken to Ben Wilson about the matter.
"Ben Wilson never attempted to claim that the themes and motifs in Decency and Disorder have not been explored elsewhere. Naturally, he consulted and drew upon preceding scholarship, but the direction of his own inquiries and the conclusions he drew from those existing sources are completely his own.
"However, Ben Wilson recognises that Professor Gatrell's work has been ground-breaking. Wilson's failure to acknowledge Professor Gatrell's work in this book was a genuine oversight, one that he regrets and will rectify in subsequent editions.
"He will be writing to Professor Gatrell to apologise."