Plagiarism And Peer Review: A Response To Savas And Rotov

In his most recent post Dimitri Rotov shares some thoughts by publisher Ted Savas on the recent plagiarism scandal involving Fred Ruhlman and the University of Tennessee Press.

According to Savas:

As for plagiarism: I see it all the time in manuscripts, so what Carmichael is talking about I can’t say. I can often spot it in casual reading. Maybe I have a good radar for that. Goodwin got off; Ruhlman won’t. I have confronted several authors over the past couple of years regarding a wide variety of submissions. Some apologize (falling back on the Goodwin/Ruhlman non-defense defense), others never respond, and a few are so clueless they ask what plagiarism means!

It’s not clear to me at all what Savas means when he says that he sees it [plagiarism] all the time.  The more interesting question is what we are to do with an observation from a publisher who deals mainly with non-academic titles.  This is not meant in any way as an insult since I think that Savas provides an excellent service for those Civil War enthusiasts that are interested in well written and thoroughly researched campaign and battle studies as well as for those who wish to write them.  My point is that Savas’s comment should perhaps be considered in the context of who is submitting manuscripts for consideration at his shop compared with who is submitting to academic presses.

Dimitri goes on to comment on peer review and cites a question that I posed in my original post on the Ruhlman case:

Kevin Levin had asked why University of Tennesse Press did not send the Ruhlman MS to Andersonville author Marvel for comment. I have two problems with that. First, it makes new writing hostage to old reputations (more on this in a minute). Second, if you don’t have the in-house expertise to evaluate a manuscript like this yourself, yours is a house of generalists susceptible not only to plagiarism but trash.

I am not going to pretend to understand the peer review process that goes on within academic presses.  That said, I have had extensive experience with academic journals and my guess is that the process is similar and rightfully so.  Now I know that Dimitri looks at Civil War publishing as a collection of little cabals which are somehow steered by sinister minds such as James McPherson and Gary Gallagher.  I’ve submitted numerous manuscripts to journals – most of which have been rejected – and those that have made it through the first round have all been sent to experts in the field.  All of them have come back with comments that attest to the expertise of the reviewer involved.  There may indeed be an element of a gate-keeper mindset, but that isn’t necessarily troubling.  In fact, it may be just what the system needs.  Remember, most academic presses and journals send their manuscripts out to at least three reviewers which means that the kind of mentality that Dimitri is so concerned about will have little chance to do any damage.

Dimitri also cites an interview between former North and South magazine editor Keith Poulter and Civil War Talk Radio host and historian Gerry Prokopowicz:

If you agree with the idea of shopping new manuscripts to the established experts, I urge you to listen to Gerald Prokopowicz
interview Keith Poulter, former editor of “North & South” magazine. Poulter, like any editor, rejected a lot of work. However, there was a category of work the content of which he was not sure about. Was it revisionism? He describes a system by which he would send such submissions to subject matter experts. Gerald astutely asked how many of these got through this expert screening process. Poulter answered none. That would be zero among (IIRC) 40 such.

Now is this supposed to support Dimitri’s earlier claim that peer review renders new ideas beholden to old reputations?  All that comes out of this exchange for this reader is that N&S magazine has a pretty good peer review system in place.  Hell, I’ve had a couple of manuscripts rejected by them, and with every rejection I received some helpful feedback.

Perhaps it would help if the questions being asked or criticisms being leveled stemmed from some first-hand experience with the process itself.

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8 comments… add one

  • Ken Noe Nov 20, 2006

    Kevin:

    Take away peer review and you have the author + editor system currently in use at trade presses, the same presses that have produced the splashiest plagiarism cases recently. Moreover, if every small university press publishing on a myriad of topics had to hire an expert in each and every field, book prices would soar to astronomical levels. Or presses would close. Either way, readers lose.

    Dimitri also advocates presses’ use of anti-plagiarism sites such as Turnitin.com. I’ve used this software for about a year now. When my students submit papers, they also must send me a second copy as an e-mail attachment. I load the attachments onto Turnitin. Within a few minutes, I know that John Smith cut-and-pasted his paper from Wikipedia, or that John Jones turned in the same paper his roommate gave my colleague last year. But I’ll never catch Sally Smith with it if she copied her paper out of the 1950 Journal of Southern History. Turnitin only checks strings against material already on the internet or material already submitted to Turnitin. For it to work as Dimitri suggests, either of two things must happen. Someone must scan every Civil War book and article and then load them into Turnitin, or we need to wait for Eric Wittenberg’s nightmare, all of our works available on the net thanks to Google. It certainly would not have helped UT Press in the case unless Bill Marvel’s book is already scanned and on the net somewhere, which I rather doubt.

    Ken

  • Stephen West Nov 20, 2006

    Ken

    Actually, Marvel’s book apparently has been scanned by Google books (http://books.google.com ). I don’t know if anti-plagiarism has ever been discussed as a benefit of Google’s vast book scanning project, but it would seem to be one.

  • Brooks Simpson Nov 20, 2006

    In terms of literal plagiarism (the taking of words, with at best slight changes, from another author), that’s usually spotted by the author of another work, sometimes one who’s been asked to review the book. Such was my experience when I was asked to review a certain biography by a major trade house. That’s how McDonough was caught. However, much of the commentary here (or in blogs mentioned here) is rooted in ignorance or in careless generalization, since academic professors who get caught in this usually pay a rather big price. Few such authors publish with Savas. Somehow a case of plagiarism by an author is now an indictment of the entire world of Civil War publishing by non-academics … sorry, that dog won’t hunt.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2006

    Brooks, — My comments and questions were rooted in my curiosity as to how something like this could happen. At no point did I generalize about academics or university presses. In fact, I made it a point to remind my readers that this case should not be considered reflective of the quality of studies coming out of the University of Tennessee or any other academic press. I admit that I don’t have much experience with the system and I appreciate comments by historians such as yourself as well as Ken Noe and Pete Carmichael.

  • Brooks Simpson Nov 21, 2006

    Hi Kevin — Trust me when I say I’m not talking about you. Enough said.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2006

    Brooks, — Thanks for clarifying.

  • Ken Noe Nov 21, 2006

    Stephen:

    Good gravy! I had no idea Google had gotten so far already. I searched my own name and found my Perryville book scanned. Who knew? So much for those big Christmas sales :-(

    Ken

  • Harry Nov 21, 2006

    Ken,

    I wouldn’t fret too much. How many folks do you figure will read your book on their computer screen at what, 3 pages per day?

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