University of Tennessee Press Embroiled In Plagiarism Allegations

Historian William Marvel was recently asked to review Dr. R. Fred Ruhlman’s new book, Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A Reappraisal for the Georgia Historical Quarterly and found that much of it had been pulled from his well-regarded 1994 book, Andersonville: The Last Depot (UNC Press).  The story is beginning to make the rounds.  From Southern AP News:

“I would characterize the extent as ‘pages and pages’ of text that has been lightly rearranged and doctored to appear original, and without counting the work of other historians that he has appropriated,” Marvel said in an e-mail.  “In one instance I found him repeating the only bibliographic error in my entire book, and it would be incredibly coincidental for him to have made that transcription error through his own research,” Marvel wrote.  Ruhlman said in a UT Press news release that he’s innocent of willful plagiarism but acknowledged oversights in crediting the work of Marvel.

“I feel very bad about this,” Ruhlman said. “If I had done this deliberately, it would have been academic suicide because Marvel is an authority on this. He would have been asked to review this. I’m reaching out to Mr. Marvel with an apology.”  Marvel said the volume of questionable material is troubling.

“I certainly don’t consider it a merely technical violation and find it impossible to believe it was unintentional,” Marvel said.

Here are some comparisons compiled by KnoxNews:

Marvel, p. 21: “He nominated Alexander W. Persons, a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer from Fort Valley, barely thirty miles up the rail line from Anderson. Persons was lieutenant colonel of the 55th Georgia…. The 55th had never been in a real battle, and it enjoyed no great reputation, once having mutinied….”

Ruhlman, p. 53: “Cobb recommended Alexander W. Persons, a twenty-seven-year-old attorney from Fort Valley, Georgia, a small town
approximately thirty miles from Andersonville. Persons was the lieutenant colonel of the 55th Georgia Infantry, a regiment of dubious distinction. The 55th had never seen actual combat and had once mutinied….”

Marvel, pp. 24-25: “A few tried to run for it anyway, but they found the guards true to their word.”

Ruhlman, p. 57: “…a few attempted to escape and discovered that the guards were true to their word.”

Marvel, p. 36: “Mrs. Wolf was a perfectly respectable Methodist lady whose husband had recently died, leaving her with two small girls.”

Ruhlman, p. 77: “She was a respectable Methodist lady whose husband had recently died, leaving her with two daughters to raise.”

Marvel, p. 36: “All his life Wirz had wanted to be a doctor, and in 1854 he joined Dr. Webber as an apprentice….”

Ruhlman, p. 77: “Wirz had wanted to be a doctor all his life, and in 1854 he joined Webber…as his apprentice.”

Marvel, p. 37: “In August of 1862 Wirz assumed command of all Richmond prisons, exerting a strict but reasonably humane authority over the Federal captives. He denied the Yankees any opportunity to communicate with their own officers, or to buy contraband from civilians, but he did not hesitate to arrest a guard for shooting one of the prisoners.”

Ruhlman, p. 78: “By August 1862, Captain Wirz was in charge of all prisoners in the Richmond area. …[H]is administration was strict but humane in its treatment of prisoners of war. Wirz removed any opportunity for the prisoners to communicate with their officers, forbade the sale of contraband by civilians to the prisoners, and quickly arrested one of the guards for shooting a prisoner.”

Marvel, p. 37: “Wirz took Ould at his word, embarking on a quest of another four thousand miles, crisscrossing the Deep South from Columbus, Georgia, to Houston, Texas.”

Ruhlman, p. 79: “Wirz took Ould at his word and sojourned another four thousand miles, tracking across the Deep South from Columbus, Georgia, to Houston, Texas….”

Marvel, pp. 39-40: “…a dozen men came down with the symptoms of fever, headache, wracking spasms of vomiting, and the little red eruptions….”

Ruhlman, p. 143: “…a dozen more prisoners were showing symptoms of the disease: fever, headache, spasms of vomiting, and small red sores….”

Marvel, p. 45: “Wirz worried the quartermaster for tools, and early in April Colonel Persons learned of a supply available in Augusta. He stopped by Richard Winder’s quarters to apprise him of them, but the quartermaster lay writhing in bed with an acute attack of rheumatism.”

Ruhlman, p. 83: “He kept after Capt. Richard Winder with constant requests for tools and reminded him if the critical need. In early April, Colonel Persons received information that a supply of tools was available in Augusta, Georgia… Upon arrival at WinderAs quarters, he found him incapacitated from rheumatism.”

Marvel, p. 244: “Then he called a procession of former prisoners who seemed determined to outdo one another in their recollections of WirzAs barbarity.”

Ruhlman, p. 192: “In their testimony, it appears as if the former prisoners were determined to outdo one another in their recollections of…Wirz’s brutality.”

Marvel, p. 244: “Men swore they saw Wirz shoot prisoners at point-blank range, citing names that never appeared on the death register.”

Ruhlman, p. 192: “…others told of witnessing Wirz shoot prisoners at point-blank range…. They gave names of victims who never appeared on the death register.”

Marvel, p. 245: “The alleged affidavit survives, bearing a date of August 27, 1864… and it is signed in a perfectly steady hand.”

Ruhlman, pp. 194-95: “The alleged affidavit… bearing the date of 27 August 1864, can still be viewed and bears a signature written in a strong, steady hand.”

Marvel, p. 246: “On the chilly morning of November 10, Wirz rose in his cell at the Old Capitol and wrote a last letter to his wife, whom he had apparently not been allowed to see….”

Ruhlman, p. 209: “The morning of 10 November 1865 was cool. Wirz sat in his cell writing a last letter to his wife. He had not been allowed to see her….”

It would be an understatement to say that it doesn’t look good for Ruhlman.  Ruhlman earned his PhD in history from a school in England and is currently teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  UT is going to have to take a look at its peer review process and try to figure out how this one got through.  What I don’t understand is why they didn’t send the manuscript to Marvel for review.  Marvel’s book on Andersonville is considered by many to be the definitive study; it’s not as if there are a significant number of historians who focus on Civil War prisons.

12 comments… add one
  • Lawrence B. Ebert Jan 20, 2007 @ 17:27

    I have enjoyed the comments but disagree slightly on some points.

    Of the comment –we don’t have the months necessary to read every book and article on a topic, or the years that would be required to track down every cited source–, reviewers who have some familiarity with the topic will not require months or years to determine if something is amiss. For example, it took a matter of minutes to demonstrate that the gist of “Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg—and Why it Failed” had been previously published, in among other places, “The Cavalry Battle that Saved the Union: Custer vs. Stuart at Gettysburg.” Other people, such as D. Scott Hartwig, reached similar conclusions merely by utilizing their own individual knowledge. [The Gettysburg point is about priority, not about plagiarism, but does illustrate that a reviewer need not spend great amounts of time to evaluate a situation.]

    Of the point about not enough time to –track down every cited source–, cite checkers at law reviews are supposed to verify the accuracy of every cited source. Academic entities can put students on cite checking projects if they want. [Of course, cite checkers at the Stanford Law Review allowed through an assertion that Gary Boone invented the integrated circuit (rather than Bob Noyce and Nobel Laureate Jack Kilby), but that’s a different story.]

    As another point, having the person “most familiar with the work” review the work (as here with William Marvel reviewing the work of Fred Ruhlmann) is not always the best course, as there can be conflicts of interest. [this is a general observation; Marvel behaved admirably here] The issue was illustrated in an early episode of “Law and Order” entitled “Big Bang,” wherein the reviewer gave an unfavorable review and stole the work of the submitter.

    As a further point, many academics are not familiar with the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement. The Dastar case illustrated that it is NOT a violation of federal law to claim authorship of a public domain work. Thus, one is free to claim authorship of Hamlet, or “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

    Lawrence B. Ebert
    January 20, 2007

  • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2006 @ 7:28

    Sally, — Good question, but the operative word here is “seems” which of course means that we need more information to get the question off the ground. If we assume it to be true, however, I tend to think that it has to do with the fact that historians are writing for a general audience and this involves meeting deadlines. The cases of Doris K. Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose perhaps fall into this category. On the other hand the evidence in Michael Belliseiles’s study of firearms was fabricated and not stolen – if I remeber correctly.

    Thanks for the link. I would like at some point to read _Past Imperfect_.

  • Sally Nov 16, 2006 @ 22:39

    Why does it seem that historians fall to the temptation to plagiarize more than others? I’ve asked that of many people. Someone at UNC Press says she thinks it’s because they assume they are writing for a public (general) audience who will not know better. I tend to think that historians can be at once secure in what they want to say and insecure in their writing skills. I agree that often the transformed texts are changed for the worse. In the case at hand, for example, Ruhlman says someone “sojourned” meaning “took a trip,” when that’s not what the word means. (An editor should have caught that.) And the repeat of a bibliographic error: that’s kind of like what happened in the example that I caught in 2005: the guilty party repeated the misspelling of Toni Morrison’s name.


  • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2006 @ 9:35

    Hey Bill, thanks for weighing-in.

  • William Marvel Nov 15, 2006 @ 17:32

    I would merely like to echo the comments about the press. From my own experience I understand how this could have happened, and I am perfectly satisfied with the way UT Press has handled it.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 15, 2006 @ 9:57

    Hiram and Ken, — Thanks guys for contributing to this. Your experience as manuscript reviewers is what matters in all of this.

  • Ken Noe Nov 15, 2006 @ 9:23

    I published two books with UT Press, and over the years have reviewed several mansucripts for them (not including this one). They are darned good people to work with, and they take their obligations seriously. On this, Pete is right. We reviewers read a manuscript for its merits, and we do our best, but we don’t have the months necessary to read every book and article on a topic, or the years that would be required to track down every cited source. Nor does an academic press have the resources to hire fact checkers to do the same thing. UT did its best–blame the author.

  • Hiram Hover Nov 15, 2006 @ 9:19

    Kevin – you’re right: “Ruhlman’s minor changes” to Marvel’s prose.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 15, 2006 @ 5:19

    Hiram, — I think you meant to say that “Ruhlman’s minor changes…”

    Peter, — I agree that the system works and that UT has a first-rate line up of books. This should not in any way stop some one from purchasing one of their titles. I should say that I new about this story about a week ago, but decided not to say anything until the story broke. It will pass.

  • Hiram Hover Nov 14, 2006 @ 21:08

    And in the insult-to-injury department … Marvel’s minor changes uniformly make the prose worse. Ouch.

  • Peter Carmichael Nov 14, 2006 @ 21:05

    I don’t think you should blame UT Press for this. This is the author’s responsibility alone. All presses and reviewers operate from the assumption that they are reviewing original manuscripts (I can’t imagine how one checks for plagiarism when reviewing a manuscript. Unless you happen to be familiar with a book (like Marvel was with his own study of Andersonville) it is not realistic to expect a press or a reviewer to catch plagiarism. Let’s keep the responsibility on the authors. Moreover, the review process at UT and other academic presses works 99% of the time. The system is sound and it almost always produces high quality scholarship. Let’s not overreact to this unfortunate incident

  • Margaret Soltan Nov 14, 2006 @ 20:07

    Looks as though that school in England is a diploma mill.

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