UT Press: Additional Thoughts

Just wanted to follow up to yesterday’s posts surrounding the plagiarism allegations made by William Marvel against UT author Fred Ruhlman.  First, historian Peter Carmichael’s comments are worth repeating:

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. [Disclosure: Carmichael edits the Voices of the Civil War series for UTP.]

I agree that the review process utilized by university presses works as a rule; clearly this is an exception.  It should also be pointed out that the UTP is a first-rate publisher; this incident should not in any way cause one to question the overall quality of their catalog.  From what I can tell they pulled the book immediately.  One of the comments from yesterday’s post indicated that Ruhlman’s degree is illegitimate.  Clearly, his employer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga should be asking about its candidate review process.

We should also watch what kinds of lessons to draw from this incident.  Here is what one reader over at Eric Wittenberg’s site had to say:

It’s funny, as I have been told by a few members of the academic ilk, that someone like me, who does not have the correct “training” to write about the Civil War has no business doing so. The last I checked, in terms of plagiarism of Civil War books, those who were caught red handed recently are not from the ranks of the “untrained” historians.

My advice to those in academia is to clean up their own house first before casting continued derogatory comments on the “amateur” historians they seem to take issue with.

Let’s not make the mistake of lumping academic presses with professionally-trained historians.  Remember, most of William Marvel’s books are published by the University of North Carolina Press (Civil War America).  Both Mark Dunkelman and Thomas Lowry have had books published by the Louisiana State University Press.  Neither Dunkelman nor Lowry work at universities or have a PhD in history.  There are many more examples that can be cited.  What these presses have in common is a commitment to publishing sophisticated and well-argued historical studies, regardless of the author’s background.  And I can testify to that first-hand.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2006 @ 5:24

    Hi Steve, — Sorry about the misunderstanding. I didn’t use your name out of courtesy since you did not post the comment on my blog. Your comment indeed read as if you were lumping an entire community under a broad generalization based on your experience. As to those comments there isn’t anything I can say. But what if it is the case that you are not qualified to write for academic presses? Obviously I can’t comment because I know nothing about your background and I’ve never had a chance to look at your research. I would say to hell with the individual[s] who made those comments. Submit your work and let the cards fall where they may.

    I say again that the Civil War is one of the few areas in history where there is a great deal of interaction between professiona and amateur historians. I consider myself to be an amateur historian yet I’ve had articles published in academic journals and one university press. I couldn’t do this in any other area.

  • Steve Basic Nov 15, 2006 @ 23:54


    As the reader you quoted from Eric’s blog, I stand by the comments I made. The incidents I have described as happening to me, have happened to many others I know, and it should not be swept under the rug.

    I agree I should not have lumped the whole academic establishment into the comments I made, and for that I do apologize. That said, stuff like this continues to happen, and it is very discouraging and sad. And I was not lumping academic presses with professional historians. My comment was based on what certain professional historians have said to me.

    I also have a problem with how my quote was presented here. Have no problem that it was used, but I do have a problem as not being identified properly. Know if I would quote something you said, I would enclude your name. That’s only proper and fair.

    Regards from the Garden State,

    Steve Basic

  • Hiram Hover Nov 15, 2006 @ 9:38

    I would second Peter Carmichael’s comments. I think it’s extremely unlikely that any reviewer except Marvel himself would have detected the borrowings (and do we know if UT Press asked him to review it? Maybe they did, and he declined.) If I were asked to review a manuscript that closely paraphrased 8-10 paragraphs from a book with which I was very familiar but didn’t write myself, I think it’s unlikely I’d catch it–nor, as Ken Noe writes below, is that really what reviewers are expected to do.

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