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Pause against Plagiarism

Think your own thoughts, and you may not steal others’ words.
By Aliya Sternstein

Illustration by Walter Vasconcelos

I met one of my first friends at Penn in the Barnes & Noble megastore. I, a wide-eyed, rambunctious freshman, readily approached him˝a slick fourth edition MLA Handbook. Ever since, he’s been my most reliable, trustworthy companion. I still spend time with him, whenever I’m agonizing over parenthetical documentation for papers or worrying about how to cite an online news source referencing a book passage that appeared in a newspaper, which was written by three authors.

My relationship with MLA has never waned, but I developed an even deeper love for Daily Pennsylvanian style. I’m committed to accuracy.

Thus, when The Weekly Standard reported that Stephen Ambrose—“perhaps America’s most popular historian and one of its most prolific”—had passages, sentences and phrases in his new book, The Wild Blue, that were “barely distinguishable” from those in Penn History Professor Thomas Childers’ 1995 book, Wings of Morning, which Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post called “powerful and unselfconsciously beautiful,” I was deeply upset. I wasn’t upset that an acclaimed, miniseries-inspiring historian had pilfered from one of Penn’s best. I was troubled by the thought that I may one day commit the same mistake.

According to the Standard’s article about Ambrose’s and Childers’ WWII bomber-crew books, “none of these—the passages, sentences, phrases—is put in quotation marks and ascribed to Childers. The only attribution Childers gets in The Wild Blue is a mention in the bibliography and four footnotes.”

I’ll be the first to admit that the preceding plethora of citations and quotations is confusing to read, but as an aspiring journalist and writer, my worst fear is a charge of plagiarism or inaccuracy.

I guess that’s why this column is taking me so long to write. Editorializing on the complexities of the news is akin to blockbuster-sizing history. Both require attention to detailed documents before lending one’s own voice. I have been compulsively checking quotations and sources since I started composing.

Upon hearing the news about Ambrose, I wondered: Is this guy guilty of a crime against integrity simply because he forgot to type some quotation marks? Perhaps Ambrose, who’s published 30 books, was just sloppy. He had a lot on his mind, churning out a bestseller every year or two, conceiving new ideas, talking to Hollywood about his Band of Brothers HBO docudrama, negotiating with publishers and managing his accumulating millions. I know how it goes. Right now, I’ve got two columns, course readings, a psychology experiment, classes, friends to e-mail, a job to find, and a play to read before my first rehearsal in three days. We’ve all been overwhelmed. I felt sorry for the guy, at first.

But, over the last few weeks, I’ve resigned myself to the belief that he is guilty of the deadliest sin—being unoriginal. I understand why Childers doesn’t want to assign Band of Brothers to future classes. We can’t trust Ambrose’s references or his creativity. Ambrose may purport to tell the greatest story ever, but his book jackets are missing key components: the names Childers, Jay Monaghan, Northwestern University History Professor Michael S. Sherry, and whoever else he’s borrowed from. Ambrose needs to sit back, relax, read the tomes of those he admires and let their images enhance—not replace—his own writing, in his own good time.

I don’t think Ambrose was deceitful, but he was certainly fooling himself. In the weeks after the first revelation, the Associated Press, Forbes, and The New York Times continued to pick out instances where Ambrose cheated off other historians’ wording. And his method of storytelling cannot be called “paraphrasing,” from Greek para, meaning beside, and phrazein, meaning to point out. He is not pointing out those author’s meanings “beside” his own clarifications. Rather, he is copying them, word for word. “A paraphrase should not involve the replication of vivid phrasing, chains of syntax or sequences of ideas,” said Thomas Mallon, author of Stolen Words: The Classic Book on Plagiarism, in The Washington Post the week Ambrose turned up in the shadows.

Unlike those historians jealous of Ambrose’s literary finesse, I don’t envy him. Look at the most publicized example of Ambrose’s plagiarism:

Ambrose, The Wild Blue, p.164 ˝ Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered ˝ B-24s, glittering like mica …

Childers, Wings of Morning, p.83 ˝ Up, up, up groping through the clouds for what seemed like an eternity. . . No amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered. B-24s, glittering like mica. . .

After watching Ambrose’s bold-faced name make the “controversy” section of Entertainment Weekly’s Monitor page in January, I think I’d like to preserve my budding byline.

Shortly after exposure, Ambrose did apologize. In a statement released to The New York Times, he said, “I made a mistake for which I am sorry. It will be corrected in future editions of the book.” But his immediate apology was too late. Ambrose has tarnished a more than 40-year career. I do not think he will become extinct. However, when people hear the name Ambrose, they will always pause. They may pause in embarrassment, anger, disbelief, pride for bouncing back, or faint remembrance of a scandal, but they will pause.

And Stephen Ambrose should pause too.

I know I will.

The other day, I went overboard, writing a news article, a column, an essay and countless e-mails. My management TA had this to say on a recent paper: “Don’t cite too much. You need to use your own words and analyze the material.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. My own words: Mr. Ambrose, let’s take a breather.

Aliya Sternstein is a senior majoring in history and psychology from Potomac, Maryland, and is a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian.

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