TRYING TO make sense of the Goodwin scandal is humbling. Yes, she made serious mistakes. Yet it’s easy to see why she strayed — and how any writer could fall into the same trap. The best way to understand what happened is to pull together the various threads of the story — something that is rarely done in day-to-day coverage, which is why it is all too often played as a matter of indeterminate accusation and response. (In laying out the sequence of events, I am relying to some extent on a piece that appeared in the online History News Network, which I, in turn, learned about in an Alex Beam column in the Boston Globe. See how complicated this gets?)
First blood. The story broke in mid January in the Weekly Standard — the same magazine that, several weeks earlier, had reported similar charges against historian Stephen Ambrose. In Goodwin’s case, the particulars reported by Bo Crader were overwhelming. Crader showed that Goodwin — in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys — had lifted sentences and paragraphs, word-for-word or close to it, from Hank Searls’s The Lost Prince: Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy (1969); from Rose Kennedy’s 1974 autobiography, Times to Remember; and, especially, from Lynne McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times (1983).
In addition to reproducing three striking examples of Goodwin’s lifting from McTaggart, Crader reported that there were "dozens more such parallels," and that, in later editions of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Goodwin had added 40 footnotes crediting McTaggart. Goodwin also added language to the preface effusively praising McTaggart’s book — yet slipped it in so that it appeared to be part of her original November 1986 preface.
Modified limited hangout. Goodwin immediately went into damage-control mode, starting with the Standard piece. She blamed her borrowing on her practice at the time of taking extensive notes in longhand. "When I wrote the passages in question, I did not have the McTaggart book in front of me," Goodwin told the Standard. "Drawing on my notes, I did not realize that in some cases they constituted a close paraphrase of the original work." She acknowledged that the extra footnotes and the acknowledgment of McTaggart’s work were added after McTaggart contacted her.
Unfortunately for Goodwin, she almost immediately had to begin expanding on her carefully constructed answer. On January 22, the Globe’s Tom Palmer reported that Goodwin had reached a "private settlement" with McTaggart — including money — after McTaggart complained about Goodwin’s uncredited reliance on her book. "The whole understanding was supposed to be confidential just because of the nature of it," Goodwin told Palmer. "All that really happened was she sent me a letter saying not all the passages that relied on her work had been as fully footnoted as she would have liked. I agreed with her."
Goodwin followed that up with an essay in Time in which she acknowledged that "mistakes can happen," but added, "I take great pride in the depth of my research and the extensiveness of my citations."
The wronged woman. Goodwin may have believed she had no choice but to defend herself. But by speaking about her "confidential" arrangement with McTaggart, she freed McTaggart to speak as well. And what McTaggart has had to say is devastating.
In an interview published on the Weekly Standard’s Web site on January 23, McTaggart said Goodwin’s account that she accidentally lifted a few lines was "not correct." In fact, McTaggart said, "there were dozens and dozens of individual phrases and unusual turns of phrase taken virtually verbatim, or paragraphs where a few words had been changed." She added that Goodwin reached a settlement with her only after McTaggart had threatened to sue her for "serious copyright infringement." And though McTaggart, like Goodwin, declined to say how much money had changed hands, she characterized the settlement as "substantial ... many times more than what is usually the case for this kind of thing, according to my lawyer."
Last Saturday McTaggart was back, this time on the New York Times op-ed page, flatly accusing Goodwin (and Stephen Ambrose) of "plagiarism." McTaggart wrote: "In my case, whether Ms. Goodwin had used footnotes or even quotation marks around the passages taken from my book would not have mattered.... It was the sheer volume of the appropriation — thousands of my exact or nearly exact words — that supported my copyright infringement claim."
Defining the offense. On March 3, the Globe ran a column by Tom Oliphant that, at first blush, looked important. He observed that another Goodwin accuser, media gadfly Philip Nobile (about whom more below), had neglected to note that passages Goodwin supposedly lifted from William Shirer’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959) had actually been footnoted — that is, Goodwin had given Shirer full credit — and it was thus ridiculous to accuse her of plagiarism.
"Enough already," Oliphant wrote. "Off the facts, Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarized nothing 15 years ago in her massive and definitive work, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. With context and perspective thrown in, as they should be, you could go back and underline the preceding sentence a hundred times." (Yes, he really does write like that.)
Oliphant’s defense turned out to be a case of premature exoneration, akin to this classic bit from February 3, 1998, when he wrote: "There was no phone sex; no heavy phone conversation of any kind; no dress with semen stains on it; no dress at all, in fact."
Incredibly, Oliphant’s defense of Goodwin came a week after the New York Times had reported that she herself had admitted that "she failed to acknowledge scores of close paraphrases from other authors," and that she had asked her researchers to stop working on her current project — a biography of Abraham Lincoln — so they could completely vet The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Goodwin also told the Times that she had asked her publisher, Simon & Schuster, to destroy what copies it had of that book and to publish a new, corrected version this spring.
What Oliphant really missed, though, was the tough, rigorous standard by which academia judges plagiarism. Maybe if Oliphant cited a book in one of his columns but then paraphrased it a little too closely, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Not so in Goodwin’s world. By neglecting to put exact quotes inside quotation marks, Goodwin committed plagiarism, even though her footnotes clearly credited her sources.
Timothy Noah, of the online publication Slate, has been dogged in pursuing this aspect of the Goodwin story, even going so far as to track down Harvard University’s policy on plagiarism and to put up a link. Here is a highly relevant excerpt: "If your own sentences follow the source so closely in idea and sentence structure that the result is really closer to quotation than to paraphrase, ... you are plagiarizing, even if you have cited the source [my emphasis]."
By these lights, Goodwin — a former Harvard professor — committed plagiarism. Period. Oliphant, who is himself a Harvard graduate, should be able to understand that.