The Consequence of Plagiarism

Overseer Doris Kearns Goodwin should step down for breach of academic honesty

It seems that well-known historian and Harvard University Overseer Doris Kearns Goodwin consulted many sources while writing her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, but regrettably, one resource she did not consult was the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Handbook for Students. If she had, she would have been reminded that, “Students should always take great care to distinguish their own ideas and knowledge from information derived from sources…Whenever ideas or facts are derived from a student’s reading and research or from a student’s own writings, the sources must be indicated…Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, and ordinarily required to withdraw from the College.”

Goodwin’s plagiarism of sentences, nearly verbatim, from source materials is inexcusable. As an Overseer, Goodwin is a leader of an academic community, the foundation of which is integrity in independent scholarship. As a leader, she should recognize that her action is unbecoming an Overseer and resign her post immediately, sending the clear message to the campus that she understands the gravity of the offense she has committed.

If this were one accidental case of incorrect citation, the situation may warrant a different response. But as Goodwin herself has recognized, the unattributed use of sources goes far beyond borrowing isolated phrases from Lynne McTaggart’s Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, as Goodwin originally claimed, but rather involved many more uncited works.

Even though the plagiarism was apparently unintentional, Goodwin’s gross negligence—losing primary works, not checking citations before publication—constitutes the lack of respect and appreciation of others’ work that cannot be condoned by anyone who purports to be a model for the Harvard community.

For students who have committed plagiarism, as Associate Director of Expository Writing Gordon C. Harvey points out in Writing With Sources, “any letter of recommendation written for you on behalf of Harvard College—including letters to graduate schools, law schools, and medical schools—will report that you were required to withdraw for academic dishonesty.” With this policy, it is clear that the College does not think that students who have committed plagiarism should be able to proceed, unaffected, with their career goals. Why then, should an adult who is more experienced, much less a professional historian, continue in her position in the University without consequence?

Goodwin has a long road ahead of her before she restores her credibility as an historian or journalist—the NewsHour, where she was a contributor, has already announced that she will be taking a leave from the show without promise of return. The first step should be resigning from the University’s oldest governing board, thereby respecting the reputation that it and each of its 29 other members have worked hard to establish.