Scandal in BarbieWorld! New Barbie book plagiarizes title from 1995

Plagiarism? Quel horreur!

Go read Tenured Radical.  She tells us all about Robin Gerber, the author of Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.  The galley proofs for this new book were sent out to a reviewer, M. G. Lord, whose book Forever Barbie Gerber quotes in Barbie and Ruth, directly, repeatedly, and without attribution!  Tenured Radical writes,

[H]istorians. . . know about plagiarism. We talk about it a lot, and we have seen enough high-profile cases in the last decade to make it of grave concern, whether it appears in a work intended primarily for scholars or in something intended for the educated reader and/or enthusiast. This is why, other than the possibility of an old friend being ripped off, I think questions about plagiarism raised by Lord about Ms. Gerber’s book need to be aired in a scholarly setting. Lord’s assertion is that Gerber has taken quotes from primary sources published in Forever Barbie and failed to note that Lord did that research and, in the case of interviews, actually generated the source in the first place.

In this piece, published in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, Lord explains that when asked to review Gerber’s book:

I found quotations from my research, verbatim and without specific attribution.

I showed the passages to my assigning editor. He had sent me a galley proof, not the finished book, and we both thought it likely that endnotes would appear in the final volume. But then the finished book came in, and though “Forever Barbie” was mentioned in the bibliography, there were no endnotes. I felt violated.

Histories do not grow on trees. The first person to cobble out a definitive narrative has to do a ton of work. You interview hundreds of people and hunt down documents, which can be especially elusive if influential people would prefer that they stay hidden. You separate truth from hearsay. Then — with endnotes — you meticulously source all your quotations and odd facts so future scholars will know whence they came.

Reached for comment by The Times, Gerber wrote in an e-mail: “I do believe that the credit Ms. Lord received was within the norm for a book which provides singular sourcing rather than footnotes. Having said that, if Ms. Lord feels that her book received insufficient credit for quotes from people she interviewed it is a simple matter to correct in the next printing. I have the utmost respect for Ms. Lord’s book and have recommended it to others.”

Bad luck, eh?  Next time, Robin Gerber, make sure your book doesn’t get sent out to be reviewed by the scholars you’re ripping off.  Or, you could just avoid the merest whiff of suspicion by following this even simpler advice:  don’t plagiarize!

And as we all know, sometimes the simplest advice is the best.  I share Tenured Radical’s concern with this case, not the least because it involves a dear friend of mine (Barbie!), but also because as TR points out, academic historians who behave in this manner would (rightfully) be suffer severe consequences to their teaching and publishing careers.  (Unless of course, you’re Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I suppose calling them “academic historians” is dubious in the first place, but if you get on TV enough as a “historian” and make enough money for your publisher, you can pretty much get away with anything.)

0 thoughts on “Scandal in BarbieWorld! New Barbie book plagiarizes title from 1995

  1. Having just sent out a book myself, I find myself terrified that I might have accidentally plagiarized something, over the ten years and various versions that it’s taken me to complete it. You know, somewhere along the line, taken a note on a notecard that was too close to the original, meaning to rephrase it it, then transferred it to a draft, then to another one of a dozen subsequent drafts, somehow forgetting somewhere along the line that it wasn’t my prose. I’ve got no indication that I’ve actually ever done this, but I’ve also usually got no indication that I’ve left the gas stove burner flame on, yet I can’t get out of the house without going back to check it at least once.

    Am I the only one who freaks out like this? (About the book, I mean; the stove is another thing altogether.)


  2. @ Notorious. Yes, that is an always-looming nightmare, especially since when eggregious plagiarisms of the sort Historiann references do happen, a first defense is always inadvertent migration of problems through drafts.
    So that practice sort of takes an arguably legitimate explanation off the table as a credible one. Not sure how these degrees of negligence and inadvertence should be parsed out. The industry has sort of gone for the “no excuses” approach in the last decade or so.

    The particular sort of creative sourcing mentioned in TR’s post, i.e. a lifter attributes meticulously to primary sources, but neglects to mention where else they can be found, short of the Bangkok Public Record Office, is understudied. I once took part in a large multi-
    scholar multi-archival research project that was among other things specifically designed to create a secondary repository of primary sources, in photocopy and microfilm form. It was the project’s intent to spare next generation researchers the need to travel to Walla Walla and a hundred other widely scattered places. But then to see somebody publish something in the same general area you are working in, and cite the originals not via the secondary repository (where it is clear from internal evidence they found them), but as if from Walla Walla itself, seemed a bit weird. Not really clear that this transcended any recognized ethical boundaries, but it still seemed deceptive by creating a misimpression of the scope of the writer’s research.


  3. @ Notorious: Yes, and yes (book and stove, and whether or not the front door is locked). I’m getting ready to hand over my books ms and am filled with the paranoid fear of unintentional plagiarism from a decade’s worth of work. Obvious plagiarism is well, obvious, but it seems like there’s a lot in the fuzzy grays.

    I’m wondering if we can have a slightly expanded discussion on the issue of gaining access to primary materials via other sources – ie either through microfilm from someone else or reading someone’s footnotes and saying, Oh, I should look at that document while I’m in X archive. I have always felt that the spread of this sort of information is one of the purposes of footnotes, and not a version of intellectual theft (especially if the note in question reflects a well-catagorized, easy-to-find document, rather than a stunning discovery on the part of the original author). Any advice on when and in what ways one acknowledges what others have helped with? (I’ve been the recipient of several microfilms, for example, borrowed from other people, but from archives that I’ve worked in. Do I thank individually each person in notes for lending it to me?)


  4. This would also raise the question of whether I need to thank google books when I download eighteenth century literature now out of print, instead of labouriously copying it out at a library; or whether when I use online newspaper archives, I should say accessed online. For that matter when we download articles from Jstor should we acknowledge Jstor.

    In my own work, I don’t acknowledge that a source is online (unless it is ONLY available online), but I would acknowledge another author if I am stealing a primary quote source from their work (which in the case of oral history would presumably be absolutely necessary). If I use other people’s footnotes to find sources, and then go and look at them myself I wouldn’t refer to the author. Cause, isn’t that the purpose of footnotes?


  5. I have always wondered about the limits of plagiarism, esp. since I have seen practices that seem to push its boundaries. I know of one scholar in my field whose book contains numerous instances of “cherry picking” that borders on plagiarism, IMO. S/he saw quotes in secondary sources that s/he liked, then went to the archives and *just happened* to pull only those boxes, folders, and letters that contained the quotes. Isn’t that a coincidence? So s/he had actually saw every manuscript source quoted and didn’t “lift” from another printed text. But it sure seemed fishy to me.

    I have also been the victim of a nightmare pseudo-plagiarism incident. I was writing on a topic and had a correspondence with a Senior Scholar who had written on said topic. I came up with what I thought was a particularly interesting Point of Interpretation; s/he agreed that it was interesting. I then submitted an article based on said research to a journal, whereupon it went to Senior Scholar for peer review. It appeared to have been too critical of Senior Scholar and ruffled feathers. Most troubling (to me at least) was that the peer review letter accused me of stealing Point of Interpretation from Senior Scholar, as if *s/he* had suggested it in our correspondence and *I* took it without attribution.

    The whole incident has blown over, I think. It cost me a publication in Important Journal, but not anything further. (That I know of–has anyone heard of plagiarism rumors about me?) I’d love that pub, but a reputation as a graduate student plagiarist would have been the kiss of death, so I guess that is a fair trade.


  6. @Notorious- Funny enough, what you describe with note cards is exactly what Doris Kearns Goodwin said happened to her.

    @John- I wouldn’t consider the first example you gave to be a gray area at all. Lots of organizations’ plagiarism guides explicitly state that it is not acceptable to cite a primary source to disguise the author’s use of a secondary source. Maybe there is more awareness of this principle in the sciences, where the plagiarism people care about is typically less about the structure of prose than about ideas and data.


  7. Buzz is correct–if you google Doris Kearns Goodwin plagiarism, you’ll see it’s its own google category. Here’s a decent summary and interesting commentary. Goodwin claimed that poor note-taking was to blame for her republication of whole paragraphs from previous work on the Kennedys. Then she said that she cited the book she plagiarized, so it’s not really plagiarism. (Her odd explanations can be found here, along with the claim that “I am a historian. With the exception of being a wife and mother, it is who I am. And there is nothing I take more seriously.” So an attack on her is an attack on wifehood and motherhood too, I guess.)

    As for the question of using primary sources originally drawn to your attention by another author: yes, it’s cool, so long as you do your own research honestly. (As John S. and Indyanna suggest, it’s pretty clear when you cherry-pick evidence from someone else.) I have VERY RARELY used the turn of phrase “as quoted by…” in a footnote, so as to give the author of the secondary source proper credit–like writing “hat tip to…” or “via…” on blogs. (This was in cases where the evidence was not central but rather peripheral to my analysis.) But even in those cases, I did my homework and checked the primary sources (which as I recall were published.)

    As Feminist Avatar says, “Cause, isn’t that the purpose of footnotes?” Indeed!


  8. Ha! Good one, Rose.

    As for Notorious’s initial question: I think you’ve just got a case of post-submission jitters. You’re an honest person who approached her work straightforwardly and did a very good job. No work of scholarship is error-free, but I think if it’s the product of original research and a lot of hard work, that counts for a lot in the unlikely event that someone accuses you of using hir work without attribution or of not properly quoting and citing her material.


  9. Doris Kearns Goodwin burns me up. Any real historian knows that your first obligation is to the sources. When you take notes, you have to know whatever it is possible to know about whose words you are noting, in what context they were said or written, and to whom they were directed. Otherwise, you don’t know what the words mean.

    When Goodwin claims she lost track of the origin of the words, she’s admitting that she’s an incompetent historian, at best. Of course, I do not believe her when she says that. She’s a repeat offender, who lets other people do the hard, archival work and write the elegant sentences. She just copies them and makes money off them.

    I remember wanting to throw something at the radio when Terri Gross interviewed her a few years ago. Terri questioned her rather gently about plagiarism, then let Goodwin claim she really hadn’t paid any attention to the controversy because her son was heading for Iraq. She wrapped herself in the flag, and Terri let her do it. After all, the controversy didn’t start in 2002. It had been going on since at least 1987.


  10. In psychology, one always lists a primary source that one found in a secondary source as follows, “{primary source} as cited in {secondary source}”. This is perfectly acceptable practice for oddball, not-easily-accessible sources, like, say, unpublished letters from Sigmund to Anna still in the family’s possession.

    (I used one such reference in my thesis after I was unable to locate the original article and the authors ignored my request for a copy. After my thesis was published, I got a nasty e-mail from them taking me to task for not reading the original! But that’s another story for another day.)

    There is a rather lengthy and detailed section in our pub manual explaining how to cite online sources. One does not thank Google, for example, but simply cites the web address and the date the information was downloaded–in the reference section, not in a footnote.

    As for that “sloppy note-taking” excuse of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s, that might explain one, brief plagiarized passage but not numerous passages. Not to mention, I don’t buy for a minute that one could copy an entire paragraph onto a notecard, not put it in quotations on the notecard itself, and then not recognize later that it is not one’s own prose. Puh-leeze.

    Unconscious plagiarism is more of a risk. I once said something I thought was so catchy on my practice website, only to be driving down the highway a few weeks later and see it on an ad for a local healthcare chain. Eek. I had driven by that sign for years, really liked the slogan, and regurgitated it on my website with absolutely no conscious awareness of its source.

    There’s a whole literature in psychology on the subject: It happens all the time that we know something, but misremember how we know it or where we know it from. Didn’t make me feel any better. I removed that line from my ad as soon as I got back to the office, but I know people were bound to have seen it already, and it embarrasses me to this day.


  11. Dr. Righteous–I caught myself almost committing such an act of unconscious plagiarism in the last draft of my book. There was one particular sentence in Chapter 6 I was particularly proud of; it had just the right turn of phrase, I thought.

    Turns out, it was a pretty poetic phrase, which is why Clifford Geertz wrote it in his Balinese cockfight essay so many years ago. I read the piece as an undergrad and once in graduate school and hadn’t re-read it since; one sentence had just stuck in my head, waiting to come out at an inopportune time. I only caught it when I was re-reading another secondary source invoking Geertz and this aphorism. (Tellingly, it was an allusion, without direct citation. I suppose we are all supposed to know “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” without giving an exact reference?)

    Needless to say, the line was quickly pulled from the book. The sometimes inartful prose in the book is all mine.


  12. I agree, you do not need to cite someone whose work you used to find primary sources. And it has pissed me off when scholars use primary quotes from my research and just cite my book in the notes, so it looks like they did their own primary research from the text. So my rule of thumb: generosity is never a bad thing. I regularly include a “Thanks to X for this source,” especially when colleagues have called something to my attention personally. And I reference the secondary author if I (rarely) use their primary quotation. Basically, I try to always acknowledge that we work in a community of scholars. Unless you are doing shoddy research yourelf, it doesn’t cost you to be as generous as possible!


  13. I remember Ambrose’s response was along the lines of: It doesn’t matter if the words are mine or not as long as my book tells the story well.


  14. When I was a grad student, I was taught how to reference online sources in history (including secondary source journals), but I think that it underestimated how much the discipline’s sources were going to transfer online. It just seems to use up an inordinate amount of words when you have to include urls that could be several lines long (especially for sources in online databases), which discouraged me from bothering to do so when it was avoidable. And, the second part of that is that as so much moves online, there is almost less need to point it out that it is available in that way. Do you really care that I downloaded x article from Jstor, rather than looked it up in the library? Does it effect how you will access that source? This of course makes more of a case for citing the url when primary sources are online, but perhaps we could come up with a new convention which doesn’t require so much space.


  15. Feminist Avatar: Apparently the MLA cares if you’ve looked at it @ JSTOR or in paper, as the new standards require specification. Also, whether something was “web” or “print” or “dvd” etc. AND they’re not requiring the URL in most cases. It’s very strange to me. If I give a photocopy of an article I downloaded from JSTOR to a colleague, do they need to cite it as print or photocopy or web? What does it matter, if I can find it again? Which is why eliminating the URL is so strange.

    A summary of the biggest changes here:

    And.. yes, I also worry about inadvertently ripping someone off. Some of my notes are not always as clear as they could be (and I’m working on improving my note-taking!) If I’m not sure what I have is a direct quote or a paraphrase, I paraphrase my notes and cite.


  16. Shaz–the acknowledgments in the notes (or lack thereof) is a big pet peeve of mine. I have one acquaintance in the profession who asked me to read half of hir manuscript for a book. And I did, offering copious commentary (including suggestions for primary sources, secondary sources, etc.) This acquaintance thanked me for the comments, and assured me that I would receive credit in the book.

    Book comes out, and some of the marginal comments I offered appear word for word in the text. (Others are barely paraphrased.) I am thanked, but not in any individual notes (“Thanks to John S. for suggesting…”). I was one of thirty-eight individuals listed in the front acknowledgments as people with whom the author had “interesting conversations.”

    Beyond personal pique–and yeah, there was some–it struck me as a kind of break in the academic social contract. If someone points you to a source, or if someone helps you formulate a particularly critical idea, well, then they do deserve specific mention. Proper attribution is important.


  17. John S — Yup, that would piss me off too. Again, erring on the side of generosity (giving ideas deserves even more credit than flagging a citation!) is always a good move.


  18. @ Digger- Perhaps future historians and English lit people will spend hours analysing how the physical form in which we accessed our material affected our interpretation- a bit like we do now in discussions of folio versus quarto as measures of textual authority…


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