Ethics for Historians: The Perspective of One Undergraduate Class

Catherine Denial (with contributions by Devin Harvie), January 2010

At the end of spring term 2009, the students in the “Historian’s Workshop” at Knox College drew up a list of 11 ways in which they believed professional historians could best assure that they were behaving ethically in their teaching, research, and publishing.

Historian’s Workshop is a gateway class that all history majors and minors must complete before entering upper-level research seminars in the department. The class, which focuses on historiography, methodology, philosophy, and ethics, is also required for majors in the college’s Integrated International Studies program.

Each faculty member in the history department who participates in the Historian’s Workshop draws upon her or his own background and expertise. For instance, my students followed the development of the field of Western history this spring, tracing the intersection of theories in history with concurrent social, economic, and political change. In addition they considered the practicalities of being a historian —managing time, for example, and figuring out how to read bad handwriting—and with Jon Wiener’s Historians in Trouble as a jumping-off point, considered questions of ethics, politics, and constituency groups as they influence the historical profession for good and ill.1 (Wiener’s book was supplemented by the students’ own research into other instances of professional misconduct, including a search for examples of historians being pressured from the Left.)

The culmination of these discussions was the following list, a prescription for ethical conduct offered by students who are consumers of our professional work—be it service, teaching, or research—and yet who are, in general, outsiders to the profession at this point in their academic careers. Each heading on the list comes from the notes of one of the students, sophomore Devin Harvie, while the explanatory remarks that follow are my summary of the class conversation as a whole. Both I and students of the Spring 2009 Historian’s Workshop hope that the list might spark further conversation beyond the parameters of our particular classroom.

1. Don’t plagiarize.

While undertaking research, be at pains to take thorough notes that clearly distinguish between your own thoughts and ideas and those of the person whose work you are examining. As you share your work with others —as a conference paper, article, or book—make sure that all citations are complete and accurate.

2. Faithfully transcribe your sources.

Don’t add to, subtract from, or alter the evidence your source provides. Reread your notes after transcription to be sure they are accurate.

3. Don’t ignore contradictory evidence.

An argument built upon an incomplete source base will always be as weak as its foundation. Cast your net widely during research, and deal honestly with the sources you find.

4. Acknowledge your biases.

Give particular thought to the ways in which your perspective has been shaped by the era and culture in which you were born and raised, by your education, and by the expectations of the communities to which you belong (by choice and by birth).

5. Acknowledge the biases in your source material.

Recognize that every human being is a complex individual whose existence is tied to a particular time and place.

6. Maintain transparency in research.

It should always be possible for other researchers to have access to the materials on which you based your work. Where your research results in the production of new sources (such as oral histories, in audio or transcript form) donate the materials to an appropriate archive or library to facilitate their examination and use by others.

7. Use the most up-to-date data available

Don’t cherry-pick statistics; stay abreast of developments in your field.

8. Have your work read critically by those in the know.

Don’t avoid constructive feedback – seek it out at every stage of your research, writing, and conversation.

9. Be professional.

Use the common sense implicit in the ‘golden rule’ found in multiple cultures – don’t lie, don’t blackmail, don’t harass others, don’t abuse your position of power. Accept that your work will be critiqued by others, and be prepared to give those critiques fair hearing (even if you continue to disagree). When you are wrong, in any situation, apologize without qualification.

10. Always back up your research.

Photocopy your notes; store digital copies of your work on more than one computer; use CDs, a jump-drive, or an external hard-drive to create a movable back-up of your work; utilize online storage where applicable. Each of these methods allows you to maintain the integrity of your research despite the vagaries of natural disasters like floods and fire, the hiccups inherent in using modern technology, and the awful moment when you realize you deleted your notes because of too many clicks of the mouse.

11. The American Historical Association should:

a. defend historians against baseless partisan attacks of any kind

b. standardize the ramifications for misconduct within the profession

c. communicate information about situations of alleged and proven misconduct as clearly as possible

d. press graduate programs to include discussion of professional ethics in their training of new historians

Catherine Denial is assistant professor of History at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She is currently at work on a manuscript which examines gender and the politics of kinship in early 19th-century Dakota and Ojibwe country. Denial is also a project historian with Bringing History Home, a TAH grant-supported professional development program for K–5 teachers in Iowa.


1. John Wiener, Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Politics, and Fraud in the Ivory Tower. New York: The New Press, 2005.