AHA Activities

Council Decides on Complaint Filed with the Professional Division

AHA Staff, March 2001

The Council of the American Historical Association has completed its review of a complaint filed by Robert V. Bruce charging James A. Mackay with violating the AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and hereby makes public its determination. The complaint was filed with the AHA's Professional Division, which found that Mackay had violated "The Statement on Plagiarism and Related Misuses of the Work of Other Authors," a part of the Statement on Standards, and recommended publication of its finding. Mackay appealed the finding and the recommendation. In accordance with procedures stipulated by the "Addendum on Policies and Procedures" of the Statement on Standards, the appeal was heard by an Appeals Committee, which made a formal recommendation to Council. The Council considered the committee's report at its January 4, 2001, meeting.

The complaint lodged by Robert Bruce alleged numerous instances of plagiarism of his book, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (Boston, 1973) by James Mackay in the writing of his biography, Alexander Graham Bell: A Life (Edinburgh, 1997; reprinted New York, 1998). In its review of the complaint, the Professional Division examined not only the alleged "plagiarism," commonly construed as the direct appropriation of another's words in sequence, but also the larger question of "related misuse," which, as defined in the Statement on Standards, is deemed to include "the appropriation of concepts, data, or notes all disguised in newly crafted sentences." Accordingly, "misuse" is the larger, more comprehensive term that includes but is not limited to "plagiarism" narrowly defined.

The Professional Division presented evidence of plagiarism and misuse under three rubrics, which together articulate the range of activities required to compose a work of history. They are: (a) research, in this case archival research; (b) conceptualization and framing, that is, making sense of the archival findings and generating a framework or logic for its presentation; (c) writing as such.

In all three aspects of the historian's endeavor, the Professional Division was able to demonstrate a consistent and constant appropriation of Bruce's work on the part of Mackay, thereby substantiating the factual basis of Bruce's complaint. Mackay consistently uses and quotes archival material directly from Bruce without attribution, even down to an identical use of ellipses; indeed, he even repeats the location of the Bell archives noted by Bruce, despite the fact that the archives had moved in the period between the publication of Bruce's book and his own. Years of archival work on Bruce's part is thus appropriated without acknowledgment by Mackay, all of whose footnotes cite original archival sources.

Similarly, side-by-side comparison of numerous pages of the two books demonstrates that the conceptualization and framing of Mackay's biography was substantially derived from Bruce's work. In many ways, the argument concerning misuse is made most convincingly on this basis, since the side-by-side comparison indicates that in page after page the overall framing of the two narratives follows an identical order and includes identical material, even down to irrelevant anecdotes.

Finally, on the question of direct plagiarism, the misuse was both blatant and difficult to pin down. Mackay seldom directly copies Bruce for more than 10 or 15 words in sequence, but the actual sentences are nearly identical, except for alterations in verbs and adjectives here and there, leaving substantially unchanged the actual phrasing and content of the sentences.

In the Council's opinion, violation of the professional ethics governing historical scholarship and writing by Mackay's wholesale appropriation of Bruce's work in all three documented areas is so egregious that publication of this finding is warranted.