This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 24, 2009.

Attribution Lacking, or, the day a Dutch newspaper stole my grandmother

It was October 25, and I suppose it was the middle of the night, given the time difference between the Netherlands and Virginia, when a Dutch newspaper nabbed my grandmother.

Let me start at the beginning. I had written a piece for The Chronicle, published online in early October, in which I described what my grandmother had said about the so-called Great Depression of the 1930s, and how it was not as bad as the depression of the 1870s. I then went on to draw some parallels between that downturn and our current one.

Three weeks later, a financial newspaper in Amsterdam, Het Financieele Dagblad, ran a front-page story on the financial crisis, comparing it to — well — the depression of the 1870s. The comparisons I had drawn were there, though in a slightly different order. The hook that started the piece, though, said that the financial historian and biographer Ron Chernow (misspelled as Chertow) had learned from his grandmother (a kindly "Oma") that the Depression of the 1930s was not nearly as bad as that of the 1870s. That was my Oma.

I would not have noticed the article. I can read Dutch only with a dictionary, and while I have been to Amsterdam, I do not invest in European commodities — say, tulip futures. I don't read the financial newspapers there. But a student in a Dutch journalism school did read the story, and he became troubled by the author's quotation from Chernow. Quickly resolving the misspelling, the student, Martin Milicevic, could find no reference to Chernow's grandmother in any of his work. A Web search for grandmother and "Panic of 1873" turned up my article. Little details about rapeseed and petroleum, city mortgages in Paris and Vienna, and the role of the Bank of England appeared in both. Milicivec then contacted the Dutch author, who stated that he had come up with the idea on his own, but that later, when he saw my story about the grandmother, it seemed a perfect hook. Why not credit my grandmother? Sloppiness, he said.

I contacted the Dutch paper. The editor in chief acknowledged that his journalist had read the article and should have credited the parts that he had used. "I cannot however but disagree with your grave accusation of plagiarism," he said.

"You may have been the first to have pointed out publicly the similarities between both crises. But Mr. De Boer rightly claims that this is not a unique achievement." The editor cited his author's study of noted scholars on the 19th century, along with "financial experts" on the Panic of 1873. (I have found only one financial expert on that topic; he works for a French investment firm and has been very busy recently.) The author had taken most of the details from Wikipedia, I was told. I checked entries in the online encyclopedia in Dutch, English, and German: No mention of my comparison to today's financial meltdown, although an English posting did provide one (properly footnoted!) detail from my article.

Whatever you call what happened to me, the experience raises a more important point about how we know what we know — and how we acknowledge it. People who hated history in grade school view the subject as a collection of facts. In a certain sense they are right: Historians trade (in part) in verifiable events that no person can own or copyright. German tanks rolled into Poland in 1939; British exports to America surged in 1816. But any historian will show you the wrinkles on her forehead from combing a dozen archives, sweeping through a thousand facts, lining them up with other observations, then pulling fresh insights from the thicket of thorns. Those insights are our wild blackberries, and we have the scars to prove it.

Historians show their work — their research in the archives and their indebtedness to other authors — with footnotes. Journalists show their sources by mentioning the authors' names. I have sympathy for reporters with impossible deadlines in an age when newspaper subscriptions are declining. It is also admittedly difficult to recognize the blackberries when you do research outside your own field. Sometimes the unique insight of a scholar might seem commonplace if you read it quickly. So while a newcomer to a field might say that wheat became a kind of liquid, and easier to store and sell, in the 1860s (William Cronon), or that new household technologies turned household work from family work into women's work (Susan Strasser), or that Southern Democrats sought to destroy the legitimacy of the Republican Party in the post-Civil War South (Eric Foner), we historians recognize the discoverer. We may debate who found the blackberry first, but we don't dispute the utility of that little nugget: an insight that compresses a great deal of research into a simple form. While the insight is verifiable, like a fact, it is not just a fact.

Once discovered, those arguments become axioms, and eventually the traces of their authorship disappear. Scholars often find such effacement frustrating, but not because we want to footnote everything or demand credit for all our observations. Instead, usually decades later, we want to know whom to blame for possible mistakes. Where were the archives? How did she conclude that? Outsiders call the people who ask those questions "revisionists." We call them historians.

Revising the details, checking the facts, finding new archives: Those are what is most exciting for historians. Failing to give credit deliberately destroys the traces, leaving an error that serves as an axiom. It makes us grind our teeth.

In these days of Wikipedia and blogs, Facebook and Twitter, traces disappear faster than ever before. But ironically, Internet reproduction actually serves to reproduce the blackberries intact, and that makes them easier to find. In the days before the photocopy machine, reproducing the whole substance of another scholar's work was laborious. Historians made short summaries that occasionally mangled meaning. With photocopying, exact reproduction became relatively cheap. With Web pages, cutting and pasting is instant, and duplication is precise: quotations, observations, references to grandmothers, the whole enchilada.

That makes it easier for professors to catch. We can word-search a string of sentences on Google as well as anyone. As a result, plagiarism becomes a different art: introducing little observations that differ somewhat from the borrowed piece. Rearrange paragraphs, add details or quotes, however spurious or ad hoc. If it's done properly, no one will know. But the thing about blackberries is that other scholars appreciate the subtle details of the scent and recognize them days or weeks later. My grandmother was a detail that could not easily be disguised.

I called the nursing home in Florida a few weeks ago, and my grandmother was still there. She was none the worse for wear, and had no recollection of being stolen by the Dutch newspaper. She told me I should stop studying so much, and call more often.

Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William and Mary. Among his books are Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Crash: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Panics, forthcoming from Knopf in the spring of 2010.

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