Image for post
Image for post

Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stealing Words

Stealing is wrong, right? Always wrong? Maybe it’s the word ‘stealing’ that is not so quite defined especially when it comes to Doris Kearns Goodwin. It all comes down to semantics and perspective.

Who Doris Kearns Goodwin is

The odds are that only those who love to read history books and biographies know who Doris Kearns Goodwin is. If you do, than Ms. Goodwin’s name is probably very familiar to you. She has written many biographies on famous historical people. Her portfolio includes:

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys: An American Saga

Her success has been phenomenal until the Fitzgerald and Kennedy book came out. That’s when the whole sordid story came out.

The Sordid Story

It came out in 1988. Stephen Ambrose had just been accused of plagiarism. The hunt was now open for more incidents. It turned out successful as readers found stolen words from Doris Kearns Goodwin in her books.

Many instances were discovered where Ms. Goodwin had used someone else’s words even as far as entire paragraphs and did not give them complete and accurate credit. Now at this point if Ms. Goodwin was listening to me say this, she would interject and declare that she had given credit. What she calls credit, my college professors would have still called plagiarism so I think we can safely call it that still. Yet, Ms. Goodwin persists in saying that it was all clear that the words were not claimed as her own: “…there were always footnotes to the authors. So there’s no way you could really be claiming them as your own if you point your way to that person every step along the way.” (

Hold on a minute here! She used the other authors’ words verbatim but just put their name in a footnote? I’m sorry, but I was taught in school that if you use anyone else’s words without quotation marks around them and cite who originally said them that it was plagiarism. I could get kicked out of school and not get my degree for doing that. What does that say to me? That is wrong no matter what. So a footnote and no quotes is totally unacceptable.

Ms. Goodwin goes on to explain how the process of taking notes during that time also was a reason for the ‘mistake’. In her interview with Katie Couric, she says, “But what happened in my case was that in those days I was taking everything down in long hand, even writing the manuscript in long hand. So I would take long hand notes on maybe 200 books, and then years later — it was a 10-year process writing that book — when I went to use the notes, I thought I’d already fully paraphrased them, but instead there were some phrases that were still left from the actual author’s words.” (Ibid.) Did you think to double check? Even in the archaic days with no computers, you could easily double check.

The original author of the words appeared to have contacted Ms. Goodwin as she stated that she corrected the plagiarism and everything appeared to be just fine. That is until Mr. Ambrose’s plagiarism was revealed. Then Ms. Goodwin’s transgressions came to light again. Talk began about her errors. Yet debates continue on whether or not ….

Did She Really Steal?

This question is still debated among readers and scholars and even legal specialists. Many in literary and historical circles feel that it was a big deal made out of nothing. I read that the New York Historical Society ignored the claims of plagiarism and awarded her $50,000 for one of her books. ( My first resopnse is “What?”! She steals other people’s work and you award her money? I mean she has admitted that “she failed to acknowledge scores of quotations or close paraphrases from other authors” and even admitted that her publisher “paid to settle a legal claim by one author under a confidentiality agreement”. ( Upon review, Ms. Goodwin discovered numerous direct quotations from resources she had used but not cited. She had some books destroyed and revised editions printed.

The question then comes to if she really did plagiarize her works. Is an accident really plagiarism? Is a footnote enough to avoid the accusation?

I always fall back to my university days as a student. It is in the university where we learn the ethics of our professions and in many instances the ethics of life. It is in the university where we are taught and where it is drilled into us with severe consequences that plagiarism is never acceptable. It is there where I learned using anyone else’s words without proper citation is so bad that I could get expelled from the university and not be able to attend any others. Even accidents were grounds for expulsion. There was no excuse as we were to go over the papers again and again and even have it proofread to help avoid such disaster. It is that important.

She made a mistake. Fix it but don’t excuse it. No matter what the reason behind the ‘accident’, she plagiarized.

Written by

Writer for ten years, lover of education, and degrees in business, history, and English. Striving to become a Renassiance woman.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store