Getting Proper Credit

Many scholars complain that trade books use their work without credit. Here's a case of someone who found that going public with his complaint resulted in acknowledgment of his work.

May 24, 2012

Using someone's research findings without acknowledging the contribution is frowned upon (to put it mildly) in academe. But many scholarly authors say that their findings end up in trade books without appropriate credit all the time.

Richard Labunski, a professor at the University of Kentucky, was determined to fight for credit for his work, and this week he won an acknowledgment from Regnery Publishing that one of its books should have provided credit to his work on James Madison. But Regnery acted only after Labunski went public with a detailed explanation on History News Network of his grievance, and of why the material in question couldn't have come from another source -- and of how Regnery had not followed through on pledges to give his work credit.

He says his story shows that scholars can insist on credit -- using public exposure when private requests go unanswered.

The material in question appeared in Labunski's James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, published by Oxford University Press to good reviews. One chapter deals with Madison's election to the first Congress -- a race in which he upset another future president, James Monroe. Labunski argues that had Madison not won that election, and used his new seat to argue on behalf of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the evolution to American government might have have been quite different from what happened.

Late last year, Regnery Publishing released Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights and the Election That Saved a Nation. The author is Chris DeRose, a Phoenix lawyer.

In January, Labunski watched DeRose appear on C-SPAN's "Book TV," where DeRose explained why he decided to focus on the election that had captured Labunski's attention for his book. "I decided I would read everything that I could about this 1789 election, and what I found was that no one had ever written anything about it before I decided I was going to tell this story," DeRose said. Labunski writes that he was stunned to hear that boast, when he knew that he (and others) had in fact written about the election. And Labunski said he became angry when he read DeRose's book and found unattributed research in it.

While he notes similarities to his work in the topics, order and sources, Labunski was particularly frustrated that research he alone did could end up in another's book, without credit. This was work Labunski did to figure out the voting participation rates in various counties in the new district that Madison was elected to represent.

No records of voter eligibility existed. So Labunski tracked down tax records to determine voter eligibility, county by county. Then he used records of how many voted to discuss voter participation. Labunski wrote that he had to make some educated guesses about, for example, names that could have been female or male (women not yet having the right to vote). DeRose's book, Labunski found, had the exact same voter participation figures without any credit. He considered this a smoking gun regarding the use of his work, since nobody else had done the calculations he did.

In his HNN essay, Labunski writes that this sort of omission is a serious scholarly mistake. "I have not used the word 'plagiarism' to describe what happened in this case. Although using someone’s work without identifying the source clearly fits within the definition of that word, I avoided it because most people think of plagiarism as copying someone's words and passing them off as their own. When words appear in a previous work almost verbatim, it is easier to demonstrate that the transgression was intentional. But in a case like this -- where the accusation is that he used my research without credit -- the proof is much harder to come by...."

Scholars rely on publishers to make sure their work doesn't appear without credit, Labunski writes. "Although book publishers are often understaffed, an editor at Regnery should have noticed that no source was given for the turnout percentages and required Mr. DeRose to provide such information," he says.

Labunski also asked Regnery to correct the situation by, among other things, acknowledging the lack of credit. And while he writes that he was promised that various changes would be made, they didn't happen until this week, when he went public. Regnery's webpage for the DeRose book didn't include any notice about the matter on Tuesday, but as of Wednesday it says: "Material was based on Richard Labunski, Ph.D., James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights (Oxford University Press, 2006). This material was contained on page 247 of the hardcover edition of Founding Rivals, and was not cited."

Regnery released a statement Wednesday morning in which it said: "Regnery History has responded to Mr. Labunski's concerns regarding our book, Founding Rivals by Chris DeRose. We have taken the necessary actions to give his research proper credit and to correct any misconceptions in the marketplace, including updating the eBook version, our website, and adding the appropriate notes to future printings of the book."

Labunski, via e-mail, said that Regnery pledged to take those actions six weeks ago -- but was doing so "two days after my essay was posted on the History News Network Web site. I doubt they would have taken these actions had I not discussed this situation publicly."

DeRose said via e-mail: "It was a total accident for which I'm very sorry. For the rest of my life, this will be used to portray me as something I'm not, something I've never been accused of in my academic or professional career."


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