McPherson's newest plagiarism

[Amended 12/6/09 to neutralize any implied aspersions on Sears' editing of the GBM papers]

America's Greatest Living Civil War Historian has contributed an essay to the Waugh/Gallagher collection Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War. He claims there may have been contention between Lincoln and McClellan. If true, this will overturn decades of consensus.

Well done, McPherson.

Actually, what makes this essay interesting ("My Enemies are Crushed") is that yet again McPherson meanders over the edge of Princeton University's plagiarism guidelines. Princeton was his employer and its policies applied to his students.

A brief recap. In Tried by War (as well as subsequent works to date), McPherson passed himself off as the inventor of Clausewitz's concept "concentration in time." He also lifted text from work by Archer Jones and presented Jones's work as his own writing. (See here and follow the links for more.)

In Lincoln, McPherson played a game with sources. His text presented analysis, summation, and interpretation cited exclusively to primary sources. In other words, after decades of Linconology by various prizewinners, he presented the conclusions and judgements of giants as if they were his own - as if his own reading of primary material (overwhelmingly, Lincoln's correspondence) produced these already well-known, even shopworn judgements. By omitting secondary source references or appropriate bibliographical notes, Lincoln represented a claim to have depended on no one to resolve historical conflicts, problems, and controversies and further that such resolution was reached by the author through reference to Lincoln's correspondence.

BTW, Princeton:
... you may footnote a paper diligently only to discover that you can hardly find an original idea or sentence of your own. Then you’ll know you have more work to do in order to develop a substantial original idea or thesis...
Or you could take the hit for unoriginality and just synthesize with proper attribution.

Now, in "My Enemies are Crushed," McPherson makes what appears to be a false claim of personal research.

Wars within a War captures proceedings from a conference at which McPherson spoke. One of the editors says, "We are most indebted to our ten colleagues, who took time from hectic schedules to prepare excellent lectures and then cheerfully turn them into essays..." This "turning into" process is visible at the head of McPherson's end notes where he writes
All citations of McClellan's letters and reports will be to the original sources. These documents are also published in a superbly edited collection, George B. McClellan, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989) and can be found there by the appropriate date.
Why cite to the original source if one did not consult the original source? A claim is implied: here are my sources, and for you, to make it easy to check up, I recommend this book...

Now, a typical McPherson citation in this essay is "McClellan to Ellen, October 11, 1861, McClellan Papers, LC." I chose this at random. The reader can use October 11, 1861 (or any McP-cited date) to try to find a corresponding document in Sears' compilation but he cannot use this citation to find a message from McClellan to Ellen in the McClellan Papers, LC. It's not a date-specific problem, either.

There is no body of work in the Library of Congress's McClellan Papers corresponding to McClellan's letters to his wife so marked and labeled. Not in the index, not in boxes, nowhere among the papers. Not dated, not named, not filed.

Here's how Sears locates this item: B-8;47. Allow me to translate.

From microfilm reel number 47 - made by a commercial corporation photographing material found in the LC's McClellan bin B-8 - among the hundreds of documents located there and on the reel, you will find the undated, unaddressed source, which is a book of notes. This ambiguity is as much specificity as the microfilm allows, for the book has no title. When you do find it among thousands of pages, you will not locate it by the date McPherson gives: the only way you will be able to find it is by matching texts against Sears' work because the notes in the book for this item are undated. Sears has added a date that represents his best judgement of when it might have been written - carefully bracketing it to show readers interpolation. This is an editorial bonus, not an intrinsic part of the underlying document.

The document contains another editorial addition. At the head of it, in his book, Sears has inserted "To Mary Ellen McClellan." He added this himself and italicizes it, so that the reader will not think it part of the original document.

Sears, as editor, added a further piece of deduction: he inserts in brackets, "Washington," thus giving us his best thinking on where the "letter" he believes was sent to "Mary Ellen McClellan" was written from on the possible or likely date of October 11, 1861 (which date represents his judgement).

To recap: Sears' editing work began with (worst case) many notes undated in a book that may or may not contain drafts of letters that were sent or not sent, revised or left as-is, at a time occasionally specified in the text, from places intermittently identified in the header, to persons rarely specified. Sears may have been spot on - he certainly undertook the reconstruction such a project called for. The point is, however excellent you rate Sears' editing and judgement, what is presented as a letter in his book cannot be found in the LC as such as cited by McPherson. James McPherson's "McClellan to Ellen, October 11, 1861, McClellan Papers, LC" makes no sense unless rendered with credit to Sears' volume.

Sears' editing of the LC material is not at issue. He will vigorously defend his calls. Assume he did a brilliant job. Sears' research and deductions produced a class of artifacts called "McClellan's letters to his wife" that contain embedded Searsian material. You cannot cite LC material by reference to Searsian embeds. Better to cite Sears.

Searsian artifacts vary from the artifacts W.C. Prime presented as "McClellan's letters to his wife" in McClellan's Own Story, and both of those vary from the material found in a book in the LC cited by McPherson. Additionally, Prime's claimed interactions with May McClellan point to the possibility of a fourth set of artifacts, a letter collection held by Mary Ellen that no researcher has ever seen. Each of these unique instances require separate citation; none are one-to-one correlations.

Let me put this in stark, even exaggerated terms: the McPherson citation McClellan to Ellen, October 11, 1861, cannot exist outside of the pages of The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan. Sears assigned the dating. It's his best judgement. The addressee (Mary Ellen or Ellen) also belongs to Sears, who had to read the note and decide if it was a letter and to whom it might have been sent. McPherson cannot slight Sears' research and decisions by pretending these additions are present in the LC document. They are the intellectual property of Stephen Sears, not the world at large, not the LC, and they cannot be found in the LC in raw data. They represent an editorial correlation of multiple sources with judgement applied to ambiguity.

And so, if you are the Greatest Living Civil War Historian, you cannot pretend that "by the way, Sears has got this stuff too," when in fact, Sears is the source of all missing dates, all missing locations, and all the addressing to Mary Ellen, none of which are present at source; and when the source does not index this as a letter.

Again, no one has ever seen an actual letter from McClellan to his wife during this period of his command. No one has even seen an authenticated copy. Letters existed only on the word of GBM's literary executor, W.C. Prime, who after years of collaboration with GBM never saw one, believed any that existed destroyed, and only gives us after-GBM-death hearsay about their existence from daughter May McClellan, who would not allow him to look at one. No Library of Congress collection holds letters falsely cited as such by McPherson as from McClellan to his wife.

Princeton says you cite "to permit your reader to check on your use of source material." McPherson clearly understood this when he wrote citations will be made to sources - he seems to set himself up as a researcher among the Papers with a friendly tip for those who cannot get to that still-warm McPherson bench in the Library of Congress.

It is impossible that McPherson is not sourcing Sears' collection -because if he was not, his citation would make no sense. Look, also, at McPherson's several citations to the Barlow Papers. These too are taken from Sears's Civil War Papers but cited to the Barlow collection. The McClellan Papers, LC, could have been cited by McP, but he would have had to either develop a citational scheme of his own (to the book in question) or at least used microfilm citation. By truncating Sears's citations, a trail of dissimulation results.

A few words from Princeton University (emphasis in the original):
The most important thing to know is this: if you fail to cite your sources, whether deliberately or inadvertently, you will still be found responsible for the act of plagiarism.
Failing to acknowledge one’s sources isn’t the only form of academic dishonesty. Citing a source when the material wasn’t obtained from that source also constitutes a violation of University regulations. Students commit false citation when they cite sources they didn’t directly consult; such a violation is subject to the same penalties as plagiarism.
Did McPherson properly cite Sears as his original source with his also/BTW clause? If not (and I think the answer obvious) he is a plagiarist under Princeton's rules.

This is his third strike. Let him be out.

UPDATE: Stephen Sears comments.