Patchwriting by Rick Perlstein (and Craig Shirley)

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Alexandra Alter, "Reagan Book Sets Off Debate", NYT 8/4/2014:

Mr. Perlstein’s new 856-page book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which comes out Tuesday, is proving to be almost as divisive as Reagan himself. It has drawn both strong reviews from prominent book critics, and sharp criticism from some scholars and commentators who accuse Mr. Perlstein of sloppy scholarship, improper attribution and plagiarism.

The most serious accusations come from a fellow Reagan historian, Craig Shirley, who said that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized several passages from Mr. Shirley’s 2004 book, “Reagan’s Revolution,” and used Mr. Shirley’s research numerous times without proper attribution.

In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

The controversy has three different parts: Perlstein's use of online notes instead of notes within the published book; the ethical status of Perlstein's use of material from Shirley's book, with or without attribution; and the legal status of that usage.  The most problematic of the accusations seem to be instances of what has been called "patchwriting", and that's the aspect of the controversy that I want to focus on.

My conclusion will be that Perlstein did indeed take idea-combinations and associated word-choices and word-sequences from Shirley; and he sometimes did this without specific attribution; but what he did seems to be within the normal boundaries of research methods for narrative histories, as indicated by the fact that Shirley did quite similar things with his own sources.


[The first few commenters have unfortunately chosen to fuss about the fact that Perlstein put his source notes online instead of at the end of the book. In my opinion, that's the least interesting part of the controversy. But the commenters' focus is probably explained by the fact that I made a remark on this topic at the start of this post; so I've moved the remark to the end, in the hopes of encouraging some readers to make it as far the the post's real point.]

Rick Perlstein's book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, and Craig Shirley's book is Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, 2005.

Here are the "Specific Examples of Infringement" given in a 7/25/2014 letter from Shirley's lawyers to Simon & Schuster:

Let's take up the first "Specific Example of Infringement", referencing p. 771 of Perlstein's book as copying from p. 297 of Shirley's book. This is the example that's been most widely discussed. What we'll find is

  • Perlstein almost certainly took material from Shirley in writing the cited sentence
  • Perlstein's Source Notes, though they do reference Shirley's book 125 times, do not cite this instance
  • The relationship is an example of what has been called "patchwriting", which has been defined as "restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source"
  • Patchwriting is common in this sort of narrative history — Shirley himself seems to have indulged in the same practice — see here for evidence

Here's the relevant segment of Perlstein's online "Source Notes" — the numbers refer to pages of his book:

Here's the stretch of Perlstein's book spanning these notes, with the noted items highlighted in yellow, and the  alleged infringing passage highlighted in red:


As you can see, the allegedly infringing passage is not sourced – and it falls between an item sourced to Texas Monthly ("Downtown, the hustlers") and an item sourced to John Calvin Bachelor's book Aren't you glad you joined the Republicans? ("For nostalgia's sake").

Here's the relevant passage from Shirley's 2005 book, with the critical sentence highlighted in red:

(Note that Perlstein did cite the next paragraph of Shirley's book as the source of the "inflated elephant" anecdote, suggesting that he was not trying to hide anything.

Anyhow, here's another side-by-side comparison of the claimed-to-be-infringing sentences:

Shirley Perlstein
Even its "red light" district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed the windows of several smut peddlers. The city's anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.

This seems to be the most serious of the complaints that I've seen so far, since it involves an identical 11-word sequence, and the juxtaposition in the same sentence with the phrase "smut peddlars" and the idea of dancing elephants in their windows. Shirley's other complaints, at least the ones detailed in the cited lawyer's letter,  seem less serious — they involve brief paraphrases, possible borrowing of evocative details, or re-expressions of similar content that might have been drawn from any number of sources.

For completeness, we should check whether the shared language in this sentence might have come in whole or in part from one of the sources that pre-date both books, such as the 1976 Texas Monthly story or Bachelor's 1996 book. But on the basis of the evidence available so far, it looks like Perlstein is guilty in this case of patchwriting without attribution.

As discussed at length in an earlier LLOG post ("Patchwriting", 6/13/2014), there's considerable disagreement about whether patchwriting is culpable plagiarism from a policy point of view — some people call it "a very serious matter" while others assert that it "should be acceptable to writing teachers".  It's obviously more serious when it's done without attribution.

But this sort of thing seems to be very difficult to avoid in narrative history, and there's no bright line, in my opinion, between more and less culpable examples.

Shirley's Own Patchwriting

For an example of how easy it is to create apparently-well-founded accusations of this sort of thing, consider this passage, about that same 1976 convention, from Shirley's book:

Tempers were running high. A confrontation involving Nelson Rockefeller took place on the floor before the vote, when a Utah delegate ripped out the white phone that connected the New York delegation to the Ford command post after he saw Rocky had taken a Reagan placard from a delegate in the North Carolina contingent. Perspiring heavily through his shirt, the Vice President held up the phone and attached cord for all to see, but many saw the image as a metaphor of his inability to communicate with his own party.

Now compare it with this New York Times story, which contains a similar passage:

… Vice President Rockefeller stole a Reagan-for-President sign from a North Carolina delegate … In angry retaliation, a delegate from Utah stormed across the aisle to the New York seats … and ripped out the white telephone that links the delegation to the Ford control trailer. [...] Then the crowd parted and Mr. Rockefeller … posed for the cameras holding the white telephone and its dismembered white cord high in the air. [...] "He held it up. He wanted me to take it," said a laughing Mr. Rockefeller, perspiration soaking his blue-and-white striped shirt.

Did Shirley borrow the details and paraphrase the language from this NYT story (which he does not footnote, though he references an R.W. Apple story in the same edition)? It seems likely that he did – there are some fragments that actually count as patchwriting, in my opinion:

Shirley NYT
 a Utah delegate ripped out the white phone that connected the New York delegation to the Ford command post  a delegate from Utah stormed across the aisle to the New York seats … and ripped out the white telephone that links the delegation to the Ford control trailer
 Perspiring heavily through his shirt, the Vice President held up the phone and attached cord for all to see Mr Rockefeller … posed for the cameras holding up the white telephone and its dismembered white cord high in the air … perspiration soaking his blue-and-white striped shirt.

Should the New York Times threaten to sue Mr. Shirley for plagiarism? I don't think so — this seems to me like a commonplace use of published sources, though he should have footnoted the NYT story, or given some other source for the event's details.

(I should note that this is the first and only passage in Shirley's book that I checked — I picked it because it has some vivid details, like Rockefeller sweating through his shirt while holding up the white phone with its dangling cord, which I expected to be able to find mentioned in contemporary news stories. Given that the first test turns up a source that has apparently been the basis for patchwriting without attribution, it seems likely that that are more than a few other cases elsewhere in Shirley's book.)

So in the end, my judgment is that Mr. Perlstein's sins are generally similar to those of Mr. Shirley, who ought perhaps to re-read John 8:1-11.


Some other relevant links, among many:

Criag Shirley, "A statement in response to the stories that have appeared regarding my 2005 work Reagan’s Revolution and the soon-to-be-released book The Invisible Bridge", 8/3/2014
David Weigel, "The Simplifier", Slate 8/5/2014
David Weigel, "Read the Letters at the Center of the New Reagan Book 'Plagiarism' Controversy", Slate 8/5/2014
Paul Krugman, "Sliming Rick Perlstein", NYT 8/5/2014
David Dayen, "The right’s 'plagiarism' scam: How low it will stoop to protect Reagan’s legacy", Salon 8/6/2014
Tim Cavanaugh, "Rick Perlstein: Probable Plagiarist, Definite Jerk", National Review Online 8/6/2014
Jeffrey Lord, "Is Rick Perlstein the new Doris Kearns Goodwin?", The American Spectator 8/7/2014
Henry Farrell, "Reagan and plagiarism", Crooked Timber 8/7/2014


There have been complaints that Perlstein relies on online "Source Notes" rather than putting endnotes in the book itself. From Alter's NYT article again:

The debate about Mr. Perlstein’s book also calls into question the growing practice of shifting endnotes out of print books and onto the web. In what Mr. Perlstein calls “a publishing innovation,” readers of “The Invisible Bridge” are directed to a trove of digital citations on Mr. Perlstein’s website.

He and his publisher said they moved the endnotes online not just to save money — the notes would have made the hardcover edition unwieldy and expensive at 1,000-plus pages — but also to make his research more transparent by providing links to the books, newspaper clippings and news reports that Mr. Perlstein drew on. “I want to expand this idea of history as a collective enterprise,” he said. “My notion is that people will read this book with their iPhones open.”

But many academics and publishers remain uncomfortable with the practice, saying it requires readers to take an extra step to find a writer’s sources, and that online documentation could be easily lost. “The concern for me is that the URLs won’t live forever, and future scholars could be frustrated if they cannot easily find the notes,” said Bruce Nichols, the publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

It would be fair to complain that the Source Notes exist only on Rick Perlstein's personal web site, and that the link to those notes is deeply buried in the book — in fact the very last sentence — and that the link leads only to Perlstein's home page, which is two steps removed from the Source Notes.

But with all due respect, Mr. Nichols' complaint, as reported in above, is deeply silly. He might plausibly argue that Perlstein's Source Notes should have been deposited with the Internet Archive, or with WikiSource, or with a library that undertakes to keep them available indefinitely, or all of the above, and that a link should have been prominently featured at the start of the book. Even more plausibly, he might argue that Perstein and/or his publisher should use something like the DOI system to ensure that future scholars can find the official version of the Source Notes, or perhaps a series of authoritatively time-stamped editions of them.

But if you want to know why the publishing industry is in trouble, just ponder the fact that the leader of a major publishing house responded to this issue by noting that "URLs won't live forever". This is like an executive of the 19th-century horse-harness industry complaining that automobiles cause air pollution.

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22 Comments »

  1. Michael Watts said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

    if you want to know why the publishing industry is in trouble, just ponder the fact that the leader of a major publishing house responded to this issue by noting that "URLs won't live forever"

    This isn't "deeply silly" at all. Here's a section of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link_rot :

    > A number of studies have examined the prevalence of link rot on the web, in academic literature, and in digital libraries. In a 2003 experiment, Fetterly et al. discovered that about one link out of every 200 disappeared each week from the internet. McCown et al. (2005) discovered that half of the URLs cited in D-Lib Magazine articles were no longer accessible 10 years after publication, and other studies have shown link rot in academic literature to be even worse (Spinellis, 2003, Lawrence et al., 2001). Nelson and Allen (2002) examined link rot in digital libraries and found that about 3% of the objects were no longer accessible after one year.

    A bibliography published inside the book is part of the book. A bibliography published somewhere other than the book is not necessarily accessible, or existent, if you have the book.

    It's common to say that once something is published on the internet, it will stay forever. But that's a particular form of a warning meant to guide behavior — what's really true is that once something is published on the internet, it might stay forever, and you'll have no way of getting rid of it. But information vanishes from the internet without hope of recovery all the time.

    [(myl) Link rot is certainly a real problem, and it would not be at all silly to consider ways to prevent it or remedy it. I wrote about the problem almost ten years ago, in "Semen, Green Rice, and the Rate of Internet Decay":

    [E]ven a link retention rate as high as .84 means that internet cross-references become useless on a time scale that's small compared to the traditional life cycle of scholarship. After 10 years, only 18% of references would still be valid. After 16 years — that's how long it's been since the 2nd edition of the OED was published in 1989 — only 6 percent of the links would still work. After 76 years — the time elapsed since the first edition of the OED in 1928 — only about 2 links in a million would be valid.

    What strikes me as silly is the idea that the cure is to keep using conventional printed-on-paper endnotes, indefinitely into the future.]

  2. Eric G said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    I think even this example is less obvious as an example of "patchwriting" than you're implying. One issue is that 7 words of the 11 word sequence is a relatively common phrase. If I do a Google search on:

    "festooned with red, white, and blue bunting" -perlstein -shirley

    I get 20,900 hits. I think that some of the phrases used by Shirley may have stuck in Perlstein's mind, but it's not at all clear to me that anything like copying occurred.

    [(myl) Indeed -- I noticed that. But "red light district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting" is unique to those two.]

  3. Maurice Buxton said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

    I'm getting the feeling I usually get when seeing these "plagiarism" kerfuffles — "wait, is that IT?" Usually, as here, the infringements being quoted with sanctimonious horror are a few similar but short passages from two lengthy (sometimes very lengthy) books. I find myself thinking "what else you got?" and then realising that this is the best the accuser has, because if they had anything better they would already have quoted it.

    Paraphrasing, or even directly repeating, short blocks of words from a much-consulted source is surely the sort of thing that is very easy to do subconsciously, and frankly no big deal in any case. If current standards consider that to be reputation-destroying plagiarism, then those standards are demented.

  4. Carrington Dixon said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    Of course, the other problem with notes on the Web is that they may change without notice. These changes may be subtle or drastic. They may be simple corrections of typographical errors. Or they may be an attempt to quietly rewrite history.

    [(myl) Again, this is a well-known problem, for which several solutions have been proposed. See e.g. this discussion about time stamps on the arXiv and similar places.]

  5. Jason Merchant said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    I agree with Michael Watts here: scholarship without attribution of sources is not scholarship. Citation is the coin of the realm. If we divorce the sources from the body of the text, we very likely make it impossible for future scholars to check the originality and quality of the research, among many other things. Indications of the source of material must, in my view, remain with the material itself: it'd be fine—even welcome—to put links to sources online, or to put all the footnotes online in addition to having them with the book, but as long as the book is printed on paper, the footnotes need to be with it, too. There's a reason the Greeks insist on Πόθεν έσχες ('Where did you get it from?').

    [(myl) But as we move into the future, more and more of our reading is likely to be mediated by digital networks rather than paper, and some solutions to the problems of archival preservation in that realm will become increasingly important. ]

  6. Maurice Buxton said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    If we divorce the sources from the body of the text, we very likely make it impossible for future scholars to check the originality and quality of the research, among many other things. Indications of the source of material must, in my view, remain with the material itself: it'd be fine—even welcome—to put links to sources online, or to put all the footnotes online in addition to having them with the book, but as long as the book is printed on paper, the footnotes need to be with it, too.

    I don't think this really follows. Presumably if the owner of the book considers its potential disappearance to be a problem, then they can simply print off a copy of the notes to keep with it. In fact, I would expect this to become standard practice for any academic library if this method becomes popular.

    In effect, it transfers some printing costs from the publisher to the purchaser and adds some inconvenience to the mix, but there's no reason to suppose the notes would become permanently unavailable. And of course it only applies to paper copies of the work — ebook editions would presumably have all the notes included, and those are likely to become increasingly important, for cost reasons if nothing else.

    Of course, the other problem with notes on the Web is that they may change without notice. These changes may be subtle or drastic. They may be simple corrections of typographical errors. Or they may be an attempt to quietly rewrite history.

    This is a problem, but one that would also be solved by what we might call a "Ctrl-P insurance policy".

    More seriously, even if the notes stay the same, changes of this sort to the sources, and simple linkrot, are going to cause problems whether the notes are on paper or on the Web. But that's a problem with any source that's more transient than the work that refers to it. It's more severe with web links, but not unique to them — papers can be discarded from archives or lost in fires, etc, and for (say) reported conversations that weren't taped there was never any checkable source in the first place.

  7. John Roth said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 9:26 pm

    In the discussion of where to put the notes: at the end of the eBook, of course! This is the obvious place, it allows linkage from the footnote to the actual note and from there to the source (if it still exists at that URL).

    The fact that the publisher didn't do it doesn't speak well of either the publisher's thought process or their publication system.

  8. D.O. said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 12:19 am

    But the possibility to change notes post printing is actually an advantage. Imagine Mr. Perlstein didn't reference Mr. Shirley's work inadvertently and wants to correct his mistake. What is he (and the publisher) to do if the "official" version of the notes is the printed one? He can issue a correction on his website, but the readers won't probably be aware of that. It makes much more sense to make the "official" copy of both the book itself and the notes in some digital representation and then issue a printed volume as a convenience to the reader. As for disappearance of the links, give me a break. All books of any note should be digitally copied in many places, starting with the library of Congress, and if anything of value disappears from Internet it can be restored pretty easily.

  9. Jon said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 1:02 am

    The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine usually provides the answer to link rot, preserving multiple dated copies of old websites. And there is no reason why the url for a book's notes should not point straight to the copy in the Wayback Machine, to avoid the notes disappearing when the registration of a website lapses. The problem is that the Wayback Machine allows a url owner to block copying of a site, and even to delete old copies. So this cannot provide a complete solution unless there was a way that a url owner could grant a non-rescindable permission for the Wayback Machine to store a copy of a site.

  10. chris said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    The second example seems particularly bad (for the accusers, not for Perlstein): it's describing an event that actually happened, in public no less, in which Reagan either did or did not walk away after a short silence. (Of course if the incident is fabricated, it would be much stronger evidence of plagiarism, but that is presumably a line of argument Shirley would not care to make even, or perhaps especially, if it were so.)

    There really aren't a lot of other different ways to describe it besides rephrasing and using a different adjective to describe the quality of the silence. If you're going to describe the same event *at all*, of course your description is going to resemble someone else's description of the same event. At least, it had better.

    The last two have a similar issue: Mounger either did or didn't say what both passages attribute to him, and if he did, any indirect quote is (one hopes) going to resemble his exact words, whatever they were. Likewise, whatever actually happened between Hannaford and Wanniski is ultimately the source of both accounts of it.

    [(myl) It's possible that some or all of these events are known only through interviews that Shirley did with the participants. But there might well be other sources, for example in contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. Someone should check -- and presumably someone will, if the case actually goes to trial. Though as I understand the relevant law, copying facts would not constitute copyright violation.]

  11. Rick Perlstein said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    I do indeed plan to be working closely with the Internet Archive folks, and to set up a wiki-like system which makes not only the notes transparent, but the changes I've made to them.

  12. James Wimberley said,

    August 10, 2014 @ 6:21 am

    Somebody should point out that a proposed requirement to source every alleged fact in a work of scholarship defeats the purpose of the exercise. This is surely to justify important, novel, or controversial claims. Do I really need to reference my "2+2=4" to Principia Mathematica? It would drown the significant in a flood of trivia.

    In the sciences, the existence of textbooks – consolidations of the CW – reduces the problem of judgement. Is there a rule: "if it's in the textbook, you don't need to cite"?

  13. James Wimberley said,

    August 10, 2014 @ 6:26 am

    PS: I left out from the purposes of citation giving credit to previous scholars, if you are building immediately on their work.

    [(myl) But in a work of history, surely the single most important reason for citations (or other indications of the same information) is to answer the question "sez who?".

    And in fact, Shirley offers no source for the paragraph of his book where the contested "smut peddlers" material appears:

    Kansas City prepared for the invasion of the Republicans and hoped for a peaceful gathering. The city’s brand spanking new Kemper Arena would host the GOP convention and glistened white in the hot summer sun of 1976. Kansas City had spent millions to roll out the red carpet for the Grand Old Party. Even its “red light” district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers. The city’s Mayor even planned to cut up the mahogany gavel post from the podium following the convention, in order to sell pieces to souvenir collectors and generate even more revenue for the municipal treasury.

    This might comes from one or more contemporary news stories -- perhaps one of those he cites elsewhere in the book -- or perhaps from the memories of someone he interviewed. Or he might have invented some or all of it -- we don't know, because there's no endnote.]

  14. Joshua said,

    August 10, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

    The passage about the Mississippi delegation doesn't look anywhere close to plagiarism to me. It's describing facts which are part of the historical record (they were reported in newspapers contemporaneously) and doing so in different language than the source supposedly being plagiarized.

    [(myl) But many of Craig Shirley's complaints about Rick Perlstein are of exactly that type.]

  15. Adrian said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 6:06 am

    Eric G: "If I do a Google search on: "festooned with red, white, and blue bunting" -perlstein -shirley I get 20,900 hits."

    The headline figure is misleading. If you scroll through you will see that Google can only actually find 135 examples. (This still makes it quite a common phrase though.)

  16. Bernecky said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 6:36 am

    Dave Weigel, co-creator of a closed club for journalists (and then, only journalists of one political persuasion) is perhaps not the best person to cite re the desire/ability of information to be free.

    As for the righteousness of Paul Krugman (whom Weigel cites, to make his own case): I don't know that the multimillionaire progressive has even once figured his taxes on forms labeled "D," for "Democrat."

    The NYT's Alexandra Alter quotes Simon and Schuster's Jonathan Harp, in defense of Rick Perlstein: "Rick Perlstein’s scholarship is impeccable. We think he’s the great popular historian of the next generation."

    Karp's praising the info that's said to have been plagiarized, commenting on Perlstein's ability to discern. Who'd plagiarize crap?

  17. Bernecky said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    I erred twice in my previous post. Jonathan Karp (not Harp) is the president and publisher of Simon & Schuster (not Simon and Schuster). I apologize.

  18. James Kabala said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 10:49 am

    "What strikes me as silly is the idea that the cure is to keep using conventional printed-on-paper endnotes, indefinitely into the future."

    I understand the ideal that footnotes should be part of the book. Imagine the footnotes published as a stand-alone pamphlet – that would be obviously absurd.

  19. the other Mark P said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    I understand the ideal that footnotes should be part of the book. Imagine the footnotes published as a stand-alone pamphlet – that would be obviously absurd.

    It's a good idea. What prevents it is expense, not sense.

    It would make it easier to read the text and the end-notes at the same time, a major hassle in many cases when you doubt the original text and want to check sources as you go. I largely read history, and in my case, I would like to have the original language versions of citations, which would be easy to include in an electronic set of notes.

    Those that don't want the end-notes would have an easier to read book.

    End-notes should be published on a memory stick included with the book, along with bibliography etc. It would also allow much higher quality maps (a big bugbear to those of us interested in history is the pathetically tiny maps in books) which could be followed as we read.

    You could even include video of the events in the sort of book Perlstein has written.

    We invent new technologies that advance our ability to do things in better ways, but you can always count on some Luddite to label any change as "absurd".

  20. Don Monroe said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 10:50 am

    The NYT Public Editor has weighed in (citing this blog), and concludes that the Alter article did indeed give the accusations unwarranted support.

  21. Bloix said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    Bernecky – Weigel was not a co-creator of Journolist.

  22. dax said,

    August 17, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    Sorry, the conclusion is Perlstein didn't plagiarize because Shirley also may have plagiarized? If you consciously paraphrase a source, then you're supposed to cite it. Obviously there is grey as to whether you paraphrased. But if you have, the defense should not be, "Well, everyone does it." That is a woeful line, either by Wall Street traders, tenured professors, or narrative historians.

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