Historian who chronicled the Roosevelts admits plagiarism

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The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is struggling to save her reputation after she admitted plagiarism.

Ms Goodwin, one of the most popular and esteemed historians in America, has been sacked from her job on public television and has been vilified on editorial pages up and down the land.

In happier times, Ms Goodwin was a Pulitzer prizewinning chronicler of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, who commanded $20,000 (£14,000) a speech on the lecture circuit.

Her problems stem from the revelation that she lifted several passages of her 1987 bestseller, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, from other authors. She tried to limit the damage by volunteering other instances where she had lifted passages, notably from Lynne McTaggart, author of Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. She announced paperback copies of her book would be shredded and that her publishers, Simon and Schuster, would issue an edition that acknowledged the lifted passages. Ms Goodwin also paid Ms McTaggart some money.

But to scant avail. Public television said she would take a break from the Newshour With Jim Lehrer programme. The same day the University of Delaware withdrew an invitation for her to speak.

Ms Goodwin is the second prominent historian this year to be caught plagiarising. In January, Stephen Ambrose admitted having lifted passages for his bestsellerThe Wild Blue, about the heroics of bomber pilots in the Second World War.

Like Ms Goodwin he admitted the sin, claiming, as she did, that the mistakes were the result of confusion in his notes between words that were his and that he had copied.

But instead of pre-emptive disclosure, he is answering each allegation as it comes. To an extent the strategy appears to be working, but his offence will not quickly be forgiven. In recent years, journalists who stole words have been cast into professional darkness. In colleges, a student caught plagiarising is either failed or expelled or both. In the computer age, the commission of plagiarism has never been easier and nor has its discovery.