Naval Academy demotes professor in plagiarism

Inquiry faults sloppy work, says problems unintended

October 29, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

A Naval Academy history professor accused of plagiarizing portions of his book on the atomic bomb was punished yesterday with a demotion, a loss of tenure and a hefty pay cut.

The military college said yesterday that its five-month inquiry into the book by professor Brian VanDeMark concluded that the numerous phrases similar or identical to those of other authors were a result of "gross carelessness," not deliberate theft.

"It was just very sloppy scholarship," William C. Miller, the college's academic dean and provost, said in an interview. "But there was no evidence of a deliberate effort to pass off the works of others as his own."

Still, Miller used the word "plagiarism" to describe the offending sections of Pandora's Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb. He said that the penalty was the most serious he has imposed on a faculty member in his six years as the college's top academic official.

The academy's action deals a crippling blow to the career of a professor who had been a rising star in the history department with a budding national reputation and book contracts with top New York publishers.

But it disappointed the main authors whose books VanDeMark borrowed from without proper credit. Richard Rhodes, Robert S. Norris, Gregg Herken and William Lanouette said yesterday that the uncredited passages - more than 50 by their count - were too numerous to be simple mistakes.

While Herken and Rhodes said the punishment fit the offense, Lanouette and Norris said the academy should have fired VanDeMark.

"I'm really shocked," said Norris, the author of Racing for the Bomb, a well-received 2002 book. "I've never seen more of a systematic effort to cut and paste from half a dozen books and pass it off as your own scholarship."

VanDeMark, 43, who was hired in 1990 and won tenure in 1998 as a well-liked teacher and respected author, issued a statement through the school yesterday "accepting accountability for my unintentional mistakes."

"Pandora's Keepers was a big undertaking - a 399-page biography of nine men with 676 footnotes and a bibliography including all of the sources used - and I became overconfident about paraphrasing a lot of secondary sources," he said.

VanDeMark had been placed in an administrative job and kept out of the classroom during the inquiry, led by a three-member faculty committee. He will resume teaching this spring.

VanDeMark was demoted yesterday from associate professor to entry-level assistant professor. The academy cut his pay to about $63,000, from $73,000. It stripped him of tenure and placed him on probation for at least three years, which will force him to prove anew that he can meet his department's standards of scholarship and integrity.

VanDeMark also will have to "rectify all instances of improper use of other people's material" in the book before its reissue, the school said.

His publisher, Little, Brown and Co., responded to the charges of plagiarism by withdrawing the hardcover from stores in June. It plans to issue a corrected paperback edition soon.

"We've always been proud of the book, and we are still proud of the book," Geoff L. Shandler, executive editor of Little, Brown, said yesterday in an interview.

William Cronon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison historian and vice president in charge of professional ethics at the American Historical Association, said the academy's response was in keeping with those on other campuses.

"Clearly, the Naval Academy has taken a middle course," he said. "I mean, they didn't fire him. But boy, those are fairly serious punishments."

Pandora's Keepers examines the lives of the nine scientists who invented the atomic bomb.

The book's problems came to light in May after authors who had been asked to review it for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times found passages that were identical or nearly identical to those in their books.

For instance, in the 1992 book Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb, Lanouette writes: "One minute he was silly and winsome, the next, sullen and withdrawn."

In his book, VanDeMark writes: "One minute he could be silly and winsome, the next sullen and withdrawn."

In a June letter to the authors who uncovered the plagiarism, he apologized and offered an explanation. "Over the course of seven years of research and writing and revising, I lost track of the origins of these phrases," he wrote.

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