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Thursday, July 13, 2006

A history of corruption?

This morning's NY Times featured article on textbook writing and publishing -- and raised questions about the integrity and ethics of those endeavors.

First, let me point out that I am a textbook writer (I have co-authored three college-level texts), and in fact this week I am in the process of putting the finishing touches on ancillary material for the 8th edition of a college-level American Government textbook co-authored with two colleagues, Alan Gitelson and Robert Dudley.

Let me also note that each of us wrote and rewrote every word of each edition. But I must also point out the obvious fact that over the years, and through each edition, many of those drafted words were frequently subjected to some substantial editing by some pretty good folks at Houghton Mifflin (our publisher). That is the nature of writing and publishing textbooks, so it is hardly shocking to hear about editors making suggestions for substantive changes or additions to a textbook.

But the story in the Times indicates that perhaps a line had been crossed in the case of some high school history books. It seems that sociologist James W. Loewen found explicit examples of a practice that we all knew was going on in the secondary school textbook market -- and while it is not fair to call it plagiarism, it certainly seems like it is a close relative.

Loewen found that identical passages about certain events (e.g., 9/11, establishment of the Department of Homeland Security) turned up in different texts put out by the same publisher.

To some extend this is a great deal of fuss about relatively little -- the added paragraphs can be rationalized as essentially last minute "touch ups" to completed works, and it is within the range of their jobs that editors can take such liberties with the knowledge of the authors. That they used the same wording in two or more of the works is the shocker, and from comments of the nominal authors of the texts, they seem to have done so without the knowledge or okay of the authors. This may be more a reflection of laziness than criminality -- especially since the copyright is the publishers in almost all cases.....

But the story also touches on something even more sinister -- a practice no worse than "ghost writing" but which, when it occurs in the academic community, I believe borders on "intellectual corruption". When it comes to primary and secondary school textbooks (let me stress, not college texts as far as I know), it is well known practice for the scholars who should know better to effectively sell their name to the publishers for that seemingly small 10-15% royalty check that comes twice a year. Yes, they may actually submit a pretty solid initial draft of a textbook for that first edition, one that probably reflects their informed and distinctive perspective on history -- and perhaps even the best of their lectures which seem to go over well in the college classroom. But what comes out the other end is never quite the same -- and in fact might be substantially different.

Quite frankly, it is the exigencies of the "school adoption" marketplace and its associated pressures for censorship and political correctness that drive the inevitable heavy "editing" process. The authors are transformed into lead consultants, supposedly heading a team of content contributors that never really meet or communicate, except through the filter of the professional editors who, in fact, are the real authors. What comes out of the other end of this process are textbooks that pass muster and can be adopted by school districts. That, after all, is where the money is, and a good deal more effort seems to go into pleasing the text-adoption decision makers than in putting out a quality product actually written by those whose name is on the cover.....

Nothing new here, of course. Loewen has made a career of exposing all this in his books (Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America). Diane Ravitch has tackled the issue in her recent
The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, and Frances FitzGerald did so years ago in America Revised.

I really don't blame the publishers for doing what they can to adapt to the demands of this politically sensitive market, but I do question the wisdom of those well known academics who allow their names -- and even some of their material -- to be used without insisting on some say in the content of what comes out under their names....


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