Friday, February 27, 2009

A mammoth literary mystery

I hate plagiarism. Everyone believes that plagiarism is wrong in the abstract, but most students are able to justify a little plagiarism now and then. I managed to get through college with recourse to it. My first experience with discovering a plagiarism was when I found out that someone had stolen an essay from me. I was pleased to find out that he received an A for the assignment and thought it was all a great joke. Between college and graduate school, I worked in a bookstore for a few years and became much less tolerant of plagiarism. This was good preparation for becoming a teaching assistant just as my university was adopting a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism, but I was appalled at how hard it was to get some students to even understand the concept. Later, when reviewing what had been written on the topic I chose for my Master's thesis, I discovered a dissertation that had stolen nearly a hundred pages from an earlier dissertation. I called the original author and he filed a complaint with the AHA ethics committee. Since grad school I've discovered one book and some news articles that were plagiarized; I always make an effort to let the original author know about it. I hate plagiarism.

This brings us to the mammoths. The other night I was using Google Books to track down the earliest version of, ironically, a fake discovery that made its way into mammoth literature in the nineteenth century. Searching a couple of keywords I found this pharase in two books : "Again, in 1843, M. Middendorf found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the ..." My first reaction was the same as I had when I discovered the dissertations: disgust followed by compulsion and finally obsession. I threw aside the work and went off to do something else. After a few minutes I came back because I had to look. I had to confirm that the two were exactly the same for at least couple paragraphs and determine which book was published first before I could go to bed. The next morning I got up early because it wouldn't let me sleep. Now came the hard work of reading both books in a split screen view and documenting the similarities. The two books were Through Siberia published in 1881 by Henry Lansdell and Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia published in 1882 by James William Buel. Both books were accounts of the authors' journies across Siberia, from west to east, with special attention paid to the condition of prisoners and exiles. The two authors followed more or less the same itinerary. The paragraphs that caught my eye appeared in both books as part of an extended digression on the history and resources of the Lena River valley.

In Lansdell the paragraph appears at the end of a three paragraph footnote on pages 289-90:
Again, in 1843, M. Middendorf found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the Yenesei, with some of the flesh in so perfect a condition that it was found possible to remove the ball of the eye, which is preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

In Buel it appears in the main text on 420:
Again, in 1843, M. Middendorf found a mammoth on the Taz, between the Obi and the Yenesei, with some of the flesh in so perfect condition that it was found possible to remove the ball of the eye, which is preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

My first glance the night before had shown that Buel copied all three paragraphs of Lansdell's footnote as well as the paragraphs that appeared before and after the point where Landsdell inserted the footnote. The following morning, working backward and forward from that point, I figured out that the copying amounted to an entire chapter (13 pages in Lansdell) with only minor differences. Unfortunately, I did the backward comparison before the forward comparison. At the end of Buel's version of the chapter, I found a found a footnote that would have saved me a sleepless night: "* For much of the information here given concerning the Lena, I am indebted to Mr. Lansdell's 'Through Siberia.'"

Okay, I thought, Buel isn't the jerk I thought he was. But, the footnote got me wondering how much of Buel's book was original. I searched the text of his book to see if he was indebted to Lansdell anywhere else. The only other place where Lansdell's name appeared in the book was in the introduction.
Several books on life in Russia and Siberia have appeared since the Turko-Russian war, but few that I have read treat the subject in a manner that suggests a personal visit to those countries by the authors. ... During the present year a work has appeared from the pen of Henry Lansdell, entitled "Through Siberia," that has met with much favor because it treats of a country about which so little is known, and because the author claims to have been a missionary and philanthropist. The facts are, however, that this work, I know, from observations made while in Siberia, to be a pure fiction so far as it relates to convict life; its statements concerning the prisons of Siberia are almost as wide of the truth as any of Munchausen's choice yarns. ... The London Graphic, reviewing the book, pronounces it an aggregated canard throughout. ... I was told by many prominent persons in Russia that the Government purchased several thousand copies of Mr. Lansdell's book and has been active in circulating it through several countries, because it represents convict life in Siberia as an existence of elegant ease and epicurean luxury...

While Buel though Lansdell's work was good enough that he borrowed an entire chapter from it, when he got around to writing the introduction, Buel damned Lansdell as a liar and a naive, if unwitting, propagandist for the Russian government. Buel wasn't the Jerk that I originally thought he was; he was simply a different type jerk.

This should have been the end of the story, but something bothered me about the paragraph that first caught my attention. It seemed familiar. There are only so many was to tell the same story and I have read about the fresh eyeball in many places. Still I decided to run the first sentence of the paragraph through another search. What I found was page 54 of Mastodon, Mammoth, and Man published in 1878 by John Patterson MacLean, three years before Lansdell's book. It's a book that I read about a month ago.
In 1843, Middendorf, a distinguished Russian naturalist, discovered a mammoth on the Tas, between the Obi and Yenesei, near the Arctic Circle, latitude 66° 30' North, with some parts of the flesh in a perfect state of preservation. The ball of the eye is in the Museum at Moscow.

The paragraph before all three of these is a description of the famous Adams mammoth, discovered in 1799 (I'll blog about it later). The Lansdell version is a shorter version of the discovery. Though different from the MacLean paragraph in wording, the juxtaposition of the two discoveries looks bad for Lansdell.

At this point, the score appears to be: Buel was an ungracious jerk, Lansdell was minor plagiarist, and MacLean... I decided one more search was in order. This time I used the last sentence of the paragraph. This is what I found.

From of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology starting with the 1847 edition:
The most recent discoveries made in 1843 by Mr. Middendorf, a distinguished Russian naturalist, and which he communicated to me in September 1846, afford more precise information as to the climate of the Siberian Lowlands, at the period when the extinct quadrupeds were entombed. One elephant was found on the Tas, between the Obi and Yenesei, near the Arctic circle, about lat. 66° 30' N., with some parts of the flesh in so perfect a state that the ball of the eye is now preserved in the Museum at Moscow.

Principles of Geology was Lyell's best known and most important book. It was enormously influential (Darwin read it during his voyage on the Beagle) and most educated Englishmen of the mid-ninteenth would have been familiar with it. It went through eleven editions between 1830 and Lyell's death in 1875. Lyell updated the book in most editions as new data came in. The next few paragraphs In Lyell and the final (1873) edition of Lyell look bad for MacLean.

In MacLean, one paragraph after the Middendorf eyeball:
In 1866 many skeletons were found retaining the skin and hair, in the flat country near the mouth of the Yenesei, between lat. 70° and 75° N. The heads of most of them were turned towards the south.

The Academy of St. Petersburg, in 1869-70, sent out an exploring expedition under Herr Von Maydell, to the river Indigiska, to examine some remains said to have been discovered there. The exploring party found the skin and hair as well as the bones of the mammoth at two points on the river, about thirty miles distant from each other, and sixty-six miles from the Arctic Sea.

In the 1873 edition of Lyell, two paragraphs after the Middendorf eyeball:
In 1866, in the flat country near the mouths of the Yenesei, between lat. 70° and 75° N., many skeletons of mammoths were found retaining the skin and hair. The heads of most of them are said to have been turned towards the south. So late as 1869-70, an exploring expedition was made by Herr von Maydell, under the direction of the Academy of St. Petersburg, to the river Indigiska, to examine some remains said to have been discovered there. We learn from M. Brandt that the travellers found the skin and hair as well as the bones of the Elphas primigenius at two points on the river, about thirty miles distant from each other, and sixty-six miles from the Arctic Sea.

Lyell footnotes Brandt for his information. An especially damning bit of evidence against MacLean is that he used the same misspelling as Lyell for the Indigirka River. (I don't yet have a copy of Brandt's paper so I can't say whether he also used that spelling.) I've discovered a dozen references in English to the Middendorf eyeball appearing over the sixty years after Lyell first mentioned it. All of them, except MacLean, give Lyell credit. Did MacLean plagiarize Lyell, the most famous geologist of his generation, or was he just sloppy in attributing sources? MacLean was very careful in his description of the Adams mammoth use quote marks and give credit to Richard Owen for six sentences. MacLean also gives credit to Lyell for quotes in two other places in the book.

At the end of the game, the score is: Buel was an ungracious jerk, Lansdell was minor plagiarist, and MacLean (or his editor) was at best very sloppy in his work. Only Lyell come out of this looking good. The possible morals of the story are: A) You can die but you can't hide when you are a plagiarist; B) Cite your sources, dammit; or C) I have way too much time on my hands. All of the above is also allowed. I still hate plagiarism.

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