ASU professor is demoted, will correct book following “unattributed and poorly paraphrased material”

91993Matthew Whitaker at Arizona State University is revising a textbook about modern African-American history after it was found to contain “unattributed and poorly paraphrased material,” according to a statement from the author.

The revised version of the book Peace Be Still: Modern Black America from World War II to Barack Obama will include “a statement of apology and admission of error.”

As a result, Whitaker has been demoted to Associate Professor (from full Professor), costing him $20,000 per year in salary and stipend, according to The Arizona Republic. His previous salary was $163,530.

In addition,

a Phoenix Councilman is calling for him to lose a nearly $270,000 contract to provide the Phoenix Police Department with “cultural consciousness training.”

An anonymously-penned blog levied plagiarism accusations against Whitaker last year. In May of 2014, Inside Higher Ed confirmed similarities between several passages in the book and those on Archive of American Television, in a book called African American Odyssey (4th edition), and on

Following these concerns, “an investigation ensued in keeping with ASU policy,” according to an e-mail from ASU interim University Provost Mark Searle, which was sent to faculty and obtained by The Arizona Republic. According to Whitaker’s statement, he’s the one who “alerted ASU administration.”

When we contacted Whitaker, we got a reply back from Mark Johnson from ASU media relations: “I have attached Dr. Whitaker’s letter, which will serve as his only comment.”

Here’s the full  Whitaker apology letter (PDF):

I write to you today regarding the anonymous online criticisms of my book, Peace Be Still: Modern Black America from World War II to Barack Obama. I have struggled to overlook the personal nature of the criticisms, and to evaluate and recognize that there was merit to some of them. I alerted ASU administration to the fact that the text contained unattributed and poorly paraphrased material. I accept responsibility for these errors and I am working with my publisher to make the appropriate corrections.

Peace Be Still deals with history that is dear to me–told and read to me since childhood. I did not purport to write original history and I drew upon many established sources. I did intend to give full credit to all sources. But my critics have revealed numerous mistakes that I made. It is painful to recognize that I was so careless as to fail to properly paraphrase and cite sources, despite my reverence and respect for the work of others in this field.

I have been working to make the necessary corrections and to publish a revised and improved version of the text with a statement of apology and admission of error. I fell short of my own expectations and those of people I deeply respect with Peace Be Still. As my (current/former) colleagues, I ask you to accept my apologies for any embarrassment or damage to your reputation that might have arisen from my mistakes in this matter.

This is not Whitaker’s first tangle with plagiarism.

According to The Arizona Republic:

In 2011, when Whitaker was promoted from associate professor to full professor, 10 ASU faculty members reported concerns about plagiarism to ASU President Michael Crow.

During the subsequent investigation of Whitaker’s work, a committee appointed by the university to examine the matter found paragraphs in a book that had been taken from Wikipedia, and parts of a speech he gave that matched or were similar to several paragraphs in a Washington Post story.

Some of the accusations focused on chapters that Whitaker contributed to an encyclopedia-style textbook for young readers called “African American Icons of Sport: Triumph, Courage, and Excellence.” Several paragraphs on boxing icon Muhammad Ali and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams were taken from Wikipedia.

In a letter to ASU, Whitaker said he gave an outline to a freelance editor to fill in with facts and references, and “unfortunately and unknown to me, the freelance editor inserted verbatim sections from Wikipedia and other online sources without rewording them and without quotations or attribution.” He called the published errors “regrettable.”

In the letter to ASU during that investigation, Whitaker said his accusers were “out to get me” and that “the question of the motive of my accusers cannot be ignored, including racial bias, resentment and harassment against a black professor promoted to full professor over their objections.”

Ultimately, ASU found he had not committed “systemic or substantial plagiarism”:

He denied plagiarizing, and the committee concluded in 2012 that he had not committed “systematic or substantial plagiarism” but added that there are “reasons for concern about occasional carelessness in the use of materials and sources and some less than optimal detail in attribution.”

The incident shook the ASU history department. One history professor, who chaired a tenure committee, resigned from the committee in protest over the university’s decision.

That book is still available on Amazon, apparently in the original 2008 copyrighted version.

At this time, the paperback version of Peace Be Still is available for sale from the University of Nebraska Press, and in the Kindle edition on Amazon.

Update 7/15/15 10:59 a.m. eastern: It appears as if Whitaker has, indeed, lost his contract with the Phoenix Police Department.

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7 thoughts on “ASU professor is demoted, will correct book following “unattributed and poorly paraphrased material””

    1. Is this hand-shaded? That’s a lot of work!
      I’ve put up an ad-free version of the JavaScript implementation of the Grune & Huntjens tool sim_text that is used by the VroniPlag Wiki group in Germany for quickly identifying identical text:
      Nothing is uploaded to a server, it stays in your browser, and you can print it to a PDF. Nothing more, at the moment, but it colors identical text in the same color, switching colors when a word was inserted or deleted.

      1. Mine was hand-shaded … because I never expected to do as much of this as I have, else might have invested some effort in tool-building/acquisition.

        Note: for whatever reason, Germany seems to have a lot of good software development on tools for finding, organizing and displaying plagiarism.
        I recommend Debora’s fine book False Feathers: A Perspective on Academic Plagiarism.

        See also Visual Assessment of Alleged Plagiarism Cases
        , P. Riehmann, M. Potthast, B. Stein & B. Froehlich (2015).

  1. Yeah, I’m surpised that any prof. in a non-biomed dept. is making that much. Most profs I’ve known with a couple of R01s don’t make that amount.

  2. Yes I think I am in the wrong job ($140 000!!!!).
    Still plagiarising Wikipedia is very much a “student” error (as in “my assignment is due in tomorrow how will I write it in time -Wikipedia!”).

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