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Speaking Out

Regarding Charges Made Against Professor Kathryn Edin

October 5, 2005

In late spring of this year, Professor Kathryn Edin and Professor Elijah Anderson, both members of the Penn Sociology Department, had a disagreement about her recently published book Promises I Can Keep, co-authored with Professor Maria Kefalas of St. Joseph’s University. Over the summer, they repeatedly discussed the issues that separated them and they eventually resolved their differences privately. Although not a direct participant in their discussions, I was in frequent contact with Edin and Anderson during that time, and I know that they worked very hard to reach an amicable resolution of the issues. At the time, all parties expressed full satisfaction with their agreement.

Last week Professor Emeritus Harold Bershady sent an e-mail message to all departmental faculty charging Edin with “conceptual plagiarism.” Professor Bershady has been retired from the University for several years and does not usually participate in departmental affairs. After sending his e-mail message, Professor Bershady told me that he knew about the agreement but decided, for reasons that are unclear to me, to make his charges anyway.

I want to make it clear that the process by which the parties resolved their disagreement was in full compliance with the Penn faculty handbook. That policy encourages individuals to review any concerns about possible misconduct in research with department chairs, deans or other trustworthy persons to determine whether the matter should be pursued. An inquiry is only initiated upon a formal, written complaint filed with the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and no such complaint was ever filed. No disciplinary action is being considered or has ever been considered by the University or the Department regarding this matter.

The Department of Sociology stands behind the scholarship of Professor Edin and Professor Anderson, both of whom we regard as extremely valuable colleagues. We hope that they can look past the unwarranted and unnecessary attention that has been devoted to this issue and will remain at Penn for many years to come.

—Paul D. Allison, Chair, Department of Sociology

‘Conceptual Plagiarism’ Absurd

As members of the research community, we feel compelled to speak out on behalf of our colleagues Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. The idea that their new book– Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage–is ‘conceptual plagiarism’ of Eli Anderson’s work is absurd and suggests a fundamental misreading of the two bodies of work. While both authors address the question of why poor women have children outside marriage, their arguments could not be more different. Anderson claims that non-marital births are the result of a dating game in which young men take advantage of young women’s fantasies of marriage in order to have sex. In contrast, Edin and Kafalas tell a story in which the young women are unwilling to marry men who do not meet their standards for financial and emotional security.

Sara McLanahan, Princeton University
Irv Garfinkel, Columbia University
Mary Waters, Harvard University
Nancy Folbre, University of Massachusetts
Nicola Beisel, Northwestern University
Amy Wax, University of Pennsylvania
Christopher Jencks, Harvard University
Robert Pollak, Washington University
Tom Cook, Northwestern University
Andrew Cherlin, Johns Hopkins University
Faye Cook, Northwestern University
Wendy Griswold, Northwestern University
Lindsay Chase Lansdale, Northwestern University Greg Duncan, Northwestern University
Paula England, Stanford University Ron Mincy, Columbia University
Jeff Manza, Northwestern University

Professor Anderson Responds

I have been invited by Almanac to respond to these letters regarding my work and the work of my colleague, Professor Kathryn Edin. I have stayed out of the recent public controversy related to these works but offer this response for reasons explained here. The dispute between Professor Edin and me, which has unexpectedly surfaced publicly in the last week, was settled a few months ago. When I saw a problem of acknowledgment and attribution of my work in her and Professor Maria Kefalas’ book Promises I Can Keep, I did not impute malice or sinister motivation to them, but went to Professor Edin and suggested we discuss the matter and work it out as colleagues. With the help of a sociologist from another university who skillfully served as mediator, we settled the matter amicably. We reached an agreement last June, the terms of which are, as part of the agreement, confidential. I was satisfied by the agreement which I will continue to abide by.

Now there has been a new turn of events.  Several respected minds in American sociology from outside Penn led by Professor Sara McLanahan have written a letter to the Penn community about this controversy. Their statement gives the impression that they think there is something unreasonable–“absurd” and “fundamental misreading”—about my concerns with their book. These are harsh words, and from my experience it is hard to get 17 social scientists to agree to anything, so this letter is an unusual occasion. I never imagined that I would be dismissed with such utter confidence by respected figures of the discipline I have devoted my scholarship and career to serving. I find their letter unconvincing and disturbing. 

Professor McLanahan’s intervention is probably a well meaning effort to defend Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas against charges, as they appeared in headlines of the Daily Pennsylvanian, of “plagiarism,” a specific and loaded term which I have not used to characterize the dispute. However, McLanahan, et al.’s dismissal of the concerns aired in the Daily Pennsylvanian as “absurd”—and particularly their claim that “the arguments of the two books could not be more different”—have now been taken up by the popular press to suggest that the concerns which in the first place motivated me to approach Professor Edin are, as some critics said, “nonsense.”

Many scholars who have been around for a while experience the sometimes uneasy feeling that he or she should have been cited in this or that work. We get used to ignoring it. In using words like “absurd,” Professor McLanahan and co-signatories seem to view it that way. But they discuss the problem as if the similarities between the book and my work were a matter of topics addressed or ultimate conclusions drawn. I have never raised any questions about the topics being similar, and I never disputed that Edin and Kefalas made an original argument in suggesting that poor young women refuse to marry because they don’t want to make promises they can’t keep. (This is a claim I have never made.) 

The problem is that in other respects, Promises owes a strong and almost entirely unacknowledged debt to Code of the Street, especially to the sequence of my chapters “The Mating Game,” “The Decent Daddy,” and “The Black Inner-City Grandmother in Transition” (142-236), as well as to earlier articles that led to those chapters, particularly “Sex Codes and Family Life Among Northton’s Youth,” in StreetwisePromises follows Code in its themes and major issues; it makes many of the same findings and explanations and draws many of the same conclusions; and it includes many specific repetitions of matter from Code and its source articles. At the same time, the University of California Press and the authors themselves make strong claims for the originality of the work in Promises.

Edin and Kefalas have made use of concepts and expressions in Code in a way that misleads readers into thinking that they are primarily responsible for those expressions and concepts and due the credit for them. They have engaged in a pattern of repeating the distinctive ideas, findings, explanations, or terms of Code without citing the source.  These similarities have three notable qualities. First, the methods, ideas, or terms are sufficiently similar to those in Code, and the overlap is so extensive, that they constitute repetition of the original work. Second, the unacknowledged methods, ideas, or terms are sufficiently associated with Code that they should have been credited to it. And third, the writers knew the previous work.  As scholars, we owe it to our sources and our readers to acknowledge whenever our contributions very specifically follow a pattern of previous contributions of others. This is what I chose to discuss with my colleague.

The following sections summarize the unacknowledged similarities, the acknowledged similarities (Promises’ references to Code), and Promises’ claims to originality, followed by a comparison of quoted portions from Promises and Code on 22 important subject areas.

Unacknowledged Similarities

Despite McLanahan, et al.’s claim that the arguments in the two books “could not be more different,” it is not “absurd” to believe that Promises can reasonably be seen as a development and extension of the “Mating Game” chapter of Code. It addresses most of the same issues, develops many of the same themes, makes many of the same findings and explanations, and comes to many of the same conclusions. These general similarities alone would demand significant acknowledgement. But in addition, Promises includes many specific repetitions and echoes of Code without acknowledgment (quoted in the last section of this response). It would be impossible for someone who knew both works not to recognize both that Promises is indebted to Code and that the debt is one that by standards of ethical scholarship should be acknowledged. Worse yet, someone who reads Promises but does not already know Code will be doubly misled. Not only does Promises take sole credit for work it repeats, but it gives a reader no reason to look back to Code to see the genesis of the work Promises pursues.

Acknowledged Similarities

Promises does acknowledge Code in three footnotes, two of which are listed in the index.

The first reference occurs on page 54. The note acknowledges two pre-Code articles: “Elijah Anderson’s work (1989; 1991) offers a perspective on these young families in inner-city Philadelphia” (253, n2). It does not acknowledge that framing story of Mahkiya and Mike is anticipated almost point-for-point in Code (see below, items 6, 7, 8, 11, and 20).

The second is on page 160, acknowledging its discussion of “decent” families (261, n20).

The third recalls the first. It is located in the conclusion (190). The footnoted lines in the text read as follows:

We gathered our data in the kitchens and front rooms, the sidewalks and front stoops of those declining neighborhoods where the growth in single motherhood has been most pronounced. What we learned—and the stories we tell—challenge what most Americans believe about unwed motherhood and its causes. This on-the-ground approach creates a portrait of poor single mothers that goes beyond the statistics that are so often used to describe them.1

The footnote reads as follows:

1Elijah Anderson’s similar approach reveals a great deal about the sexual and romantic relationships of very young, inner-city African-Americans in Philadelphia, many of whom are not yet parents. See Anderson (1990, 1990).

In this context, what is most notable about this footnote is how little it actually acknowledges. Edin and Kefalas grant that I also used an “on-the-ground approach,” but do not acknowledge any similarity or debt to the specifics of my approach, themes, issues or conclusions. The rest of the footnote credits me with “reveal[ing] a great deal”; but not only does it fail to acknowledge the similarity between those revelations and their work, it also misleadingly emphasizes the differences between their subjects and my “very young” subjects who are “not yet parents.” (It should be noted that the discussion of these issues in Code is by no means limited to the “very young.”) A skeptic might conclude that the effect of these footnotes is to deflect readers from considering the actual similarities between Promises and Code.

Claims to Originality in Promises

The unacknowledged similarities between Promises and Code must be judged in light of how Promises presents itself to readers and positions itself in relation to prior scholarship.

The dust jacket mentions the originality of Promises three times, in the front-inside summary and in two of the four blurbs on the back, the last of which reads: “Promises I Can Keep is the best kind of exploration: honest, incisive, and ever-so-original.”

Edin and Kefalas do not mention Code or other work by me anywhere in their “Introduction,” where scholars traditionally set out the relationship between their work and that of their predecessors. They introduce their approach in contrast to previous studies: “Since these trends [to unwed motherhood] first became apparent, some of the best scholars in America have sought answers, using the best survey data social science has at its disposal” (4). They do not make any reference here to the use of ethnographic methodology by leading scholars, thus implying that it is their work which stands as a unique corrective.  They continue that the previous answers are inadequate and “the reasons remain a mystery” (5). The problem, they suggest, lies in the nature of a survey-based methodology, and they claim that with their ethnographic method they provide “new” ideas and a “unique” point of view:

What is striking about the body of social science evidence is how little of it is based on the perspectives and life experiences of the women who are its subjects. . . . We provide new ideas about the forces that may be driving the trend by looking at the problems of family formation through the eyes of 162 low-income single mothers living in eight economically marginal neighborhoods across Philadelphia and its poorest industrial suburb, Camden, New Jersey. Their stories offer a unique point of view on the troubling questions of why low-income, poorly educated young women have children they can’t afford and why they don’t marry. (5) (Emphasis added)

In such contexts, the standards of scholarly citation call for scholars to acknowledge those whose work has preceded them. When Edin and Kefalas position their work as standing in contrast to “the body of social science research” on the problem of unwed motherhood and do not mention the obvious precedent of the approach in Code and the articles that led up to it, they can only be taken to obscure any significant similarity to that work. When they claim that their approach offers “a unique point of view” and do not mention the many similarities between what they find and what Code showed before them using a similar methodology, they again can only be taken to obscure any significant similarity to that work. In other published work and talks, Edin and Kefalas have taken this practice even further—not citing my work at all.  (See Contexts 4:2:16-22)

Should the field accept McLanahan, et al.’s claims to the originality of Edin and Kefalas’ book, these scholars will have succeeded at seriously obscuring indebtedness to previous scholarship. Promises exhibits enough unacknowledged similarity to Code that it constitutes an unfair use of another’s scholarship.

I urge anyone interested in this matter to carefully read the comparisons of verbatim quotes covering 22 subject areas, in the next section,* with the criticism and easy dismissal of me by McLanahan, et al. in mind: Is “absurd” an appropriate characterization, and is there justification for their conclusion that the works “could not be more different”?  Would they or any reasonable academic tell their students that they need not footnote or acknowledge in these circumstances? Ultimately, these unfortunate events highlight an important issue: What standards for acknowledging the prior work of other scholars will Professor McLanahan, et al.–and the academy generally–stand by? Click here to view the 22 instances mentioned above.


Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues will be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday’s issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated. —Eds.




  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 7, October 11, 2005


October 11, 2005
Volume 52 Number 7


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