Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Scottish historian and biographer James A. Mackay was first accused of plagiarizing the works of others for his noted biography Alexander Graham Bell (1997). Further plagiarism charges were leveled against other works, including his biographies of John Paul Jones, Andrew Carnegie, William Wallace, and Mary, Queen of Scots. The long string of fraud allegations marred his reputation as a scholar and, in effect, ended his career as a writer.

Summary of Event

James A. Mackay became a renowned historian and biographer through his studies of stamps and coins, his scholarship on poet Robert Burns, and his 1996 biography Michael Collins: A Life. In 1997, he published the biography Alexander Graham Bell: A Life, which had marketable success. Mackay then faced a stunning accusation from Robert V. Bruce, a professor emeritus at Boston University. In April, 1998, Bruce accused Mackay of plagiarizing his work and the work of others in writing the Bell biography. [kw]Plagiarism, Scottish Historian Is Charged with (Apr., 1998) Mackay, James A. Bell, Alexander Graham Scotland Mackay, James A. Bell, Alexander Graham Scotland [g]Europe;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [g]Scotland;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [c]Publishing and journalism;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [c]Plagiarism;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [c]Public morals;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] [c]Ethics;Apr., 1998: Scottish Historian Is Charged with Plagiarism[02880] Bruce, Robert V.

Bruce detailed the questionable passages, some of which were multiple pages in length, which were taken from his biography Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (1973). The passages in Mackay’s book retained a remarkable similarity—some even identical. Bruce found 285 pages (of Mackay’s 297) with lifted material. Furthermore, he noted that Mackay, in the biography, acknowledged and thanked the Bell Collection archives of the National Geographic Society (NGS), archives that had been relocated to the Library of Congress during the mid-1970’s. Mackay published his book more than twenty years after the Bell archives at the NGS was moved. More charges of plagiarism were leveled against Mackay, charges related to his other biographies.

While Bruce’s accusation against Mackay was the opening salvo, another scholar, Graeme Morton, a lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote in a journal article that Mackay’s biography William Wallace: Brave Heart (1995) was strikingly reminiscent of Sir James Fergusson’s 1938 biography of the thirteenth century Scottish patriot William Wallace. Morton found lifted arguments, structure, and even entire paragraphs. Mackay’s William Wallace was reprinted nonetheless.

Mackay’s career began as an assistant keeper at the British Museum, and he also worked as a columnist for the Financial Times. He went on to research stamps and coins and produced History of Scottish Postmarks, 1693-1978 (1978), a landmark work on Scottish stamps. He received the distinguished Saltire Award in 1992 for his work on Burns and had been a well-respected historian and scholar of Scottish history. He had received an honorary doctorate in literature from Glasgow University in 1993. His name accompanies more than two hundred books and ten thousand articles, and he edited The Burns Chronicle for several years. He published six biographies in three years and had plans for more. Prior to his notorious work on Bell, Mackay was known for his histories of Scottish figures, including Allan Pinkerton, Andrew Carnegie, and Sir Thomas Lipton.

In 1998, Mackay’s biography on Bell was published in an American edition, and The New Yorker magazine and New York Times;and James Mackey[Mackey] The New York Times praised the work in reviews. It was about this time that Bruce, whose biography of Bell was a runner up for a Pulitzer Prize in 1974, first began to pay attention to Mackay’s book, finding that Mackay had duplicated letters between Bell and his wife that were included in his 1973 biography, and that Mackay did so without attribution. This revelation was the main trigger in the scandal, leading Bruce to inspect more of Mackay’s biography. What he found led him to contact Mackay’s American publisher, John Wiley & Sons, to alert them to the plagiarism. To avoid being sued by Bruce, Wiley agreed to destroy all American editions of the book that were still with distributors and booksellers.

Another Mackay work is the formidable biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. That book, In My End Is My Beginning (1998), was found to be reminiscent—or, in some places, more like a carbon copy—of Antonia Fraser’s monumental and best-selling work Mary, Queen of Scots (1969). Mackay’s biography of John Paul Jones, I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones, was dissected upon its publication in 1999. Journalists and scholars investigated the book carefully, even comparing it to John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (1959) by Samuel Eliot Morison. Once again, a pattern emerged. Entire passages matched Morison’s words, and in those instances in which the words did not match, Mackay used similar sentence structure and made comparable use of sources.

Mackay was adamant throughout the string of accusations that he had not plagiarized. Instead, he argued, he had used similar sources but never consciously copied material from previous biographers. The only charge to which he acquiesced was his use of the letters between Bell and his wife, which Mackay had assumed were in the public domain. He later apologized to Bruce for using the letters.


Following the accusations of plagiarism, Mackay’s British publisher, Mainstream, terminated all pending contracts with the author and did not seek any further work from him. His books on Bell and Jones, and on Mary, Queen of Scots, were removed from circulation in the United States by his American publishers. His work on Carnegie was removed from the shelves of British booksellers in 1999 after he was accused of plagiarizing parts of that work as well.

Also receiving greater scrutiny after the 1998 scandal was the work for which Mackay received great accolades and was awarded the Saltire Prize in 1993: the biography of Burns. Andrew Noble, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde and coeditor of The Canongate Burns (2001), revealed that Mackay’s biography of Burns contained similar passages from a little-known nineteenth century work, The Life and Works of Robert Burns (1852), edited by Robert Chambers. Given this new round of accusations, it seemed that Mackay would never write again, or get published. His name and reputation had been permanently marred. However, he still maintained some degree of credibility because of his earlier work on Burns and still was accepted as a foremost authority on the early Scottish poet. Scotland Mackay, James A. Bell, Alexander Graham

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hauptman, Robert. Documentation: A History and Critique of Attribution, Commentary, Glosses, Marginalia, Notes, Bibliographies, Works-cited Lists, and Citation Indexing and Analysis. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008. A study of scholarly documentation. This unique work “examines and critiques the history, use, and abuse of various literary documentation systems” including those systems used in the humanities and sciences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007. Examination of the key controversies in the historical profession as the culmination of the tensions between New Left scholars and traditional historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackay, James A. Alexander Graham Bell: A Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. The controversial biography of Bell, which initiated the series of plagiarism allegations against Mackay. First published in Great Britain in 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiener, Jon. Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 2005. A detailed analysis of the fraud and plagiarism scandals of historians and other scholars. Good for background material on the subject of academic fraud.

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