Book ‘stole’ Mormon historian’s work, but publisher offers a settlement to 'make it right’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ardis E. Parshall, Mormon research historian in Salt Lake City, surrounded by her stacks of books is an avid bibliophile.

After more than a decade of digging out anecdotes about the Mormon past — drawing a line from an elder’s letter here, a paragraph from a Sunday school report there — historian Ardis E. Parshall has grown accustomed to seeing her original work pop up in unfamiliar places.

It often appears without attribution or even a courtesy call.

But when Parshall opened a copy of Kathryn Jenkins’ latest volume, “Did You Know ... 501 Fascinating Facts From Church History,” she knew right away that the borrowing had crossed a line.

Parshall discovered that more than 60 of the anecdotes in the 348-page book came from her Mormon history blog, Keepapitchinin, as well as from other professional papers the independent historian had written.

“Sometimes she mentioned my name or Keepapitchinin,” Parshall said, “but many times she just lightly paraphrased my work and presented it as her own.”

Neither Jenkins nor her publisher, Covenant Communications (a branch of Deseret Book, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), contacted the researcher in advance to ask permission, she said, nor even to inform her what was being included in the book.

And they did not respond to Salt Lake Tribune phone calls Friday about the issue.

It's the “taking of my unseen and unrecognized expertise that hurts more than the taking of my words,” Parshall said. “She has taken my research, my uncanny skills at being able to follow a trail through the archives, my scholarly conclusions, my professional judgments. These are not just ‘facts which cannot be copyrighted.’”

When Parshall showed Deseret Book her findings, she said, the publisher was more than accommodating. The book has been removed from its website.

The parties reached a settlement, but some of the specifics remain confidential.

“This is the first time anyone has been willing to acknowledge the wrong,” Parshall said, “much less try to make it right.”

Deseret Book’s representative was “more than fair to me,” she said. “He took my complaint seriously, immediately put people to work looking up my cataloged complaints, and listened to what I needed in order to make things right. He didn’t try to make excuses. ... He didn’t try to bully me.”

The Mormon historian, though, wants the public to know how rampant the problem is. Parshall’s work has appeared unattributed in newsletters, magazines, blogs, books and other volumes.

Several “stolen posts” were abbreviated versions of papers Parshall presented at professional meetings, including the Mormon History Association. “These are papers and stories and accounts that have never been told elsewhere in any form. You know, I prefer to tell ‘new’ stories rather than rehash what everybody else has already covered,” she said. “Short of doing the original research that I did, these stories could not be told without relying exclusively on Keepapitchinin.”

Since launching her blog (named after an early Latter-day Saint humor magazine) in 2008, Parshall has posted nearly 8,000 entries with the statement in the upper left-hand corner: “ALL RIGHTS RESERVED — Materials are not available for republication.”

Parshall was a history columnist for The Tribune from 2005 to 2011. Her first piece for the paper told of an incident from the life of a Utah playwright.

“It was an absurd story, really, but I had eyewitness testimony, culled from eight or 10 sources, for every detail in it, right down to the playwright’s straightening the crease in his trouser leg after crossing his knees,” Parshall recalled. “A few years later, that story — ideas and words — appeared in the published biographical sketch of that playwright written by a since-retired Brigham Young University archivist. No mention of me or The Tribune and, of course, no citation to original sources because he could have no idea what archival sources I had scoured to find those details.”

She concluded there wasn’t much she could do about “that theft,” Parshall said, “other than file it away in memory and never to trust that ‘scholar’ for anything, ever again.”

Religion, it turns out, is an appealing avenue for researchers, but one that frequently falls prey to such unattributed copying.

“What is ironic around religion reporting is that organizations with a lot of resources often are the ones taking the work of people with few resources,” said Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“There is an audience for [religion reporting] and that is the audience religious publishers want — deeply engaged and passionate about the topic — and will consume voraciously,” McBride said. But these publishers want to attract that audience “without the elbow grease you should do and without crediting those who did.”

Even bloggers such as Parshall “deserve the same level of respect as printed newspaper and book authors,” the ethicist said. “There are many sophisticated online-only publications.”

That is certainly the case with Parshall, said W. Paul Reeve, professor of Mormon studies at the University of Utah.

“Ardis is one of the most dogged researchers working in the Mormon past,” Reeve said. “She recognizes the little scraps of history, and their connections to bigger contexts, and is a pro at discovering people who otherwise have been forgotten.”

Parshall mines random journals, notes, lists, correspondence and vital records, Reeve said, “and knows how to use those records to bring their stories to life.”

Parshall is on the advisory board with Reeve for “Century of Black Mormons,” a massive project to identify and describe every black Latter-day Saint between the church’s 1830 founding and 1930. She also does original research and writes for the project.

She cares about history “from the bottom up, not top down,” Reeve said, including “people in the pews whose stories might never be told, and honors their memory in the process.”

Few readers will ever recognize the detailed research that goes into every blog post, Reeve said, ���hours of work, critical thinking and brilliant writing.”

It has been her life’s work and her intellectual property, he said, “not something that can or should be taken and passed off as one’s own.”