Not-So-Cardinal Sin?

July 28, 2014

Among academics, plagiarism is a cardinal sin. But to the general public? Maybe not so much. At least that’s what the reaction thus far to the recent plagiarism allegations against Sen. John Walsh suggest. The Montana Democrat, who is up for election in the fall, has been accused of plagiarizing one-quarter of a final paper that earned him a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. Some have condemned the politician’s alleged actions but, so far, Walsh remains in the race and there’s been no national call – from Democrats at least – for him to step down. So what gives?

Experts attributed the different reactions among academics and the general population to differing sets of values, a possible lack of understanding about just what constitutes plagiarism, and a dash of cynicism regarding politicians. After all, plenty of Democrats and Republicans will look the other way at the failings of their candidates, perhaps especially when a candidate is seen as having the best odds for his or her party winning.

"For the general public, I expect that plagiarism seems unethical and that it’s an example of people — whether politicians or authors — trying to get ahead without playing by the rules,” Sean M. Lynn-Jones, editor of the quarterly International Security journal and a research associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said via email. “Plagiarism does not, however, threaten the careers of most members of the public, so they are less likely to condemn it severely. The public is not driven by self-interest to prevent plagiarism.”

Lynn-Jones is one of the authors Walsh is said to have plagiarized. The story was first reported last week by The New York Times; Lynn-Jones wrote about the experience in an op-ed for the Washington Post. In his piece, the researcher said he wasn’t “outraged,” and was even mildly flattered that his 1998 paper – which he said was significantly outdated – had been borrowed from, if not properly acknowledged, by Walsh, in 2007.

But that’s because Walsh – who was appointed to the Senate in February after his predecessor, Max Baucus, was named as the new U.S. ambassador to China – isn’t a scholar whose career is staked on original thought.

“What he apparently did does not pose a threat to the careers of the scholars whose work was used without attribution,” Lynn-Jones told Inside Higher Ed. By contrast, “When scholar A appropriates scholar B’s work verbatim without using appropriate quotation marks or footnotes, scholar B is denied the fruits of his or her labor and scholar A may unfairly receive credit for someone else’s work.”

Brian Martin, a professor of humanities and social inquiry at the University of Wollolong in Australia who was written extensively on plagiarism, agreed.

“Integrity in authorship is a central value for academics (though violated all too often), so allegations of plagiarism can be very damning,” Martin said in an email. “However, for most politicians, authorship is not as central to their identity.”

At the same time, other kinds of personal and professional integrity are more important for politicians than for academics, Martin said.  “When academics cheat on their income tax, it may not affect their reputation as scholars, unless someone is out to get them – except if the academic teaches business ethics, for example.”

Martin noted several examples of “scandals” in which politicians – mostly in Europe – said to have plagiarized scholars’ work faced serious scrutiny. But there seem to be more examples of politicians at least in the U.S. surviving plagiarism accusations relatively unscathed, at least in the U.S.

Vice President Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential bid, for example, was foiled by accusations that he plagiarized other politicians during his speeches, along with news that he had been accused of plagiarism on paper while he was a student at Syracuse Law School. Biden remained a member of the Senate, however, until assuming the vice presidency.

More recently, in 2013, Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, faced allegations that he plagiarized various sources, including Wikipedia, in his book and other writings. He announced new staff policies designed to prevent such occurrences in the future, but remained in office.

Compare those examples to that of Vanessa Ryan, the assistant professor of English at Brown University who lost her tenure-track position last year after a university investigation showed that she had unintentionally plagiarized background information in her book, Thinking Without Thinking In the Victorian Novel. It was subsequently declared out of print by Johns Hopkins University Press.

And at plenty of colleges, plagiarism of the level found in the senator's thesis would be grounds for failing a course, even an undergraduate course.

There are counterexamples, too, in which academics – at least publicly – have not faced sanctions for instances of plagiarism. Matthew C. Whitaker, a professor of history at Arizona State University, was promoted amidst allegations of plagiarism in 2011. (A university committee found he had committed unintentional plagiarism, but he has since been anonymously accused of plagiarism a second time, in relation to a new book. It’s unclear whether the university is investigating those charges; a university spokeswoman said the university does not comment on the status of investigations. Whitaker has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.)

Still, Whitaker faced punishment from his peers, who publicly and privately condemned his alleged actions; one professor resigned in protest from her position as departmental tenure committee chair. Such a reaction is typical in academe, and is perhaps best expressed in this line from the American Historical Association's Statement on Standards regarding plagiarism: “The real penalty for plagiarism is the abhorrence of the community of scholars.”

In Walsh’s case, both national Democrats and Steve Bullock, Montana’s Democratic governor, have backed him.

“Senator Walsh has a long history of fighting for Montanans, both at home and in combat," Bullock said in a statement of his former lieutenant general, who retired as a colonel from the U.S. Army and served as adjutant general of the Montana National Guard. "He deserves respect for his courage on our behalf."

Walsh’s campaign has said he has no plans to step down. A spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

Walsh, an Iraq War veteran, initially attributed possible citation errors in his paper to post-traumatic stress disorder. He claimed that he was experiencing residual trauma from a deployment to Iraq at the time he was writing the paper. "I don't want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor," the senator told the Associated Press. "My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment."

The statement, from which he’s since distanced himself, may have won him some sympathy. But it also earned him criticism from veterans, including from within Montana, where Walsh is facing the harshest criticism, said David C.W. Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University.

Local media reports – including one focusing on student veteran reactions on the Montana State campus – have been less than forgiving, Parker said. Still, he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Walsh make it to the election in November, mostly for political reasons: state Democrats have few other potential candidates.

But there’s another reason the story might not have killed Walsh’s bid just yet, Parker and other experts said: a lack of clarity among most people outside academe about just what constitutes plagiarism.

“I think where it gets muddled is that a lot of the general public doesn’t understand plagiarism in full,” Parker said; questions of intentionality and improper citation can blur the integrity debate.

Rand Paul, in defending himself against allegations that he plagiarized Wikipedia in describing the film “Gattaca” in a speech, revealed his own incomplete understanding of plagiarism.

“Trying to say someone commits plagiarism, you’re saying that someone is dishonest,” the Times quoted him as saying. “And, well, it would be dishonest if I tried to say, ‘Oh, I had this great idea for a movie, and this is my idea, and this is a story I wrote in college called ‘Gattaca.’ ”

Even among academics, “unintentional” plagiarism, frequently attributed to sloppy research practices, is a common excuse; Ryan used it in her case at Brown.

However, Parker called Walsh’s alleged misconduct a “wholesale case of mosaic plagiarism” – one cut and pasted from multiple sources – and therefore within the public’s “realm” of understanding. He added: “If there were some misplaced quotation marks, that would be one thing, but this is bigger than that.”

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, raised a few other possibilities for why alleged plagiarism hasn’t derailed Walsh's career. One is faith in the democratic process, with a helping of cynicism.

“I think part of the reason there's been little pressure on Walsh to step down is that he's currently running for re-election, so the voters will have a chance to make their own determination come November,” Drezner said via email. “And as much as I might abhor plagiarism, politicians have done far worse and been elected to Congress.” (Parker agreed with this analysis, saying that plagiarism might pale in comparison, to say, “sleeping with interns.”)

Another possibility, said Drezner, is that lots of jobs – particularly those in policy – rely heavily on appropriating ideas. In the general population, he said, “there are a lot of professions where cutting and pasting without attribution isn't plagiarism but just good staff work.”

He continued: “When I worked at the Treasury Department, for example, I cut and pasted text from official declarations all the time, because I wasn't claiming authorship and because public language was also by definition preapproved language.”

That said, Drezner still condemned Walsh’s alleged plagiarism, including in a scathing Washington Post op-ed that criticized the quality of Walsh’s 14-page paper over all, plagiarized or not.

Despite being strangely “flattered” by Walsh’s alleged misrepresentation of his material, Lynn-Jones also condemned plagiarism, saying that it’s not a victimless offense – even among non-academics.

“His fellow students and, in particular, the U.S. Army War College, are the primary aggrieved parties,” Lynn-Jones, said, calling Walsh’s actions, as reported, “cheating” to obtain a degree.

The U.S. Army War College has begun a formal inquiry into the case. A spokesman for the college referred questions to a statement on Walsh, which says, in part, that “we presume the integrity and professionalism of our highly qualified and experienced students is intact, unless there is reason to believe otherwise.”

The statement notes that there have been eight cases since 1990 for which the college revoked the graduation status of a former student after graduation. Six were for plagiarism and two were for misconduct.

“If the plaque bearing graduates' names has already been hung in front of the college, they have had their name removed from the metal plate,” the statement says.

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