Plagiarism in 21st century: Tempting, damning

Plagiarism in 21st century: Tempting, damning

Does the tough, no nonsense response by the US Army War College to Montana Senator John Walsh’s outrageous plagiarism in his MA writing offer any lessons for others? J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the question.

Some years ago, when this writer was teaching international relations in a South African university, one student turned in a midterm paper that was clearly purchased from one of those sources available on the Internet and had then passed off the paper as his own work. One of the telltale signs was that this paper was a subtle notch away from any of the possible topics that had been offered as choices for midterm papers. It was well written, true, and it was close to some of the topics, but it was just not quite on point in the end.

And then there was fact that from among all of the cited references used in this paper, none was more recent than articles and other sources that had been issued a half a decade earlier. This was in spite of the fact that all of the possible topics that could be selected had asked students to focus on an issue in current international relations and the instructions called for analysis of that issue, rather than simply a well-researched, in-depth description of some historical event.

As it happened, this particular course was a required course in the final year of work for a BA degree. A failing grade in that class (as a result of zero points from an unacceptable midterm paper) would require the student to come back the following year and try his luck again. Calling the student in for a meeting, it was pointed out that this paper was clearly not the student’s own work. Much shuffling of feet and very little eye contact ensued.

Trying to bend this conversation into a teachable moment instead of simply a punishment moment, the student was told this paper would not be accepted; but, if he delivered an entirely new effort by the end of the week, that would be considered on its merits for a grade. Otherwise, in accord with the university’s plagiarism policy, he would be reported to the authorities and – mostly likely – expelled from the program. Fortunately for him, the new paper – while not a Nobel Prize-winning effort – was just sufficient to ensure a passing grade for the course. And perhaps a lesson had been learned, about plagiarism, that is.

This anecdote comes to mind with the news a US senator from Montana, John Walsh, has been unceremoniously stripped of his MA degree from the US Army War College – and thoroughly embarrassed nationally – for acts of flagrant plagiarism. The university’s decision came following a thorough review of a paper he had submitted as part of the requirements for his MA degree – once the review committee had determined a significant portion of it had been lifted, word for word, from other sources.

Of course there have been other plagiarism scandals in American public life. Well, some were not actually plagiarism; some of those were more like journalism as an opportunity for imaginative fiction. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Republic have all been caught out by prize-winning reporters who, rather than accurately reporting on issues, simply fabricated their sources, quotes and, eventually, entire events until they were found out and sent packing. And some years ago, while still a senator, Vice President Joe Biden had appropriated some portions of speech text from British politician Neil Kinnock, using them for his own. Grovelling apologies eventually ensued.

Interestingly, nobody has ever claimed Abraham Lincoln plagiarised his extraordinary “Gettysburg Address” from ancient Greek statesman Pericles’ “Funeral Oration over the Athenian Dead” – even though Lincoln did appropriate some of Pericles’ stylistic and rhetorical devices, according to journalist-historian Garry Wills, in his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. Smart man that he was, Lincoln had turned Pericles’ rhetorical model into something very different – a definitive statement of the ideals of freedom and democracy, rather than the appeals for vengeance his ancient exemplar had in mind. Drawing from an influence is not quite the same as stealing the content.

(And, of course, one should never forget that monument of the dystopian writing, George Orwell’s 1984, which appears to be a not much more than a well-written clone of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s masterpiece, We – Ed)

In the case of the charges into Senator Walsh’s conduct, the Army War College clearly wanted to reach a definitive resolution as quickly as possible, rather than letting the charges fester in the media and on the Internet. The report of the investigation, the text of which was made public, concluded, “Evidence generated by the research into the (research paper) clearly documents that the paper (a) contains little (if any) original language or research, (b) is primarily composed of verbatim liftings from other sources, (c) clearly reads as if lifted words and passages are the work of then Colonel Walsh, when, in fact, they are not, and (d) presents evidence via the manipulation of the language and ideas of Colonel Buss and Amaney Jamal of purposive deception. In short, the paper was plagiarised and that the plagiarism was intentional.”

Once the decision was announced, according to one Montana local paper, The Missoulian, “After the decision Friday, Walsh’s name was ground off an Army War College plaque that listed those who had received master’s degrees there in 2007, Carol Kerr, the college’s public affairs officer, confirmed.” Whoa, that’s tough stuff. Not quite like ripping off his epaulets and breaking his ceremonial sword in half in front of his regiment, but pretty much the equivalent for dishonourable behaviour as an author in today’s military.

Walsh had actually only recently become a senator. He had been appointed by the governor of Montana to fill the remaining year of Senator Max Baucus’ term of office after Baucus had resigned to be appointed as the American ambassador to China. But, following allegations of Walsh’s plagiarism in the media, it soon became clear Walsh could never stand for election for a full term with the senate seat he had so recently gained; and so, now, another Democratic candidate has stepped up to run for that seat in the 4 November midterm election. Not surprisingly, Republicans are working overtime to try to capture this senate seat – a seat that has been in Democratic Party hands for over a century. If they gain it, it may well help them gain a majority in that chamber of Congress.

Walsh had been studying for a Master’s degree the year before he became Montana’s adjutant general, the position that officially is responsible for commanding that state’s National Guard units. (The National Guard is a part of the nation’s military reserve and has frequently been called to active duty service during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.) In fact, once it set up the review committee, the members spent only a single day in hearings on the case. They had actually reached their final findings in August but the appeals and review processes were only wrapped up the first week of October.

Finding that Walsh’s plagiarism had been “egregious”, the War College spokeswoman told the media, “The board found that then Colonel John Walsh did commit the offense of plagiarism and thus his Master’s Degree and status as graduate of the U.S. Army War College should be revoked.” In response to this major smack in the chops, Walsh issued his own statement in which he said he disagreed with the decision, even as he accepted it. In his statement, Walsh said, “I apologise to all Montanans for the plagiarism in my 2007 paper, and I am prepared to live with its consequences. I may not be a scholar, but I am proud to have been a soldier who has served Montana and this great nation for 33 years in uniform.”

The AP reported that Walsh had spoken “to members of the review board by phone the day before it convened in August. He admitted that he plagiarised the paper, but he said it was a mistake. Walsh also said he was taking medication for PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] and that one of the soldiers he commanded in Iraq in 2005 had committed suicide in March 2007” – perhaps an effort to set out a psychological version of the old “dog ate my homework” defence. Walsh added, “As basic as it may seem, I did not know how to put together a graduate-level academic research paper. It is clear to me now that my system of tracking work attributable to others was flawed. I knew at the time I was a bit disorganised. But I didn’t appreciate how exposed it left me to plagiarising.” Hmm.

In response to his plea, the review board noted Walsh had already submitted earlier drafts of “his” paper before that suicide and that he had also submitted yet another version of the very same paper to still another class – with all the plagiarised portions still in the paper for the second class. Walsh appealed the decision on 6 October and just four days later, the War College had rejected his appeal.

Clearly desperately grasping at straws, Walsh called on character witnesses to write on his behalf, including the governor who had appointed him as the state’s adjutant general, the position that allowed him to take the MA course at the War College. Former Governor Brian Schweitzer had added an unusual note in his testimonial to the effect that Walsh was not “a literary scholar or a person who understood the nuances of grammar and putting things in quotations.” Does this have a familiar ring to it about not paying attention to the small details?

By contrast to the resolute action of the review board at the US Army War College in tackling the suspect work of a senior politician, too often it seems, South Africans continue to be subjected to highly placed officials who, when “outed” over non-existent academic backgrounds, artfully bob and weave in efforts to hang onto their financially rewarding, powerful positions – in some cases even flaunting their lack of the appropriate academic or professional background in a kind of “catch me if you can” taunt. While taking actions like those carried out by the US Army War College can certainly be politically fraught, sometimes the guard dogs just have to be allowed to bark and bite, rather than allow the other ones to eat the homework. DM

Photo: Montana Senator John Walsh(US Congress)

Read more:

  • Army War College revokes Sen. Walsh’s degree for plagiarism, in the Missoulian

  • How Senator John Walsh Plagiarized a Final Paper, in the New York Times

  • Army War College revokes Sen. John Walsh’s degree at the AP website

  • Senator Quits Montana Race After Charge of Plagiarism, at the New York Times

  • Quotes from Sen. Walsh’s plagiarism investigation at the AP


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