Perilous Plagiarism

The accused claimed that the plagiarism was a mistake, the result of a medical condition, no big deal, surely offset by an otherwise stellar record. These words were shockingly familiar to me as a college president who has seen my fair share of plagiarism cases. They are part of the litany of excuses that many students recite upon finding themselves accused of plagiarizing college term papers. In this case, however, the accused plagiarist was no misbegotten sophomore, but rather, a United States Senator and decorated Iraq war veteran who allegedly cheated on a paper he submitted for his master's degree at the Army War College.

Senator John Walsh of Montana has paid a heavy price for his possible plagiarism. Originally appointed to his Senate seat in early 2014 to fill the term vacated by U.S. China Ambassador Max Baucus, Walsh has now withdrawn from his race to win election to a full Senate term in November. The Army War College is conducting a full investigation into the alleged plagiarism that the New York Times first reported in July. Times Reporter Jonathan Martin did a thorough job; exoneration for Walsh appears remote, and he might even lose his degree.

Walsh's case is just the latest in a long and sad string of plagiarism cases ruining promising careers. In the same week as the Walsh story broke, the online news site BuzzFeed fired one of its editors Benny Johnson for extensive plagiarism. The Walsh and Johnson stories have revived comparisons to plagiarism charges that forced then-Senator Joseph Biden to withdraw from the presidential election in 1988, and more recently, accusations that dog Senator Rand Paul. Journalists and writers caught in the plagiarism dragnet include no less than Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer, among many others. And just in the last few days, plagiarism charges have emerged against historian Rick Perlstein with some commentators claiming that the charges are simply a political attack, illustrating the often-fraught nature of plagiarism in the political arena.

Why is plagiarism such a serious intellectual crime? Students returning to college campuses in the next few weeks will hear numerous reminders about the fundamental importance of academic honesty and the career-ending dangers of plagiarism. Yet, too many will fall prey to the "cut + paste" temptation without so much as offering at least quotation marks and links, to say nothing of correct citations in proper APA format. And, like Senator Walsh, they will first try to shrug off these writing lapses as mistakes, the product of stress or illness, or really no big deal.

Plagiarism --- simply put, presenting someone else's words or thoughts as your own with no attribution to the original author --- is a serious intellectual and moral problem for several reasons.

Plagiarism's moral problem is clear: taking someone else's intellectual work product and using it without attribution is theft. Without fundamental moral rules protecting intellectual work products in a manner equivalent to more tangible goods or money, the work loses value. The plagiarist essentially robs the author of the value of the written word.

But plagiarists do not simply take someone else's work product for their own private enjoyment, which might be weird but harmless. Plagiarism reaches its full blown status as a moral problem and disciplinary (possibly expellable or fireable) offense when the plagiarist uses the other person's uncited work for personal and professional gain --- to earn credits or a college degree, to get ahead at work, to win a Pulitzer Prize, to sell a book or an article.

After receiving his Army War College master's degree, Walsh was promoted to the important position of adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, then he became Lieutenant Governor and subsequently was appointed to the Senate. Some commentators now point out the fundamental injustice of a career trajectory built on an apparent lie in his master's degree work.

Beyond the moral problem of stealing someone else's ideas without attribution, at least in academe plagiarism also raises a large question about whether the student who plagiarizes actually learned the material.

I often ask students who question my university's strict Academic Honesty Policy if they would want a surgeon operating on them who plagiarized in Anatomy and Physiology? Would they want a nurse preparing an injection who cheated in Pharmacology? Would they take their taxes to an accountant who used someone else's work to pass Accounting 101? Do we really want generals making national security policy who plagiarized master's degree papers on complex issues in Middle East strategy?

In higher education, plagiarism and other forms of cheating tell us that the student did not learn the material. The student often claims stress, illness, family emergencies or other reasons. But credits and diplomas certify that students have actually learned the material in the courses. At time when higher education is severely challenged to produce better learning outcomes for the sake of our national workforce, being tough on plagiarism and academic dishonesty is more necessary than ever.

As my students return to Trinity this fall, I will use the Walsh case and others to remind them of how promising careers can be ruined so quickly by acts of intellectual dishonesty. I will also remind our faculty that no matter how much compassion they feel, excusing dishonesty is unacceptable. Compassion says that an honest B or C prevails over a dishonest A, that the lower grade shows the true struggle that real education entails.

The best learning occurs inside of the struggle. If a student's work reveals no struggle at all, we rightfully ask if the student learned anything at all -- and where, by the way, did the student get those words?

Senator Walsh has at least one piece of unfinished business on the plagiarism front. Dropping out of the Senate race is hardly enough. He should come clean, admit what he did. He should retract all of those unseemly excuses about how it was just a mistake, that he was ill or coping with stress, that he had a brilliant career that should not be sullied by the facts. He is still a United States Senator, a person in a powerful position of public example. Walsh's continuing obfuscation about his plagiarism only serves to reinforce the very strong tendencies to justify and excuse dishonesty among students. Full confession will help every teacher who is trying to get students to embrace the fundamental moral principles of academic honesty.