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When Professors (and Politicians) Plagiarize

posted: 6.20.11 by archived

A few weeks ago I posted about graduation speeches. Well, the dean of medicine at the University of Alberta (Canada) has just been accused of plagiarizing a speech that he gave at a graduation reception June 10. Dr. Philip Baker has admitted there was a “failure to attribute the source of my inspiration.” Notably, he doesn’t use the word plagiarism. Yet students claim that he lifted the speech word-for-word from a speech given by the doctor, professor, and best-selling author Atul Gawande at Stanford University last year.

This is by no means the first scandal regarding a plagiarized speech, nor is it likely to be the last. You might remember that Vice President Joe Biden was accused of plagiarism in 2008. His defense was that he didn’t know how to cite the original source. “If I had intended to cheat,” he said, “would I have been so stupid?”

Baker’s and Biden’s “mistakes” are things we can talk about in class. They illustrate how serious (and sometimes complicated) plagiarism is and demonstrate that plagiarism isn’t just something that teachers drill into students, but a larger cultural phenomenon. I also think it’s important to examine the excuses, explanations, and repercussions.

The fact that Baker never uses the word “plagiarism” is important. He also explains his process: “When I was researching for the speech, I came across text which inspired me and resonated with my experiences.” He also suggests that “the talk was intended for a private audience,” as though that makes the plagiarism less serious.

The University of Alberta has asked students to refrain from commenting publicly on the issue. Those students who have commented have shown concern about how this situation might impact them and the reputation of the school.

When discussing plagiarism with students in class, I would ask a few questions about the Baker and Biden cases:

  1. Biden suggests that he didn’t know how to cite someone else in his own speech. But what he was stealing was a language pattern, and some exact words, not an idea. He presented the story of his own family in the exact same style as a British politician presented his own life story. The question here, then, is don’t we steal words, phrases, patterns, and structures all the time? When is this plagiarism?
  2. Baker seems able to recover some of his authority because he doesn’t use the word plagiarism, but instead camouflages what he did with the words “research” and “inspiration.” What are some other words we might associate with plagiarism, but also might use to draw the distinction between ethical and unethical behavior: Borrowing? Theft? Influence? Homage? Collaboration?
  3. Biden, and almost every other major politician, works with speechwriters.  So when he stands up to speak, the words aren’t “his” to begin with. Of course this is a problem if the speechwriter plagiarizes.  But the rest of the time, we seem to accept this practice. Why?  These writers aren’t just writing the speech because the politician doesn’t have time. They are crafting the content of the speech—adding knowledge, research, details—that the speaker may not even know or understand. Why do we accept this?
  4. Finally, the way that the University of Alberta has handled the Baker debacle is worth examining. They have asked students not to comment. When students do comment, they seem to be concerned not only with Baker’s dishonesty but with the fact that their own degree might be tarnished. Does the university’s gag order make this situation worse? And in what ways are students and educators tightly connected through concepts (or contracts) of honesty and integrity? For instance, 200 students at the University of Central Florida admitted to cheating on a test. Yet the professor got all of his questions and answers from a “test bank.” How can both students and teachers strive for higher ethical standards?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts on any of these cases—or other cases that similarly raise questions and complications.

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Categories: Jay Dolmage, Plagiarism
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2 Responses to “When Professors (and Politicians) Plagiarize”

  1. Brad Zakarin Says:

    Expectations for originality inform reactions to plagiarism, and expectations depend on individuals and contexts. In terms of schools’ expectations of students, some colleges apply a “reasonable person” standard: should a student at that school know better even if he claims ignorance? Other colleges define plagiarism as an intentional act, and call accidental infractions “misuse of sources.” Another distinction involves the scope of what can be plagiarized. Some schools limit policies to work submitted for degree credit. Others consider anything to be reviewable, including students’ speeches. For example, there is an open case from a 2011 speech by a graduate of North Carolina Central University’s law school (http://tiny.cc/t4gky). And, Conn College’s 2009 student speaker was found in violation of the school’s honor code (http://tiny.cc/uuzec).

    What educators expect of students is a useful starting point for considering the cases above.

    1. First of all, Biden’s case is misrepresented: he claimed ignorance when his paper was flagged for plagiarism in law school; his later defense about plagiarizing his political speech was that he forgot to attribute the phrasing in just one of many deliveries. Video of multiple (not sure how many) instances of him acknowledging his source would meet my standard for a minor misdemeanor, not a capital offense. Returning to the ignorance defense in law school, he should’ve suffered at least a suspension if the plagiarism was as egregious as described.

    2. Baker insults anyone who has done “research” or enjoyed “inspiration” by linking those terms to what he reportedly did, which was a wholesale rip-off of someone else’s speech. This is the equivalent of turning in a paper from a term-paper mill, fraternity file cabinet, or older sibling’s computer. His “private audience” defense should only add to the embarrassment. Perhaps his students should consider plagiarizing work they submit to him because it is intended solely for a private audience of one professor.

    3. I have a skewed view here because of my historical research. Separating JFK from Ted Sorensen, an adviser and speechwriter, is difficult. I can imagine either one handling press inquiries about the broader themes and immediate content of presidential speeches. This brings me to my standard for politics: if someone gives a speech and can’t answer questions about it, then the blow to perceived leadership and credibility is sufficient penalty for relying too heavily on someone as a ghostwriter.

    4. The University of Alberta seems to have handled this unfortunate situation quite well–except with respect to asking students to remain silent (something I hadn’t noticed before in the coverage). The only reason I could imagine is that they don’t want to complicate any formal investigation of Baker by having public testimony in advance. The University of Central Florida case was unfortunate because of the particular professor’s overblown response and perceived hypocrisy. In general, educators’ use of vetted test banks doesn’t seem unethical in an educational system full of standardized testing. It would, however, be unethical to give tests that are not aligned with the course material taught.

  2. Jay, U. Waterloo Says:

    Brad — thanks very, very much for this detailed response. I like the ways that you have replied to these questions — I find your answers very persuasive and I think I personally agree on all counts. But I would also be interested, separately, in hearing how students would respond, because I think they may have some surprising things to say.
    We rarely think of colleges and universities as institutions that suggest, encourage or incite particular ethical stances from their students. But the ETHOS of a given university has so much to do with the development of contextual ethics for the student body.
    When I was at WVU, our president gave away a bogus degree and was forced to step down. Listening to how students responded to this was so illuminating. I also, later, served on the University’s disciplinary panel and listened to a lot of arguments and justifications for plagiarism. Again, illuminating in a certain way — if we, even just for a moment, are willing to be convinced by some of the ways that students offer justifications of plagiarism within the educational system as critiques of this system.