Tuesday, October 26, 2004

It seems like John Kerry is the Joe Biden of this year's campaign. The New York Sun has the story of a student who has found passages in Kerry's book, The New War, which were plagiarized from news articles without attribution.
In one instance, Mr. Kerry wrote, "Russian mobsters have been arrested in Germany for extortion, car theft, counterfeiting, prostitution, selling drugs and illegal weapons, and smuggling everything from icons to uranium."

A 1993 Philadelphia Inquirer article, written by Barbara Demick, said, "Suspected Russian mobsters have been arrested in Germany and charged with extortion, car thefts, counterfeiting, prostitution, gambling, and selling drugs and illegal weapons. They have been caught smuggling everything from religious icons to uranium." Mr. Kerry's book contains endnotes but makes no reference to the Inquirer story.

A former English professor and author of two books on plagiarism, Robert Harris, examined that example and others and concluded that many of the instances clearly constituted plagiarism.

"If I had that in a student paper, I'd fail the paper, give them a zero, and make them redo it. On a second offense, I'd fail them for the course," he said. "This kind of plagiarizing, it's really unprofessional."

Another plagiarism expert, Thomas Mallon, said he does not discuss individual cases but would be inclined to apply a more lax standard to Mr. Kerry than is typically used in academia.

"If you want to live in the real world, a politician has to be cut a bit of slack," said Mr. Mallon, who wrote an oft-cited book on plagiarism, "Stolen Words." He said one reason to be more lenient is that everyone assumes that most words uttered by politicians or published under their names were actually written by speechwriters or ghostwriters. "Realism dictates that any reader who spots unattributed passages has to concede a certain exculpation to the politician simply on the assumption that the politician did not write the material," Mr. Mallon said.

Mr. Harris took a different view. "If we're trying to fight plagiarism in the schools and kids see politicians doing it or getting away with it, that makes the battle all the much harder," he said.

I teach students that they must give attribution for everything they borrow from other works even if they're only borrowing the sentence structure. It is so easy to insert a footnote. Kerry knows better and I don't buy the idea that politicians should be cut slack since they don't write their own work. Hey, some professors, apparently, don't write their own work. They are, nevertheless, responsible for teaching their research assistants how to do proper attributinos.