David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

Why John Walsh’s Plagiarism Does—and Doesn’t—Matter

Full 07252014 johnwalsh

Over the last day or so, news broke that Senator John Walsh, a Montana Democrat, plagiarized his final paper for his master’s from the United States Army War College. Many academics, including me, reacted to the 14-page paper not with surprise at the plagiarism—we see that all the time. Instead, we thought: ”This little paper? For a master's?”

That was my initial reaction. It was wrong.

The War College is a credentialing school. As a friend of mine who is a veteran (and an educator) says, the master's is a hoop you jump through, rather than a commitment to furthering knowledge. While Walsh’s paper is significantly less rigorous than what I ask my undergraduates to do for their capstones, there’s no reason to criticize the paper on the grounds of length, sourcing, or lack of data. The program at the War College combines the technical experience of long-serving officers, selected by their superiors, with academic study, giving them a degree that means they are ready for higher rank. Both the officers themselves and the school are under enormous pressure to pass people onwards, credential in hand.

I don’t think that serious academic research actually is one of the skills that high-ranking officers need to master. Instead I’d like them to be able to listen carefully to experts and either make sound decisions themselves on the basis of expert findings or report those findings up the chain of command. The key isn’t the ability to do the research, but the ability to assess and synthesize.

That’s more or less what Walsh’s paper does. It’s a thought-piece, and if you didn’t know it was plagiarized, it would be a fine version of that type of assignment. Taking it at face value, it’s got a few examples, some arguments from well-researched papers, and a series of reasonable recommendations about the future of encouraging democracy in the Middle East. Assuming the assignment was to write a 12- to 15-page paper on a foreign-policy issue, I’d give it a pretty good grade.

Walsh first responded to the allegations by saying, “I didn’t do anything intentional here.” This I didn’t believe. I’ve had too many freshmen say the same to me. Moreover, the plagiarism is too egregious. There are citation issues in which he directly quoted a source, and identified that source in an endnote, but did not put the quotation in quotation marks—probably because, had he done so, most of his paper would have been in quotation marks. I see this a lot. However, the entire recommendation section of his paper is directly lifted from an uncited source, and that’s just not explained away by being confused about citation norms.

He has now shifted to talking about his post-traumatic stress disorder in a way I do find credible. "I don't want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor," the senator said. "My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment."

This I can believe. I see many students making poor choices when confronted by illness (theirs or someone else’s), intense stress, disability, or other external factors. My experience includes veterans who were, perhaps, struggling with combat-related PTSD, though none have disclosed it to me.

That said, accurate assessment of data and sources matters well beyond the walls of academia. It’s one of the core skills that I, a historian, claim to impart to my students. I tell them that they will live in a world with nearly infinite data accessible to them. And I tell them that I won’t just impart historical content; I will also try to teach them to assess accuracy, to assemble information in a clear and concise way, and to document their work so others can replicate their research.

So I am troubled by Walsh’s plagiarism. I don’t care whether our military elites know the intricacies of Chicago Manual of Style citation, but we cite in order to be transparent about the sources of our information. We cite to show how our ideas relate to the work of others. We cite to show that the evidence supports our conclusions. That’s something that I want our military elites to take very seriously. I hope the War College is responding to this scandal by examining their assessment norms and looking at other papers, not just those written by senators, to make sure their practices match their principles.

Walsh’s paper talks about the Iraq War. The Iraq War, as we now know, was started based off of faulty and biased information. One study found 935 false public statements from the Bush administration, many blithely reported as facts by the media. Many of the allegations about weapons of mass destruction came from “Curveball,” a single individual that claimed to have insider information, but didn’t.

Now there is a case where good footnotes might have helped.

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