On Wednesday afternoon, a flurry of phone calls and e-mails informed me that Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., had apparently included — verbatim and without attribution — several pages of a 1998 paper of mine in a work he submitted to the U.S. Army War College. Walsh’s paper, which also failed to properly reference the work of others, was one of the requirements for the master’s degree he received from the War College in 2007.
I was peppered with questions: How did I feel about what Sen. Walsh had done? Was I furious? Had he reached out to me? Was I going to demand an apology?
Honestly, I’m not outraged. Although I don’t condone plagiarism, I was surprised and mildly flattered that Sen. Walsh had decided to incorporate so much of my paper into his, albeit without citing me once. Even in 2007, my paper, “Why the United States Should Spread Democracy,” was out of date. I wrote it in 1998, when the Clinton administration was embracing the strategy of spreading democracy.
By 2007, U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan had, to put it mildly, given democracy promotion a bad name.
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The paper needed significant revisions to address what had happened in those two countries, respond to criticisms and cite the most recent literature. Nevertheless, it remained online and was often the most viewed publication on the website of Harvard’s Belfer Center. Ironically, Walsh’s appropriation, without citation, of sections of my paper ensures that it will enjoy a much wider readership than if he had properly footnoted it in his student work.
I also confess to some political ambivalence. As a loyal Democrat, I still harbor hopes that there will be a Democratic majority in the Senate after the November 2014 elections. The revelations about Walsh’s paper make that outcome a little less likely. A Harvard colleague e-mailed to say that he could see the post-election headline already: “Democrats lose the Senate, Fail to Attribute Research Sources Properly.” Perhaps Walsh will ride out the storm, just as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Vice President Biden did. He probably shouldn’t count on any campaign contributions from me.
Still, plagiarism is fundamentally wrong. Scholars’ careers largely depend on receiving credit for their research and publications. Tenure and promotion decisions may hinge on how often a professor’s books or articles are cited. So academics are understandably sensitive to the possibility that someone else will claim credit for their research. Students who plagiarize in their research papers may not damage the careers of the scholars they plagiarize, but they are cheating and should be held accountable.
As the editor of an academic quarterly, I have had to deal with several cases of potential plagiarism in papers that have been submitted for publication. Sometimes charges of plagiarism have turned out to be unwarranted; a careful investigation should follow any accusation. When the evidence of plagiarism is clear, the usual response has been rejection of the manuscript and a clear warning to the author. In some cases, I have informed the author’s institution. The U.S. Army War College apparently has rules and procedures regarding plagiarism. I trust that the War College will review Senator Walsh’s submitted work and apply its policies accordingly.
Sean M. Lynn-Jones is editor of the quarterly journal International Security and a research associate at the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Special To The Washington Post