Days like today make me wish I had not become a plagiarism expert.
For the past few days, the Web has been very busy discussing the McCain plagiarism controversy and several people have asked me via both email and Twitter what I thought about it.
However, I am always inherently suspicious about plagiarism scandals in politics because, almost always, the people who are bringing the accusations have self-serving motives.
Also, as with the Obama case previously, there is a tendency to take things to an extreme, either declaring it a hideous injustice or mere vapor.
However, typically speaking, these types of scandals are never as simple as “Yes, he plagiarized” or “No, he didn’t”. The truth is almost always more complicated than that and, if you want my thoughts on the case, it is going to take a few moments to explain them.
What Supposedly Happened
According to Political Wire, a political blog founded by Taegan Goddard, a Wikipedia editor emailed the site to let them know he noticed some similarities between a recent McCain speech about the crisis in Georgia with Wikipedia’s article about the country.
Specifically, the article cites three comparisons that involve suspicious similarities.
Though the story has not garnered as much attention as the Obama scandal did earlier, Google News is only showing about 30 stories referencing both “McCain” and “Plagiarism” as of this writing, it’s gotten mentions on some late-night talk shows and seems to have become the subject of a lot of political humor.
However, the comparisons themselves are not exactly cut and dry cases of plagiarism. They are short passages that center on facts about the country that have very little verbatim copying.
The McCain scandal, like almost any non-cut-and-paste plagiarism case, is not simple nor can it be painted in broad strokes.
Whenever I do a plagiarism analysis, either on cases such as this or for my consulting services, I have two standards that I follow.
- The Academic One: Would I expect an average university or other school to be concerned with or discipline a student that turned in this work?
- The Personal One: If the original work were my own, would I be considering taking legal or other action against the person that reused my content?
The second standard does not apply here. The accusations are more academic than legal in nature so there would be no reason for anyone to consider taking legal action.
So, with that in mind, we’ll use the first standard in this case and look at each quote separately.
one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion (Wikipedia)
one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion (McCain)
This one is impossible for me to say anything about. Both quotes deal with a known fact about the country of Georgia and information about this can be found in many places, including being alluded to in the CIA’s World Factbook.
Though it is always a good idea to cite your sources, we don’t expect politicians to do so in their speeches so, without any verbatim copying, there seems to be little to this quote.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia had a brief period of independence as a Democratic Republic (1918-1921), which was terminated by the Red Army invasion of Georgia. Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922 and regained its independence in 1991. Early post-Soviet years was marked by a civil unrest and economic crisis. (Wikipedia)
After a brief period of independence following the Russian revolution, the Red Army forced Georgia to join the Soviet Union in 1922. As the Soviet Union crumbled at the end of the Cold War, Georgia regained its independence in 1991, but its early years were marked by instability, corruption, and economic crises. (McCain)
The strongest of the quotes in terms of evidence of plagiarism, there is still not a great deal of verbatim copying. Once again, all of the information is well-known facts about the country of Georgia available from a variety of sources.
The last sentence of the quote is the most interesting, especially the inclusion of the phrase “economic crises”, which is a fairly unique way of saying “economic troubles” or “financial problems”. However, it is not so uncommon that it could not have been a coincidence.
There are a lot of similarities between the two passages but, since most of both quotes are pure facts, it is hard to separate the information from the expression.
In 2003, Shevardnadze (who won reelection in 2000) was deposed by the Rose Revolution, after Georgian opposition and international monitors asserted that the 2 November parliamentary elections were marred by fraud. The revolution was led by Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze, former members and leaders of Shavarnadze’s ruling party. Mikheil Saakashvili was elected as President of Georgia in 2004. Following the Rose Revolution, a series of reforms was launched to strengthen the country’s military and economic capabilities. (Wikipedia)
Following fraudulent parliamentary elections in 2003, a peaceful, democratic revolution took place, led by the U.S.-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili. The Rose Revolution changed things dramatically and, following his election, President Saakashvili embarked on a series of wide-ranging and successful reforms. (McCain)
This, even by the blog’s estimation, is the weakest of the three quotes. There are very few similarities, the order has been changed and the two quotes focus on different things.
Once again though, we are dealing with facts and information, not expression, that could have come from almost anywhere. Since we don’t expect political candidates to add footnotes to their speeches, it seems unfair to accuse McCain of plagiarism in this quote.
If we take this plagiarism out of the context of a political speech and put it in a proper student paper with footnotes, I doubt anyone would have raise an eyebrow. While it is true that McCain has not offered any attribution at all, something that might have cleared this matter up much sooner, most political candidates don’t.
Though I admit openly there are similarities, the truth is that the level of copying would probably not warrant suspicion in an academic environment, especially if the sources were properly cited.
To be fair, I was not able to perform some of my standard tests, including using automated plagiarism detection tools, as the quotes involved were too short for such tools to be effective.
This is just a personal opinion based upon my own reading.
The entire matter could have been avoided completely, most likely, if McCain and his staff had just provided proper footnotes for his speeches.
Politically, it makes sense anyway. Politicians routinely throw out fact and ideas that we, as voters, have no idea where they got them from. We have no clue if our future leaders are using reliable sources or are listening to smart people.
If politicians and other public figures wanted to better serve us, as well as avoid these kinds of scandals in the future, they would provide such footnotes for everything they offer publicly. Whether it was a speech, a report or anything else meant for us to consume.
Though most people likely wouldn’t care to trudge through a mess of footnotes, those who are interested would likely do a good job letting the rest of us know when something is amiss.
Though some are already providing valuable fact checking of politicians, there is clearly a need for more and a need for politicians to assist with the process.
The faster we all get to the truth, the better off we’ll all be.