To say that this has been an unusual election cycle would be a grand understatement. Obviously, tensions are high and, while saying we live in unprecedented times is a cliche, that doesn’t make it less true.
Still, some things do remain the same and one of those is political plagiarism stories. However, one thing that is a bit more unusual is that not all the focus is on the incoming administration, the outgoing one is facing its share of allegations as well.
To that end, there have been two political stories that have dominated plagiarism news over the past few weeks. One of them involves the incoming Vice President Kamala Harris and the other involves a controversial report from the outgoing administration.
So, let’s look at each of them and find out just how serious the allegations actually are and how well they stand up to scrutiny.
The Kamala Harris Plagiarism Scandal
On January 4th, conservative political commentator Dave Rubin posted on his Twitter a side-by-side comparison of a recent interview that Harris gave Elle magazine and a similar anecdote told by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.
In the King version, he was recalling the story of a toddler at a protest that, when a police officer asked what she wanted, she responded with “Fee-dom” being unable to pronounce the word.
In Harris’ version, she was recalling what her mother told her. According to her story, she was at a civil rights protest as an infant and was asked by her mother what she wanted. She responded with “Fweedom.”
The only elements the two stories have in common is an infant at a civil rights protest being asked about what they want and responding with a mispronunciation of “Freedom”. The stories differ in terms of who asked the question, why it was asked and where the protests took place.
Setting aside the strained connection between the two (many children struggle with pronouncing freedom), the other issue is that Harris tells the story not as one she recalls directly, but as one told to her from her deceased mother. This has remained consistent with her across other interviews over the years.
Is it possible that Harris plagiarized the anecdote directly from King? Yes. Is it possible that Harris’ mother either misremembered or told her the anecdote as if it had happened to her? Also, yes. Is it possible that two little children at protests mispronounced “Freedom” in similar ways? Yes again.
None of these arguments can be proved based on the evidence. This is also the feeling of other fact checkers including Newsweek and Snopes, both of which acknowledge the similarities but say that the evidence isn’t strong enough to make any kind of determination.
Plagiarism and the 1776 Report
Yesterday, the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission released a report entitled simply The 1776 Report. The report was written by members of the Trump administration and was intended as a rebuttal to the 1619 Project, a New York Times project that looked at the history of Slavery in the United States.
The 1776 report drew a great deal of controversy out of the gate for its alleged whitewashing of American history and attempts to minimize the importance and impacts of slavery on our nation’s past and present.
However, Courtney Thompson, an assistant professor at Mississippi State, decided to run the report through Turnitin to see what turned up. According to the Turnitin report, some 26% of the work was copied from other sources.
Disclosure: I am a former paid consultant and writer for Turnitin.
However, as she quickly noted, that doesn’t tell the whole tale. A percentage on a plagiarism report is, by itself, meaningless. One must look and see what was copied and if that copying is correctly attributed.
To that end, she said much of it wasn’t and points to incidents where content was quoted and not properly cited as well as cases where the authors simply copied their older works.
In the end, she said that there were a lot of direct quotes that were not cited as well as content lifted from other sources. She went on to say that, if the paper had been submitted to her “it would be a conversation, at minimum.”
Without looking at the Turnitin report, I’m limited in what I can say regarding her specific findings. However, I ran a separate report using PlagScan and found comparable results. That said, I didn’t have a lot of time with that report before publishing this article.
However, even if the work is not plagiarism, the issues speak very poorly of the academic rigor that went into the report. It’s very clear that the authors took shortcuts in their writing and did not perform their due diligence.
To be clear, this is supposed to be an official report that highlights American history as the Trump administration wishes it to be remembered. Any academic failings are a cause for concern and this paper clearly has many.
While this one also ends up being inconclusive (and in need of more research) in terms of plagiarism, the facts that do present themselves still paint a negative picture for the report.
What is striking about both of these stories is who is reporting on them. Liberal sites like the Daily Dot are covering the 1776 report while conservative sites are covering the Harris allegations.
Why this is the case is pitifully obvious, there’s limited interest in the actual allegations of plagiarism and much more interest in smearing. For many, plagiarism only becomes a topic of interest when it can be used to attack a political adversary.
That attitude is harmful. Not only does it prevent nuanced and complicated discussion about plagiarism issues, but it creates double standards for plagiarists.
Plagiarism is a complicated topic and it resists being simplified into binary truths. However, that’s exactly what happens to it when politics mix with it.