An Unfortunate (and Expensive) Lesson on Plagiarism

In late March, the City of Burlington Vermont found itself at the center of an unusual and highly divisive plagiarism story.

Six months prior Kyle Dodson, the president of Burlington’s YMCA, took a six-month hiatus to be the town’s director of police transformation. As part of that, he was to spend six months studying the various challenges facing the police report and submit a report to Mayor Miro Weinberger with recommendations for changes and reforms.

The job came at an exceedingly challenging time. The town, as with much of the country, was dealing with the impacts of the Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing tensions regarding race and police violence. This included a protest in Burlington where protestors overtook a local park for more 11 nights.

Dodson, a black man with broad experience in municipal government, was chosen to produce the report. For his time, he would be paid $75,000.

He submitted that final report on March 19 and, almost immediately, city councilors were struck by the report’s brevity: Only 8 pages and 1,542 words. According to those councilors, the report contained few concrete suggestions and included controversial statements such as, “The community didn’t want transformation. Blacks and activists want revenge. That’s understandable, but it’s deeply problematic.”

However, it was a report from the publication Seven Days that raised a new problem: Plagiarism

According to Seven Days, more than half of the document’s words were not Dodson’s. Some were linked though it was not indicated outside language was used. In other parts, in particular his analysis, elements were lifted without any acknowledgement at all.

In an interview with a local TV station, Dodson did not deny the plagiarism. He said that he made the mistake of viewing this project as a memo to the mayor and not a formal report that would be seen by the public. He also expressed frustration, saying in another article that the demands of the report were unrealistic and why was it expected that he, someone who never presented himself as a police transformer, have the “silver bullet” in just six months.

As for Dodson himself, he has returned to his role as the president of the local YMCA, bringing an end to the matter at hand, but not the controversy.

A Problem We’ve Seen Before

Dodson is far from the first to face accusations of plagiarizing a difficult report or statement like this. In June 2020, we reported on the CEO of the University of Lincoln Students’ Union (USLU) CEO James Brooks was accused of plagiarizing an apology to black students.

We also have seen several universities face allegations of plagiarism over letters detailing budget cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and even superintendents that plagiarized letters thanking everyone for their cooperation during difficult times.

Dodson is likely very right that the expectations placed upon him were unreasonable and that there likely was not much he, or anyone else, could do to meet them. However, the time to set reasonable expectations is before a project begins, not after it.

While I can certainly understand how such an impossible task might lead to ambivalence, the topic itself is still far too important to not do the absolute best job possible. According to the article on Seven Days, Dodson said that city was not ready to talk about actual policing transformations, otherwise, he said, the document “would have been 100 pages long.”

He went on to say that, “I didn’t have the time to do it, and I didn’t think it would be worth it, because I didn’t expect anyone to read it or listen because no one seemed to care.”

But people did care. Not only did they care enough to have massive protests on the subject, but the town cared enough to pay him to draft this report. To have that report not live up to the expectations many had and then, on top of that, to be plagiarized, is a disservice to everyone who does care.

While I can certainly sympathize with the feelings of futility that come with a project of this scope, the response is not to commit plagiarism and turn in a report under the assumption that no one cares. Not on an issue of such importance especially.

Much as with the University of Lincoln Students’ Union case above, the plagiarism belies the seriousness of the issue. Even if both Dodson and the town had nothing but the best of intentions, the plagiarism calls the seriousness of that conversation into question and harms any chance for healing and progress.

In short, Dodson may be right that the city isn’t ready for the conversations, but his actions have only made that situation worse by deepening the divides and creating an all-new controversy.

Bottom Line

There are two lessons here. The first is for the City of Burlington and anyone who is paying for a report: Set clear expectations on length, scope, originality and citation. Make it clear what should be in the report, the expected length and the standards of citation that are expected.

The second lesson is for writers: Always assume everything you pen may be seen publicly someday so continually do the best that you can.

While Dodson’s feeling may be understandable, his response is not. Even if the document were just a memo to the mayor, it should not have contained plagiarized text, especially in his analysis. Even if the task truly is hopeless, it’s no reason to not put the best effort possible in.

Even if his efforts were in vain today, they may have paid off down the line. Now, all that’s happened is that an already complicated and divisive issue has further controversy and further division. If Dodson wanted to help the city heal, he’s done very much the opposite.

Still, the time to flesh out project expectations is before it begins and it’s likely too late for Burlington or Dodson to do much to remedy the situation now. Unfortunately for all involved, this is a bell that cannot be unrung.

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