A $500,000 Plagiarism Scandal

Jean McCorquodale is the wife of former California state senator Dan McCorquodale. Between 2009 and 2019, she held a very lucrative position at the Santa Clara County government.

According to The Mercury News, In 2009, she was awarded a no-bid contract to be the sole grant writer for the county. In 2014 she was offered a five-year extension on that deal. At the beginning of this term, she was making $120,000 per year, an amount that had grown to $220,000 in 2016 and 2017.

However, it was in 2018 that she was offered an additional contract. This was to write a book about the history of the county and its government. For this, her payment jumped from $220,000 to $510,000 in 2018 and remained above $500,000 in 2019. 

Despite the payments, work on the book fell behind. According to McCorquodale, this was largely due to the pandemic preventing her from accessing key historical documents. Either way, a 580-page draft of the book was submitted in January of this year.

However, according to an investigation by The Mercury News, roughly one-fifth of the book was copied from a variety of online sources. Those sources included, among others, Wikipedia, the History Channel, The Mercury News itself, official government websites and more. Roughly half of the copied paragraphs did not contain footnotes, and none of the paragraphs indicated that the text was quoted.

This has led to Supervisor Otto Lee calling for an inquiry into the book and the various contracts that were awarded McCorquodale. Specifically, they are seeking a “third-party investigator” to further investigate McCorquodale’s work.

Disclosure: This is the type of work that I do professionally as part of my consulting practice and expert witness work. However, I have not been asked about this case as of this writing. As such, all information I have is from published sources. 

For McCorquodale’s part, she claims that the submitted draft was not her final draft and that the copied paragraphs were “placeholders”. However, McCorquodale has not provided an updated draft to either the county or to the news media.

All in all, the plagiarism aspect of this story is really just a small part of a much larger tale that centers around the $2.45 million she has been awarded since 2009 in no-bid contracts. However, it is still an important piece that speaks to the work McCorquodale was doing and whether or not it was worth the money she was paid.

Examining the Plagiarism

The plagiarism is fairly straightforward. According to The Mercury News, about one-fifth of the 580-page book was copied near-verbatim from various sources, with very little changed. In the example provided by the paper, it’s safe to say that the rewrites are completely insignificant. 

However, this isn’t really denied by McCorquodale. She doesn’t claim that the copied content isn’t there, but that it was a rough draft of her work and that she plans to rewrite those portions.

That explanation, to be blunt, is farcical. 

We’ve talked about this a great deal recently, but it’s simply the truth that one does not write an original work and “edit” it into their own words. Not only is it prone to mistakes and errors, but even if it is done perfectly, it is still just an edited version of someone else’s writing, not an original creation by the editor.

Simply put, the only way to ensure that you’re writing authentically is the cleanroom writing technique. Separating your notes, not allowing outside content to mingle with your writing and citing as part of the writing, not the editing, process ensures that the new work is original.

Clearly McCorquodale did not do that.

However, even if I grant that she intended to change those sections, it doesn’t alter the fact that she submitted the draft to her supervisor for review. In a classroom setting, any time a student submits a draft of a work, it is reasonably expected that it will be fre