Understanding the Rachel Reeve Plagiarism Scandal

Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, Rachel Reeve, an MP in the UK Parliament and Shadow Chancellor for the Labour Party, released a new book entitled The Women Who Made Modern Economics

However, the mundane book launch quickly became a political headache for Reeve as The Financial Times reported that portions of the book were plagiarized, including significant verbatim copying from various online sources.

In one example, a sentence about the relationship between H.G. Wells and Beatrice Webb was copied from Webb’s Wikipedia page. A separate paragraph was very similar to a book forward written by Hilary Benn. 

All in all, the Financial Times called out at least 20 examples of plagiarism in the book. 

Reeve, for her part, has not denied that the plagiarized text is in the book, but said that “these were inadvertent mistakes” that will be “rectified in future reprints.” Her publisher, Basic Books, has also pointed out that the book has an extensive bibliography with over 200 sources.

As the Shadow Chancellor of the Labour Party, she is highly expected to become the next Chancellor should her party win the next general election. However, criticism of the plagiarism has been harsh, in particular from political opponents, who have prodded her in Parliament.

Making the criticism even worse is that one of the core themes of the book was a systemic failure to properly credit the work of female economists. Reeve, herself, is a former economist at the Bank of England.

Then, as if to add another layer, Reeve has been very heavily promoting this as a book she wrote, saying in an interview, “My day job is pretty consuming, and I’ve got two primary aged children, but I wanted to carve out time to write this book.”

She went on to credit her research assistants, but said that they helped with facts and information and that she was the one who penned the work itself. 

In short, it’s not a good look for the MP, and it is an unforced error that may wind up severely harming her career.

Understanding the Plagiarism

The plagiarism here is fairly straightforward. Reeve’s book contains passages where text was used either verbatim or near-verbatim without any indication the content was a quote.

This immediately defeats one of the arguments used to defend Reeve, namely that her book contains a robust bibliography. While citing sources is important, bibliographies and in-text citations are tools for citing facts and information, not indicating copied text. For that purpose, one typically uses either quotation marks or blockquotes.

In short, it’s likely that the information in the book is reasonably cited, but that doesn’t excuse the unattributed use of verbiage, which is the core problem.

Reeve has also eliminated another common excuse we have seen in recent scandals: Blaming it on the ghostwriter. 

The use of ghostwriters is a common practice for celebrities and politicians writing books. There’s very little expectation that such authors actually wrote the books that carry their names. As such, after a celebrity book is found to be plagiarized, it’s often the ghostwriter who ends up taking the blame, either rightly or wrongly.

We saw it back in March with the David Agus scandal, the Cinemassacre Monster Madness scandal from October 2021 and the Father Thomas Rosica from August 2020 just to cite a few recent examples.

However, Reeve has made a big deal about being the actual author of this book. If she were to blame a ghostwriter now, it would raise questions about her earlier statements.

In that regard, her story is more akin to Melania Trump’s July 2016 scandal, where she was accused of plagiarism in a speech she initially touted as being self-written. However, in that case, she later admitted to the use of a ghostwriter. 

To be clear, if Reeve does shift and acknowledge the use of a ghostwriter, it doesn’t change the situation significantly. As we’ve discussed before, whether you use a ghostwriter or not, you are ultimately responsible for any material put out under your name. You have an obligation to check for any ethical issues, not just plagiarism, and it’s clear she failed to do that.

In the end, it’s a pretty straightforward plagiarism case. Whether it was malicious or not, it’s pretty clear that the book features a significant amount of uncited text, something that clearly needs to be addressed.

However, that may not be the most worrisome part of this story.

The Bigger Problem

The bigger question that Reeve, her publisher and the public should be asking is simple: How did this book ever make it to print in its current state?

Given that Reeve is such an important political figure, it was predictable that this book would be evaluated from every potential angle, including for plagiarism.

The fact that it took less than a day for The Financial Times to find so many issues clearly indicates that the editorial process of this book was lacking. 

If even a basic plagiarism check had been conducted on this book before publication, it likely would have detected some of these issues and sent up an alert that more investigation was needed.

Instead, it’s pretty obvious that the book was not rigorously checked by Reeve or the publisher. This type of plagiarism is easy to detect with a proper analysis, so it’s either a case of the analysis being done poorly or not being done at all.

As for Reeve herself, the plagiarism fits a pattern we’ve seen with the likes of Jumi Bello and Dr. Agus’ ghostwriter, namely that it’s a kind of plagiarism from someone whose method of writing makes such plagiarism inevitable.

I’ve talked extensively about the cleanroom writing method and the need to teach writing students how to paraphrase correctly. However, many still write by copying and pasting text into the working document and then “editing” it to make it “original.”

That writing technique not only doesn’t produce original writing, it virtually guarantees that significant portions of the source text will be left behind. Judging from the examples provided, this appears to be what happened with this book, at least in the relevant portions. 

So Reeve may not have maliciously committed plagiarism, but it is either malice or her approach to writing is so reckless when it comes to source material that it reaches the bar for negligence.

In short, the question isn’t whether the book contains plagiarism, it’s whether it got there through malice or negligence? To that end, negligence does seem more likely, even if it doesn’t really help Reeve’s case.

Bottom Line

In the end, it’s unclear what, if any, impact this case will have on Reeve’s future. Europe, broadly, has a history of taking political plagiarism scandals seriously and people losing high-ranking positions, including Minister positions. But it’s less clear how strongly those sentiments carry into UK politics. 

To make matters more complicated, the European stories typically involve acts of educational plagiarism and center around allegations of thesis or dissertation plagiarism. Not a commercial book.

The closest analog in recent UK history is Boris Johnson’s December 2019 plagiarism scandal. That involved a series of posts on X (formerly Twitter) following a terror attack.

Very little came of the scandal. Not only did it deal with social media and not a more formal work, but the allegations were dubious and focused largely on similar statements and points rather than copied text.

The allegations against Reeve are, objectively, more serious. They deal with a published book and there are examples of clear verbatim copying. Not only are the authorship expectations much higher for Reeve, but the plagiarism is much more clear.

However, this doesn’t mean that this is the end of her career or that it will derail her efforts to become Chancellor. That will solely be determined by the response from within her party and from the voters.

With her publisher standing behind her, a recall of the book seems unlikely (though many would argue such a recall is justified) so she is unlikely to face any immediate repercussions.

That leaves the issue solely to the voters and her party and, on that front, all we can do is wait and see what, if anything, happens. 

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