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Attribution and Politics: What Should We Expect?

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on May 8, 2017 7:00:00 AM


The standards of attribution are not universal. How, when and what we cite varies wildly depending upon the type of work, the profession and the expectations of the audience in general.

For example, a lawyer making a pleading in court has a different standard than a novelist writing a work of fiction. An research writing a paper on a study has a different standard than a journalist writing an op-ed piece.

But over the past year, a series of headlines have put the spotlight on plagiarism in politics. While most of the stories have been minor in terms of the actual plagiarism involved, its raised questions about what we should expect from our politicians when it comes to plagiarism.

The reason the issue is so significant for politicians is that plagiarism stories serve as an avoidable distraction. Even minor plagiarism scandals can take air time and focus away from the actual objectives of a candidate or an administration. At worst, they can contribute to completely sinking a candidacy, as it did for Senator John Walsh.

This is because plagiarism, at the very least, represents sloppiness in the author. In severe cases, it represents an outright lie.

But this raises a difficult question. If we’re going to judge politicians when we plagiarize, what standard do we hold them to? What citation standards should they follow?

This is a complicated question for two key reasons:

  1. Politicians Rarely Write Their Own Material: It’s widely known and accepted that politicians and candidates depend on staff members to write the bulk of their content. Their speeches, op-eds, policies and even books are often penned by staff members. What obligation does the politician have in ensuring that works that carry their name aren’t plagiarized?
  2. Politicians Are Responsible for a Wide Variety of Content: In a given week, a politician could be tasked with drafting legislation, writing an op-ed and sending countless letters. All are very different types of work and, outside of politics, have different citation standards

While most of the recent plagiarism stories haven’t really dealt with any gray area issues, the recent allegations against Betsy DeVos dealt with, in part, allegations she lifted language from the U.S. legal code and stated policy. Senator Patty Murray, who asked the questions DeVos was replying to, is also accused of plagiarizing some of her queries.

While we all agree that we don’t want politicians who plagiarize, there’s no uniform standard and that lack of a standard makes it easy for plagiarism issues to become politicized. Indeed, most of the time a politician is accused of plagiarism, how one feels about it has as much to do with their political views as it does their views on plagiarism.

Without some broad consensus on what we expect from politicians in this area, we will continue to have plagiarism stories that are more about politics than content integrity. Unfortunately, this does neither politics nor the fight against plagiarism any good.

While it may keep plagiarism in the headlines and high on public awareness, it distracts from why we plagiarism is important and turns it from an issue of academic/content integrity and into another political attack.

For those whose careers hinge on issues of originality and attribution, it’s a grave insult and it doesn’t do justice to the countless researchers, journalists and creatives who strive to work ethically.