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Politics, Plagiarism and Consultants

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Oct 9, 2014 4:00:00 PM

A pair of political plagiarism scandals have shined a light on the roles of consultants and employees in political campaigns and plagiarism, or at least alleged plagiarism, by them can negatively impact a campaign.

The first involved Mary Burke, who is a Democrat running for governor in Wisconsin. It was recently revealed that sections of her jobs plan on her website were copied verbatim or near-verbatim from the platform of three other Democratic candidates.

Burke quickly put the blame on a campaign consultant, Eric Schnurer, who was fired from the campaign after the issue was discovered. However, Schnurer is not accused of having plagiarized the content from third parties, but rather, from other campaigns that he has worked on over the years.bigstock-Us-Capitol---Washington-Dc-1018998

Burke admitted that she is “disappointed” in Schnurer but says that it’s difficult to find new jobs plans that don’t build upon the established research Schnurer was using.

In a similar incident, Dr. Monica Wehby, a Republican challenger for Senator Jeff Merkley’s Oregon seat, was found to have plagiarized part of her health care and economic plans from various Republican sources.

Wehby initially placed the blame on a former staffer, her former campaign manager Charlie Pearce, who in turn denied that he wrote the content involved. However, later examination found that the original text had come from Meridian Pacific, a consulting firm that Wehby had hired.

The Wehby campaign removed the papers at issue from their site and admitted to the plagiarism issue.

The two stories have many parallels but the largest is the role of consultants and outside contributors to the campaigns.

Political campaigns are increasingly complex, requiring the labor of a small number of volunteers, paid employees and outside consultants. Much of the work revolves around generating content. That includes writing speeches, creating websites and drafting various advertisements.

In neither of these stories are the candidates themselves accused of plagiarism. Rather, the blame rests primarily with individuals working with the campaigns in various capacities. This is further complicated in Burke’s case as the author of the material in question is only accused of self plagiarism, reusing his previous work.

But this is the reality for political campaigns in 2014 and beyond. With possibly dozens of people producing content that will represent the candidate, its probable that plagiarism scandals and controversies will be more about the staff around the candidate than the candidate him or herself. With increased access to detection technology, any misstep by the campaign will likely be noticed and will become an unwanted news story.

This will become especially troublesome as candidate share consultants, some of whom will inevitably reuse work. Politicians will need to be vigilant not just about the people that they hire, but about the works that they will actually post.

To that end, political campaigns need to assume that everything they put out, both on and off-line, will be evaluated by the public for plagiarism. As such, campaigns need to evaluate the content themselves before publication.

Given the cost and manpower required to mount a modern political campaign, the added costs of checking for plagiarism are minor. However, those checks can prevent a campaign from getting sidetracked by plagiarism issues and help keep the campaign focused on the issues at hand.

Simple checks and a healthy dose of prevention can help stop headlines like Wehby’s and Burke’s from happening in the next election, the question is whether campaigns will be aware of the issue and take the steps needed to address the issue before it happens.