• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

McCain Plagiarized Georgia Facts!

Did McCain plagiarize this?Today’s Outrage of the Day comes to us from Taegan Goddard, who notes, in a CQ Political Insider piece entitled “Did McCain Plagiarize His Speech on the Georgia Crisis?” that there are “some similarities between Sen. John McCain’s speech today on the crisis in Georgia and the Wikipedia article on the country Georgia.”

Wikipedia and McCain

You can click Goddard’s name to see the examples in full but they’re rather weak.  There are three examples where purely fact-based assertions about Georgia are somewhat similar.  The first is incredibly short — less than a sentence — and the third involved radically different sentences with overlapping facts.  The only interesting example, then, is this one:

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia had a brief period of independence as a Democratic Republic (1918-1921), which was terminated by the Red Army invasion of Georgia. Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922 and regained its independence in 1991. Early post-Soviet years was marked by a civil unrest and economic crisis. (Wikipedia)

vs.

After a brief period of independence following the Russian revolution, the Red Army forced Georgia to join the Soviet Union in 1922. As the Soviet Union crumbled at the end of the Cold War, Georgia regained its independence in 1991, but its early years were marked by instability, corruption, and economic crises. (McCain)

This one, too, strikes me as thin gruel.  The overlap are rather common facts and there’s substantial variation and additional information in the McCain version.  As William Beutler observes,

[I]n all three examples, the text is purely expository: none of it expresses any thoughts, feelings, emotions or other content that would be an obvious case of intentional plagiarism. Additionally, it’s worth noting that historical facts cannot be plagiarized, only their expression. If there is any here, it’s probably inadvertent.

Meanwhile, consider that plagiarized text is almost always longer than original text. This is because the original writer is likely to state things in as few words as possible while the plagiarizer is trying to hide the origin, which means more words.

Professors React

My former Troy colleague Steven Taylor, while noting that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal, disagrees.

The passages noted in the post, especially the first two, would suggest rather convincingly that whomever it was that wrote that speech for McCain based a great deal of it on the Wikipedia entry on Georgia with a little bit of poor undergraduate-y word re-arrangement to try and make the new text “original.”

I will say that sans attribution, the examples given are enough for me to have given the speech a zero (and failure of my course) had it been a paper handed in to me (not to mention I take off a letter grade for every cited usage of Wikipedia in a research paper anyway).

Mark Kleiman runs the speech through TurnItIn, a plagiarism detection software for teachers, and pronounces McCain guilty.

It’s not just the facts that are parallel: “brief period of independence,” “regained its independence,” “early years,” “marked by … crisis.” Also the use of “Red Army” to stand for the Soviet state, which makes sense in the Wikipedia entry, since it refers to an invasion, but not in the student paper.

And you notice that there’s no fact in the passage from the student’s paper that wasn’t in the source: not, for example, the name of any Georgian political leader, not the fact that Stalin was a Georgian.

Now you can’t even pretend to believe it’s a coincidence. If the original sentences in question came from different sources, you might give the student the benefit of the doubt, but two unattributed near-quotes from the same source? Plagiarism, beyond reasonable doubt.

I agree that it’s probable that McCain’s speechwriter(s) looked at the Wikipedia entry for basic facts when crafting the historical portion.  But that’s hardly “plagiarism.”  Or, frankly, even noteworthy.  It’s hardly a novel finding that there was a Russian Revolution, that Georgia was annexed in 1922, that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and that Georgia struggled mightily in its early years of independence.

It’s been a while since I’ve graded papers but I can’t imagine that my attention would have been flagged by the recitation of some background facts if the remainder of the essay put together a coherent argument, which, certainly, the McCain speech did.  I would probably have expected citation but students are often taught that they’re not required to cite “general knowledge,” which much of the above falls into.  So, if the student otherwise cited original thoughts and quotes, I wouldn’t have been overly concerned that he was trying to get away with passing a paraphrase off as an original thought given that there’s no original thought here but rather throat clearing setting up an argument.

Academic Papers vs. Campaign Speeches

More importantly, a political speech isn’t a term paper.  For one thing, candidates seldom write them, so they’re almost always passing off others’ work as their own.  For another, crediting of sources is incredibly uncommon in speeches yet mandated in academic work.  It’s not just minor facts like the year the Red Army invaded Georgia or when the Soviet Union collapsed, either, but big ideas like Leagues of Democracy or Third Ways.  Candidates — or, again, their speechwriters — routinely expropriate these things with nary a mention of who came up with them in the first place.

The only time “plagiarism” is an issue with political speeches is when it’s absolutely blatant.  The classic case is Joe Biden’s lifting wholesale passages of speeches from Neil Kinnock, including parts of the man’s biography that radically differed from his own life.  (In fairness, it should be pointed out — as Biden’s Wikipedia entry notes — that Biden had generally made it clear that he was quoting Kinnock when giving the stump speech but inexplicably failed to do so on the one caught on tape.)   Similarly, Barack Obama was tarred with the plagiarism brush for lifting some passages from Deval Patrick’s speeches.  That one died pretty quickly since Patrick was an Obama advisor and was happy to share.  (And, for the record, I dismissed those charges from the outset.)

The best line on this comes from piscivorous, one of Beutler’s commenters: “Looks like the Senator can use the internet after all!”

Related Posts:

About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    (Sigh)
    The intended implication, here of course, is that McCain is ill suited to the job he seeks.
    Clearly he dind’t write the speech himself. He’s reading what’s handed him.

    But will someone please explain to me how that’s any different from any president you can think of? They get briefed on subjects before making decisions. They obviously were as ill-prepared for a speech on the subject as were the press… who as we noted the other day, didn’t exactly jump all over the story… they needed time to absorb the information before they could print it.

    Better writing is certainly needed,(Although I will note as you did, the speech made a cogent argument) but it doesn’t seem overy fair to make judgemehts about McCain based on a hurry-up writing job.

    This seems to me yet another example of McCain’s opponants trying, like water, to find any crack in the dam, so to speak, and looking downright petty in the doing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Bithead says:

    And by the way… how does one plagiarize facts?
    You might complain that they Plagiarized the way those facts were expressed, but even there, there’s only so much variation that can be applied to that expression, or it’s no longer fact.
    As you say, James… thin.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. RW Rogers says:

    As Kleiman’s prolific partisan pronouncements reveal him to be no more an unbiased observer of politics than Hugh Hewitt, his opinion in this matter is of dubious usefulness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Anon says:

    I teach college, and I would agree that a lack of a citation in an academic paper would raise a question. So, in that sense, I agree with Taylor. However, this is not an academic paper, and I think the expectations are different, as James has pointed out.

    This is similar to the situation I see with Obama calling himself a “law professor”. As a job description in text written for the public to see, it’s fine. In a CV, it would not be fine.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. James Joyner says:

    Anon: Agreed all around. Indeed, that was my take on the Obama law ‘professor’ flap.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. James,

    There is no doubt that there is a clear distinction between a speech and a paper.

    However, knowing you as I do, and having seen an explosion in sloppy “research” (i.e., Google+first entry=research, usually meaning Wikipedia) get far, far worse since you left here 6+ years ago, I am betting you would be far more irritated by something like this if you were still teaching. 😉 The portions of the speech noted really do read very much like a crappy attempt at a student to have pretended to have a) researched, and b) “written” their own stuff.

    It is a little disheartening, albeit neither surprising nor ultimately that big of a deal, that given the gravity of the Georgia situation that the speech writer/adviser was consulting Wikipedia. At least look at a real encyclopedia, as lame as that is, for crying out loud.

    As I noted in an update to my post, it is unfair for anyone to say that “McCain plagiarized” as he certainly didn’t research or write the speech.

    I guess my bottom line is that I would like to hold a campaign for president to at least the same standard that I would hold a bunch of undergraduates.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. […] 4: I left a comment over at OTB that encapsulates my basic view on this issue: I guess my bottom line is that I would like to hold […]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. RW Rogers says:

    Steven,

    Why are you so much more upset about this incident than you were about Obama’s alleged plagiarism earlier this year? Obama, it should be noted, does write his own speeches.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. James Joyner says:

    I am betting you would be far more irritated by something like this if you were still teaching. 😉

    Heh. Probably so.

    It is a little disheartening, albeit neither surprising nor ultimately that big of a deal, that given the gravity of the Georgia situation that the speech writer/adviser was consulting Wikipedia. At least look at a real encyclopedia, as lame as that is, for crying out loud.

    These are basic facts, really, the kind of thing Wikipedia is likely strongest at. Heck, I’ve got a PhD and use Wikipedia on a daily basis to look up this kind of thing. I’ve probably “plagiarized” bits of blog posts by doing that, in that I only hyperlink Wikipedia if quoting them extensively or sending people to look for more info.

    I guess my bottom line is that I would like to hold a campaign for president to at least the same standard that I would hold a bunch of undergraduates.

    But these are completely different exercises. A stump speech isn’t a demonstration of the ability to conduct basic research and then write a coherent argument but rather an articulation of the candidate’s position crafted by someone else.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. hcantrall says:

    lol Yeah, superman writes he own speeches. In between being super dad, super husband, and super everything else the Messiah does, he’s writing speeches. Come on, you can’t really believe everything you hear, can you?

    Both of these candidates are a joke, I can’t believe this is the best they could come up with for president.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. At a minimum, I think we can all agree that this is ultimately much ado about nothing. Certainly I have spent far more time on it than I ever intended (I am, constantly amazed how a throw-away blog post often generates far, far more interest than more serious ones normally do).

    As I have repeatedly tried to point out (and this goes to RW’s question above): mostly I am being curmudgeonly about Wikipedia, something that I am known to do ( this toon comes to mind). I also am pretty hardcore about plagiarism as a general topic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Steve Plunk says:

    I’m going to get petty here but it’s just irritating to hear academics talking the fine points of plagiarism. There are a finite number of ways to summarize facts so it’s very likely there will be some overlap. If this were poetry with overlap I could see the charge having merit but with facts it’s different and with summarized facts it’s very, very different. Nitpicking professors can be pompous, self important snobs. I hope our academic contributors can avoid that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. RW Rogers says:

    Steven,

    I agree this is, on the whole, much ado about nothing. As I was once a regular reader of PoliBlog, I well remember your occasional posts on the general topic of plagiarism. That’s why I posted what I did. Your two different responses when the subject was raised in a political context this year struck me as being inconsistent, not something I expected to find.

    As to Wikipedia and your suggestion that at least they could get the information from a real encyclopedia, I couldn’t help but think of this study which demonstrated that Wikipedia was on the whole no less accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. 😉

    That said, it is somewhat ironic that others are taking McCain to task for being so clueless as to use facts obtained from Wikipedia to support his position at the same time he is being taken to task for his friendship with the President of Georgia and close association with the former lobbyist for the Republic of Georgia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Bithead says:

    There are a finite number of ways to summarize facts so it’s very likely there will be some overlap. If this were poetry with overlap I could see the charge having merit but with facts it’s different and with summarized facts it’s very, very different. Nitpicking professors can be pompous, self important snobs. I hope our academic contributors can avoid that.

    Exactly my point. But I wonder if, were this Obama instead of mccain, the response would be the same?

    (Nod to James, whose response was fairly even keeled)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. anjin-san says:

    I guess my bottom line is that I would like to hold a campaign for president to at least the same standard that I would hold a bunch of undergraduates.

    Well, hope is a wonderful thing. But this crowd has show us that they don’t have a lot of intellectual firepower. Focusing on Paris Hilton and Britney Spears is about their speed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Nitpicking professors can be pompous, self important snobs. I hope our academic contributors can avoid that

    Well, we do try.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. RW:

    I agree this is, on the whole, much ado about nothing. As I was once a regular reader of PoliBlog, I well remember your occasional posts on the general topic of plagiarism. That’s why I posted what I did. Your two different responses when the subject was raised in a political context this year struck me as being inconsistent, not something I expected to find.

    The easiest answer is probably: it is impossible to discuss everything. Further, sometimes things strike me, and sometimes they don’t (not to mention sometimes I have time and inclination to comment, and sometimes I don’t).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. […] watching the discussion over at OTB, I’d say we’re about defining plagiarism down. I have to tell you watcjing educational […]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. vnjagvet says:

    Does anyone seriously believe this little flap will change the minds of many voters? I don’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Bithead says:

    vnjagvet;

    I agree, it likely will not. But that doesn’t mean it’s without advantage to Obama’s folks to push the meme. With it, they help keep the Obama voters in line… they, after all, are by and large the ones who are going to pay attention to the charge that he ‘plagiarized’ his speech. It’s not about changing minds, in short, but rather it’s about preventing Obama voters from changing their minds.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Floyd says:

    Maybe everything important has already been said.[lol]
    After-all, we’ve had Obama reciting whole speeches already given by Deval Patrick and now we discover he’s plagiarizing Senator Palpatine….[his idol, no doubt]
    “The Republic is not what it once was.”[lol]….

    Was that actually “Preplagiarism?”
    Or “will” Palpatine be quoting ancient Obama history?[lol]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Beldar says:

    If the Obama campaign itself (rather than just sympathizers) start trying to pin the label of “plagiarist” on John McCain, that will tell me that they’ve already eliminated Slow Joe Biden (who flunked a law school course after being caught plagiarizing from a law review article, and then had his first presidential campaign shot down when he was caught plagiarizing from a British Labor politician’s speeches) as a potential Veep nominee.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0