COIN Manual Plagiarized?

Anthropologist David Price has a harsh and rather unscholarly critique of General David Petraeus and his team for “pilfering” from the social science literature without proper attribution, including “no quotation marks, attribution, or citations” for ideas loosely paraphrased from academic works and an incomplete bibliography.

Small Wars Journal publishes a series of responses to Price from Major Tom McCuin, a US Army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, a major contributor to the manual and the author of its Foreword, and The Editors.

The crux of the Army position is this, from Nagl:

Price describes the failure to cite all sources used in the manual as evidence of “shoddy academic practices”, but in fact he is applying the standards of one society to those of a very different one—a violation of the anthropological norm of cultural relativism as I understand it. To paraphrase von Clausewitz, military Field Manuals have their own grammar and their own logic. They are not doctoral dissertations, designed to be read by few and judged largely for the quality of their sourcing; instead, they are intended for use by soldiers. Thus authors are not named, and those whose scholarship informs the manual are only credited if they are quoted extensively. This is not the academic way, but soldiers are not academics; it is my understanding that this longstanding practice in doctrine writing is well within the provisions of “fair use” copyright law.

[…]

Price also decries the incomplete bibliography of the manual; again, he neglects consideration of the cultural practices of the society which he is examining. Bibliographies are not a common feature of Field Manuals; indeed, the Counterinsurgency Manual is the first of which I am aware that includes recommendations of civilian texts for further reading. The works cited in the bibliography are not all or even most of those consulted during the writing of the text, but those that soldiers are encouraged to read to further their understanding of counterinsurgency. This is a book for practitioners.

Price responds,

Lt. Col. Nagl wants it both ways. He was the Manual’s public spokesman on the well oiled media circuit where he claimed that the new Manual was the product of high scholarship in the service of the state; yet when it became apparent that somewhere along the line in the production of the Manual the most basic of scholarly practices were abandoned, he now pretends that these rules do not apply in this context. He has to choose how he wants to pitch the Manual: scholarship or doctrine. He can’t have it both ways anymore. I read U.S. Army Spokesman Major Tom McCuin’s statement as military doublespeak declaring a mistakes-were-made-but-the-messages-remains-true admission that passages were indeed used in an inappropriate manner, so I guess what we have here is doctrine.

This, though, is to confuse product and process. The COIN manual was put together by a team of scholars and practitioners, most of whom have credentials as both. They employed the methodology of social science while still producing a product aimed at the practitioner. Soldiers, even field grade officers, simply don’t care which sociologist or anthropologist first came up with an idea; they’re just interested in the bottom line. To clutter their manuals with such minutia, therefore, would be a distraction.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I guess that’s why God made appendices.

  2. Dodd says:

    in fact he is applying the standards of one society to those of a very different one—a violation of the anthropological norm of cultural relativism as I understand it

    Taking the context into account, that deserves a “Zing!”

  3. Boyd says:

    While I’m not a COIN operator, I spent 20 years in the Navy reading military manuals. Mr. Price’s screed, to me, can be summed up in one word:

    “Waaaaaah!”

    …which can be quieted with the liberal application of milk from a nipple-topped bottle.

  4. Andy says:

    To clutter their manuals with such minutia, therefore, would be a distraction.

    They included a 100+ entry bibliography, but failed to include those sources they plagiarized from. Of course, they could have produced a fully sourced version in addition to the end-user manual.

    This sort of thing would get an honor code hearing at my school, at the very least. I wonder why college kids are held to a higher standard than Army generals.

    Also, is the military free to take anything it wants? Can it arbitrarily seize property or money from Americans? Apparently, with your quick dismissal of this plagiarism, you don’t take intellectual property very seriously.

  5. JKB says:

    There has been no representation that the editors of the manual developed these ideas. I doubt anyone will read the manual and jump to the conclusion that the editors did the research. There has been no seizure of property or money. The weight of the information in the manual does not rely on the providence of the original researcher but rather that the practitioners have found the information to be of sufficient value to meld into a new application of the knowledge. Does the physicist complain when the engineer applies his research to solve real world problems? In the end, as a past user of military manuals, I don’t care who thought the information up, I care if it is useful to the problem at hand. If it isn’t it goes into the round file.

    These researchers should be flattered that their insights have been found to be of sufficient applicability to real world situations that it is presented in a how-to manual where live feedback burns out weak supposition and posturing.

    Also, all the “academics” might want to make sure their “intellectual property” wasn’t developed under a government grant. While commercial exploitation of research is often left with the university or researcher, I’ve never seen a case where the government gave up rights of use to research it funded.

  6. Andy says:

    I’d bother responding to JKB’s reactionary rant if it weren’t for the fact that he doesn’t understand the difference between using ideas and outright plagiarism, so I fear that any sort of basic arguments might be lost on him.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    I hardly see JKB’s response as a “reactionary rant”. Someone needs a reality check.

    Nagl and Joyner are both very right. This is not writing for profit or writing for academia. The standards are different as others have pointed out.

    Price seems to be nit picking something that not only doesn’t matter but is none of his business. I expect he is showing his profound patriotism through this sort of dissent.

  8. JKB says:

    I use the legal definition of plagiarism: The knowing and willful representation of the ideas or works of another as your own. Perhaps that would be a place to start.

    I will concede that some universities have attempted to expand the definition of plagiarism to include failure to properly attribute but that is a code of conduct concept and not out in the wild.

    Over at Small Wars Journal they have found a portion of a draft that does have attribution and citations, so the lack of such may have been a decision not of the authors but of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.

    Field manuals are prepared to quickly and efficiently present information and knowledge that can be put to immediate use. They are not designed to provoke contemplation or questioning of ideas derived from research as is the case with academic papers.

  9. anjin-san says:

    These researchers should be flattered that their insights have been found to be of sufficient applicability to real world situations

    I wonder if the Rolling Stones would be flattered if I swiped some of their music and used it on a project at work.

    Its certainly applicable to a real world situation, it would smoke the audio files that I currently have to work with.

  10. tao9 says:

    Since it seems to be having a salutary effect on the ground (Does Dr. Price read newspapers, or only Counterpunch?) let it be doctrine.

  11. Grewgills says:

    I use the legal definition of plagiarism: The knowing and willful representation of the ideas or works of another as your own.

    and another from NOLO is “Passing off someone else’s work as your own, whether word for word or merely the creative ideas.” This lowers the bar a bit from “a knowing and willful representation.”
    That doesn’t matter all that much for the purposes of the argument.
    The COIN manual was repeatedly represented as the work of Petraeus. When asked Petraeus gave credit to his team. No attribution was given in any form to many of the people who did the original work and it was repeatedly, knowingly, and willfully represented as the work of either Petraeus or his team.
    I see two immediately obvious solutions that were available to avoid plagiarism without harming the readability of the text or its usefulness in the field.
    1) End notes would work unless of course you think small superscripted numbers in the text or the additional pages with citations at the end would be too distracting for those using it. Most people using the manual for practical purposes might never bother to read the citations at the end, but all would have access to the citations of the original material if they wanted to educated themselves further.
    2) Even easier call it an anthology of techniques, list Petraeus or Petraeus et al as the editor(s) and cite all people whose papers and/or ideas were used as contributors. One page added prior to the preface would be sufficient and should not pose any problems of readability for those needing to access the material for practical purposes.

    The issue would be considerably quieter if Petraeus or Petraeus et al had not been trumpeted as the author(s) of the manual for months. For some time now manual has been sold for profit (~%10 from Amazon). Certainly there is no viable argument for version being sold to the general public not including citations. Doesn’t publishing this for profit without citation open them up to copyright infringement or fraud charges?

  12. James Joyner says:

    Certainly there is no viable argument for version being sold to the general public not including citations.

    You’d have a completely different manual at that point, which wasn’t the point of the publication.

    Doesn’t publishing this for profit without citation open them up to copyright infringement or fraud charges?

    No. One doesn’t copyright academic findings but rather works themselves. A paraphrased line or three from a text is well within fair use.

    Nobody was presenting the manual as Petraeus and company making up new doctrine out of whole cloth. It was a distillation of accumulated knowledge, updated with recent experiences in Iraq. It was a staff effort, not a PhD dissertation.

  13. Grewgills says:

    You’d have a completely different manual at that point, which wasn’t the point of the publication.

    How would calling Petraeus et al editors and including a page or two acknowledging all contributing authors before the preface to lead a completely different manual?
    I don’t even see how adding end notes would make it a completely different manual, though it would require substantial work to go back through the work and find and properly cite sources.
    From what I have seen thus far the arguments against citation rely almost exclusively on two pillars. First citations reduce readability of the text and second the military has different standards than civilians.
    The first of these is weak at best. End notes have very little if any real effect on readability. They are easily ignored if that additional information is not needed or desired. Adding a page or two of citations prior to the preface does not effect readability in any way.
    The second is not an argument as to whether or not it is plagiarism. If anything it is an argument that plagiarism is acceptable in military writing or at least field manual writing.

  14. James Joyner says:

    End notes have very little if any real effect on readability. They are easily ignored if that additional information is not needed or desired. Adding a page or two of citations prior to the preface does not effect readability in any way.

    It’s a manual, not a scholarly text. Manuals don’t have footnotes, whether they’re military or not.

    The second is not an argument as to whether or not it is plagiarism. If anything it is an argument that plagiarism is acceptable in military writing or at least field manual writing.

    The book is a distillation of received wisdom, not an original work. If they were using whole chapters, or even long passages, out of others’ works here, there’d be an argument. I gather, though, that they’re just using concepts, including the occasional paraphrased sentence or two. That’s just not the same thing.

  15. Grewgills says:

    It’s a manual, not a scholarly text. Manuals don’t have footnotes, whether they’re military or not.

    Most manuals do not generally have citations largely because they do not rely on previously published materials for their information or if they do that source is internal. If the manual for one of your home appliances lifted quotes from previously published sources from outside the company they should cite them. Any of the information contained in the COIN manual that was derived from strictly US military sources would be acceptable for use by them without citation. If on the other hand they use previously published outside work (particularly direct quotes) without citation that is plagiarism.

    Apparently the (other) Marine Corps’ warfighting publications which are analogous to the COIN manual in form and function manage to use end notes. Why shouldn’t the army do the same?

    As stated before, end notes would also allow anyone reading the manual military or otherwise an easy reference for further reading on the particular subjects. This seems to me a benefit that far outweighs any difficulty some might have with reading a manual that has little superscripted numbers.

    At the very least the authors that the work was taken from should be acknowledged in the volume published for sale. Done as I suggested by labeling those who compiled it as editors and citing authors used in a list prior to the preface would have been simple and avoided this issue all together.

    BTW it appears to be a bit more than “the occasional paraphrased sentence or two.” Price found more than a few direct quotes lifted in the one chapter he searched. Some were directly lifted without change others added or changed a few words. If one of your students had done this I’m sure you would have called called them on the carpet for plagiarism. The manual did not simply fail to live up to the standards of a intellectual honesty for doctoral thesis, it failed to live up to those standards for a book, newspaper article, or even a high school term paper.