Rand Paul Copying From Wikipedia: Plagiarism, Or Lazy Speech Writing?

Rand Paul used word-for-word excerpts from Wikipedia in two speeches in Virginia.

U.S. Senate Members Hold Inaugural Tea Party Caucus Meeting

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has become a favorite target of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and others this week after some adept research discovered that portions of two speeches he gave while campaigning for Ken Cuccinelli here in Virginia:

WASHINGTON — Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is among his party’s top 2016 presidential prospects, has found himself accused of plagiarism.

But this case has an odd twist. Mr. Paul appears to have lifted words for a speech this week from a Wikipedia entry about a futuristic movie, “Gattaca,” which imagines a world with a population that has been genetically engineered.

The senator was trying to make a point about eugenics, saying the United States was veering dangerously close to eliminating people whom society considered to be undesirable. In doing so, he made a reference to the movie and twice spoke lines that were virtually word for word from the Wikipedia description of the plot of “Gattaca,” which was released in 1997.

The speech — which he delivered Monday at Liberty University in Virginia on behalf of the Republican candidate for governor, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II — contained this line: “In the not-too-distant future, eugenics is common, and DNA plays a primary role in determining your social class.”

The Wikipedia entry reads: “In ‘the not-too-distant future,’ liberal eugenics is common, and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class.”

Mr. Paul’s office said in a statement on Thursday that the episode was being exaggerated by the senator’s enemies. “Only in Washington is something this trivial a source for liberal media angst,” it said.

The similarities came to light Monday night on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. The website BuzzFeed followed up on Tuesday by reviewing other remarks by the senator and said it had found a speech from June in which he appeared to have taken the words to describe another film, “Stand and Deliver,” from Wikipedia.

Here are the two pieces that Rachel Maddow did on the whole story, which I must admit are pretty well done and kind of amusing in a “gotcha” kind of way:

For his own part, Senator Paul offered a defense to the charges that, even as someone who has often been supportive of him, I must say is kind of weak:

Paul said during an interview with Fusion that he sufficiently credited the movies rather than Wikipedia and that his speeches are not supposed to be meticulously footnoted academic papers.

“We borrowed the plot lines from ‘Gattaca,’ the movie, and I gave credit to the people who wrote the movie,” the potential 2016 presidential candidate said. “Nothing I said was not given attribution to where it came from.

“I didn’t claim that I created the movie ‘Gattaca’; that’s what’s absurd about this.”

While Paul made no secret he was talking about the movie, the plagiarism charge has more to do with whether he appropriated Wikipedia’s description of the film without citing the Web site.

Paul misses the point, of course. Nobody is saying that he was stealing anything from the people who created either Gattaca or Stand And Deliver, all he did was use a discussion of the plots of both movies to illustrate a point he was trying to make in his own speech. There’s nothing new about that, and nothing wrong with that.  Making references to movie or televisions plots, sports teams, the lyrics or popular songs, or any other number of cultural icons. That really isn’t the issue. The problem, as Maddow shows in both of the pieces above, is that his speech essentially took the plot summaries of both movies that are on Wikipedia and copied them word for word. If someone were writing a college paper and did the same thing, it would be a clear case of plagiarism and, quite honestly, an incredibly stupid one. And that’s really where the problem lies here.

Obviously, nobody believes that Rand Paul himself went online to Wikipedia and printed out the plot summaries for either of these movies to add into a stump speech he’d be delivering for a Gubernatorial candidate in Virginia. That’s just not how things work in Washington and everyone knows it. More likely than not, someone on Paul’s staff was tasked with the responsibility of drafting these speeches and, quite probably, came up with the idea of putting in the cultural references. If Paul runs his operation the way most politicians do (and I suspect he does), then he was likely presented with draft(s) of the speeches at some point that he either approved, disapproved, or requested changes to. The problem happened somewhere beneath him at the drafting stage where whoever was staffed with coming up with the language to add into these speeches regarding the movies in question went online, looked them up, and most likely got incredibly lazy and just added the Wikipedia language without making any changes at all. It was lazy and it was dumb, and it made his or her boss look like an idiot.

Will this hurt Paul in the long run the way that the Neil Kinnock incident damaged Joe Biden back in 1988? I tend to doubt it, but it does suggest that he might need to take a look at who he has working underneath him and whether they understand that you can’t just copy stuff from Wikipedia and put it in a speech drat and pretend that somebody somewhere won’t notice.

FILED UNDER: General,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Blue Shark says:

    …I can pretty much guarantee that Sen. Paul will throw an underling under the bus, and not understand why this is such a big deal at all.

  2. Xerxes says:

    Even if you take the most liberal definition of plagiarism, this case does not meet that definition at all. A plot synopsis of a movie is “common knowledge.” In speeches, as long as you give reference to the source of the common knowledge, which in the case of a movie plotline is the actual movie, then that is adequate enough.

    Term papers are different because direct quotes must come with appropriate quotation marks. They serve as visible media and one must attribute words that come from others.

    Oral communication is entirely different. Otherwise, orators would have to provide *air quotes* for the entire speech if they catch a phrase used by other orators.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    Mr. Paul’s office said in a statement on Thursday that the episode was being exaggerated by the senator’s enemies. “Only in Washington is something this trivial a source for liberal media angst,” it said.

    Translation: “Crap, I’m busted.”

  4. David M says:

    @Xerxes:

    The issue isn’t using a synopsis of a movie plot. The issue is lifting that synopsis directly from wikipedia.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    I worry more about the intelligence of someone who thinks that Gattaca (a movie) is an actual prediction of what the US will turn into.

    I might as well reference Star Trek as being the necessary driver for US science policy.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. Oh, and Paul? You only get to pull that “I didn’t know what my underling was doing” a very few times before people start wondering about your management abilities.

    (e.g. *cough* Obamacare websites….)

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    What does it say about Paul that he has hired some really lazy speech writers and not really bright ones on top of that. Did they really think someone would not root this out?

  8. Remember folks, it was a big scandal when someone working on healthcare.gov used JavaScript code in violation of its open-source license, but it’s perfectly okay for Rand Paul to violate Wikipedia’s open-source license which requires attribution.

  9. mantis says:

    @Xerxes:

    Even if you take the most liberal definition of plagiarism, this case does not meet that definition at all.

    Under any definition, what you wrote there is total bullshit. This was a perfect example of plagiarism (from Wikipedia, no less!). They should use it to teach freshmen. The idea that you can’t plagiarize in a speech is nonsense.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    Imagine Doug’s ODS had it been the President and not a Libertarian.
    Even if Paul is only pretending to be a Libertarian.

  11. john personna says:

    I think you’re missing the real fun liberals will have with this.

    It isn’t that Rand “plagiarized,” it’s that he pulled a quote from a crazy science fiction movie, to explain our problems today.

    Tin foil hat much?

  12. Scott F. says:

    It’s not laziness or plagiarism. It’s arrogance.

    Rand Paul know his audiences will never check him on what he says and won’t care even if they do. He considers them rubes who should take his every word on faith. It’s similar to what happened at Howard University when he was taken aback when the students were better versed in the history of the political parties than he is, but in that case the crowd wasn’t comprised of the typical sycophants and they called him on it.

  13. the Q says:

    In 1850, Theodore Parker wrote, “A democracy—that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”

    In 1863, Abe LIncoln, “the government of the people, by the people and for people shall not perish from this earth.

    Again this Parker dude in 1853, “”I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

    MLK, 1967, “The arc of the Moral Universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice”.

    Or as Picasso said, “good artists copy, great artists steal”…….

  14. john personna says:

    The speech — which he delivered Monday at Liberty University in Virginia on behalf of the Republican candidate for governor, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II — contained this line: “In the not-too-distant future, eugenics is common, and DNA plays a primary role in determining your social class.”

    Forget the origin for a moment, and just consider the insanity.

    Though of course the plagiarism of the insanity sets the hook nicely.

  15. Anonne says:

    Ron, you can’t convince people who dislike academia to respect academic standards.

  16. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @Xerxes: This misses the point. No one required him to use “air quotes” in a speech. That would indeed be stupid. However while proper attribution in a term paper would require quotation marks in addition to the source identification and a speech would only require the source identification, Paul used neither. And that’s the problem.

    If you use a text by Gebser you have to attribute Gebser. Saying that you attributed Plato (on whose ideas Gebser’s are based) is not enough.

  17. Tony W says:

    Hey – How do we know he didn’t write the Wikipedia article – huh? Betcha never considered that, didja?

  18. Gromitt Gunn says:

    While I don’t teach composition, I do teach at a community college, and so I am acquainted with a number of composition teachers. Anecdotally, uncited attributions to Wikipedia are pretty endemic in composition classes these days, and that practice has to actively be beaten out students coming during Freshman Writing, with varying degrees of success. So it honestly doesn’t surprise me that Paul would have what was likely a fairly young staffer doing some or all of the “research” for some of his speeches.

    In short – yep, it was plagiarism, but I am loathe to assume that it was intentional on anyone’s part. Especially staffers who would be drawn to a Senator from the anti-education “colleges are just hotbeds of liberal indoctrination” crowd.

  19. rudderpedals says:

    Gattica or Galt’s Gulch: Pick your poison.

    I’ll take the dystopia where I have a cool ride and a lady with the big gazoombas hanging off my arm.

  20. mantis says:

    @the Q:

    Or as Picasso said, “good artists copy, great artists steal”…….

    Not from Wikipedia they don’t. Oh, and Picasso never said that.

  21. Kylopod says:

    I once came across a book where I gradually realized that the author had cribbed from a Wikipedia article that I had written. In his endnotes, he didn’t mention having used Wikipedia, but he did mention the same source I had used for the Wikipedia article, and the way he worded his summary of that source was strikingly similar to my own.

  22. PogueMahone says:

    @Xerxes:
    Term papers are different because direct quotes must come with appropriate quotation marks. They serve as visible media and one must attribute words that come from others.

    Oral communication is entirely different. Otherwise, orators would have to provide *air quotes* for the entire speech if they catch a phrase used by other orators.

    Horsefeathers.
    All Paul had to do just before he quoted Wikipedia was to say, “I got this from Wikipedia…” And problem solved. In fact, orators do it all the time. “I would like to read to you a quote from a speech by so-and-so…”

    But as others have pointed out, the real embarrassment is that Paul thinks Gattaca is somehow prophecy.

    Cheers.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    Plenty of good reasons to dislike Rand Paul. I don’t think this is one.

  24. mantis says:

    What other Ethan Hawke or Jude Law scifi movies are telling our future in Paul’s mind? Will we have one day of consequence-free murder a year like in The Purge? Or maybe our artificial organs will be removed by Repo Men when we fail to pay our bills. Hey, is that the Republican healthcare reform plan? It must be; I saw it in a movie!

  25. Ernieyeball says:

    @rudderpedals: From one male chauvinist sexist pig to another…Oink! Oink!

  26. Raoul says:

    The incident is indeed very similar to Biden’s incident. The question is why were the reverbarations so much stronger against Biden?

  27. Jon says:

    I going to go with lazy speech writing. Its still plagiarism.

  28. C. Clavin says:

    I appreciate the crazy movie theory….but the entire Republican outlook is based on crazy ideas…so there’s nothing new there. Supply-side economics, WMD in Iraq, austerity during a recession…Gattaca is no wackier than any of that shit.
    But doesn’t this make Paul a taker…and not a maker??? What would his namesake…Ayn Rand…think about him now???
    Tsk tsk tsk

  29. BIll says:

    For six years at Wikipedia the article on former Chief Justice Harlan Stone said

    “died of a cerebral hemorrhage that struck while [[William O. Douglas|Justice Douglas]] was reading the majority opinion in Girouard v. United States] from the bench;”

    Which is unfortunately untrue. Stone became ill and the court went into a brief recess. Stone died at his home later that day.

    Former John Paul Stevens in his book ‘Five Chiefs’ told how Stone died while on the bench. Want to bet his ghostwriter Justice Stevens got his info from Wikipedia? He was a clerk at the court around the same time.

  30. jib10 says:

    @Raoul: It came out in the middle of the primaries for Biden. If this had come out during the repub primaries it might hurt Rand Paul too. Primaries create a lot of weird media spin with every reporter looking for some angle they can talk about endlessly for at least a week or so.

    This might come back during the primaries. It is funny how some things bounce around, not getting much traction and then become a big deal at some later point. I think this is how some candidates get blindsided, they thought they had already dealt with the issue with no problems before and did not expect it to blow up later.

  31. bill says:

    yawn, i’m sure that his speech writers are similar to everyone else’s. the big question is, did he need a teleprompter?

  32. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:
  33. rachel says:

    @Xerxes:

    Even if you take the most liberal definition of plagiarism, this case does not meet that definition at all. A plot synopsis of a movie is “common knowledge.”

    Wrong. Knowlege of a movie’s plot is held in common, but the words of a synopsis are the intellectual property of the person who wrote them. Senator Paul used those word and did not cite the source of them; it’s as pure a case of plagiarism as any I’ve seen. Any student of mine who does what he did–even if it’s in a spoken presentation–gets an ‘F’ grade for the work and a lecture on intellectual honesty.

  34. MarkedMan says:

    I’m completely on board with the idea that this is extremely small beer, as far as plagiarism goes. And also completely on board that the quote itself reveals the over dramatic bloviating I associate with Rand and his semi-libertarian fellow travelers.

  35. JoshB says:

    @bill: I know, I mean he’s not like Obama, who is always so black reliant upon teleprompters.

  36. gVOR08 says:

    Plagiarism, Or Lazy Speech Writing?

    As with most conservative false dichotomies, the answer is “Yes”.

  37. C. Clavin says:

    “…the big question is, did he need a teleprompter?…”

    Is Paul the guy that read the teleprompter joke from a teleprompter…or was that another Republican of equal intelligence to bill?

  38. john personna says:

    @bill:

    Good troll, bill. You got them all going on teleprompters.

    Rather than asking you what’s the deal with all this eugenics.

  39. Rob in CT says:

    I don’t really care about where the speech came from.

    How about the stupidity of the message?

  40. john personna says:

    @Rob in CT:

    More than stupidity, right? It cynically relies on the credulity and paranoia of the audience.

    The kind of person who says “damn straight” to “eugenics is common, and DNA plays a primary role in determining your social class” doesn’t have his head screwed on too tight.

    He thinks Obamacare does that, or something.

  41. Rob in CT says:

    Right, Paul isn’t being stupid. His message, taken at face value, is. It’s designed to take advantage of the rubes.

    Gattaca was kind of a neat movie. Thought-provoking, even. And maybe in a few decades (or a century, or never, though that strikes me as unlikely) something kinda sorta like it might be a reality to face.

  42. James Pearce says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Plenty of good reasons to dislike Rand Paul. I don’t think this is one.

    It’s not the best one, but his condescending pop culture references are certainly a reason. It denotes a lack of seriousness. Is this a campaign speech or a comedy skit?

    Lifting basic descriptions from WIkipedia without attribution in a speech? Forgivable. It would it be inartful to pause for a citation, and it is only basic descriptions…which is, like, Wikipedia’s whole point.

    But the pop culture stuff has gotta stop.

  43. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @Rob in CT: That is the heart of the matter. The sheer idiocy of the content….

  44. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @James Pearce: But the pop culture stuff has gotta stop…

    Great idea. Paul’s content is idiotic let’s stay focused on that; equally embarrassing is the First Lady doing an exercise spoof on Kimmel in drag to promote an active lifestyle or Sebelius selling ACA on Colbert. Can anyone imagine FDR or Eisenhower on SNL a la Sarah Palin? Jackie Kennedy on MTV?

    It’s crap.

  45. beth says:

    @Laurence Bachmann: It’s a different world now with different media opportunities. The good politicians go where their message will be heard. I think the whole thing changed when Nixon went on Laugh In and asked “Sock it to me?” . I remember thinking how weird it was to see a politician doing that.

  46. steve s says:

    But as others have pointed out, the real embarrassment is that Paul thinks Gattaca is somehow prophecy.

    No surprise: Libertarianism is basically the confusion of science fiction with reality.

  47. al-Ameda says:

    @bill:

    yawn, i’m sure that his speech writers are similar to everyone else’s. the big question is, did he need a teleprompter?

    It is interesting how conservatives are obsessed with older technology, such as teleprompters.

  48. Gavrilo says:

    Rand Paul is so crazy. The idea that any nation would try to eliminate a class of people that were deemed “undesirable” is insane! How would that even work.

  49. beth says:

    @al-Ameda: And the funny part is, if you watch the video, Paul is using a teleprompter. He knows folks like Bill are too dumb to get the joke and he’s right.

  50. ernieyeball says:

    @Gavrilo: How would that even work.

    The Statesmen political hacks who composed the Constitution of the Confederate States of America took the first step.
    Article I Section 9(4)

    No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

  51. john personna says:

    @Gavrilo:

    We all know about the Nazis. The crazy thing was his suggestion that we are verging on something dystopian like that.

    He didn’t even lay out a realistic roadmap, he just [put] the scare out there for the audience.

    And it is really bad that the audience accepts it.

    Speaking of which, do you?

  52. grumpy realist says:

    @steve s: And it’s not even GOOD science fiction. RAH (who libertarians seem to think is their proof that “libertarian ideas work”) was someone who played with ideas. He may have loved libertarian ideas, but he was always conscious of their limitations. RAH pointed out (in the ur-Bible of libertarian SF The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, no less) that a libertarian society really only works under very unusual circumstances: where the government is disinterested enough and contemptuous enough about the populace it is ruling over that it really DOES leave them alone and provides the bare minimum. As soon as you get “power to the people” and self-rule, you get busybodies who want to regulate the behavior of others (for either moralistic or self-serving reasons)–which is what happens in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, after the revolution succeeds.

  53. john personna says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Some interesting thoughts on the structure of sci-fi dilemmas.

  54. Kylopod says:

    @john personna: I reread Ender’s Game last year. The first time I read it was about 20 years ago, as a teenager, when I also read the 1975 novelette it was based on, as well as the first sequel, Speaker for the Dead (which I liked more). (I also highly recommend his manual How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, which I still have on my bookshelf.) Back then, I had no idea about Card’s political leanings or views on homosexuality. So I wasn’t really considering the book’s “message” at all, nor did I pay attention to the seemingly innocent fact that the monstrous aliens in it are called “buggers.” (It’s kind of like when Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid, made some anti-Semitic remarks in the ’80s, which led me to look a little more carefully at stuff like one of his books that features a tirade against men with beards.) My first encounter with Card’s weird, reactionary views on politics and sex came when I found his website, Hatrack, in the late ’90s and stumbled upon his review of the movie Pleasantville, which he somehow managed to turn into a rant about the sexual peccadilloes of Bill Clinton.

  55. mantis says:

    @steve s:

    Libertarianism is basically the confusion of science fiction with reality.

    Indeed. Mostly bad science fiction, too.

  56. MarkedMan says:

    Off topic but I read Ender’s Game for the first time several years ago and I found it disturbing. There was something about the way Card described the young boys that just creeped me out. Maybe it’s because I came to it so late in life (late 40’s at the time) and I’m no longer tuned to YA fiction. But I have read a number of my kids books or listened to them on audio when we are on family trips and, with the exception of The Twilight Series (because basically that’s about a 90 year old guy stalking a 16 year old girl, I don’t care what age he looks like) I found a lot of them juvenile but not creepy.

  57. An Interested Party says:

    Will this hurt Paul in the long run the way that the Neil Kinnock incident damaged Joe Biden back in 1988?

    Maybe, maybe not…thankfully, there are plenty of other things that will definitely hurt Paul in the long run…

  58. Spinoza says:

    @David M:

    The issue isn’t using a synopsis of a movie plot. The issue is lifting that synopsis directly from wikipedia.

    Actually, Wikipedia copied that plot summary from IMDb and Paul seems to be saying that’s where he got the synopsis.

    According to the Wikipedia page on IMDb, the attribution rules on IMDb are noticeably different:

    Credit is not given on specific title or filmography pages to the contributor(s) who have provided information. Conversely, a credited text entry, such as a plot summary, may be “corrected” for content, grammar, sentence structure, perceived omission or error, by other contributors without having to add their names as co-authors.

    Its a non-issue. His staff did nothing wrong.

  59. Spinoza says:

    @rachel:

    Wikipedia copied its Gattaca plot synopsis straight from IMDb, which has very loose attribution rules.

  60. rachel says:

    @Spinoza: Thank you for yet another example of why nobody should use Wikipedia as a source for anything, ever.

  61. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Spinoza: i don’t care so much where the little idiot got the idea from or whether he attributed it correctly; it’s that it’s a bloody stupid “oh mi god we’re going to die” future apocolyptic view of the US. What he’s doing is nothing more than dangling a rubber spider before the rubes and yelling: “Boo!” (and if Rand’s retooling of Gattaca stampedes them into voting for him, they deserve what they get.)

  62. jukeboxgrad says:

    This seems to be part of a larger pattern (link):

    Three Pages Of Rand Paul’s Book Were Plagiarized From Think Tanks

  63. grumpy realist says:

    @john personna: Interesting that the essay mentions The Cold Equations, because the tossing-the-girl-out-the-airlock was NOT how Tom had originally intended to end the story. (There’s an essay in a compilation of his work going into the details.) If you read the rest of his work, you realize exactly how much Tom believed in the ability of Mankind to suffer, endure, and finally prevail over the physical challenges presented by the universe.

    He certainly never thought that the universe would be “nice” to anyone. One of the final sentences in one of his stories states “the universe does not care.”

    (And someone else did an analysis of “The Cold Equations” and pointed out it was filled with bad engineering design on the point of whoever had built the spaceship.)

  64. grumpy realist says:

    @john personna: Campbell supposedly kept having to send The Cold Equations back to Tom Godwin because Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl.

  65. al-Ameda says:

    The amazing thing to me is, even the most brain-damaged Capitol Hill staffer has to be aware that anyone who (at a minimum) knows how to use Google can probably figure out if phrases in a speech have been “lifted” from unattributed sources.

    In this digital age I do not see how you can get away with plagiarizing. I know people who teach in college graduate programs, and one of the first things they do to introduce their course is tell their students to cite and attribute the sources of their research. Also, if they’re tempted to paraphrase another source without attribution … don’t … cite it. The penalty is failing the course and possibly being dismissed from the program.