U.S. senator appears to have plagiarized his master’s thesis

Sen. John Walsh
Sen. John Walsh

A Democratic senator from Montana, John Walsh, is the latest high-profile politician to face plagiarism charges.

The New York Times reports:

…one of the highest-profile credentials of Mr. Walsh’s 33-year military career appears to have been improperly attained. An examination of the final paper required for Mr. Walsh’s master’s degree from the United States Army War College indicates the senator appropriated at least a quarter of his thesis on American Middle East policy from other authors’ works, with no attribution.

In an infographic, the Times lays out the overlapping passages:

Most strikingly, each of the six recommendations Mr. Walsh laid out at the conclusion of his 14-page paper, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy,” is taken nearly word-for-word without attribution from a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace document on the same topic.

Walsh, one of whose aides told the Times that he “was going through a difficult period at the time he wrote the paper,” told the Times:

In an interview outside his Capitol Hill office on Tuesday, after he was presented with multiple examples of identical passages from his paper and the Carnegie and Harvard essays, Mr. Walsh said he did not believe he had done anything wrong.

“I didn’t do anything intentional here,” he said, adding that he did not recall using the Carnegie and Harvard sources.

Asked directly if he had plagiarized, he responded: “I don’t believe I did, no.”

Walsh joins other high-profile politicians found to have plagiarized in graduate work. There was German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned after losing his PhD for a plagiarized thesis, and German education and research minister Annette Schavan, who resigned after she lost her doctorate for the same reason. (The final university report on the Schavan case has just been leaked.) Just this week, news broke that the mayor of Belgrade seems to have plagiarized his doctorate. We could go on.

While acknowledging we don’t have a control group, we’re forced to ask: What is it with politicians?

24 thoughts on “U.S. senator appears to have plagiarized his master’s thesis”

  1. A 14 page thesis ? Am surprised that would be enough in the first place. On a separate note, I foresee other similar announcements given the 2014 elections (if the oppo researchers get going..). Though I am not sure what % of US Congress members have advanced degrees.

    1. The look on his face in that photo is precious. It almost reflects an agonizing sile trying to keep face in the light of the alegations. “We could go on.” Please do. If a politician who forms part of the team dictating rules to scientists are unable to respect the rules of publishing, then perhaps it is no wonder government appointed bodies like the ORI are dysfunctional, as I see it, simply sapping tax-payer’s money.

      1. JATdS, as Retraction Watch’s creators and commentors often cite, ORI is the one U.S. federal investigative agency that makes public its specific findings of falsification and fabrication of specified data, as well as its administrative actions against those found by ORI in its oversight review to have committed research misconduct. By debarring from federal funding those whom ORI determines to have committed very serious misconduct, ORI saves taxpayer money on NIH grants (making it available for honest other scientists).

    2. After reading more, I spoke before I knew what was going on – it’s not a thesis in the traditional sense. The War College is different from other (civilian) schools and it seems this was a course paper. The comments on the NYT article have more details..

  2. Perhaps we might be better off if politicians would just plagiarize their policies from those more… Intellectually gifted…

  3. “What is it with politicians?” How about more scrutiny? How many other people have their master’s theses examined 7 years after the fact, especially if they don’t continue in academia?

  4. “I didn’t do anything intentional here,” he said, adding that he did not recall using the Carnegie and Harvard sources.”

    I don’t believe Walsh said this! Well, not intentionally. There may be evidence that the words came out of his mouth. But I think it must have been some kind of mistake. Maybe hypnosis. He didn’t mean to.

  5. You Americans are way behind with this. Here in Germany, at least 8 politicians had their doctorates revoked for plagiarism. The most ironic thing about Annette Schavan (former education and research minister) is that her doctoral thesis dealt with “the development of conscience”. Strange; you would have thought that conscience is exactly the part of our psyche that prevents us from plagiarizing.

    1. Rolf, your last sentence was a key to understanding retractions, I feel. We have extremely little literature on the psychology of retractions and poor scholarly behaviour. At least, I could not find much literature directly linking these two. Please provide some links to key papers in the past 5 years, if possible. This topic needs to be explored. I wonder if any scientists who were formally found guilty of academic misconduct were psychologically evaluated? Finally, I am of the belief that conscience, like ethics, is imposed, and is no longer a matter of conscience. When imposed, the center of ethical gravity tends to get dislodged I believe (my hypothesis).

      1. I wish there was more research in this area, too. I have repeatedly applied for money but been turned down: too naive in my methodology; no need for plagiarism research; not our problem, try elsewhere. Annette Schavan wrote to me saying that she fully trusts the self-cleansing powers of science. Well.

        It is not just politicians (although there are a great number of them, known and unknown). I’ve been active with the volunteer effort VroniPlag Wiki since 2011, there are currently 99 dissertations and the like documented with plagiarism: http://de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/%C3%9Cbersicht, not all of them have had their dissertations revoked for various reasons.

        I’m glad to see the discussion picking up in the USA!

        1. Yes, and I recommend Dr Weber-Wulff”s recent book False Feathers: A Perspective on Academic Plagiarism. RW fans should find it well worth reading – I did a review there.

          I took a quick look at this, but the strangest thing is that many of the sources were cited in detail, even to the page number, an unusual behavior for someone doing plagiarism. . I’ve seen plagiarism with no citation, or with vague “See Also X”, where X might be a book, no page numbers. Those sometimes take hard work to locate. Here, once somebody looked, I’d think most of the antecedent soruces woudl be trivial to find. Very strange.

          It’s almost like he never learned about scholarly quotation practice.

  6. “What is it with politicians?”

    Just wanted to answer this question in the light of recent plagiarism scandals in Russia. The Dissernet community (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissernet) have recently uncovered what appear to be a large number of copy-and-paste text in doctoral theses of Russian politicians and high-level university staff.

    Here is an extract from wiki page:

    P. A. Astakhov, Russian politician, attorney, TV presenter, writer, and Child Rights Ombudsman for the President of the Russian Federation
    Batalina O., Russian politician, deputy of the State Duma of the 6th election from the United Russia party, and deputy secretary of the General Council of United Russia party.
    D. V. Gordeyuk, judge of the Moscow City Court.
    I. V. Lebedev, the chairman of the LDPR parliamentary group of the Russian State Duma and the LDPR Youth Organization. His father is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, chairman of the LDPR.
    V. R. Medinsky, Russian political figure, publicist and writer, Minister of Culture.
    O. L. Mitvol, Russian environmentalist, businessman and government official, the chair of environmental protection department.
    N. A. Nikiforov, Russian politician, Minister of Communications and Mass Media of Russia.
    G. S. Poltavchenko, Russian politician, Governor of Saint-Petersburg, and retired Lieutenant-General of the Russian Tax Police.
    M. Yu. Sokolov, Minister for Transportation of the Russian Federation.

    Dissernet (http://www.dissernet.org/expertise/) itself hosts scores of apparently plagiarized works in an intuitive representation of page tables, colored by the source of the apparent plagiarism.

  7. The final university report on the Schavan case is depressing. It reveals how many big shots from the academic world (and from politics) tried to derail the investigation procedure and to cover for Schavan. And she herself was rather stubborn. Ant one point, she insisted in front of pupils that she had not been accused of plagiarizing but only of placing some footnotes at the wrong spots.

    1. @Rolf, yes, it is depressing and hilarious at the same time. I strongly suggest reading it if you understand German. I keep looking through the papers and the media for a reaction of the academic big shots. I think something like: “Oh, yeah, we were wrong” is in order. The University of Düsseldorf awarded the dean and vice-dean who withstood the barrage of abuse hurled at them the university medal:

      The rector stated that it was given for: „ihre beispielhafte akademische Zivilcourage, da sie die Freiheit zur Kritik fehlerhafter wissenschaftlicher Arbeiten in einem Fall großer öffentlicher Einflussnahme mutig verteidigt haben.“ (their exemplary academic moral courage, as they courageously defended the freedom of being able to criticize academic writings above the public attempts in one case to exert undue influence on them).

  8. It is clear that the US electorate is fed-up with politics and politicians and their false promises [1]. So, when will the scientific community of the US hold their leaders up to higher standards, including scrapping ORI? Imagine that the US Government employed, and paid, a team of whistle-blowers and post-publication peer reviewers to conduct an independent analysis of the academic structure and publishing integrity and output, as well as an assessment of waste, and level of misconduct in the form of duplications, plagiarism, etc. Can you imagine how revolutionary such an idea would be?
    [1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/opinion/the-worst-voter-turnout-in-72-years.html?_r=0

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