The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Dave Brat, an economist, borrowed heavily from Bernanke in academic paper

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) gestures during a debate with Democratic challenger Abigail Spanberger. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va) often touts his status as the “only PhD economist in Congress” to suggest he has special insight into the nation’s economy.

But his academic background is under scrutiny amid revelations that a paper he wrote as a Randolph-Macon College professor borrowed heavily — and exactly — from one co-authored by former Fed chief Ben S. Bernanke.

Brat’s paper was a critique of Bernanke’s, so he quoted from the original piece. But instead of summarizing Bernanke’s writing in his own words, or using quotation marks to quote him directly, Brat simply seemed to cut and paste.

Brat’s 2005 paper is seven ­pages, not counting the refer­ences and tables in the back. Nearly every sentence in the first three pages is directly from a paper that Bernanke and his co-author, Refet Gurkaynak, wrote in 2001.

Brat used some footnotes, but did not make it clear that almost all of the writing on the early pages was not his.

A fellow at the London School of Economics who came across Brat’s paper last week called it “plagiarism” and contacted Randolph-Macon about “apparent academic misconduct.”

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Others — including Gurkaynak — said it wasn’t a case of plagiarism.

But they still call Brat’s work a “lazy” piece of scholarship because he should have summarized the original paper in his own words or used quotation marks to make it clear that the words were not his own.

“This is so lazy as to be dishonest,” said David Rettinger, chairman of the International Center for Academic Integrity and a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington. “It’s not just a sentence here and there.”

Brat’s campaign spokeswoman Katey Price called the criticism a “political hit.”

“Then-Professor Brat was clearly offering a critique of another academic work by Ben Bernanke,” she said. “He stated this at the outset of the piece, and he referred back to the work he was reviewing with notes repeatedly throughout the piece . . . There were 17 footnotes and 17 refer­ences clearly leading the reader to every piece of the work he was replicating. And, Professor Brat’s analysis was his own: that the work he was critiquing left out institutions, particularly religious institutions, from their analysis. When a liberal academic takes issue with the citation quality of a 13-year-old critique two weeks before an election, then we should see it for what it is — an attempted political hit.”

Robert J. Barro, a Harvard University economics professor who once participated in a hearing with Brat on economic growth, reviewed the two papers at Brat’s behest Monday and then reached out to The Washington Post. Barro concluded there was nothing “that could be construed as even close to plagiarism,” noting that Brat’s paper was “a critique and extension” of the Bernanke-Gurkaynak piece, just as the Bernanke-Gurkaynak paper was “a critique and extension” of an even earlier work by other authors.

Asked whether Brat should have used quotation marks or summarized the Bernanke-Gurkaynak paper in his own words, Barro said, “It probably could have been done better, but that’s a pretty minor matter.”

Brat is in a tough race against Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former federal law enforcement agent and CIA operative whose résumé may appeal to swing voters and moderate Republicans in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which has been a longtime GOP stronghold.

Bernanke, now with the Brookings Institution, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Gurkaynak, who teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, said Brat should have used quotation marks or paraphrased rather than using occasional footnotes that do not make clear how much Brat borrowed.

But Gurkaynak was more dismissive of Brat’s economic theory — that religion is why Protestant countries have grown richer than others — than his citation failures.

“I am not going to defend a congressman and his dinky paper,” Gurkaynak said in an email. “An undergraduate here at Bilkent would have received a slap on the wrist for bad academic style but would not be sanctioned for plagiarism if they turned in this paper. (They would hear an earful for the poor economics.) There is a problem of style but I do not see a major problem of attribution.

“Section II in the paper you sent is badly attributed and you can make a case for plagiarism if you are very vindictive but it would be a hard sell. The overlap is clear but so are the footnotes informing readers of most quoted parts. Without quotation marks one cannot tell where exactly is taken from the original source, hence the poor academic style, but nothing of substance is misappropriated.”

President Trump endorsed Brat on Thursday, which caught the attention of Olivier Wouters, a fellow in health economics at the London School of Economics. A U.S. citizen and graduate of Georgetown University, Wouters said he was curious about Brat’s scholarship in economics and looked him up.

“I’ve come across what appears to be an egregious case of plagiarism by Virginia Congressman Dave Brat,” Wouters wrote to The Washington Post. “As you’ll find in comparing the two manuscripts, large sections are virtually identical, and Brat does not indicate that he has quoted [Bernanke and Gurkaynak].”

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Wouters reported his concerns to officials at Randolph-Macon College. Spokeswoman Anne Marie Lauranzon said the college would not investigate because Brat left the school after his election to Congress in 2014.

“He has no employment or professional relationship with the college,” she said in an email. “Any questions regarding his scholarly writings should be directed to him.”

The paper by Bernanke and Gurkaynak is titled “Is growth exogenous? Taking Mankiw, Romer, and Weil seriously.” In it, they examined whether certain external factors, such as a nation’s savings rate, contribute to economic growth.

Published in 2001, it has a copyright symbol at the bottom of the first page along with this notation: “Short sections of text, not to exceed two paragraphs, may be quoted without explicit permissions provided that full credit, including (C) notice, is given to the source.”

Brat’s paper suggested Bernanke and Gurkaynak had overlooked this question: “Is there a systemic relationship between a country’s dominant religious establishment and the standard of living across countries?”

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At Randolph-Macon in Ashland, Va., where he taught for nearly two decades and rose to chairman of the economics department, Brat espoused a theory that the best way to promote justice is not through social programs but with free-market economies.

He has a PhD in economics from American University and a master’s of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, which is not affiliated with Princeton University.

Brat won the seat four years ago after pulling off a shocking primary upset over Eric Cantor, who was the House majority leader. He cruised to a 15-point reelection win two years after that.