(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“Senator Walsh included 96 citations for a 14-page paper at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He acknowledges the citations were not all done correctly, but that it was an unintentional mistake.”

–statement from the campaign of Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.)

Jonathan Martin of the New York Times reported on Wednesday that Walsh “appropriated” about one quarter of the material in a 14-page final paper he submitted to receive a master’s degree in 2007 from the Army War College. The report was accompanied by a pretty nifty interactive graphic that color-coded the paper to show either passages taken without attribution or passages with improper attribution, such as simply lifting another author’s words verbatim without putting those words in quotation marks.

Initially, his staff suggested this incident happened when the senator, a veteran of the Iraq war, suffered from post-deployment stress. But then a day after the article appeared, Walsh’s campaign issued a combative statement that dismissed that explanation and twice referred to his “unintentional mistake.” A comment from campaign spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said “he’s not a classroom academic—the Senate already has plenty of those.”

But there’s a huge hole in this explanation. Let’s explore.

The Facts

We embedded a copy of the campaign “fact sheet” below.

Walsh Campaign Fact Sheet by GlennKesslerWP

As you can see, the statement focuses entirely on the idea that the paper’s citations were not done correctly — what it suggests is a single “mistake.” But this is not a simply a matter of not using the “Elements of Style” properly.

Whole sections of the paper are lifted verbatim or near-verbatim from other published works, but without any quotation marks. Thus, academic research might have been cited in the endnotes, but there were not quotation marks around the words that were borrowed. (In other instances, Walsh uses the language from a paper but does not even bother to include attribution.)

But most disturbingly, the paper’s recommendations are lifted word for word from a 2002 paper titled “Democratic Mirage in the Middle East,” which was written by four scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In this case, there is no attribution offered at all, although this work is cited in other parts of Walsh’s report.

Walsh’s paper was submitted in order to get a master’s degree, but just about every high school student is taught that the conclusions of a research paper are supposed to reflect your own ideas.  So this is not a matter of simply failing to include a footnote — in fact, conclusions are generally not supposed to have footnotes — but about theft of intellectual property.  It’s about plagiarism.

On top of that, the campaign statement scolds the media for incorrectly referring to the paper as a “thesis,” as if that is even an important issue. Instead of acknowledging the plagiarism, the statement suggests Walsh’s military career somehow trumps academic errors.

The Web site Plagiarism.org offers useful descriptions of types of plagiarism, which it describes as “an act of fraud” that “involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterward.” Two key examples of plagiarism are demonstrated repeatedly through Walsh’s paper: “copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit” and “failing to put a quotation in quotation marks.”

We sought an explanation from Passalacqua but did not receive one.

(As our colleague Aaron Blake reported, the campaign did acknowledge that its assertion that Walsh “survived hundreds of IED explosions while in a Humvee” was incorrect; the campaign clarified that “he survived an attack in October 2005, while his unit endured hundreds of both IED and rocket attacks throughout the deployment.” Blake noted: “That’s a pretty glaring factual error, especially for a ‘fact sheet.'”)

The Pinocchio Test

By claiming this was merely a case of incorrect citations, Walsh’s campaign seeks to minimize the extent of his academic transgressions. But it is clear he engaged in blatant and extensive plagiarism, in apparent violation of the academic code of the War College.

Walsh told the Times he would “consider” apologizing to the authors whose work he stole, but this news release suggests he and his campaign have not yet come to grips with the extent of the problem. This simply cannot be shrugged off as a simple “mistake.” (We obviously cannot determine whether it was an “unintentional mistake,” as the statement claims, but on the face of the evidence that one quarter of the report was plagiarized, that seems like a stretch.)

Presumably a lawyer or two advised the campaign that a clear admission of plagiarism would open the senator up to liability or military discipline. But that’s no excuse, especially given the fact that the paper’s conclusions were stolen from other authors.

Four Pinocchios

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