Sen. John Walsh, a place-holding Democrat from Montana, already was deemed unlikely to win a full term in this year’s election. With revelations in The New York Times that he extensively plagiarized an academic paper, his prospects are even cloudier. But Walsh still has a chance at public service: He could apologize for his intellectual theft, acknowledge the seriousness of the offense and use the difficult episode as a learning opportunity for the young people of Montana.
So far, Walsh has taken a different route. When first asked Tuesday outside his office whether he plagiarized his 2007 paper for his U.S. Army War College master’s degree, he answered, "I don’t believe I did, no." The next day, that denial turned into an admission of a "mistake," with a campaign spokeswoman asking that the "incorrect citations" be viewed in light of Walsh’s "experience of post-deployment." The senator later revealed he had been seeing two doctors to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder at the time. His campaign on Thursday released a statement highlighting his military accomplishments and insisted that any impropriety was "unintentional."
Unintentional? More than half of the 14-page paper, "The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy," was directly lifted from papers by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace experts and a Harvard scholar, or improperly attributed to other authors, The Times showed.
For example, Walsh inserted almost verbatim these sentences from a Harvard paper by Sean M. Lynn-Jones, with original footnotes also included: "Many studies have found that there are virtually no historical cases of democracies going to war with one another. In an important two-part article published in 1983, Michael Doyle compares all international wars between 1816 and 1980 and a list of liberal states." The copying continues for more than a page.
The Army War College has rightly launched an investigation and pledged to hand down any appropriate punishments. Walsh should be subject to all the usual protocols that the college uses for plagiarism cases. He should also apologize to all scholars he copied from. Tom Carothers, a foreign policy expert whose work was plagiarized, told us he had not yet received a phone call from Walsh.
Walsh’s plagiarism does not diminish his accomplishments in Iraq or the National Guard. By the same token, Walsh should not use his service to deflect criticism for his academic misdeeds. More than a third of undergraduates and a fourth of graduate students admit to plagiarizing in school. College plagiarism rates have risen, facilitated by widespread Internet access. There is widespread confusion about the line between plagiarism and paraphrasing.
Rather than playing to that confusion, Walsh should forthrightly explain why claiming someone else’s work as one’s own is wrong. He can’t erase his record, but he could seize this opportunity to discourage Montana students from following in his footsteps.
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