Leading by example

John McCain, having been caught in an obvious act of plagiarism, denies it.

Plagiarism is cheating.

Students who cheat are suspended.

Students who cheat and lie about it are expelled.

McCain’s defense is that ” there are only so many ways to state basic historical facts.” Right. If the Wikipedia entry had said “Georgia was among the first countries to convert to Christianity” and the McCain speech had said the same thing, it would be hard to guess whether the McCain speech was a copy or an independent recitation of the same fact.

But the actual phrase (in McCain’s version “one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion” and in the Wikipedia version “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion”) is actually pretty bad: clumsy,imprecise, and disfigured by an unnessary phrase (“in the world” could be omitted without loss of meaning). [My analysis of the phrase, through the eyes of a teacher considering a plagiarism charge, at the jump.]

I always tell my students that if they’re going to copy work, they need to make sure it’s very good work. Two good answers that are similar might be coincidence. But if two bad answers match, one is likely the copy of the other, or they’re the result of collaboration. As Tolstoy might have said, all good answers are the same, but every bad answer is bad in its own way.

Thank you, Senator, for providing a bad example to which I can point the next time I discuss plagiarism with my students. I guess that’s what you call being “ready to lead.”

[Full analysis here]

You look at the phrase more carefully, trying to figure out whether it’s simply the case of two writers finding the one right way to say something.

Well, actually, no: the phrase is really quite odd, once you stare at it. Wouldn’t the usual phrase be “to convert to Christianity” or “to embrace Christianity”? And what in hell is “an” official religion? Would you expect there to be more than one? Why not “its official religion” or “the official religion”? And why “official religion” rather than the more common “state religion” or “established religion”? And why the unnecessary “in the world”? What does that add to “one of the first countries”?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com