Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Rand Paul and citation

You might have heard that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has been taking heat for unattributed quotations in his speeches and writings from, among other sources, Wikipedia. Jim Rutenberg and Ashley Parker of the New York Times have (more or less) the latest news in their piece, "Though Defiant, Senator Accused of Plagiarism Admits Errors". The headline gives the gist, but what's striking to me are Paul's tone and his obsession with footnotes.
“What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers,” he said. “We’re going to try to put out footnotes.” He said that “we have made mistakes,” but that they had “never been intentional.”
If he wants to include footnotes in his books, great; it's a fine old tradition, although one that's more common in works by more scholarly authors. The Times article isn't clear on whether Paul is going to apply this new emphasis on footnotes in his periodical pieces or speeches, but it certainly sounds like he will: that would certainly make sense considering that the criticism he has faced surrounds his speeches and magazine articles. And that makes me wonder where his head is.

You see, this article isn't the first time Paul has brought up footnotes. He has blithered about them incessantly since MSNBC's Rachel Maddow first started hammering him about "plagiarism" a week ago. Consider his remarks from this ABC News piece from last week:

“It’s a disagreement of how you footnote things and I think people footnote things differently in an academic paper than they do in a public speech,” Paul told Ramos. “But a lot of time in speeches people don’t take the time to footnote things.”
What's your hangup with footnotes, Rand?

Nobody expects footnotes in periodical articles or speeches. The time-honored way to attribute something in a newspaper article or speech is, "As So-and-So said", or "To quote from such-and-such-book", or ... well, you get the idea. It's not a big deal. If you have a decent education, it's common sense and common courtesy: you give credit where credit is due.

Rand Paul is a medical doctor. We can assume he got a decent education. So what's with the obsession with footnotes in places they don't belong?

I think there's a sneer implicit in offering to source his utterances like a college student. He's saying his critics are those fusty, moldy, disdainful college professors who represent the elitist ivory tower.

He's hoping his sneering will obscure the very basic question of fairness that underlies the charge of plagiarism. Using other people's words isn't wrong in itself. It's when you don't give them the credit for those words that you err. You're stealing from them.

A charitable observer might believe Rand Paul genuinely does not understand what plagiarism is.

On Tuesday, Mr. Paul argued that that did not technically represent plagiarism. “Trying to say someone commits plagiarism, you’re saying that someone is dishonest,” he said. “And, well, it would be dishonest if I tried to say, ‘Oh, I had this great idea for a movie, and this is my idea, and this is a story I wrote in college called ‘Gattaca.’ ”
A couple of problems here:
  • If you quote someone else without crediting them, you are being dishonest. You are plagiarizing. And the intention to deceive — the slur on his character that seems to incense Paul most — is an inescapable conclusion when as many unattributed quotations are found as have been found in Paul's speeches and writings. One or two phrases could be an honest mistake. Not so whole paragraphs.
  • No one said Paul pretended to have written Gattaca. What Maddow said from the beginning was that long passages from Paul's speech were uncannily similar to passages in the Wikipedia entry. (Maddow did herself no favors in the teasers for the story the first night, though: those teasers did imply that Paul was trying to take credit for the movie. It was only in the story itself that Maddow made clear the alleged plagiarism was of Wikipedia, not of the movie.)
Paul, in all likelihood, knows what plagiarism is. I took his blustering as a particularly clumsy effort to muddy the waters. He knew he plagiarized but he hoped low-information voters wouldn't notice.

What if I'm wrong, though? What if he didn't know?

He might honestly not have known his speeches and writings included lengthy unattributed quotations. Many politicians, after all, rely on speechwriters. However, if Paul was ignorant of the plagiarism, that makes one wonder what kind of behavior his staff thought was acceptable? That, in turn, reflects on Paul himself because the boss sets the tone.

The bottom line is, if he knew he was plagiarizing, he lied to us all (twice: once by plagiarizing, once in his denials when confronted with the truth). If he didn't know, he doesn't have an ethical staff — and that reflects badly on his judgment and leadership.

Any way you look at it, Paul doesn't come out of the plagiarism crisis looking good. And all the footnotes in the world can't help him.

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