Kentucky senator Rand Paul apparently likes to liven up his speeches with ideas taken from film plots. That’s fine but Rachel Maddow found that he seemed to be lifting the descriptions of the films from Wikipedia without attribution. And it was not just an isolated practice but done several times. When confronted about this practice, Paul reacted initially with bluster and indignation, saying that this was the work of ‘haters’ and an insult to his honor and that he regretted that these days he could not challenge them to a duel, as if he were a character from The Count of Monte Cristo, which as many of you know is an adventure story primarily concerned with themes of hope, justice, vengeance, mercy and forgiveness, it focuses on a man who is wrongfully imprisoned, escapes from jail, acquires a fortune and sets about getting revenge on those responsible for his imprisonment. (Note: I couldn’t resist making a small joke by lifting the rest of the sentence from the word ‘adventure’ straight from the Wikipedia entry.)

But when more evidence turned up, showing that this was not an isolated case and critics said that what he had done was undoubtedly plagiarism, Paul changed tack and argued that he was a published scholar who knew the rules and abided by them and that if he had been writing a paper he would have extensively footnoted and cited the works of others but these were speeches and did not require the same level of attribution, and that most of his speeches were extemporaneous anyway.

I think Paul is mistaken about the difference between writing an article and giving a speech. If it is a scholarly paper, you need to cite in detail. If it is an op-ed where the format does not allow for full citations, you still need to indicate that it is not your own words, at the minimum putting it in quotes. In a speech, at a minimum you need to say something like “As name/Wikipedia/someone said …”.

But that excuse too did not seem to sit well with his critics because it turned out that even parts of his articles and entire sections from his book also had plagiarized passages.

To give one example, Stewart wrote in his “Rethinking mandatory sentencing” that “By design, mandatory sentencing laws take discretion away from prosecutors and judges so as to impose harsh sentences, regardless of circumstances.”

Paul’s op-ed contained a virtually identical sentence: “By design, mandatory-sentencing laws take discretion away from prosecutors and judges so as to impose harsh sentences, regardless of circumstances.”

The Daily Show had fun with Paul’s plagiarism.

(This clip aired on November 7, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

So then Paul took the tried and true path of saying that he took full responsibility but blaming it on his staff, which is the modern way of taking responsibility.

His offense was seen as so bad that the conservative Washington Times newspaper decided to drop him as a regular columnist.

What people don’t seem to realize is that even though an enormous number of words have been written in the English language, it is not hard to create a unique phrase that is short, and with modern search engines we can see how easy it is.

For example, I took a random sentence from an old blog post of mine: “The constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages passed back in 2004 when opposition was at its peak has now led to the delicious irony of same-sex couples paying lower taxes than heterosexual couples.” This is a long sentence and it is not surprising that if you put it in Google, only I appear to have written it. But if you start from just the first word and then add words, at what point does it become unique?

“The constitutional” returned 4,590,000 hits
“The constitutional amendment” returned 14,300,000 hits
“The constitutional amendment banning” returned 282,000 hits
“The constitutional amendment banning same-sex” returned 153,000 hits
“The constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages” returned 990,000 hits
“The constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passed” is unique to me.

Apart from the puzzling oddity of there being an increase in the number of hits when I added the word ‘marriages’, we see that uniqueness sets in quite quickly, with just an eight word string. This is what makes plagiarism so easy to detect these days and why I am surprised that people still seem to be doing it, thinking that it won’t be noticed.

A simple rule of thumb is that if you cut and past any string of words from another source, you should feel obliged to credit that source. You should also credit it if you are not explicitly copying but the turn of phrase is a clever one originally by someone else, unless the phrase is so well known that people know it came from someone else and that you are not taking credit for it. For example, you can say “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” without crediting the original source (Lord Acton) because it has become a cliché. The original was slightly different (“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) but the shorter one should still rightly be credited as originating with him.

Recently I heard the quip “Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” and it was credited to Malcolm Gladwell but on looking it up, it appears to originate with well-known PowerPoint critic Edward Tufte. I don’t know if Gladwell credited Tufte and later people mistakenly forgot the attribution, but I would never use that quip without crediting Tufte. Maybe in time it will also become a cliché to be safely used without assigning credit.

As I tell my students, always properly credit anything that might be mistakenly thought to be original from you. And when in doubt, credit to be on the safe side. And if you don’t know the original source, make clear that it is not you.

Stephen Colbert had a good commentary on the Paul plagiarism case.

(This clip aired on October 29, 2013.)


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the puzzling oddity of there being an increase in the number of hits when I added the word ‘marriages’ …

    Not so puzzling as the ~10M surge in hits from adding “amendment”…

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the puzzling oddity of there being an increase in the number of hits when I added the word ‘marriages’ …

    Not quite so puzzling as the ~10M surge in hits from adding “amendment”…

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oops -- apologies for the double post -- the 1st time I just got an error message, and the comment did not show when I returned to this page.

    I take full responsibility for this, and have told my staff not to do it again!

  4. Mano Singham says

    The embedded code is set to not auto-play but for some reason (and just for some people) this instruction is ignored. What operating system and browser and machine are you using?

  5. left0ver1under says

    It happens to me. I’m using windows 7, and as for browsers, I’m currently migrating from Opera 12 to Firefox 24, and use QtWeb 3.8.5 (based on Webkit) as a portable browser. The videos are autoplayed on all three browsers.

    Likely as not, it’s at the source, either how they set their videos or they give bad instructions of how to embed them. Videos from youtube don’t autoplay by default.

  6. physicsphdstu says

    I know that you have mentioned that you explicitly turn autoplay off, but it happens to me too.
    Ubuntu 13.10, in chrome & firefox both. Maybe you can just link to these videos rather than embedding them ?

  7. trucreep says

    That’s good advice for your students. When in doubt, cite your source, give proper credit, etc. You can always go back and remove it if it turns out to be superfluous.

  8. wilsim says

    Sometimes emdedded YouTube videos autoplay for me but only ones on this site and on bad astronomy.

    I am running Windows 7 x64 using Chrome Version 30.0.1599.101 m

    I do have a Chrome App called “YouTube Options” installed within which I have disabled autoplaying and auto-buffering of embedded videos.

  9. wilsim says

    Mano -- The Daily Show and Colbert Report videos you embed do not autoplay for me, nor have they ever, only the youtube ones.

  10. Lonely Panda, e.s.l. says

    At the beginning of each semester, I remind my students that Google works just as well for me as it does for them, but that warning does not always stop them. One student plagiarized nearly their entire final project from a single source, and when confronted about it, suddenly realized they forgot the citation, as if that would have then made it okay. [sigh]

  11. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Given who our Vice President is, I’d say claiming speeches should be free of plagirism, regardless of how I may have agreed with them in 1988 and perhaps even today, is probably wrong. And so I think this is a silly distraction. Maddow is not going to convince any Paul follower that plagiarizing the wiki disqualifies him. It’s just a silly game of neiner neiner Rand Paul is a poopy head.

    As for blaming it on staff, while I think he should have taken full responsibility, I think we both know that staff often writes the speeches, I find that pretty horrible too.

  12. smrnda says

    Didn’t his father, Ron Paul, point out that the racist things written under his name were really by someone else? Employing ghostwriters seems to be a family tradition, and I find it much at odds with the attempt at the Pauls to present themselves as serious people with big ideas.

  13. JonP says

    This is about Rand Paul, not the vice president. Do you think that it’s wrong to claim that speeches should be not plagiarised?

    At least among the rational and educated community, he humiliated himself completely. I don’t know about the followers though.

    Especially because it is not limited to the speeches, but also his scholarly work. Work that he claimed he was capable of producing as a professional. This reflects very very badly on his personal ethical standards, his ability to write, and his ability to choose well-qualified staff.

  14. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Are you seriously suggesting that Rand Paul’s I have a dream speech might not be original? 🙂

  15. wtfwhateverd00d says

    This is about Rand Paul, not the vice president, JOE BIDEN. Do you think that it’s wrong to claim that speeches should be not plagiarised?

    Non sequitur. Your facts are uncoordinated.

  16. JonP says

    I think I get your point now. Is this a good summary of your argument: because there were prior Joe Biden plagiarism reports (which he apparently was criticized for, by the way), then Prof. Singham should not have posted his analysis of Rand Paul’s plagiarism scandal.

    The OP was not about any of the millions of people who plagiarize speeches and books; it was about Rand Paul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *