The Worst Excuse for Plagiarism You'll Ever Hear

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article with compelling evidence that Sen. John Walsh, the Montana Democrat who was appointed to fill the seat of Max Baucus when Baucus became ambassador to China, plagiarized most of the master's thesis he wrote at the Army War College. I confess I had no opinion about Walsh before this (he was likely to lose in November anyway, and hasn't done anything of note in his brief time in the Senate), but there are two things I want to point out.

You can read Walsh's entire thesis at the Times, and it won't take you that long, because not including footnotes, it's all of 14 pages. And this is my first question: What the hell are the standards at the Army War College that you can write a 14-page paper and get a master's degree? Is it like that at the colleges the other services run? It might be OK if it was 14 pages of dense calculations for a degree in economics or something, but it reads like a paper written by a reasonably bright high school sophomore in his international relations class, not somebody getting an advanced degree. Not only that, there's no original research in it, which is usually a requirement of a graduate thesis. He could have written this thing over the course of a weekend.

After this story broke, Walsh explained himself this way:

Walsh told The Associated Press that when he wrote the thesis he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in Iraq, was on medication and was dealing with the stress of a fellow veteran's recent suicide.

"I don't want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor," the senator said. "My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment."

That's an insult to the thousands of veterans who have suffered from PTSD. It can be a terrible ailment, but one thing it doesn't do is make you plagiarize other people's work on your "thesis." What, did Walsh wake up in the middle of the night and think he was back in Iraq, in a firefight where the only way to save his comrades was to cut and paste a bunch of articles and then put his name on the top of the resulting paper? Give me a break.

As I said, I knew next to nothing about Walsh before this, and he was going to have a hard time holding on to his seat anyway; that cause may be lost now. But maybe this should be a lesson to the War College. If you're going to hand out things you call advanced degrees, maybe you ought to ask a little more of your students. 

Comments

"You can read Walsh's entire thesis at the Times, and it won't take you that long, because not including footnotes, it's all of 14 pages. And this is my first question: What the hell are the standards at the Army War College that you can write a 14-page paper and get a master's degree?"

Paul, is this a thesis or a paper? I am asking because you are switching between these two terms all the time, and the NYT also seems to be unclear which one it is. Note that not every Master's program requires a thesis - there are many decent programs, in certain majors, that require only coursework, maybe with some small additional paper/project requirement that is often much lighter than a traditional thesis.

Of course, it would still be plagiarism. But if it is not a thesis, then your criticism of the institution for awarding a degree for a 14-page paper would not be justified, since in programs without thesis requirement, the coursework is the main part of the degree.

What faculty member couldn't detect such blatant plagiarism in this paper? Or is military science to science what military music is to music?

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