Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency

« previous post | next post »

"Canada PM faces plagiarism claim", says the BBC. And indeed some copying certainly occurred — in addition to comparing the texts, the story juxtaposes and then overlays video of a speech made by Australian PM John Howard on March 18, 2003, with video of a speech made by Canadian politician (and now PM) Stephen Harper. Here's a bit of the overlaid audio:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

But as the story makes clear, the copying was actually done by Harper's then speechwriter, one Owen Lippert:

A Canadian Conservative Party speech-writer has resigned after Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of plagiarism in a speech he made in 2003.

Owen Lippert admitted he had been "overzealous in copying segments" of a speech in support of the invasion of Iraq by then Australian PM John Howard.

Mr Lippert said neither his superiors nor Mr Harper, who was opposition leader at the time, had been aware.

Ironically, according the Google cache version of a page now removed from the website of the Fraser Institute ("A free and prosperous world through choice, markets and responsibility"), Lippert specializes in intellectual property:

Owen Lippert was formerly Director of the Law and Markets Project at the Fraser Institute. He writes and researches on intellectual property, aboriginal, legal and trade issues. Previously, he served as a policy advisor to the federal Minister of Science, the Attorney General of Canada and to the Premier of British Columbia. He holds a Ph.D. in European History from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and a B.A. from Carleton College, Minnesota. He has most recently edited and contributed to Competitive Strategies for Intellectual Property Protection (Fraser Institute, February 2000). His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Post, Globe and Mail and many regional papers in Canada and the United States. He writes the Law and Economics column for Canadian Lawyer magazine.

This puts into sharp relief a problem that has worried me for some time. As teachers, we insist (for good reason) that students' papers must be their own work in their own words, and we punish them for hiring others to write for them. But out in the real world, important people hardly ever write the speeches they give or the books that are published over their names. Newspaper op-eds and even regular columns are often ghost-written as well. (When my sister was a graduate student, she supported herself in part by researching and writing a weekly syndicated column that was published over the name of the well-respected president of a major research university.)

It's no secret that many students, especially wealthy ones, begin this process early, sometimes in high school and often for college entrance essays. Of course their parents are usually complicit if not prime movers in this — and we shouldn't be shocked that wealthy and successful people, used to hiring others to write for them, see this as a perfectly normal way to help their children become successful in turn.

Computer search makes it fairly easy to detect the low-rent form of plagiarism to which poorer students are limited, where they find something on the web, borrow it from a frat brother, or buy it from a paper mill that recycles research papers or essays. It's much harder to detect genuinely ghost-written material — but I'm sure that I'm not the only faculty member who has caught students submitting recycled text, only to have them angrily blame the ghostwriter who cheated them by claiming that it was all new material.

That's essentially the position that Stephen Harper finds himself in. His speechwriter, Owen Lippert, was hired to provide him with new material, but got pressed for time, and lifted several paragraphs from a speech given a few days earlier on the other side of the world — which no doubt was written by another ghostwriter, not by the man who delivered it.

Why does this make the news? Not because Stephen Harper is passing someone else's words off as his own — he does that every time he gives a speech, and so does nearly every other politician and executive in the modern world. Well-informed people know this, though I bet that a large percentage of the public continues to believe that leaders' words are their own. But for some reason, when it turns out that a ghostwriter copied in turn from someone else, this is felt to be culpable and shocking.

The first puzzle here is why we continue to feel that every political speech should be freshly ghostwritten. Why is it worse for politico X to read a passage written by ghostwriter A for politico Y, rather than by ghostwriter B for politico X? This is not a rhetorical question; I think that there's some notion of delegated agency at work here, but I'm not sure what it is, exactly, or whether it makes any sense at all. (I don't think that intellectual property rights have anything to do with this — it would be even more of a scandal if it turned out that Stephen Harper were licensing the rights to John Howard's speeches according to the rules of the Berne Convention.)

The second puzzle is how to clarify to students (and their parents) that for them as students to hire ghostwriters is forbidden and subject to harsh punishment, while as soon as they graduate, it will be become normal and even obligatory. Actually, this is an easy argument to make, in my opinion — but as a rule, academic institutions don't even try to make it.

For example, the "Academic Code of Honor" at Notre Dame, Owen Lippert's alma mater, presents the usual rules about plagiarism — including self-plagiarism — without any mention of the contrast between these rules and the normal practices in modern society at large, or any explanation of the reasons for the difference. And Notre Dame is not unusual in this respect. I've never seen an academic website on plagiarism that discusses these issues (though of course some may exist).

In this situation, I believe that it's hard for students to distinguish the rules against plagiarism from other cases where there are rules that apply to them but are not applied to others, for unconvincing reasons or for no non-circular reason at all, like the restriction on alcohol before age 21. And we periodically get these strange political scandals (like the Harper/Howard scandal, or the Biden/Kinnock scandal of 1988), where an election is affected because a hired writer doesn't produce fresh material for a politician to present as his own.

Isn't it time for some philosopher to clarify the morality of plagiarism in a way that maintains the importance of originality in student (and scholarly) work, without making every politician and a large fraction of book authors ethically guilty?


  1. Nathan said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 8:50 am

    But why is it acceptable, even expected, for a politician to pretend someone else's words are his own? That's the part I don't get. Are we to believe he's too busy with more important matters(fundraising? kissing babies?), or that whatever qualities we're looking for in a leader are of such critical importance that we should overlook his inability to put together his own words?

  2. Peter said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 8:57 am

    Since John Howard was notorious for stealing his policies from other parties (mostly to his right), there is some irony in him being the victim here.

  3. Sam C said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 9:13 am

    Isn't it time for some philosopher to clarify the morality of plagiarism in a way that maintains the importance of originality in student (and scholarly) work, without making every politician and a large fraction of book authors ethically guilty?

    Or alternatively, isn't it time for some philosopher to clarify the morality of plagiarism in a way which shows why these politicians and book authors are ethically guilty? Here goes: the central reason why plagiarism is bad is that speaking one's own words is a central part of human integrity and self-fashioning; not doing so is a form of lying or bullshit. This is especially important when one is powerful and speaking to a large audience. So, we ought to hold to account politicians who give speeches written for them and 'authors' who have books ghost-written. I'm just trying this on for size… but it doesn't seem obviously absurd.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 9:35 am

    Sam C: Or alternatively, isn't it time for some philosopher to clarify the morality of plagiarism in a way which shows why these politicians and book authors are ethically guilty?

    Well, that's my first instinct as well. But is it realistic to adopt a moral standard that condemns essentially every politician, company executive, university president, foundation director, etc. in the modern world?

    If you're going to do that, then at least it's important to recognize what you're doing, and not simply to continue tolerating the yawning canyon of hypocrisy between your principles and the behavior of your leaders.

    Alternatively, perhaps it makes sense to re-think the principles involved, perhaps through some notion of institutional or collective or representational identity and authorship.

    I don't have anything in particular to recommend, since my unconsidered instinct is that those who rely on ghostwriters — whether students or politicians or executives — are lying scum. But this reaction strikes me as parochial, culture-bound, and badly out of touch with the realities of the past century or so.

  5. Graham Collman said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    A politician should be presenting *their party's* views, not necessarily their own as an individual; therefore nothing wrong with getting in a professional to write the speech. However I'd definitely see an issue with presenting another political party's views as your own – hence the scandal.

    An author with their own name at the top of a book, however, is presenting their own individual work, whether it's fiction, opinion or research. I don't see a difference in principle between a ghostwritten book and a ghostwritten essay – both ethically wrong for the same reason.

  6. Andy J said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 9:42 am

    I’m not sure if post-college plagiarism is a widespread phenomenom outside of politics, academia and the literary world, but if journalism is any yardstick, it would seem to be near compulsory. A while ago there was a post on LL about an article by Robert Fiske in which he decried the widespread use of journalistic clichés. I seem to recall that both the post and comments opined that he was making a baseless rant. Yet surely the repetition of a turn of phrase coined by someone else (a cliché has to start life somewhere) is the first baby-step towards a life of intellectual larceny. (it’s a joke, dad)
    Seriously, the reason the colleges and schools need strong policies against plagiarism is because it is the efforts of the student alone which are being measured. In the real world, plagiarism is only an issue where there is an implicit claim to “ownership” by someone other than the actual author. Politicians rarely have original policies or ideas (in fact it would be striking if they did) and they will never acknowledge that they have stolen their policies from their opponents, but nonetheless the voters do know that they have come by the policies in this way so there is no actual deception. So it is with their speeches. It is just an extension of the formula: “I’m John Doe and I approve this message [which was not thought up by me, nor could I have said it so eloquently but I’m still happy to have your votes even if you thought I did]” This is somewhat related to the old joke: How can you tell if a politician is lying? See if his/her lips are moving.

  7. M Dalen said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:50 am

    While ghostwritten books are another matter (I really dislike them unless they give the ghostwriter co-author credit, as I've seen in a couple of spots), I think I'm comfortable with speechwriters for politicians, for a couple of reasons. First, they're up front about it. Obama and McCain never go around claiming that they write all of their speeches, and if you look, you can easily find the names of the speechwriters that actually did write them – something that's much harder to do with a ghostwriter, whose name may never be mentioned publicly.

    Second, writing speeches takes a lot of time, especially if you're doing the research too. I'd rather have politicians doing what we pay them to do (appear at fancy dress social functions, cut ribbons, and bluster about things) than spend all of their time writing. Especially since writing ability doesn't really have anything to do with how good a legislator someone is – they're completely disjoint skill sets, and while there are a lot of things that have nothing to do with legislation that politicians have to be good at (oratory, attacking the other guy and handling those oversized scissors used to cut ribbons), I don't see a need to add one more.

  8. David Landowne said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:56 am

    But, with the possible exception of glossolalia, everything we say or write is from someone else. Ecclesiastes 1:9

  9. Adrian said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:56 am

    This puts into sharp relief a problem that has worried me for some time. As teachers, we insist (for good reason) that students do not try to solve problems using violence, bullying and threats, and we punish them for using violence, bullying and threats. But out in the real world, ….

  10. onosson said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    I don't really care if a politician, author, or whomever speaks or writes words that are not their own. What I care about is whether they understand and, most importantly, *mean* what they say.

  11. Grep Agni said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    I (used to) dabble in magic performance. Though most people don't know it, there is a fairly large technical literature on the subject: thousands of books and pamphlets, and quite a large number of (often short-lived) periodicals. The bulk of this material is technical explanations of how to produce "magical" effects.

    Magicians are not, on the whole, very good technical writers for the same reson that electricians are not very good at repairing furniture. Therefore, many books, especially collections of tricks by a single magician, are ghost-written. Sometimes the actual author is credited and sometimes not.

    Now the point of all this is that in my opinion there is no deception even if the ghost writer is not given credit. This is because the important, creative work is designing and perfecting the tricks, not in the explanation.

    I'm not sure exactly what this implies, but I thought I should share.

  12. John Cowan said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    Andy J writes:

    Seriously, the reason the colleges and schools need strong policies against plagiarism is because it is the efforts of the student alone which are being measured.

    I think this is the key to the situation: the reason for banning plagiarism is not a specific moral stricture against using other people's words, with or without payment, but because it corrupts the assessment process. Part of the job of a university, rightly or wrongly, is to administer tests, and in the so-called Real World, cheating on a test is taken just as seriously. Similarly, plagiarism in scholarly articles corrupts the reputation-based mechanism by which academics are rated.

    Neither of these situations apply to ghostwritten speeches or books. In fact, we think it normal for any book to be partly rewritten by the publisher's agents: few are they (Robert Heinlein and Rex Stout come to mind) who can get their words published exactly as written.

  13. Peter Howard said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:29 am

    One ethically relevant distinction is that of permission. The ghostwriter, speech writer etc enter into an agreement with the celebrity/politician/executive that the latter will use the words of the former as their own. Payment is probably involved. In the case of academic plagiarism, permission isn't normally sought or given.

    So I do think that IPR have something to do with it. Mark is right that if it turned out that Harper was licensing the rights to Howard's speeches it would be an even bigger scandal. But it would be a bigger scandal for an entirely different reason.

    (I realise that what I've said above doesn't cover the whole ground, but this is a comment, not an essay.)

  14. Albert Keinstein said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    Here in Russia plagiarism is not only frowned upon but actually banned as far as i undestand it. Though one could be terrified by the number of students and TEACHERS who disregard that rule and consider ghostwriting and plagiarism to be nearly normal if not preferable form of academic creativity. As long as it gets done – that's the philosophy.

  15. Ellen K. said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    The purpose of the writing, or speech, makes a difference, and that is the distinction between a student's work and real world writing and speechmaking. Politicians use speechwriters because doing so helps them present their ideas. Which, as has been noted, don't even have to always be their original personal ideas.

    But I think it would be a rare situation where, with student's writing, the purpose would be served by using a ghostwriter rather than the student using their own words.

    I do think in writing, those ghostwriters, co-writers, etc, should be crediting in some way. (Same for translaters.) For speeches, no need to give credit when giving the speech (just like a singer doesn't name the songwriter for every song he sings), but be honest about it when the subject comes up.

  16. Chud said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    There's a lot of room between "I wrote every word of this myself" and "Somebody else wrote every word of this for me." And maybe blogs like this are where the most of the former type have ever been published. Almost everything published on paper has editors or commentators or something between the author and the reader.

    My wife and I graduated from the same college, in different classes. So we get different fund-raising letters, each from his or her own classmate fund-raisers. And it's clear that both letters borrow from the same source. And it all seems cheesier when it is obvious how much they borrow.

    I recently wrote a regular-old letter to about a thousand people. Before sending it out, I asked a trusted chum (who had an interest in the success of the letter) to review it, and he reorganized it a bit and rewrote a paragraph. But the letter's focus was a personal message from me. So it went out from me, with no credit to him. I didn't feel bad about it because he just improved the expression of the sentiments I had already laid down.

    On the other hand, if I need to send out similar messages to different people, I'll apologize at the top for stealing from a previous letter to someone else. I'd hate for someone to think I wrote a particularly striking phrase just for him, and he finds out later that I also wrote that phrase for ten or twenty other people.

    I think a politician is probably thinking of his job in a speech as delivering a message. Wouldn't it be interesting if the President of the US at the State of the Union Address simply introduced his speechwriters and had them deliver the speech? I'm pretty sure that that would deliver no message at all.

  17. Lance said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    It strikes me that perhaps we, as professors, ought to wonder the following: how much of our lectures and class notes did we write ourselves? In class, I'll often give an example, or counterexample, or the like, and it's not remotely something I wrote myself—it'll be from a paper by Barbara Partee, or for that matter from a lecture of Kai's I heard in grad school. I cite them sometimes (when I remember; when I know), but am I, in some sense, plagiarizing those other papers/lectures in my own?

    Or consider all my LING 106 notes, which were not remotely done from scratch, but are all based on Maribel's notes…I rewrote them, moved things around, and so forth, but am I using her ideas (or even words) without credit?

    I have a strong, gut-instinct revulsion to plagiarism, but it probably is worth exploring the gray areas and borderline cases in order to better understand what counts.

  18. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

    Students will hire ghostwriters as long as professors hire ghostreaders (sometimes called "graders"). I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had the experience of complaining to a professor about a misgraded assignment, only to have him/her blame the ghostreader.

    (Note to the perennially humorless: Don't worry, I'm not serious.)

  19. Nick Lamb said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

    A few people have touched on the same idea, I'd like to see if I can sharpen it.

    We are comfortable with the idea that a visiting foreigner might speak to us through a translator, and we don't misunderstand what's going on there. The words we hear are not a product of the visitor's mind, they are the work of the translator BUT the ideas behind the words are not the product of the translator's mind (otherwise we needn't receive the visitor at all) those come from the visitor.

    I'd argue that political speech writers translate the political strategies endorsed by the individual (or their party in the case of senior party members) into language with an intended effect. This is more or less as legitimate as translating French into German, subject to similar caveats (e.g. if someone translates your French request for "calm" into a German request for "silence" then you might feel misrepresented, and likewise if McCain asks for a speech which shows he understands young people's needs, and gets something that makes him look like a doddering old fool, he'll feel the same way)

    Politicians have an advantage over the average visitor using an translator, they understand the speech they're giving. If Obama gets a speech tomorrow, with an hour before he's to give it, and he finds that it makes an accusation about Palin which he's not comfortable with, you can be sure he'll cross through that, and give it back to be revised.

    So, for those who are in academia (which looks like a smart plan in this economic climate) – consider not the student who skipped classes and then handed in a paper written by someone who did attend the classes – he's a lost cause anyway, a waste of the tuition money and the lecturer's time. Instead consider these two less likely but perhaps more illuminating examples:

    Student A hands in a paper which they admit was translated by a student from a different class, Student X. A felt that their English was hurting their grades, so they wrote the paper in Chinese and got X to translate it. Assuming you believe their story – should A or X or both be punished or should the paper be graded as though written solely by A? Why?

    Student B hands in a report which they admit was partly written by a friend back home, Friend Y. B finds writing things down difficult, and prefers explaining things out loud. B called Y back home and talked about what they learned in your class every week, then Y wrote it up – and finally B edited the material into a report. Assuming you believe this (admittedly unlikely) story – should B be punished (you can't touch Y in this scenario he's not a student), or does B get the full grade for this report? Why?

  20. GAC said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:33 pm

    A couple things interest me here.

    One, though I have never entirely translated a paper, when a Hong Kong friend of mine was still in college, she would periodically send me one-page essays to read over. Usually I could get by with just a few small corrections, but occasionally there would be a sentence that was so unidiomatic and nonsensical to me that I would have to confer with her and essentially "translate" her Chinglish (or maybe Hong Kong English?) into standard English. But I never did big revisions — I reserved any real rewriting for ungrammatical or grossly unidiomatic prose. Am I a ghostwriter? a translator? or just a plain old editor?

    Another idea about politicians. I sometimes feel a little bit of mistrust knowing that it was a speechwriter who wrote something and not the speaker. But I understand that it's the norm — Hell, it's notable when occasionally a politician DOES write their own speech (look back at Obama's speech on race).

    Looking at this I look at another aspect of politics: people who are connected to politics seem to look no just at the candidates themselves, but at their advisors. Obviously, for many political offices, especially at the national level, there is no way that one person could be knowlegible (sp?) enough to make all the informed decisions they have to make without some kind of expert advice. Often part of what a candidate or politician is evaluated for is the ability to choose good, qualified advisors, and to know when to listen to those advisors. I prefer a leader that takes that sort of thing seriously, and coordinates a team of smart specialists to come up with a plan instead of handing one down by fiat.

    So, maybe a speechwriter is like an advisor? As was mentioned earlier, a good politician isn't always going to deliver a speech exactly as written. In the same sense, a good leader isn't always going to enact a policy proposal as written — they reserve the right to revise as they see necessary. So, part of your advisory staff includes the PR department that writes speeches for you using their expertise to help you present your best face to the public. Maybe some wouldn't put the ghostwriter on the same level as, say, the scientific advisors who draft your economic policy, or the economist who works out your tax proposal, but it's the same sort of idea, I think. …. sorta ….

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:06 am

    I think the short answer is "Celebrity Sucks".

    There is this cult of celebrity. So we have celebrity politicians, celebrity academics and the whole schamoozle.

  22. Sili said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    Only tangentially related so do delete as necessary.

    When did ghostwriters 'officially' enter the scene? I mean Lincoln certainly wrote (some of?) his own speeches. At some point it musta become so common that people just accepted ghostwriting as fact and the word entered the language. But was there a time when people were appalled that a politico hadn't written his own words? Was there once an outcry akin to the one we see here?

  23. Joe said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Frankly, I couldn't care less about accusations of plagiarism. Unless it points out that their ideas aren't their own or underscores that they don't actually know what they're talking about, it's pretty meaningless to me. So while I understand why students would be punished for it, in other situations, I simply don't care.

    If someone has a good turn of phrase, I see nothing wrong with using it. In fact, if someone does it without realizing that, I would say that it just points to the fact that they think of the idea as their own, rather than as someone else's. If you're writing to persuade, that's the best possible scenario. You've completely convinced someone.

  24. Bookninja » Blog Archive » Islands in the Stream, with Harper and Howard said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 9:05 am

    […] Stephen Harper and John Howard: the Dolly and Kenny of right wing politics. Enjoy this little duet where both men use Howard's speech to make the case for weapons of mass…. Good thing we're gearing up to elect an ill-informed Bush mouthpiece so we'll be in […]

  25. Allison said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    There is a body of scholarship on this. See, for example, Margaret Price, "Beyond 'Gotcha!'": Situating Plagiarism in Policy and Pedagogy," College Composition and Communication, 54:1, September 2002. This literature is increasingly informing how English comp instructors teach the topic.

  26. Jeremy Lee said,

    October 14, 2008 @ 6:13 am

    "But, with the possible exception of glossolalia, everything we say or write is from someone else. Ecclesiastes 1:9"

    Last year I wrote a paper entitled 'Practical Multiwriter Lock-Free Queues
    for "Hard Real-Time" Systems without CAS' which I'm pretty sure contains things that have never been said before. I wouldn't have written it otherwise.

    A sample; "A literal interpretation of Herlihy's paper suggests that generic wait-free multiwriter queues are impossible without hardware support for atomic updates. But "wait-free" is a strong term which assumes robust behavior in the presence of multiple threads running on multiple CPU's at different rates. On a single CPU system, many of these subtleties do not arise."

    Yes, it's composed entirely of technical terms and even phrases that are somewhat standard, even cliche, but if you're going to argue that all the words have been used before, then I'll just point you at James Joyce and win the argument that way.

    Politics is, almost by definition, the recycling of other people ideas. So look at the other end of the spectrum, the scientific community, if you want phrases and even words that have never been seen before, and where lies and plagiarism are professional death.

RSS feed for comments on this post