Rand Paul is in the throes of a plagiarism scandal. (For details, see e.g. Juliet Lapidos, "Rand Paul's Plagiarism", NYT 11/5/2013.) But in my opinion, much of the commentary on this imbroglio misses the point so badly as to veer into falsehood, at least by implication. Thus Rebecca Kaplan, "More evidence emerges of plagiarism in Rand Paul's work", CBS News 11/5/2013:
Reports continue to emerge that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has a habit of using other authors' work in his own speeches and writings without giving them credit.
By this standard, essentially every professional politician and high-level executive in the world is a plagiarist.
That's because members of the 1% never write their own stuff, in general — they hire people to do it for them.
As I noted a few years ago ("Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency", 10/1/2008):
[O]ut 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.)
In this situation, Rand Paul is certainly guilty — of poor judgment in staff selection and supervision.
With respect to the "using other authors' work" business, there's the usual slippery slope, starting with copy editing, progressing to more serious forms of editing, and then to full-scale re-writing. From the other direction, there's "research assistance" and other forms of semi-acknowledged or unacknowledged input. If one of these assistants or editors or other helpers introduces some directly-copied stuff into the final product, it's a (potential) plagiarism scandal.
But what if it's just the helpers' text that's used?
As a teacher, I have a lower moral (and academic) evaluation of a student who hires someone to write their papers for them — and let's face it, a lot of students do this — than a student who merely (and naively) copies stuff out of a book or on-line article. If the student gets burned, and the ghostwriter gives them previously-published stuff (and this has happened in my classes more than once), the fact that the student has been cheated doesn't change the fact they're also cheating.
But I recognize that once people get out of school, the behavioral norms (and maybe the moral norms) are very different. It becomes OK to hire people to write your stuff for you, as long as they really do original work and don't turn around and copy it from somewhere else.
There's an incoherent moral lesson here, which many staffers and other ghostwriters have unsurprisingly failed to learn. "I'm hiring you to write stuff that I'm going to pretend that I wrote, and that's OK; but you can't give me stuff that someone else wrote and pretend that you wrote it, because That Would Be Plagiarism." There's a political rather than moral form of this lesson, which is much easier to understand: "If you copy stuff from someone else, we're both going to get in a lot of trouble."
And I also recognize that it's easy to get used to having people write your stuff for you. Thus Andrew Gelman, "Double standard? Plagiarizing journos get slammed, plagiarizing profs just shrug it off", 8/3/2012:
[S]hould Harvard fire Laurence Tribe or should Yale fire Ian Ayres for plagiarism? I don’t know, but I feel that I recently got some insight into legal plagiarism after recently working as an expert witness in a court case (yup, I did it for the money). I did some work and wrote it up, then the people at the law firm rewrote it to be in the standard format for an expert witness report. The result was long, awkward, and repetitive—but it was what they were looking for, so that was fine with me. The point is: they wrote much of it but my name was on it. I asked the lawyers if this was OK, and they said Yes, my name on it means that I stand behind it, not that I wrote every word. I did read every word but if something had been copied without attribution from some other source, I might not have known.
Anyway, I assume that lawyers such as Tribe and Ayres have lots of experience putting their names on reports that they have not written, and this is standard practice. So then they get into the habit. And then, as Dan puts it (and I agree), laziness kicks in. Once you get into the habit of riding the elevator, who wants to take the stairs? Only weirdo exercise nuts.
I agree with Robert Darden ("Journalism Professor Would Flunk Rand Paul For An 'Unambiguous Case Of Plagiarism'", TPM 11/6/2013) that if a student in one of my courses had done what Rand Paul's staffer did, "I would fail them for each individual assignment and refer the case to the appropriate university office that deals with honor code violations." But if a student had done what all members of the U.S. Senate do, namely hire people to write stuff they present as their own work, exactly the same response would ensue, even if the ghostwriters were entirely honest and original. It's confusing to everyone that the rules are so different inside and outside of academia.
Some other LL posts on various ways of presenting other people's stuff as your own:
"In defense of Kaavya Viswanaatan", 4/25/2006
"Is Mark Steyn guilty of plagiarism?" 5/15/2006
"Plagiarism and allusion", 6/12/2007
"Plagiarism and copyright", 6/14/2007
"Citation plagiarism?", 6/15/2007
"Citation plagiarism once again", 4/13/2008
"The fine line between phrasal allusion and plagiarism", 6/4/2008
"Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency", 10/1/2008
"Is "plagiarism" in a judicial decision wrong?", 4/14/2011
"John McIntyre on varieties of plagiarism", 3/13/2013