Teaching at an Army school, we’re not surprised by Sen. Walsh’s plagiarism

Teaching at an Army school, we’re not surprised by Sen. Walsh’s plagiarism

Dr. Nicholas Murray

And Dr. Gregory S. Hospodor

A recent report in the New York Times that Senator John Walsh plagiarized his master’s thesis whilst he was a student within the Professional Military Education (PME) system has shocked the establishment. However, unfortunately, it did not surprise us. Furthermore, that someone was caught came as no surprise to many of our colleagues at CGSC. This begs the question of why.

Without knowing the details of this specific case, we should ask how this might have happened and how it might be prevented. To do this it is helpful briefly to examine how a faculty member supervises a thesis.

At a college or university, a professor with a terminal (doctoral) degree in the topic area in which the student is conducting his or her research typically oversees the research and writing process. Normally, there are three or more thesis advisors (or committee members), all of whom are familiar with the student’s main area of work and all of whom possess a terminal degree. A union card, if you will.

The above has three main benefits. All the committee members will have had the experience of conducting academic research, which is helpful when assisting someone else to do the same. They will each have written a dissertation, which is also helpful for obvious reasons. And third, there will almost always be at least one committee member who is familiar with the main sources the student plans to use. This, too, is helpful because it makes it far more likely that at least one member of the committee will catch any hint of plagiarism; and it should be said here that an assumption of academic integrity is the bedrock of the graduate research process. In a case of potential plagiarism, the faculty usually meets the student and discusses the issue. Typically, the student rewrites the draft with the correct citations. This serves to remind the student of his or her responsibility for academic integrity, and it also allows a student to correct what might be an inadvertent mistake prior to publication. Both of which are good things. Of course, this does not provide a complete guarantee that plagiarism will not occur, but it does serve to reduce the likelihood of a problem. However, experienced credentialed faculty are only part of the solution to plagiarism.

Computer software provides another part of the solution, and there are many programs available that check for plagiarism. Good quality software is helpful where there are large numbers of students and insufficient time for faculty thoroughly to go through every single piece of written work in detail. Of course, it too is not perfect, and is best used in conjunction with appropriately credentialed faculty who are familiar with the student’s research field.

So far, this is all relatively straightforward. However, there is a deeper problem.

In many PME schools only a small portion of the faculty are credentialed in a fashion that would be deemed acceptable at a civilian school. Thus, there are typically fewer academic experts available to serve as committee members on graduate level theses. This is problematic because faculty who are not experts in the subject upon which they are advising a student are far less likely to spot plagiarism as, logically, they are less likely to be familiar with the source material. Furthermore, faculty who have not actually written a substantial research paper of their own, and thus are not as familiar with the process, are often unaware of the implications of plagiarism and not all of them understand why it is a serious issue. That being said it is not yet clear in the case of Senator Walsh’s thesis whether this was an issue, although his thesis noted the name of only one committee member.

In addition, here at CGSC, there has also been a reluctance to use software as an aid for faculty to check for plagiarism. Two reasons are typically given to justify this: the officers are honorable and should not be subject to the checking of their integrity in this way. This answer begs the question of why it is required, then, for officers to sign a statement declaring they will not cheat or plagiarize. Furthermore, requiring all students to submit their written work only after using the software would alert the conscientious to potential citation problems ahead of time as well as, to be fair, alert the less-conscientious of a need to improve their cheating skills. The second reason provided is that it is too expensive. This response, too, does not hold water for two reasons. First, there are free versions of plagiarism checking software available; indeed, in two minutes of online research we had already found an article discussing the topic. Second, by average university standards the PME system is very well off. It is certainly far richer than the cash-poor colleges we used to teach in that did use such software as an aid. Simply put, using software makes sense because it would help close the proverbial cash register drawer by making plagiarism much more difficult and therefore less attractive.

In the Army at least, suspected plagiarism requires a legal investigation (AR 15-6). An Army officer carries this out. This can be lengthy, and there is no guarantee that the person conducting the investigation is familiar with either the academic writing process or with what plagiarism is. Ultimately, it is up to the investigating officer to decide whether plagiarism occurred. Furthermore, from our experience, as well as that of some of our colleagues, faculty members whose students were involved in cases of suspected plagiarism were treated as being as much a cause of the issue as was the student, to the extent that we have been asked on more than one occasion what we are doing wrong that causes this to occur! Finally, one is often reminded that plagiarism, as a breach of integrity, is a career-ender for the officer concerned and that somehow years of service mitigate the offense. That the stakes are high is obvious, but military officers make far more significant decisions than the one to plagiarize when they leave the walls of academe. Don’t our service members deserve leaders that don’t cheat on their homework?

So far we’ve looked at the importance of credentialed faculty and a lack of willingness to deal directly with the problem, and a lack of understanding as to why it is an issue. The question should be not why has it occurred, but why have there not been more cases that are public? Perhaps, the answer is that we haven’t really looked.

Dr. Nicholas Murray is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. In 2013 he was awarded the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Civilian Service, and he was named Educator of the Year for History. He earned his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2007. He has published The Rocky Road to the Great War as well as a number of articles and editorials on a variety of military topics.

Dr. Gregory S. Hospodor is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. In 2011 he was named Educator of the Year for History. He earned his doctorate at Louisiana State University and taught for the Honors College and History Department there and at Delta State University before moving to CGSC in 2008. His research and publishing efforts focus on the U.S.-Mexican War and the 1943 Sicilian campaign.

The views are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.