The Cost of Plagiarism: Your Credibility

Two points from PR and Academics 101: don’t steal stuff—and if you’re going to borrow from someone else, make sure you make it very clear that you did so. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, or whoever writes his speeches and op-eds, didn’t learn either of those lessons, and it’s led to lots of bad press for a guy who would like to be president one day.

At first it was just a ridiculous headline: lines from a speech Mr. Paul gave in support of another politician had been lifted from—of all places—the Wikipedia entry on the 90’s sci-fi bomb Gattaca. The fact that he used a movie to argue that birth control would eventually lead to eugenics, the long-discredited practice of weeding out “undesirables” through selective mating and sterilization, is more than a little wacky. But then politicians say dumber things every hour of every day.

Here’s our point, though: imagine how much trouble you’d be in if your client had done what Paul did and consider his questionable damage control response. First, he called his accusers “hacks and haters” and joked:

“If dueling were legal in Kentucky…it’d be a duel challenge.”

The angry denial strategy didn’t last long, though.

BuzzFeed and others quickly discovered more instances of plagiarism in his books and his op-eds for The Washington Times. Now came time for the next step in his efforts to protect his name, which we’ll call “accept responsibility while still subtly shifting the blame”. Yesterday Paul told CNN:

“I’m the boss, and things go out under my name, so it is my fault. I never had intentionally presented anyone’s ideas as my own.”

In other words, “I didn’t write it, but someone working for me did, and they totally screwed up”. This was after he told another interviewer that, in order to “make people leave me the hell alone”, he and his team would treat every future piece bearing his byline like a “college [paper]” by including footnotes and proper attributions. In the meantime, his weekly op-ed column got the axe.

We feel a bit for Paul: writing is hard, books are long, and there aren’t all that many ways to phrase an idea. Mistakes are inevitable if you produce a lot of content. But we also know that the only time you can cut and paste is when you’re reprinting a press release or quoting someone else with appropriate citations.

We have a feeling that Rand Paul will recover from this mini-scandal because his appeal is all about challenging the powers that be. People who like him aren’t really going to care that his team swiped a few lines without attribution, and based on his behavior we get the impression that his apology was grudging at best.

When he goes before the nation at large, however, this could be a big chink in his armor—which is why he’s admitting fault now. Current Vice President Joe Biden admitted to plagiarism far worse than Paul’s while running for president in 1988, and the revelation proved fatal to his campaign.

Take note.