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Jennifer Graham

Plagiarism — or just banality that’s contagious?

Senator John Walsh is one of the latest public figures to come under fire over alleged plagiarism.

AP/file

Senator John Walsh is one of the latest public figures to come under fire over alleged plagiarism.

If I can’t make this column memorable, I’ll at least try to make it short. In doing so, I’ll plagiarize both the Mansfield superintendent of schools and the Navy admiral who led the SEAL team that got Osama bin Laden.

But when I run the “memorable and short” line through the plagiarism detector at Grammarly.com, the website tells me “zero issues found.” So presumably, I can use the old joke with abandon. Not so Brenda Hodges, newly in the job market as punishment for employing platitudes in a Mansfield commencement speech. Her ouster was outrageous, an instance of corporal punishment for a time-out offense.

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For using the “memorable or short” gag — along with the wearisome “if each of us changes the lives of 10 people, we will change the world” sentiment — Hodges was accused of stealing from Admiral William McRaven’s speech to graduates at the University of Texas in Austin. Yes, some lines were strikingly similar. But while we’re hurling stones at Hodges, pitch one at the admiral, too, for opening his speech with “It’s an honor to be here with you tonight,” which registers “89 percent unoriginal” on the plagiarism detector.

The real offense here — as in the case of Newton superintendent David Fleishman, who lost a week’s pay for his unattributed quotation of Deval Patrick — is the oratorical pablum that our graduates are commonly served.

More serious is the charge that Montana Senator John Walsh cut and pasted the bulk of his master’s thesis at the United States Army War College in 2007. The New York Times fished out the 14-page paper last week, exposing a stench. Lengthy passages appear to be lifted from multiple sources, including the work of Harvard scholar Sean Lynn-Jones, editor of the Kennedy School-affiliated journal International Security.

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Lynn-Jones had reason to be outraged at the unattributed pilfering of his work, about 560 words, a bit shy of the average newspaper column. But he told me that he is not angry, and is even “slightly flattered that my paper was used in this manner.” Further, he cautioned that people shouldn’t inflate the transgression, but remember that what happened here is that “a student, albeit an older student, basically cheated in class.” (Walsh, now 53, was 46 when he submitted the paper.)

As editor of a journal that routinely runs its articles through plagiarism-checking software, Lynn-Jones does not excuse plagiarism, accidental or intentional. If a submission has inadequate sources, he usually rejects it outright. He himself has never been accused of plagiarizing — “People usually complain that I have too many footnotes” — but he recognizes the motivation of those students and scholars who do. “There is so much pressure to publish and, in general, to advance your career. When people are under pressure, they take shortcuts.”

It’s difficult to determine if a thought is our own genius, or a memory of someone else’s, dislodged by a recent Red Bull.

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These shortcuts may be entirely inadvertent. The pack mule that is our subconscious staggers under the weight of quickly scanned memes and forwarded e-mails that assault us each day. Fleishman said, and I believe him, that he didn’t intentionally echo Patrick’s rhetorical question: Can social media bring peace? Phrases are sticky. When a seemingly original thought emerges, it’s difficult to determine if it’s our own genius, or a memory of someone else’s, dislodged by a recent Red Bull. If the latter, we’re still copycats, but without teeth or claws.

This is not to say that some cases of plagiarism aren’t egregious, as when an author steals another’s work and profits from it. Patterns matter, too. If scrutiny of Senator Walsh’s record reveals a history rich in deceit, his career will be over, and deservedly so.

For the most part, however, the most common form of plagiarism, the recycling of cliches and banal ideas already in broad circulation, is the jaywalking of academia. It’s an infraction that, on rare occasion, may cause actual harm, but mostly resolves with an angry toot of the horn, or even — if reasonableness prevails — with an understanding wave.

Moreover, when controversy erupts, it’s helpful to know something about the accuser, since any person in the public eye knows well the adage — origin unknown — that if you stick your neck out, there’s always someone nearby wielding an axe. Remember: “Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” That’s Nietzsche, by the way. (One issue found.)

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.
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