In Their Own Words: A Field Guide to Accused Plagiarists’ Public Statements

Accused plagiarists, presented with a body of evidence, often don’t know what to say.

Case in point: Mary C. Willingham, a former literacy specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and whistle-blower on athletes’ literacy, whose master’s thesis was revealed on Monday to have been partly plagiarized and to have contained improper citations.

Her statement on the matter? “Whatever I did, I did, and, you know, whatever. There’s nothing I can do about it,” she told the News & Observer, adding that any instances of plagiarism in the paper had been unintentional.

That statement joins countless others—sometimes confusing, sometimes ham-handed—by the accused. Here are a few examples:

The Extenuating-Circumstances Defense: “I didn’t do anything intentional here,” U.S. Sen. John E. Walsh, a Montana Democrat, told The New York Times last month, after he was presented with clear evidence of plagiarism in his master’s thesis at the U.S. Army War College. Senator Walsh later said he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while he was writing the paper.

The “Absolutely Not, But …” Defense: “Absolutely not,” the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said in 2002 of allegations that she had plagiarized a handful of sections of her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Simon & Schuster, 1987). She admitted to unintentionally copying passages from a work that was not her own, but said that did not constitute plagiarism.

The “It Was My Research Assistant” Defense: “It was a crushing experience,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., of the discovery that portions of All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005) had been plagiarized. His two research assistants, he said, had intended to quote from another work but accidentally dropped the quotation marks and attribution as they rushed to meet a deadline.

The “I Am Not a Crook” Defense: “In this situation when my personal issue divides my beloved nation rather than unites it, I feel it is my duty to end my service and resign my mandate as president,” said Pal Schmitt, president of Hungary, in 2012 after a university panel found extensive evidence of plagiarism in his 1992 doctoral thesis at Semmelweis University. He denied wrongdoing, though, saying the allegations of plagiarism were “unfounded.”

The “My Detractors” Defense: “This is a political decision,” said Romania’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, in 2012 of a finding by a panel of academics that he had plagiarized sections of his doctoral thesis at the University of Bucharest. He was cleared by the country’s Education Ministry.

The Straight Apology: “I made a mistake for which I am sorry,” the historian Stephen E. Ambrose said in a 2002 statement about plagiarism discovered in his book The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Instances of plagiarism in other works later came to light.

The “It Was a Crazy Time” Defense: “This is not an excuse, and I would never offer it up as an excuse, but at that point in my life, I had a family. I worked two jobs. I was running for the Illinois State Senate. I was trying to get my dissertation finished,” Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, told the university’s student newspaper about allegations he had plagiarized sections of his 1984 doctoral dissertation at Southern Illinois. A university report called instances of apparent plagiarism “errors and mistakes.”

The “How Do You Define Plagiarism?” Defense: “To the extent that plagiarism involves an intentional passing off of someone else’s work or ideas as your own, that is not what happened here,” wrote Vanessa Ryan, an associate dean at Brown University, to The Brown Daily Herald this past spring, about allegations that she had plagiarized parts of her book Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). A university committee found that she had plagiarized but that it was unintentional.

For the record, Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism as “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”

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