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10 September 2007

Fighting plagiarism beyond academia

We have lost track of the number of times in which we have had to gently (or perhaps more sharply, in a few cases) remind colleagues that the admonition against plagiarism is not merely a conceit of the academic world. Unattributed verbatim copying of others’ text is not an acceptable practice given the importance of national intelligence, and the need to be constantly vigilant against the possibility of deception.

If nothing else, we should think that the rather high profile plagiarism case of the British intelligence “dossier” in the lead up to the 2003 start of operations in Iraq would have provided ample warning to those in the community of the dangers, and the embarrassment, of recycled texts. Regrettably, this is not always so – and with the advent of so many new intelligence shops (particularly those at the state, local, and industry level within Homeland Security), this is one of the lessons of good tradecraft all too often forgotten, or never learnt in the first place as struggling new analysts attempt to meet implacable production demands by shuffling and re-shuffling derivate reporting into ever more diluted distributions.

We recall one particular case in which a senior executive would routinely hack together documents consisting of nothing but large chunks of text copied and pasted into some semblance of a paper – often with inexplicable digressions and other non-sequiturs as the inevitable result. (This individual’s behavior was driven in no small part by the common practice in OSINT of the 90’s – where he spent a good deal of time – of assembling “summaries” consisting of the full text of various news articles pasted into a single document – a glorified clipping service. Bad habits die hard, even years later.)

We note a recent case of explicit sanction against such behavior in the legal profession, courtesy of the Volokh Conspiracy. It seems one lawyer, attempting to shortcut his workload (and no doubt generate additional billable hours), was caught recasting the text of legal articles as “arguments” in a brief presented to the courts. We were not aware that this was considered not only gross professional misconduct but actually the offense of misrepresentation – as well it should, upon reflection. In this case, the offender was sent to remedial law classes – no doubt as much for personal embarrassment as professional education.

We believe it is time that managers in many intelligence shops institute similar sanctions. And of course, intelligence studies academia must instill into its students the absolute taboo against plagiarism – including even too frequent copying of attributed data such as the citations lists noted in the Volokh cases- something that has not always been a priority in many classrooms. We recall recent products which included verbatim sections of popular community reference resources such as the Factbook… and while one can argue whether such material is plagiarism under the legal precedents noted above (even if clearly marked as to origin), it is certainly a poor production model.

Consumers do not need recycling of the dry statistics of other shelfware products – they need unique insights, clear writing, and strong assessment based on solid sources and analytic tradecraft methods. Padding merely detracts from these objectives, and is certainly achieves the opposite of the presumably desired effect of displaying a semblance of rigour not otherwise earned. Students do not need to be taught to fill in checklist style product templates in which form trumps content, but rather they should be encouraged to choose among the many models within the community and develop their own unique approaches consistent with the blending of best practices from multiple agencies and traditions.

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