Thursday 26 October 2023

Rachel Reeves's Plagiarism Scandal

Having 20-odd years experience dealing with plagiarism in assignments, it tends to come in two kinds. There's the "accidental" sort, where a student pleads ignorance or misunderstands what it is. Because they've changed a couple of words in a paragraph they think that's fine, or something has been shunted in verbatim and think it's okay because there's a proper reference appended. I tend not to go hard on these sorts, leaving a bit of feedback warning them about plagiarism, signposting the academic regs and study skills pages, and deducting marks. And that's because, after having marked thousands of pieces of work, you can more or less tell when malicious intent was not present. And then you have the other kind where passages are copied out without attribution or a covering reference, and every effort is made to pass the work off as their own. This does not get the kid gloves treatment. There's an investigation and punishments vary depending on the university. At ours, it means a black mark goes on the student's academic record and that debars them from a career in the legal profession and might throw up obstacles for other post-graduation destinations. Criminal justice occupations are usually hot on this kind of stuff, for instance.

This in mind, news that Rachel Reeves has plagiarised sections of her book should debar her from being an MP, let alone a candidate for the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. If she does not resign in shame, she should be sacked in disgrace. It's true that politicians lie all the time, and being tied to Keir Starmer as he closes in on Boris Johnson's claim to the title of prince of the porkies means they're hardly a stranger to Reeves. But stealing other people's work to pass off as your own is beyond her boss's levels of shamelessness. How ironic that her book, The Women Who Made Modern Economics, is about women who never received proper credit for their contributions to the discipline.

I have an inkling how this could have come about. In Westminster, it's common for MPs to have everything done for them. Speeches and lectures are often produced by an office lackey. Getting a bag carrier to write them an article for the mainstream press they then collect the fee for is a perk of the job. The dear departed Johnson was a rarity in that he wrote his own articles, books, and a chunk of his speeches. Reeves, being an unoriginal plodder has gone with the parliamentary flow and contracted out her book. Whoever has done the work could not be bothered about the standards of the most rudimentary scholarship and chucked in any old tat they could find in five minutes with Wikipedia and Google. Why should they care? Their name doesn't appear on the copyright page. And, obviously, neither did Reeves. Has she even read the book she "wrote"? In her effort to craft an intellectual posture that is something more than loyally stringing out Bank of England orthodoxies, it shows up her light mindedness and lack of interest in women and mainstream economics - save her place as the inheritor and culmination of this history.

A couple of years ago Annalena Baerbock, the German Greens' candidate for Chancellor in the general election was also caught out in a plagiarism scandal. Originally denying the allegations when they broke, with the party attacking the claims as "character assassinations", she eventually owned up to copying other people's work for her book. It also turned out she had padded her CV as well. Consequently, the Greens took a hit in the polls. Of the three parties that now make up Germany's coalition government, up until then they were polling the highest and was a factor in the SPD's overtaking them and benefiting from a collapse in the CDU/CSU's support. Honesty and integrity matters to voters, who knew?

While Reeves's plagiarism has splashed all over social media, the press, and gives the Tories a good attack line on the shadow chancellor (which might have worked, were they not totally awful), sadly, no resignation will be forthcoming. Because media attention is largely focused on whitewashing a massacre, and the pressure on Starmer is coming from his inept handling of the fallout from Israel's carpet bombing of Gaza. Were the circumstances different, Reeves could have caused the Labour leadership some real embarrassment. As things are, she's lucky and this time next week it will be long forgotten. But just like what Starmer's compulsive lying means for his putative premiership, it puts down a marker about what we can expect from her time in Number 11. Intellectually vapid policy, a pilfering of other people's ideas, and a propensity to bullshit about the strength of Britain's economy in a way no different from any Tory chancellor. And these, remember, are the "grown ups".

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Anonymous said...

God is this all we can hope for?

Vapid indeed. Considering voting Green.

Anonymous said...

The point, surely, is that in pretending that she was concerned about the rights of women, she was trying to use a completely dishonest action in order to delude the public into thinking that she was a very, very, good and serious person. Ask yourself what sort of person can do that sort of thing and then look in the mirror afterwards. This person has the moral standing of a comic-book villain.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Its actually worse than you say, Phil, if this quote from a Guardian article is correct:

"if I’m guilty of copying and pasting some facts about some amazing women and turning it into a book that gets read then I’m really proud of that."

She's proud of having cut and paste other people's work unattributed into 'her' book! Imagine a student saying that to you! How would you react?

If a journalist had admitted to this, as has happened in the past, it would most likely have a serious impact on their career. She just shrugs it off as a trivial oversight.

What's weird about it is that if she had simply quoted the passages and referenced them in a footnote, it would have been fine, and looking at some of the examples, it wouldn't have affected the book negatively - it might have improved it. So, by making minor changes to these passages lifted from other work it seems clear she (or whoever did the work) was deliberately looking to pass them off as her own.

But, isn't getting others to do the work and then putting your name on the cover a kind of mega-plagiarism? Hopefully there is a proper word for this - although the use of ghost writers seems widespread and rarely acknowledged. I think it should be a legal requirement that the real writer is headlined , with perhaps a "on behalf of", or "in collaboration with".

Anonymous said...

Did T Hunt write all of his own articles, letters etc when he was MP in Stoke?

Anonymous said...

Do they (MPs) even read all of the letters their staff put together for them... Electronic signature and address as though it does not come from the constituency office but the House of Commons.

Mind you this plagiarism takes the biscuit. How embarrassing - actually lets be honest its a total disgrace.

I agree with the above it will Greens for me. Not been so before- a shift from Labour.

PurplePete said...

I remember when, “In February 2014, Hunt crossed an authorised University and College Union picket line at Queen Mary University of London to teach his students about "Marx, Engels and the Making of Marxism". (Wikipedia, accessed 27/10/23).

You couldn’t make it up!

Phil said...

To clear some things up.

As a general rule MPs do not write their own letters to constituents, ministers and others except in special circumstances as determined by them. Office staff manage the correspondence in the MP's name.

Whether they read all the letters or not depends on the MP. Some do and some like to see what their staff have written as a response before it goes out. Typically, Tristram Hunt trusted us enough to deal with most of the correspondence because we the office got a lot of it.

Every week I would arrange the correspondence into categories and let the councillors know what kind of issues we've been getting in their patch. I'd also highlight persistent issues, correspondence with ministerial offices, and anything else that required attention or a steer.

This IMO is necessary. Only MPs with v low volume correspondence/time on their hands would answer everything personally.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Are people suggesting that MPs emails should be subject to the same standards regarding attribution as a published book? Seriously?

Ken said...

Back in the day, I’ve known post graduates doing the work and it being published with only the Professor’s name on it. The quid pro quo being the benefit of being a post graduate, which at that time, was more likely to lead to a university job elsewhere.