Twenty-four hours after Joe Biden’s campaign was taken to task for lifting portions of a climate change plan without citation, it’s clear that the former vice president has plenty of company.
A sampling of policy proposals from Biden’s leading rivals suggests the lifting of direct text from academic papers, think tanks or policy institutes – and the cribbing of facts without attribution – is fairly widespread on 2020 campaign websites.
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A POLITICO review found previously published material on the official campaign websites of Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, as well as frequent use of facts and data without citation on a number of others.
“More than 1 million women in America today have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner,” Harris writes under the gender equality section of her website.
Everytown, the gun safety group, has a remarkably similar line on its own site, with one minor difference in scale: “Nearly 1 million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner.”
Harris’ website also notes that “Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.”
That language is identical to phrasing found on the American Heart Association website – minus the attribution: “Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Those usage practices aren’t much different than the ones that tripped up Biden Tuesday, when the first reports surfaced identifying a number of questionable passages in Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate plan.
In one instance, the Biden plan text contained the same language about technology designed to capture and store power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions as documents previously released by the nongovernmental organization Center for Climate and Energy Solutions as well as the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental and labor groups.
“Several citations, some from sources cited in other parts of the plan, were inadvertently left out of the final version of the 22 page document,” the Biden campaign acknowledged. “As soon as we were made aware of it, we updated to include the proper citations.”
The issue is especially sensitive for Biden, since it served as a reminder of a plagiarism scandal that derailed his 1988 presidential campaign. Then, it was revealed that Biden had recited lines of a speech from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, adopting some of the narrative as his own.
But for other campaigns, the issue doesn’t carry nearly as much resonance – and it’s reflected in the lax attribution standards.
In the voting rights section of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s website, the language echoes President Barack Obama. “Americans should not have to jump through hoops to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” the text reads.
Obama had used a similar metaphor in 2014 when he said that “no citizen, including our servicemembers, should have to jump through hoops to exercise their most fundamental right.”
In a Medium in March, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker lamented that “the punishing reality is that there are more African American men under criminal supervision today than there were enslaved in 1850” – an idea expressed in a Vox headline when singer John Legend raised it in a 2015 Oscar speech.
The actual source of the factoid appears to be Michelle Alexander, the author of the 2010 book “The New Jim Crow” and the subject of a piece titled “More Black Men Are In Prison Today Than Were Enslaved In 1850.”
Echoing Biden’s campaign, the campaigns contacted for this story insisted that the examples weren’t instances of plagiarism or inappropriate lifting as much as the citing of data that are relatively well-known among activists.
“These are statistics,” Harris spokesman Ian Sams said.
Indeed, Everytown sounded a note of gratitude for Harris’ use of its gun stats, even though the group wasn’t cited.
“Everytown makes resources about gun safety public so that all Americans can use them,” spokeswoman Stacey Radnor said. “We are thrilled to see candidates base their gun safety platforms on research and facts to bring attention to our nation’s gun violence crisis that kills 100 Americans and wounds hundreds more every day.”
In the case of O’Rourke’s use of language similar to President Obama’s, spokesman Chris Evans noted that the expression “‘jump through hoops’ is a common idiom.”
“As much as we admire President Obama, we didn’t pull up an arbitrary 2014 statement of his from the archives while creating our historic voting rights plan nearly five years later,” Evans said. “Voting is a fundamental right because it’s enshrined in the Constitution and has been fought for by Americans across our country in the centuries that followed.”
Deborah R. Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor and expert in copyright and plagiarism, said she saw no transgressions by the candidates in any of the above examples. She said context matters, and it’s clear that the candidates, including Biden, are relying on other people’s facts and not pretending that a unique expression of someone else’s work is their own.
“I don’t consider this plagiarism. I don’t see them saying, ‘This is my data’,” Gerhardt said.
“When you have a political candidate repeating statistics from another source, I don’t think people think the politicians did their own data analysis.
“These are politicians and people expect that they’re relying on a study or other facts. Don’t we want our politicians to listen to people who are doing research or collecting data and tell the public about it?”
That’s what Sanders appears to have done in at least one situation.
“Fundamental change in America’s agricultural and rural policies is no longer just an option; it’s an absolute necessity,” Sanders says on his website, in an issues statement on ” Revitalizing Rural America ” that he rolled out earlier this year.
That language is nearly identical to a line that appears in an obscure academic paper on organic farming first presented in 2014 and archived on the web in 2018.
“Fundamental change is no longer just an option; it is an absolute necessity,” wrote John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri.
There’s a reason for the similar phrasing, however: According to the campaign, Ikerd wrote the early draft of Sanders’ policy.
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