What a 12 Year Old Has in Common With a Plagiarizing U.S. Senator

Parents beware: Children who don't take ownership for their mistakes may grow up to be adults who create public scandals.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of guidance counselors about the value of letting kids fail and holding them responsible for their actions when the stakes are still relatively low. At the end of my talk, one of the counselors shared the story of her week: A 12th grade student had plagiarized much of a final science paper, and had been given a failing grade on the assignment and a formal reprimand by the school as a consequence. In response, the student’s parents had complained to the school administration, claiming that the student did not understand that copying and pasting text without attribution constituted plagiarism, and therefore should not be penalized for his ignorance.

The guidance counselor was left to deal with the aftermath of the school’s disciplinary action, and wanted advice on how to help this student and his parents understand why he should be held responsible for his plagiarism, given that a failing grade could destroy his chances at college admission.

Rather than recount my answer to that guidance counselor, I offer up two news items from this week as an illustration.

News item number one: Lauren Arrington, a Florida sixth grader, was featured on NPR, CBS, and many other media outlets for her science report on Indo-Pacific lionfish, a predatory reef fish species that has invaded ocean waters along the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean. The NPR story, “Sixth Grader’s Science Fair Finding Shocks Ecologists,” quotes Lauren on the line of thinking that led to her discovery:

"Scientists were doing plenty of tests on them, but they just always assumed they were in the ocean," Lauren, now 13, tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "So I was like, 'Well, hey guys, what about the river?' "

Unfortunately, the finding indicated in the headline—that lionfish can thrive in low-salinity estuaries—was was not a new discovery, nor was it Lauren’s. Zack Jud had reported these same findings as a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University in 2011, three years before Arrington first presented her science fair project, in a paper titled “Recent invasion of a Florida (USA) estuarine system.” That paper lists Lauren’s father, D. Albrey Arrington, as a courtesy author, and as such, one can assume that he was aware of Jud’s discovery of lionfish in low-salinity environments well before his daughter embarked on a national media tour claiming the discovery as her own.

As Lauren and her father embarked on their media tour, Jud watched the credit for his years of research go to a sixth grader. Even as she continued to repeat the claim that the discovery was hers, Jud kept silent. In a phone call, Jud explained to me that he was torn. He loves to teach kids about science, he said, and the last thing he wanted to do was put a damper on that. However, he was frustrated and worried that Lauren’s appropriation of his work was not just ethically wrong, but detrimental to his career. He is interviewing for faculty positions, and his ability to call these findings his own is critical to his appeal as a job candidate.

Finally, after many emails from friends and family concerned about the impact of the sixth grader’s intellectual theft on his career, he published a post on his Facebook page expressing his frustration.

My lionfish research is going viral ... but my name has been intentionally left out of the stories, replaced by the name of the 12-year-old daughter of my former supervisor's best friend. The little girl did a science fair project based on my PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED DISCOVERY of lionfish living in low-salinity estuarine habitats. Her story has been picked up nationally by CBS, NPR, and CORAL magazine, and has received almost 90,000 likes on Facebook, yet my years of groundbreaking work on estuarine lionfish are being completely and intentionally ignored. At this stage in my career, this type of national exposure would be invaluable ... if only my name was included in the stories. I feel like my hands are tied. Anything I say will come off as an attempt to steal a little girl's thunder, but it's unethical for her and her father to continue to claim the discovery of lionfish in estuaries as her own.

During our phone call, Jud stressed repeatedly that he does not blame Lauren; he blames the adults in her life who have failed to teach her a basic tenet of scientific research: Don’t take credit for other people’s work.

When Lauren told NPR that she was the first to suggest that scientists look in rivers for evidence of lionfish, she was not being honest. Worst-case scenario, she knowingly told a lie, but even if she simply misspoke, she made a mistake. That’s what children do, and when they do, the adults in their lives are tasked with turning those mistakes into learning experiences. One can only hope that in a private conversation after that NPR interview, Lauren’s father had pointed out that, actually, the original idea for her “finding” had come from another scientist, one he’d known professionally, and that maybe they should mention Jud’s work in her next interview. However, as Lauren went on to perpetuate falsehoods in subsequent interviews, the adults in Lauren’s life seem to have fallen down on their job as teachers and role models.

When we fail to teach kids like Lauren Arrington about the importance of scientific transparency and attribution, we condone her mistake and set her up for much more serious missteps—such as those of Montana Senator John Walsh, the subject of the Thursday New York Times story "Senator’s Thesis Turns Out to Be Remix of Others’ Works, Uncited."

An examination of the final paper required for Mr. Walsh’s master’s degree from the United States Army War College indicates the senator appropriated at least a quarter of his thesis on American Middle East policy from other authors’ works, with no attribution.

The article goes on to detail Senator Walsh’s plagiarism, and reports the following excuse:

On Wednesday, a campaign aide for Mr. Walsh did not contest the plagiarism but suggested that it be viewed in the context of the senator’s long career. She said Mr. Walsh was going through a difficult period at the time he wrote the paper, noting that one of the members of his unit from Iraq had committed suicide in 2007, weeks before it was due.

This excuse isn’t substantively different from the one my students parents regularly give me: She’s under a lot of pressure; she’s never done this sort of thing before; couldn’t we just cut her a break this time given her history as a good kid? When I hear these excuses, I tamp down my frustration, take a deep breath, and try to find the teachable moment. I talk about the importance of citing sources, attributing ideas, and respecting the work of others, a lesson that—learned now—can prevent much bigger mistakes later on in life.

I read about the fallout of Senator Walsh’s plagiarism less than one hour after first hearing about Lauren Arrington’s story, and I couldn’t help but place the two stories at two ends of a logical progression. When we fail to teach children about professional and personal ethics, when we don’t teach them how to make amends or learn from their mistakes, we tacitly approve their dishonest behavior and encourage them to replicate it on an as-needed basis throughout their lives. What begins as a mistake, a misleading quote given under the pressure of a first experience in the limelight, can become a desperate attempt to hold on to a career, a spouse, or a reputation.

Editor's note: After this story was published, Boston's NPR station, WBUR, posted a thoughtful and candid article detailing Zack Jud and Lauren Arrington's lionfish research and the way the story was covered. The WBUR article concludes that while Lauren's contribution to science may have been hyped by the media, she did expand on Jud's existing research and produced a unique finding of her own.