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.