Last week, I spoke before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs against the nomination of Susan Dench for the University of Maine System board of trustees. At that time, I presented evidence that, in a 2013 BDN blog entry, Dench had plagiarized a 2004 essay that uses the well-known story recounted in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” to argue that the Puritans conducted a failed experiment with communism.
I found at least six plagiarized passages in her eight-paragraph essay, all from the same nine-paragraph source on FreeRepublic.com. She lifted the author’s content, argument and phrasing. In one case, she simply transposed the order of two phrases while retaining the original wording. In another, she interjected the same parenthetical remark at the same point and for the same effect.
When asked directly at the hearing about the charge, Dench responded that there was really only one source for William Bradford, and it was in the public domain. This sidesteps the central contention that what’s plagiarized is not Bradford’s journal, but the interpretation of it taken from the 2004 Free Republic article.
Anyone hearing the charge and going directly to Dench’s post might be doubtful, since the only source directly quoted is clearly attributed to Bradford and a link is provided to an online version of the text. This is a familiar kind of deflection in plagiarism: the writer makes a show of citing a source she didn’t actually read but neglects to mention entirely the one she did.
The editors at the Bangor Daily News made the same mistake when they were asked about possible plagiarism from a contributor who no longer writes for the paper: They went to the original blog post, noted the link to Bradford and declared the sourcing acceptable before looking at the actual evidence against it. But this isn’t about the BDN.
At the hearing, Dench repeatedly claimed she was being attacked for her personal beliefs. In making the case for plagiarism, however, I made no judgment about the merits of the argument itself, though I did question the advisability of depending entirely on the insights of an author identified only as “bobjam.” It is certainly possible that bobjam is a professor emeritus of history at Harvard who spends his days dispensing wisdom on the Internet, but I doubt it.
Since then, other arguments have emerged, either in defense of Dench or to explain why her plagiarism doesn’t matter. “It’s just a conservative meme,” I’m told. This also was my initial response. Just Google “Puritans” and “communism” and watch what comes up; if your algorithm is anything like mine, the Free Republic and Dench posts will be somewhere near the top. But Dench’s rewrite goes beyond merely rehashing one of conservatism’s greatest hits.
Others say, “It’s a blog post, not an academic article; the standards are different.” This is true, but the fact that the standards are different doesn’t mean there are no standards at all. Conventions exist for acknowledging sources online, and Dench clearly knows this since she observed them by linking to Bradford. In fact, a year earlier she reprinted the same Free Republic essay on her blog, introducing it by name. In other words, she not only knew the source but apparently admired it enough to give over her blog to it.
“But Maureen Dowd plagiarized too.” Yes, she did, and it is a sad fact that Dowd continues to take up space on The New York Times OpEd page, but we have no say in that, and we do have a say in who serves on the board charged with overseeing university policy.
Finally, there’s this: “So what if Dench plagiarized? We need her marketing skills on the board of trustees.” The board may very well need people with marketing skills, but it also will need people who understand what they are marketing. Acknowledging other people’s ideas is a core principle of universities, where all knowledge builds on the work of others and where, unlike in politics, it’s more important to find the truth than to be right. Anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business on the University of Maine System board of trustees.
Jane Kuenz is associate professor and chair of the Department of English at the University of Southern Maine.