January 22, 2007

Native language? Plagiarism

Keith Handley used empirical methods to determine the origins of the mysterious texts at The Presidential Coalition's web site goppresident.org, and found... plagiarism!

From Keith via email:

I looked at goppresident.org and my first impression was that the biographies were done by a 6th- or 7th-grader, using an encyclopedia and a thesaurus. Then I remembered that the Internet has replaced the encyclopedia, so I did a little Googling.

I figured that there couldn't be too many sites with much good to say about Nixon, so I started with him. And here's what I found:

From http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/rn37.html:

His accomplishments while in office included revenue sharing, the end of the draft, new anticrime laws, and a broad environmental program. As he had promised, he appointed Justices of conservative philosophy to the Supreme Court. One of the most dramatic events of his first term occurred in 1969, when American astronauts made the first moon landing.

From goppresident.org:

Nixon carried out revenue sharing, the draft’s end, modern laws against crime, and a large environment agenda as well as the appointment of protective, philosophic Judges to the Supreme Court. He was also in office when American astronauts landed on the moon for the first time.

The Nixon entries have more similarities than this paragraph.

But I took a look at Hayes's biographies from the two sources, and found no such similarities. Same with Coolidge.

But... Reagan, from whitehouse.gov:

Dealing skillfully with Congress, Reagan obtained legislation to stimulate economic growth, curb inflation, increase employment, and strengthen national defense. He embarked upon a course of cutting taxes and Government expenditures, refusing to deviate from it when the strengthening of defense forces led to a large deficit.

and from goppresident.org:

During his first term, Reagan activated the development of the economy, curbed inflation, upgraded employment, and enhanced defense spending as well as made tax cuts, decreased executive spending, and reduced the federal budget.

The Eisenhower biography is similar to the whitehouse.gov version, but not so blatantly so. You'll notice that the Eisenhower biography is quite a bit better than the typical biography at goppresident.org. I see a much better plagiarist's hand at work here.

So my vote is for a native speaker of English in 6th grade. I'll guess that he or she used an old print encyclopedia from about 1958, which, of course didn't cover the entire Eisenhower administration. So then he or she had to go to whitehouse.gov to get the rest.

Finally, at least some of the portrait images at goppresident.org are the same and have the same names as the ones at whitehouse.gov, also.


[Above is a commentary by Keith Handley.]

[I'll note that people who are too lazy to rewrite copied material often disguise their copying by replacing words, here and here, with thesaurus-derived semi-synonyms. Other methods for disguised copying are also in evidence in the passages that Keith cites, for example changing "the end of the draft" to "the draft's end".]

[Stephen C. Carlson wrote to supply another source (or an independent echo of some third text), this time for the Bush bio itself:

I suspect I've found the source text of the bio for George W. Bush on the Republican Presidential Coalition site.


In his first term, Bush made it his duty to advance the works of public schools, beseech accountability, and make local control stronger, and also signed tax assistance, improved betterments and income for the U.S. military, and works hard to ascend Medicare and Social Security.

with this:

Since taking office, President Bush has signed into law bold initiatives to improve public schools by raising standards, requiring accountability, and strengthening local control. He has signed tax relief that provided rebate checks and lower tax rates for everyone who pays income taxes in America. He has increased pay and benefits for America's military and is working to save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.

Note how both texts list the same accomplishments of Bush in the same order. It looks like the goppresident.org's biography of Bush was adapted using a lazily executed thesaurus look up technique to make it appear more original.


Is there a word for thesaurus-driven mis-substitution to disguise authorship? I've used the neologism "thesaurusizing" to describe the process of replacing words with fancier equivalents in order to impress readers. You could use the same word here, but the motivation is different, and it would be nice to have a word that expressed more directly the dishonesty involved.]

[And see this post for a note about another possibility -- maybe the text was processing by the type of "synonymizing" program used by sploggers and other to try to prevent search engines from detecting and discounting duplicate pages.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 22, 2007 11:41 AM