Secrecy News

Army Manual Withdrawn in Plagiarism Flap

Last month, the U.S. Army issued a new doctrinal publication entitled Cultural and Situational Understanding. This month, the publication was officially withdrawn by the Army after numerous instances of plagiarism were identified throughout the document.

Prof. Roberto J. Gonzalez authored a blistering critique of the publication (The US Army’s Serial Plagiarists, Counterpunch, May 1), providing one example after another of pilfered text that had been incorporated without acknowledgment or attribution to the source.

“As I began reading, I found the sections to be oddly disjointed; grammatical structures varied wildly. Perhaps my teaching experience made me suspicious,” wrote Prof. Gonzalez, who teaches at San Jose State University. “I decided to investigate.”

“Within half an hour I discovered four plagiarized passages. Soon after, I found ten more instances in which sentences or entire paragraphs were snatched from books, articles, or online sources without quotation marks or citations.”

Upon inspection of the document, it is not hard to confirm and extend Gonzalez’s analysis by doing an online search for some of the distinctive phrases or formulations that appear in the text.

So, for example, paragraph 1-57 of Cultural and Situational Understanding begins: “When cultures evolve into civilizations, one of the systems of social organization that typically develops and grows in complexity is government.”

A search for this sentence yields a nearly identical source in an online publication from 1997 called “What is Culture?”: “As cultures evolve into civilizations, one of the systems of social organization that typically develops and grows in complexity is government.”

It might be argued that an Army manual is not an academic publication, and that it is exempt from the canons of scholarly ethics, such as acknowledgment of sources. But probably not even the manual’s authors believe that. By taking the trouble to make insignificant word changes in many of the plagiarized passages (such as replacing “when” with “as” in the sentence cited above), they indicate an awareness of what they are doing, and perhaps also a bad conscience about having done it.

The Army document “disrespects the scholars whose work it has expropriated,” wrote Prof. Gonzalez. “It disrespects those peoples and cultures that appear as little more than means to the military’s ends. It disrespects American taxpayers who unwittingly finance such work. And it disrespects countless soldiers who rely upon its ‘expert’ knowledge.”

To its credit, however, the Army has now recognized the problem and it has acted on that recognition.

Last week, Gonzalez noted that Cultural and Situational Understanding — designated as report number ATP 3-24.3, and formerly posted here — had been taken offline.

This week, an Army spokesman confirmed that it had been formally withdrawn.

“After taking a closer look at the content in ATP 3-24.3, we have pulled the ATP from circulation and it is no longer an approved doctrine publication,” said Bill Ackerly, a public affairs officer for the US Army Combined Arms Center.

“The ATP will not be re-released until the content issue has been resolved,” he said via email yesterday.

An archived copy of the original, now-disavowed text of Cultural and Situational Understanding, ATP 3-24.3, remains available on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Update: See also U.S. Army Withdraws Flawed And Plagiarized Manual About “Cultural Understanding” by Dan Vergano, Buzzfeed, May 12.