Posted by: George | July 20, 2016

Melania Trump and Plagiarism

I have had some experience with plagiarism. I have been teaching writing at universities for about four decades now. I have served as a writing program administrator at several universities and as a department chair, with a first-year composition program, for twelve years. I’ve seen it all.

Early in my career, I had a student turn in, as his major research project, a mimeographed copy of a speech given by the president of the university. The student, who worked as an intern in the president’s office, didn’t even retype the speech. He just pulled a mimeograph copy from the president’s files. Where the president had said “we,” the student crossed out the pronoun and wrote “I.” I guess I should have given him some credit for his revisions skills, but I didn’t.

At that time, before the Internet, I required students to turn in all of their notes and drafts. This student only turned in the slightly revised mimeographed copy of a speech he obviously didn’t write, which also had no documentation. I refused to grade it until he produced drafts, which he didn’t have, of course. About a year later, to his credit, he came to my office and admitted that the paper was plagiarized.

 When I confront students with a charge of plagiarism, I show them their text next to the text that they plagiarized, with passages highlighted. Most of them don’t argue. They explain. They talk about how busy they were, working two jobs, taking a full load, etc. Students do have extremely complicated lives these days.

 Occasionally, a student denies it. One student told me, “I didn’t plagiarize. My sister wrote it.” Well, okay. Then, your sister plagiarized, and you turned in a paper you didn’t write. Same thing.

 Once the Internet appeared, once students could cut and paste entire portions of someone else’s words into their documents, plagiarism became easier. What students don’t realize is that detecting plagiarism also became easier.

 In the first year I taught, a student, who was not a strong writer, turned in a beautiful essay. It was in the style of Time or Newsweek. So, I went to the library looked through recent copies of these magazines and found the article she had copied word for word into her beautiful handwriting. It took me almost an hour to confirm that the essay was plagiarized. I am sure the student assumed I would never come across the article she copied in a hundred years.

 Now, there are programs like Turn It In, which detect plagiarism. I don’t use them because I don’t have any trouble finding the source of plagiarism. If I see a suspicious shift in style, I pull a phrase from the section and Google it.  I don’t have to go to the library. I can find the source in a matter of seconds.

 All of this is just to say that I know something about plagiarism. So, for what it’s worth, here are my observations on the Melania plagiarism issue:

1.     The stupidity of people who plagiarize is incomprehensible. I don’t know how the story broke about Melania plagiarizing from Michelle Obama’s speech, but I suspect a reporter said, “That sounds familiar.” The reporter then Googled a few phrases and, in a matter of seconds, Michelle Obama’s speech popped up. Whoever was responsible for pulling an entire paragraph from Michelle Obama’s speech is a total idiot for not realizing it would be detected almost immediately.

2.     This is plagiarism. Students have been given a zero on an essay or an F for a course for cutting and pasting fewer words than this.

3.     Excuses for plagiarism can be creative but they just don’t hold up. Some people from the Trump campaign have said that it’s only a few minutes of a long speech, she was talking about common themes and using common words, it is entirely an accident that there are some similarities, and so on. One Trump operative appeared on MSNBC with a list of three to five word phrases from the plagiarized section. He had Googled the phrases and found multiple sources. His argument was these are all common phrases, part of the public domain, so she didn’t plagiarize. Nice try, but bullshit. If it were only three to five word phrases here and there, his argument might have held up, but we are taking about an entire paragraph.

4.     To be fair, there are some explanations for how plagiarism can happen. These are not excuses. You write down some notes, fail to put quotation marks around it, and don’t put down the source. Then, you look at your notes and forget these are someone else’s exact words. It’s sloppy, but it happens, even with accomplished writers. Sometimes, cultural issues come up. International students from Africa or China don’t have the same understanding of intellectual property as is common in Europe and America. I don’t think this applies to Slovenia.

If I could give advice to the Trump campaign, I would say, just admit it, apologize, and move on. If you keep trying to admit it’s not plagiarism, you are just extending the life of the story.

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Responses

  1. I agree with your advice for the Trump campaign, even though I remain confused about what their actual goals are. Today they released a written statement from a staffer, an executive with Trump International who was the ghostwriter for some of his books, taking the blame as an inadvertent mistake. But an hour before the release of the “admission”, Trump tweeted about Melania’s speech being a success because everyone’s talking about it, and all press is good press. you to read it

    I can’t figure out if we are all being “punked”, but I dislike the campaign’s attitude that the real story doesn’t matter, as long as what’s being disseminated features drama and conflict to hold the audience. How would you deal with a student who insisted the veracity of their work was less important than whether or not it entertained you to read it?

    Like


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