Melania Trump Trumped by Plagiarism?

Understanding Plagiarism to Avoid Controversy

View The Plagiarism Spectrum

The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, whether for good or bad, seemed poised to grab quite a few headlines and to stir controversy while it happened. Surprisingly, one particular controversy touched upon a subject that is quite close to what we do: the question of whether Melania Trump’s speech on Monday, July 18th, plagiarized an address Michelle Obama made to the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

So, did she?

Before we get into the details of what we found, Turnitin was developed for use by schools and institutions to help students learn how to properly incorporate primary source material into their own work in support of improving their writing and critical thinking skills. Our focus is not to catch plagiarism, but rather to support academic communities and student learning.

On that note, the attention that this controversy has garnered is a great teachable moment. Sections of Melania Trump’s speech are questionable, but why? What type of plagiarism are we talking about? What about intent? In other words, how would an educator look at this?

Looking at the controversial sections of Ms. Trump’s address, if we were to consider them as examples of plagiarism, what types of plagiarism would they be? The Plagiarism Spectrum is an educational resource developed by Turnitin, with the help of educators, to help students identify the most common forms of plagiarism. Using excerpts from her speech, we can find passages that an educator would flag as the following examples of plagiarism.


“Clone”

The “Clone” type of plagiarism copies another’s work verbatim, word-for-word. The beginning of the following sentence from both Melania Trump’s 2016 speech and Michelle Obama’s 2008 address exemplify this. They are both exactly the same.



Michelle Obama (2008)

"...values that you work hard for what you want in life: that your word is your bond and you do what you say..."

Melania Trump (2016)

"...values that you work hard for what you want in life: that your word is your bond and you do what you say..."



Word-for-word Match Count: 23 Words

Just to provide some context, as we mentioned in a previous blog post, there is a one in one trillion chance that a sixteen-word phrase matches another phrase of the same length just by coincidence. As the number of words matching increase, the probability of a purely coincidental match goes down by orders of magnitude.


“Find - Replace”

The ending of the same sentence, mentioned above, provides an example of “find and replace” plagiarism, an instance where a few key words or phrases are changed, but the text retains the content or meaning of the copied work.



Michelle Obama (2008)

"...that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with dignity and respect."

Melania Trump (2016)

"...that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect."



As we see in this example, the phrase in Melania’s speech keeps the same wording, except for the phrase “with dignity”.

Here is another example of text that appears to show both “find and replace” (highlighted in pink) and “cloning” (in yellow) in Melania’s speech.



Michelle Obama (2008)

"...and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children – and all children in this nation – to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them."

Melania Trump (2016)

"...and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them."


The Question of Intent

Another important aspect of copying others’ work that educators consider is the question of intent. Students often inadvertently plagiarize as they learn how to incorporate others’ thoughts and ideas into their own work. This is part of the learning process. However, an act of plagiarism does become more egregious if there are signs of deliberation. No matter what the intent, copying another’s work is plagiarism, but educators do consider intent when weighing how to handle instances of plagiarism in student papers. More than just the copying of words, a comparison of Melania’s and Michelle’s speeches follows the same sequence of thoughts and ideas. To an educator, this belies intent.

By comparing the text of the two speeches, we do see some significant and disconcerting issues that, nonetheless, can be used to help teach students how to take ownership of their own work and properly use source material. As a teachable moment, the question of whether Melania Trump’s speech exhibits plagiarism or not is not as helpful as looking at this controversy as an object lesson on how to avoid plagiarism. This new controversy spotlights the importance of writing instruction and academic integrity, not just in the classroom, but in the real world, as well.

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