Plagiarism is Magic

Ah, the circus that is this year’s presidential election. And now, cue the ponies.

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I can’t decide whether I’m amused, disturbed, or just appalled at the news that Melania Trump seems to have plagiarized portions of her speech at the Republican National Convention last night. It varies from moment to moment but just now, with the invocation of what I will now be referring to as the My Little Pony defense, I’m going with highly amused. 

According to CNN, the RNC’s Communications Director, Sean Spicer, insists that the speech is not plagiarized because these common phrases “appear in many popular songs and the television show ‘My Little Pony.’” Alright. Let’s look at this for a moment – with more scrutiny than it probably deserves, but hey, I’m just getting back into this blogging thing and I need to start somewhere. 

Spicer isn’t wrong in that these are extremely common phrases. “Work hard for what you want in life,” “My word is my bond,” “Do what you say you’re going to do” – all phrases we’ve heard many, many times before. And I believe the estimated percentage of the Trump speech that is plagiarized is 7%, which really isn’t bad. I had professors in college that would accept from 15-30% returned as plagiarized in the checkers they used, so 7% seems quite reasonable at face value. 

However, there are other factors to consider. The first major one is direct, attributed quotes. We expect to see this, especially in academic writing where it’s necessary to support your position, and it’s the larger reason why the numbers my professors allowed were so high. Those excerpts absolutely have to be properly attributed, of course, and pretty much everything on the references or works cited page is going to be flagged as well because of its standardized format. Even so, more than 10-15% and you’re probably doing it wrong for most assignments. This situation, though, doesn’t even apply to Trump’s speech, so the acceptable percentage is greatly reduced. 

Secondly, yes, there are common phrases and structures that we can expect to pop up over and over. For example, “Eugene O’Neill was born in 1888 to James O’Neill, an actor and Irish immigrant, and his wife Mary Ellen Quinlan,” is a pretty common way to state the details of a birth when writing a paper. There are other ways to cover the material, but if you want birth year and parentage, this is pretty standard fare, and at least the first clause of that sentence is going to trip a plagiarism flag. I can guarantee you that some student somewhere (probably many of them) has used the exact same words, but that doesn’t mean that I just plagiarized them. I didn’t have to; it’s just an extremely common phrasing. Still, this shouldn’t account for more than maybe 1-2%, unless you have had some kind of accident that has caused you to speak only in slang or colloquialisms.  

When you have entire paragraphs, though, of common phrases arranged in the exact same order as in another work, interspersed with some paraphrasing of ideas that are, again, the same as the other work – well, that’s a lot more indicative of plagiarism. Sure, the two authors were nearly certainly exposed to all of the aforementioned common phrases throughout their lives, but to choose the same ones in the same order… It’s pretty damning.

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When I first heard about the plagiarism accusations, I was willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, because I know how personal this whole campaign has been and because I assumed that no one would be so blatant while in such a visible position and under constant analysis. It had to be unintentional, much as I’m certain the Rick Roll (mentioned at the end of the article) was unintentional. But after having seen both pieces, I’m just not very inclined to believe this could be accidental.

Which brings me back around to disturbed and appalled. This, my friends, is why we don’t plagiarize. I can’t say that the lack of respect for intellectual property rights is surprising from the Trump campaign, considering that they have continued to use music from artists who have objected to that use. But I am surprised that there wasn’t more concern for his reputation. That seems to be a major focus for him.

Update: Since I wrote this piece, an aide has claimed responsibility for the incident. While it’s nice that they admitted to the plagiarism in general (though I’m still not sure we have the whole truth about it), it really doesn’t change the lack of respect for intellectual property or my surprise that he isn’t more concerned with the effect on his reputation.

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