Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Did Melania Trump Plagiarize?

The news media as well as social media are discussing whether Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama in her speech last night at the Republican nominating convention. As a retired professor with more than 45 years of full-time classroom experience at the university level, I know something about plagiarism. Every university I taught at had a plagiarism policy, as well as a series of procedures for determining whether something that seemed like it actually was plagiarism. Plagiarism means claiming someone else's ideas are your own without giving proper credit. Usually two types are distinguished: plagiarism by paraphrase, and plagiarism by word-for-word copying. The former is more difficult to determine; the latter is relatively easy because the words correspond, either exactly or almost so. In the instance of Melania Trump, the passages from her speech both paraphrase Michelle Obama's and also copy several phrases word for word. If Melania Trump had submitted her speech as a paper or exam at one of my universities, she would have been brought before the plagiarism board or committee, and there is very little doubt in my mind that she would have been found guilty. The punishment for plagiarism varied at the universities where I taught, depending on whether it was a first offender, the source plagiarized--as for instance copying an answer on an in-class exam, or buying a term paper on the Internet and submitting as one's own--and the amount of plagiarism in the text. The minimum penalty for someone guilty of plagiarism was not a slap on the wrist and admonishment never to do it again, but rather failure in the course; and in a severe case or with a repeat offender, suspension or expulsion was the normal penalty.
     The day after the speech, the New York Times ran an investigative report that concluded Melania Trump had drastically altered the speech her speech-writer had prepared for her, and that it was she herself who plagiarized. She had admitted as much to the Times reporter. A few days later, one of the speech-writers claimed that she had done it instead, and this revision seems to have been accepted. In a sense, it does not matter who was responsible; the issue is that the speech was plagiarized. It is bad enough that our public officials have speech-writers; there is a sense in which I admire Melania Trump if she decided to write her own speech instead. Perhaps in Slovenia her schoolteachers did not impress upon her the importance of not plagiarizing the way they do in the US. I can understand how someone new to the game would have looked at what previous nominees' wives said at these Conventions, just as a guide. My guess is that she did write it, because a speech-writer ought to know better--and if she had one, the speech-writer probably did know better and would not have plagiarized. 
    What is most interesting about this incident, of course, is that the wife of a Republican nominee who's been highly critical of President Obama, uttered words and phrases Obama's wife spoke. 

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