On Monday night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump delivered a heartfelt and inspiring speech, which was later described as the highlight of the night despite the participation of many other speakers.

News broke the next day, however, that phrases of the speech were lifted from other sources, namely a similar speech that Michelle Obama gave in 2008. For a full account of the controversy, see this New York Times article on the matter, including past plagiarism allegations on other candidates such as Barack Obama himself.

Who Cares?

Regardless of your political leanings, plagiarism actually is a big deal. In academia, it signifies that you can’t form your own arguments or disseminate ideas; in Internet marketing, you can get your Google rankings penalized; in politics, it sends the message that you’re vapid, apathetic, and not genuine.

The Worst Part of These Shenanigans

Even if we accept that mistakes get made during campaigns and that there may have been errors made in the judgment of Melania or an incompetent staffer, perhaps one of the most egregious parts of these shenanigans is the failure of the Trump campaign to acknowledge it as an error (or perhaps Donald Trump’s lack of concern period).

These were not groundbreaking thoughts […] I just don’t see it.
Chris Christie – CNN

There was no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech. These are common words and values that she cares about her family, things like that. […] That she was cribbing Michelle Obama is crazy.
Paul Manafort – CNN

But it’s not just a couple words, is it? The Washingtonian put Melania’s speech through a plagiarism checker and concluded that the likelihood of those “common words” being coincidence were about one in a trillion. Recode found different types of plagiarism when using both Turnitin and Grammarly.

And even if it were just a few common phrases, plagiarism is a little more complicated than that. In fact, identical text strings are probably one of the most shallow and less common forms of plagiarism.

Spun Content

In the digital marketing world, we have to beware of spun content, which is what I would describe as plagiarism with a thesaurus. Check out how “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” looks like when it’s (skillfully) spun.

Scintillate, scintillate, asteroid minific,
Fain would I fathom your nature specific.
Exaltedly set in ether capacious,
A reasonable facsimile of a gem carbonaceous.
Scintillate, scintillate, asteroid minific,
Fain would I fathom your nature specific.

Completely different, right? Nonetheless, this still constitutes plagiarism if “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” belonged to a single individual.

Where to Draw the Line

Everyone thinks differently; each of our brains is put together in a way that’s completely unique, and we all learn how to communicate in completely different ways. The likelihood of the same text strings coming together the same way is remote regardless of whether it’s the same topic.

However, there’s a difference between using a common phrase (i.e. “the early bird gets the worm”) or making a common assertion (i.e. “family values are important”) vs. repurposing wholly unique intellectual work. Thankfully, there are other context clues that can be used to evaluate a plagiarism situation.

Thoroughly Evaluating Pieces for Plagiarism

I work with freelance writers often, so I’ve cultivated a keen eye for duplicate or dishonest content. Not all freelancers try to take the easy way and do the bare minimum, but it’s more common than you’d think.

With that in mind, I developed a 3-point system for evaluating content for plagiarism.

  1. Look for identical phrasing. This is probably the easiest way to identify plagiarism.
  2. Look for identical structure. This signifies that the original content may have been spun or used as a template and rewritten.
  3. Look for identical sentiment. Compared to the source material, if nothing is added, or if no additional conclusions are drawn, there may be a problem.

One of the above may not be enough to make the case alone, but finding more than one is often a sure-thing. With rhythm, dialect, sentence cadences, and different modes of argument or proving a point, it’s unlikely that two individuals could come up with the same passage word for word or point by point.

Courtesy of the http://www.textdiff.com/ text comparison tool.

The above, just going from a line-by-line basis and using my 3-point standard, contains some of the same words in the same order and with the same sentiments. With that said, Melania’s speech definitely qualifies as plagiarism. The Trump campaign has no business denying the allegations in good conscience and should apologize and move on rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Update: Someone on the campaign did come forward and claim responsibility. This still does not excuse the statements made by Christie or Manafort earlier.

11 Ways Melania Trump Could’ve Conveyed Her Message Without Plagiarism

  1. The long nights studying, the sweat on our brows, the side hustle from taking on second jobs—those are the things that define our accomplishments and make them that much sweeter.
  2. Without sincerity, prosperity is nothing; without kindness, achievement is nothing; without hard work, success is impossible.
  3. Perhaps the most important rules I learned from my parents that I would impart upon my own children is the value of hard labor and the importance of keeping your word through the good and the bad.
  4. The American Dream holds the promise that our aspirations are only limited by the effort we put in, the integrity we make, and the respect we build through generosity and honesty.
  5. Life is adversity, but that doesn’t mean we give up on dreams, stop being neighborly, or go back on our words of honor.
  6. Growing up, our family had a sincere belief that a handshake and goodwill were the grounds for integrity—that if we couldn’t be honest and work hard, we were good for nothing.
  7. Only part of achieving success is dreaming; the other is the determination to accomplish goals and effect change. In order to do that, we most honor our commitments and treat others with respect.
  8. If there’s one thing I could instill into my son, it’s the value of hard work to pursue dreams and that the first step is being honest enough to inspire others to do the same.
  9. Success is within anyone’s grasp. This is the message we need to be conveying to our children as we build a better world, despite whatever adversity they face, as well as the idea that good will and honesty are the foundations of a happy life.
  10. Every day, I try to live up to my parents’ teachings: work hard, stay true to my word, and live life according to that all-important Golden Rule.
  11. What you reap always goes back to what you sow; you can never take shortcuts to success, lie your way there, or step on others along the way. But you can grit your teeth and apply yourself as best you can in this country where the sky is the limit.

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