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Lessons from the plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech

Photo: NBC News

Parts of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention are strikingly similar to Michelle Obama’s speech from eight years ago. How does this happen? Plagiarism at this level is typically the result of sloppiness, not outright theft. If you don’t want this to happen to you, then you need to change how you work.

What Melania Trump said sounds awfully familiar

In 2008, here’s what Michelle Obama said, in part (most of the highlights in these passages, which show the similar parts, are from a Wall Street Journal article about the plagiarism).

Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves. And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.

And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, 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.

And here’s the similar passage from Melania Trump’s speech last night:

From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son.

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.

How plagiarism really happens

We all know about college students who rip off stuff from the Web, tweak it a bit, and pass it off as their own. Is that what Melania Trump did?

I doubt that. Because at this level of visibility, outright plagiarism of that kind is transparently stupid and too easy to catch.

Could this have happened by chance? I don’t think so. The phrases “you work hard for what you want in life,” “your word is your bond,” and “dreams and your willingness to work for them” are unlikely to all have occurred independently to both Michelle Obama’s speechwriters and Melania Trump’s.

While outright theft is possible, sloppiness is a more likely explanation. The Trump campaign’s statement about her speech admits no theft, but provides a clue. According to Jason Miller, Trump campaign adviser:

In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking.

Here’s what I imagine happened. Melania Trump and her speechwriters talked about what she wanted to communicate and what’s important to her. They discussed ideas, developed a theme, and researched it. They also researched past, successful speeches from prospective first ladies.

The result of that research was a bunch of fragments from all over the place. One of those fragments was the piece of Michelle Obama’s speech. As the fragments coalesced into a speech, that one got included, because the writers lost track of its provenance, or Melania Trump did.

You may want to believe the more evil explanation here, but carelessness is far more likely. For example, the famous primatologist Jane Goodall blamed “chaotic note taking” for plagiarized passages in her book, Seeds of Hope. This stuff happens all the time.

It’s still wrong, and it’s still indefensible.

Updated added July 20: Meredith McIver, a writer in the Trump organization, explains how careless sourcing between her and Melania Trump led to this problem. If you believe her, this happened exactly as I described it.

How you can avoid this mistake

How do you gather your notes? Do you bookmark Web passages, clip things and put them into a file, use Evernote or Microsoft OneNote, or create index cards or sticky notes?

If your gather notes electronically, it’s the work of a moment to paste the sources into the notes. Tools like Evernote even make this automatic. The sources should follow the notes everywhere. Once they get into the text, they should become links or footnotes.

You wouldn’t walk around without clothes on; notes shouldn’t get around unless they’re clothed in source attributions. And you should make those attributions habitually and consistently, using the same format every time. Your mind can run free, your text can flow, but your attributions must be as fastidious as an accountant’s.

If you take notes on paper, this is harder to do. But you better do it, or learn to take notes electronically.

While this is a pain, it’s not nearly as painful as what Melania Trump is suffering right now. You will get caught. Do you really want to explain whether you were dishonest or just sloppy?

Stealing ideas is a bigger problem

On the Internet, ideas spread rapidly. Unlike words, which are easier to check, the source of ideas is difficult to track down. Everything builds on something else. And it’s easy to read something and, a week later, imagine that you thought of it yourself.

You won’t remember.

When I’m pursuing an idea, I Google the idea and variations obsessively. And wherever possible, I try to give credit if someone else got there first.

Being honest about the source of ideas is a lot harder to do, and it’s a lot easier to forgive yourself for inadvertent theft. Put in a little effort. Because you know your critics will. And you owe it to the people who came before you.

Note: for more insights on this topic after a day of commentary, see the next post “Hanlon’s Razor, not evil intent, explains Melania Trump’s plagiarism.”

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  1. I saw a tweet (from ‏@leecronin) saying that Melania’s plagiarism is “part of the post factual era.” Josh, I’d love to know if you still believe what you wrote last fall: that post-factual politics will come back to bite the people who engage in it.

  2. I like this theory — it certainly makes the most amount of sense if this was an unintentional mistake, especially if they were using some kind of collaborative writing tool like Google Docs. But I also sort of like the theory that this was sabotage by a speechwriter because of the “Rick Roll” line. End of the day, I feel a bit sorry for Melania Trump — she was just humiliated in front of the whole world. http://www.vox.com/2016/7/19/12221654/melania-trump-rickroll

    1. 1. I don’t feel sorry for her. That is what you get if you do not check the source before you start saying words as if they are your own.
      2. They are just words coming from her mouth, without any respect, for others.
      3. It seems utter contempt for the American people, to think that she get away with stealing the speech of someone else and than acts like they are her own. it is in the same category that they think Americans are just too stupid to realise someone has said those words before. That Americans have only a short memory, are easily confused and misled. People…wake up and smell the coffee! Look at the track records and history, the only people the Trumps are interested in are the Trumps themselves!

      1. The whole Drumpf phenomenon is bullshit. A bullshitter is someone without regard for the truth, and who has shameless behavior

  3. Lets look at the comminalities between the first lady and the candidates wife; both are well educated, wealthy and powerful women, both are restricked on the topics they can present and both are out there to win the women vote. So, being proud of heir families, showing concern for women and children and loving the country are boilerplate. Plus, both have speech writers, who, in this case, probably didn’t check previous speeches by first ladies. Is this plagiarism, poor adjustment or just bad sequencing of words; who knows? What is clear is that the opposition spin masters, the bias press and hungry partisan
    bloggers will always try and find ways, in election years, to find fault. Just my oipion, but this story is a non starter.

  4. It is remarkable that this happens mainly in people using the English language. As multi-lingual person, I have long noticed that the bullshit content in the English language is larger when compared to other languages.

    1. My experience is that people in other countries, especially politicians, spout plenty of bullshit. I’m not sure this is an English language phenomenon.

      1. Bullshit, indeed, comes in many forms around the world. A bullshit filter is usually shared freely by your parents , friends and relative, if your lucky.

        1. This is a reply yo both Gallup and Bernoff, not only am I multi-lingual, I also lived as a resident in several countries. In addition I have read the foreign press in their own language thanks to the digital revolution.