When is it Plagiarism?

trump obamaLast night’s Republican National Convention has thrust “plagiarism” to the forefront of the news. One of last night’s speakers was Melania Trump, the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump. Trump’s speech sounded to many strikingly similar to one given eight years earlier—by First Lady Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

How similar?

Incredibly so. Not just identical words, but nearly identical context and sentence structure. At one point, Trump says, “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” (emphasis added). Eight years earlier, Obama had said, “Because we want our children — and all children in this nationto know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them” (emphasis added).

That is plagiarism.

(You can see a side-by-side text comparison here and here and side-by-side video comparison here.)

Different people—and different educational institutions—define plagiarism differently, but at some base level, all agree that using another person’s words, without attribution to that person, constitutes plagiarism. Some require the speaker or writer intend to use the words without attribution, others say intent is not necessary to plagiarize. But it’s not just words that can be plagiarized: ideas, research, interpretations, structure, organization—all of these can be plagiarized.

Marquette University Law School Academic Regulation Section 901(2) defines plagiarism as “representing the words or ideas of another as one’s own,” and we apply this definition to both drafts and final work product. Intent to represent someone else’s words or ideas as your own is not required; thus, a student who is careless in researching and writing and simply “forgets” what he or she copied and from where could be considered to have plagiarized.

This is not to say that we expect papers full of quote after quote after quote. Far from it. We offer a guideline, though, on when something must be quoted, and that is when the writer is using seven or more words exactly from the original. Fewer words than seven must be quoted if those words are unique. (We draw this guideline from our esteemed colleague in legal writing, Linda H. Edwards, in her text Legal Writing and Analysis 261 (2d ed. 2007).)

Applying this guideline to Trump’s speech, it’s pretty clear that she plagiarized from Obama’s speech. Not only are there chunks of seven or more exact words, but the context and the sentence structure are nearly identical.

Donald Trump’s campaign has said that Trump did not plagiarize her speech. In fact, Trump earlier had told Matt Lauer from the TODAY show that she wrote it herself, which raises an interesting point. Trump is from Slovenia. Different cultures view the borrowing of words or ideas differently; in some of those cultures, a writer might be expected to give word-for-word recitations in speech or writing. I don’t know if Slovenia is one of those cultures. But I do know that here, at elite political levels, there are (or should be) professionals whose job it is to write (or rewrite) speeches, and if those people weren’t involved in Trump’s speech, they should have been.

It is not plagiarism to use common knowledge (or words), and one could argue that Trump’s speech is, in part, simply about her family’s values, which values may be similar to Obama’s family’s values (a political topic of its own). But Trump’s speech went beyond common knowledge and words—it copied words, context, and sentence structure.

Yet, somehow, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he can’t call the speech plagiarized because 93% of it was different from Mrs. Obama’s. Don’t get any ideas, law students. A work that is 7% plagiarized is plagiarism.

For Marquette University’s increased commitment to academic integrity, see here.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. David Papke

    When it came to light after Martin Luther King’s death that he had plagiarized, some rationalized it by pointing to his professional, religious, and regional background. African American preachers in the South, the argument went, routinely borrowed thoughts, sentences, and whole paragraphs from one another’s sermons. For a collection of articles attempting to make sense of King’s plagiarism, see J0URNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY, vol. 73, pp. 11-123.

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