Idaho Educators on Plagiarism, Politics and Melania Trump

“Plagiarism in the political setting further normalizes lying and fraud.”


When Republicans nominated Donald Trump to be the party's presidential candidate at their national convention in Cleveland July 19, they were also casting ballots for the business tycoon's wife, Melania, to serve as first lady.

Her first major speech to party faithful made headlines, but not the kind she or her husband planned for, when it became apparent Mrs. Trump lifted chunks of her address from a speech delivered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention by current first lady Michelle Obama.

Idaho educators called Melania Trump's speech a "teachable moment" for plagiarism, drawing attention to how complex and far-reaching the issue has become. The incident also underscores the political implications of playing fast and loose with the rules of intellectual honesty.

"Plagiarism in the political setting further normalizes lying and fraud in the contest for political power in our civil society," said Steve Maughan, the Bernie McCain chair in the Humanities at the College of Idaho.

Maughan, a history professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, teaches first-year undergrads and often has to check his students' papers for instances of plagiarism. When asked whether he believed Trump's speech was plagiarized, Maughan looked at the situation as if it had happened in one of his classes. Maughan said he found a 23-word match between the speeches, other matching runs of five and seven words, and about a 50 percent vocabulary match on a few select passages.

"I would fail a paper with this level of plagiarism," he said. "The simple fact is that this level of copy and pasting is astronomically unlikely to be coincidence, at the level of billion to one statistics."

Tracy Bicknell-Holmes, dean of the Albertson Library at Boise State University, emphasized the opportunity presented by the lifted speech.

"We can take Melania's speech as a teachable moment, a chance to sit down with students and talk about how they use information," she said.

Melania Trump was perhaps uniquely positioned for the mountains of scorn heaped on her in the 48 hours following her speech.

"Melania has always had this image of a trophy wife, eye candy and Barbie doll to me," said Bicknell-Holmes. "[Her speech] was an opportunity on the national stage to put out a new image. It was disappointing and, honestly, really sad."

In addition to overseeing Boise State's main research library, Bicknell-Holmes spends many of her days consulting with university department heads and faculty on detecting plagiarism. She defines plagiarism as "taking concepts and presenting as your own," saying it cannot be measured alone by algorithms or the number of words in a row, but how the information was used.

"Just where exactly the line is between plagiarism and sharing similarities is abstract and vague," she said. "Detecting plagiarism is much more abstract than people think."

Bicknell-Holmes said plagiarism has increased markedly in recent years, in part due to advancing technology and ease of access to information. Add to that the stresses placed on students, and she said it can be "so tempting" to copy from the Internet, whether accidentally or deliberately.

"In my days, we would just close the book and write in our own words," said Bicknell-Holmes. "Now you can just hit copy and paste."

Plagiarism is not only a growing issue in academic and professional settings, pop culture experiences its own share of stolen ideas. Bicknell-Holmes said "pop culture encourages mash-ups" and noted the rise of plagiarism lawsuits in music, pointing to the legal action against Led Zeppelin for a chord progression in "Stairway to Heaven."

"The line is very murky," said Bicknell-Holmes. "When looking at whether or not to give credit, we have to keep on returning to the question, 'Is it common knowledge?'"

Dr. Hassel Morrison, associate dean of students at the University of Idaho, addresses that same question when he works on cases of academic dishonesty at the Moscow campus. When asked about the Trump plagiarism scandal, he said there have been many common "shared" themes and ideas in political speeches.

"What we think of as 'new ideas' have been done before," he said. "I'll talk to my uncles and aunts [about speeches] and they'll say, 'That's not new; we saw it in 1950.'"

Nonetheless, Morrison said the ethical line is drawn when credit is not given to the original author or speaker.

"If people wanted to use prior speeches, there is always a way to use it," he said. "When you break it down, I could definitely see how people said, '[Trump] copied.' But when an individual is in that certain role, that spotlight, you are subjected to a heightened level of criticism."

Melania Trump is certainly not the first national political actor to face accusations of plagiarism. When current Vice President Joe Biden ran for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign was derailed after he faced accusations of plagiarizing a speech delivered in 1987 by Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labour Party.

For Morrison, the act of committing plagiarism goes back to a question of ethics and integrity. He said he believes there needs to be greater responsibility in K-12 schooling and by parenting, instilling the idea that you "don't take things that aren't yours" at a young age.

Bicknell-Holmes said she often sees the implications of plagiarism downplayed by parents and students alike. When consulting on cases of academic dishonesty, she often comes across students who respond, "So what?"

"I always tell them, 'This is the one thing you have control over. You are the only one who can ensure you keep your integrity, being honest with others and honest with yourself," she said.

Maughan said he'll be using Trump's speech as an example for his future students.

"Smears, aspersions, insinuations, outright lies: perhaps plagiarism will become just another tool in [Trump's] toolkit," said Maughan. "But I will still fail undergraduates for plagiarism, and I will show them this episode in class as an example of what they cannot do."