Introduction to Writing Ethically

What you’ll learn to do: evaluate concerns about plagiarism and how to demonstrate academic integrity

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Figure 1. Melania Trump

Parts of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016 were 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, but it’s still just as egregious a result no matter the underlying cause. If you don’t want this to happen to you, then you need to be aware of plagiarism and how to avoid it.

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:

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.

You can watch a video of the similar snippets from their speeches here.

How plagiarism really happens

According to author Josh Bernoff, Melania Trump’s plagiarism is probably not the obvious kind of cut-and-paste theft you might associate with cheating on a research paper, but it’s still clearly plagiarism. He imagines that Melania Trump and her speechwriters talked about what she wanted to communicate and what’s important to her. They probably 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 a more nefarious explanation, 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. Unfortunately, this stuff happens all the time.

Not much happened to Melania Trump after her “mistake.” The consequences for students who make these kinds of mistakes, however, can be severe.

How you can avoid this mistake

How do you gather your notes? Do you bookmark Web passages, use Evernote or Zotero, or create index cards or sticky notes? No matter your method, you should have a consistent and clear method to keep track of your sources. 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.

While this is a pain, it’s not nearly as painful as the repercussions of getting caught for plagiarizing. You will get caught. Do you really want to explain whether you were dishonest or just sloppy?

In this section, we’ll examine what exactly constitutes plagiarism, ways to avoid it, and best practices for demonstrating academic integrity.