Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The plague of plagiarism & strong-willed misguided would-be leaders

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When you’re a reader, the ideas garnered essentially become part of your thought process and even your worldview.

Later, when writing something and trying to trace every thread to a potential source is impossible. But, as a writer with integrity, you do the best you can and give credit where credit is due as you become aware of who you are emulating.

But intentionally copying and pasting from another source is much, much different. And it’s almost always detectable, especially with the Internet.

But ma, all the other kids are doing it!

A few years ago, as I was editing a book about health related issues, my “spidey sense” went off. I honestly cannot explain why my suspicions were aroused, but they were. I had a gut feeling that the author was plagiarizing.

So, I copied a random few sentences from the chapter I was editing and pasted them into the Google search box. I was stunned when they were a word for word match to an online article.

I started going through each chapter, again selecting chunks randomly. Nearly every search led me to different websites where, word for word, they matched. When there wasn’t an exact match, there was always a very close approximation.

When I confronted the author, her explanation was that she had written the articles for the various websites so, therefore, it wasn’t plagiarism, which is not the case. As I continued to press the issue with the author, it became clear to me she knew what she was doing.

I turned the issue over to my boss and asked to be taken off the project.

I’ve worked at a few universities. A couple offered courses targeted to working adults. Inevitably more than one of these adults would turn in papers that were clearly plagiarized. In each instance, when confronted by their professors, these adult students claimed ignorance. It was mind-boggling.

Their defense? Everyone does it!

What’s good for My Little Pony is good for My Little (First?) Lady

Plagiarism hit the news in a big way this week when it was determined that Melania Trump had “borrowed” a couple of large chunks of text from an old Michelle Obama speech. As with anything that happens associated with those named Trump, opinions are split and intense on both sides.

Plagiarism is a topic few talk about and fewer understand.

Click above to see the story.
For example, the author I mentioned earlier claimed that since she had written the articles she was lifting chunks from, there was no foul. The problem comes when the terms of her writing those articles are examined.

If, as is true in most situations, she created content for the sites as a “work for hire,” once she turned the text over, she can no longer claim ownership. To use the text, she would need to get permission from the websites and cite each instance in her book. She hadn’t done this.

Many people believe that everything on the Internet is fair game. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only difference between what’s in a printed book and what’s on the Internet relates to accessibility. Because it’s easier to copy and paste from the Internet doesn’t make what you’re copying any less protected by copyright.

As for Melania Trump’s speech, what happened could have been intentional or it could have been an accident.

More than once I’ve copied something off the Internet and pasted it into a file intending to use it as the germ of a blog post. Later, opening the file, if I’ve failed to also include the URL to the source, I’m sometimes not sure if it’s a note I wrote or something I copied. In either case, I’ll err on the side of caution and either toss it or completely rewrite the idea into my own words.

Something like this may have happened in the creation of Melania’s speech. Either she or someone helping her thought Michelle’s words were a good model of what she wanted to say, copied the words intending to rewrite them, and then forgot.

But this is no excuse.

I didn’t mean to intentionally do it accidentally on purpose!

Given the nature of the speech, knowing how thoroughly it would be examined and in very fine detail, there should have been more vetting of the final product.

All someone had to do is, as I did, copy and paste the speech into Google and the problem would have been spotted immediately.

There are also numerous online services dedicated to helping you ferret out unintended plagiarism in your writing. I’m sure the Trump campaign can more than afford their price. Although there are rumors they might not.

Obviously no checking was done which leads us to ask why not. How did the copied words get into the final speech and stay there?

I can think of three scenarios:
  1.  Sheer incompetence. If there were professional speechwriters and communications people working with Melania, not taking the time to verify the final text of the speech was simply sloppy. Whether the text was borrowed or merely assembled from generically available public domain thoughts, you check, recheck, and have many different eyes review the text. The goal is to avoid even the appearance of plagiarism and ensure originality. The stakes are very high.
  2. Melania acted alone. This is a possibility, given how headstrong the Trumps seem to be. A CEO I worked for gave notoriously bad off-the-cuff speeches. I and others convinced him to let me work with him on the more important talks. Finally, he agreed. For an upcoming event, I worked with him over several weeks to create and polish a really good speech. Only moments before he was to give the speech, he disappeared into the bathroom. I knew what that meant; what we’d developed was flushed. Sure enough, he had scribbled a few notes and proceeded to deliver his usual disaster. But he was the CEO, so I kept my mouth shut and applauded at the end along with everyone else. What else could I do? Besides, it’s not like he was running for President or anything.
  3. Intentional sabotage. Given the many faux pas that have been plaguing Trump’s campaign and convention antics of late, one has to wonder if the people the Trump Campaign is hiring aren't intentionally secretly trying to sabotage the campaign. It’s a possibility. Or, referring back to #1, perhaps the only people the Trump campaign can hire are those no one else wants. We may never know.

Oh, I guess there is one more possibility: Donald did it on purpose merely to stir up attention.

He clearly believes even bad press is good publicity, and none of his supporters seem to care one whit that his integrity is non-existent.

However it happened, accidentally or otherwise, it’s still plagiarism.

The correct response? Own up to it, admit it, apologize for it, and put people and processes in place to make sure it never happens again. Unless, of course, that was the plan all along. In that case, just deny, deny, deny, and lie1.

1. Trump: The Art of the Deal, Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz (Ballantine Books).

Additional reading:

What do you think? Was it an accident? Intentional? An attempt to sabotage? A ploy to generate publicity? Feel free to share your thoughts -- nicely -- in the comments!

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