Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What counts as plagiarism?

As a teacher at Brigham Young University--and as the English Department ombudsman, tasked with helping resolve conflicts between students and teachers--I've had many dealings with plagiarism. Students fall into plagiarism in a number of ways--because they genuinely don't understand the concept or, more often, because of laziness or out of desperation. In the old days, when students typed their papers, I could sometimes catch plagiarism because I recognized the content or because the style of a paper differed so much from a student's usual style--or from anything I would normally encounter in an undergraduate's authentic writing. Now we have programs to catch plagiarism--though it still requires judgment to determine what counts as plagiarism. A short phrase here and there could be a matter of coincidence or common phrasing. But a whole passage--with most of the words, or clumsy synonyms for the words, being the same, in the same order--clearly counts as plagiarism. It defies credibility that such clear copying and pasting, even with minor modifications, could be accidental.

Most students I've known have confessed to plagiarism when confronted. We've managed to turn the wrongdoing into a learning experience, not only about the technicalities of plagiarism but about the deeper question of integrity. And some students have found the experience cathartic and helpful in moving forward with a more clearly defined sense of personal responsibility and a determination to be as completely honest as they could be.

The hardest and saddest cases I've dealt with have been when a student denies plagiarism even when faced with obvious evidence. Some have apparently felt they could avoid consequences by maintaining a denial to the bitter end. I've worked with a few who suffered from what seemed to me serious pathologies.

One young woman claimed that the long passages she had plagiarized came from her "photographic memory" of passages she had read online and then forgotten she had seen there. These passages then, she argued, worked their way spontaneously into her writing with the exact wording AND punctuation of the original. I told her that if she really had that remarkable ability, it would be newsworthy and ought to be better known and even studied. But I had no evidence from her other work in the class that she really had such an ability--and that, coupled with learning she had faced accusations of plagiarism in previous classes, led me to plead with her to make a clean break with past patterns and to deal with the current situation honestly. When she still refused to admit any wrongdoing, I pleaded with her to consider the consequences for her character, even her soul. Because of the religious affiliation of the university where I teach, I tried to appeal to her sense of her eternal identity and possibilities. Nothing I said appeared to persuade her.

The Honor Code at Brigham Young University includes the following: "BYU students should seek to be totally honest in their dealings with others. They should complete their own work and be evaluated based upon that work. They should avoid academic dishonesty and misconduct in all its forms, including but not limited to plagiarism, fabrication or falsification, cheating, and other academic misconduct." (See the Appendix at the end of this article for BYU's complete "Academic Honesty Policy.")

Such standards are not limited to religiously affiliated universities. All universities--and I think it's fair to say, all institutions of learning in the United States--have essentially the same expectation: that students present as their work only work they have actually done. And that includes presenting as their own writing only what they have written (not just copied and pasted from elsewhere) and giving credit for words and significant ideas they have borrowed from elsewhere, with quoted words in quotation marks.

One of the things we especially warn students against is "half-baked paraphrase," where a source is quoted but with occasional substitution of similar words and minor omissions or additions. This is considered a very bad practice, even when credit is given to the source. Why? For one thing, the source is not accurately quoted (so the "paraphrase" should not be put in quotation marks) but the same material is presented, at essentially the same length, with modifications that either maintain or diminish the quality of the original. (In other words, it would make more sense to quote the original rather than make a few "half-baked" modifications.) Worst of all, because "half-baked paraphrase" is not put in quotation marks, it is presented deceptively as the student's own language when it is mostly echoing the source. The point is that genuine paraphrase needs to represent a more thorough digesting and recasting of the original--and usually that means the paraphrase will be much shorter than the original. (And the source still needs to be credited.)

Though cultural standards vary somewhat, the expectation that writing submitted as one's own actually be one's own is not just American, but for the most part is worldwide. And it is not limited to educational institutions. This expectation applies in all fields that involve words, including professional writing and publishing, speech making, public communication in general, and therefore many aspects of business, journalism, and politics.

In the world of business and politics, however, some allowance is made for assistance especially in speech writing. Speech writers--usually professionals paid to do such work--draft a speech for a business leader or a politician, who then modifies it (either superficially or profoundly) and approves what has been written and presents it in his or her own voice. Ideally, the speaker also has some input at the beginning of the process, and in some cases the speech writers know the speaker so well that they can convey not only the ideas but the personal style of the speaker. In any case, this is a widely accepted practice, and of course the speech writers allow the speaker to claim the words as his or her own because that is what the writers are paid to do.

Nevertheless, it is a commonly accepted moral and professional standard that such speeches must still avoid plagiarism. That is, any quotations from other sources--other speakers or writers or public figures--should be credited. Half-baked paraphrase would still be considered plagiarism, especially if the original source is not credited.

As I write this, a public controversy has erupted involving a speech given at the Republican National Convention. Last night (July 18, 2016), Melania Trump gave a speech--well delivered and well received, upbeat, and more positive and inclusive than most of the previous speeches of the day. This was her biggest public moment to this point in her life. That moment was soon marred by suggestions that parts of her speech were plagiarized--taken, almost word for word, from Michelle Obama's speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (See below for a comparison of the speeches.)

Let me start by saying that, in at least one respect, this is an open and shut case. The passages in question were without doubt lifted from Michelle Obama's earlier speech. This is a clear case of plagiarism. It is as clear as any case I have encountered when dealing with students I have worked with as a teacher or as the English Department ombudsman. Teachers differ in the consequences they mete out for plagiarism. At the very least, almost any teacher would fail a paper with egregious plagiarism of this kind or would require the student to rewrite it. Some would give the student a failing grade for the course. I've known of one case where--even though the student may have simply been unable to wrap his mind around how to properly use sources in a paper--the student ended up leaving the university as a result of plagiarism.

 As of this morning, the Trump campaign chair has denied that any part of Melania Trump's speech was lifted from Michelle Obama's and has even called the accusation "just really absurd." (See http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/19/politics/melania-trump-michelle-obama-speech/index.html for an article about the controversy.) He further says that "These were common words and values. . . . To think that she'd be cribbing Michelle Obama's words is crazy." Of course, plagiarism has to involve more than simply expressing common values in common words--it's a question of using essentially the same phrasing in the same order so that the passages are so recognizably similar that it defies belief to think the similarities are merely accidental. In this case, the campaign chair is trying to cover by denying the obvious.

In all of this I don't blame Melania Trump. For one thing, she is not an experienced politician. Though she said (before giving the speech), "I wrote it . . . with little help as possible," almost everyone assumes that the speech was written by a speech writer (who had consulted with her in some way) and that she then read over and approved what she was given, possibly making a few changes. I suspect she had no way of knowing that part of her speech was plagiarized. (If, on the other hand, she really did write the speech, she must have done some copying and pasting from the Internet and perhaps simply doesn't understand accepted standards concerning plagiarism.)

Almost certainly a speech writer knowingly lifted the passages from Michelle Obama's speech and made a few "half-baked" changes. And almost certainly that writer knew that such plagiarism would be considered unacceptable--unprofessional and morally wrong. Either that speech writer hoped no one would notice or, if he or she thought the plagiarism would be discovered, had some other, perhaps nefarious, agenda. It seems obvious that the speech writer in question should confess and probably resign.

I can understand the campaign chair wanting to give a positive spin to the whole episode. But I believe simply denying that the passages were plagiarized will have seriously negative consequences. People are used to politicians stretching the truth. But this is such a blatant denial of clear-cut reality that it is likely to lead to even deeper public cynicism or, for those who manage to persuade themselves to agree with the denial, a dangerous submission to willful self-deception. For many it may also lead to confusion. Some, including the very students we try so hard to educate about plagiarism, will wonder whether the accepted standards of integrity on such matters really apply in the "real world."  Some will be tempted to redefine plagiarism to mean something different from what it normally means. In any case, the lines of both moral and intellectual integrity will become fuzzier. This is not a good thing.

In case you haven't had a chance to compare the passages in question, here they are (I'll also supply a video version so you can hear them):

(From http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/19/politics/melania-trump-michelle-obama-speech/index.html)
This is a clear case of "half-baked paraphrase"--or more properly, of "barely warmed" paraphrase, since very few changes were made. The parallels--and in most cases straight copying--are clear:

Melania: "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."

Michelle: "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, . . ."

Melania: "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."

Michelle: ". . . and to 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."

The first pair of passages are essentially the same except for Melania's addition of the phrase "and keep your promise" and omission of "you're going to do" and "dignity." The second pair are almost identical except that Melania's speech omits a few phrases ("and all children"; ""the height of") and provides substitutes for a couple of Michelle's words: "to follow" in place of "next" and "strength" in place of "reach." These are the standard ways that "half-baked" paraphrase works (also called "Plagiarism mosaic" in BYU's Academic Honesty Policy), but they are applied so lightly here that the passages are much closer to being the same than different.

I hope that the Trump campaign can stop denying that this is a case of plagiarism (and stop blaming anyone beyond their campaign for the problem). A clear admission, especially by the person responsible, would help reaffirm the standards of integrity that we should all want to be maintained in public life.

[NOTE: For a follow up to this blog post including a report of what ended up happening, see "Plagiarism, part 2"-- http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2016/07/plagiarism-part-2.html.]

APPENDIX: BYU's Academic Honesty Policy
The first injunction of the Honor Code is the call to "be honest." Students come to the university not only to improve their minds, gain knowledge, and develop skills that will assist them in their life's work, but also to build character. "President David O. McKay taught that character is the highest aim of education" (The Aims of a BYU Education, p. 6). It is the purpose of the BYU Academic Honesty Policy to assist in fulfilling that aim.
BYU students should seek to be totally honest in their dealings with others. They should complete their own work and be evaluated based upon that work. They should avoid academic dishonesty and misconduct in all its forms, including but not limited to plagiarism, fabrication or falsification, cheating, and other academic misconduct:


Intentional plagiarism is a form of intellectual theft that violates widely recognized principles of academic integrity as well as the Honor Code. Such plagiarism may subject the student to appropriate disciplinary action administered through the university Honor Code Office, in addition to academic sanctions that may be applied by an instructor. Inadvertent plagiarism, whereas not in violation of the Honor Code, is nevertheless a form of intellectual carelessness that is unacceptable in the academic community. Plagiarism of any kind is completely contrary to the established practices of higher education, where all members of the university are expected to acknowledge the original intellectual work of others that is included in one's own work. In some cases, plagiarism may also involve violations of copyright law.
Intentional Plagiarism—Intentional plagiarism is the deliberate act of representing the words, ideas, or data of another as one's own without providing proper attribution to the author through quotation, reference, or footnote.
Inadvertent Plagiarism—Inadvertent plagiarism involves the inappropriate, but nondeliberate, use of another's words, ideas, or data without proper attribution. Inadvertent plagiarism usually results from an ignorant failure to follow established rules for documenting sources or from simply being insufficiently careful in research and writing. Although not a violation of the Honor Code, inadvertent plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct for which an instructor can impose appropriate academic sanctions. Students who are in doubt as to whether they are providing proper attribution have the responsibility to consult with their instructor and obtain guidance.
Examples of plagiarism include:
Direct Plagiarism—The verbatim copying of an original source without acknowledging the source.
Paraphrased Plagiarism—The paraphrasing, without acknowledgment, of ideas from another that the reader might mistake for your own.
Plagiarism Mosaic—The borrowing of words, ideas, or data from an original source and blending this original material with one's own without acknowledging the source.
Insufficient Acknowledgment—The partial or incomplete attribution of words, ideas, or data from an original source.
Plagiarism may occur with respect to unpublished as well as published material. Acts of copying another student's work and submitting it as one's own individual work without proper attribution is a serious form of plagiarism.

Fabrication or Falsification

Fabrication or falsification is a form of dishonesty where a student invents or distorts the origin or content of information used as authority. Examples include:
1.     Citing a source that does not exist.
2.     Attributing to a source ideas and information that are not included in the source.
3.     Citing a source for a proposition that it does not support.
4.     Citing a source in a bibliography when the source was neither consulted nor cited in the body of the paper.
5.     Intentionally distorting the meaning or applicability of data.
6.     Inventing data or statistical results to support conclusions.


Cheating is a form of dishonesty where a student attempts to give the appearance of a level of knowledge or skill that the student has not obtained. Examples include:
1.     Copying from another person's work during an examination or while completing an assignment.
2.     Allowing someone to copy from you during an examination or while completing an assignment.
3.     Using unauthorized materials during an examination or while completing an assignment.
4.     Collaborating on an examination or assignment without authorization.
5.     Taking an examination or completing an assignment for another or permitting another to take an examination or to complete an assignment for you.

Other Academic Misconduct

Academic misconduct includes other academically dishonest, deceitful, or inappropriate acts that are intentionally committed. Examples of such acts include but are not limited to:
1.     Inappropriately providing or receiving information or academic work so as to gain unfair advantage over others.
2.     Planning with another to commit any act of academic dishonesty.
3.     Attempting to gain an unfair academic advantage for oneself or another by bribery or by any act of offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting anything of value to another for such purpose.
4.     Changing or altering grades or other official educational records.
5.     Obtaining or providing to another an unadministered test or answers to an unadministered test.
6.     Breaking and entering into a building or office for the purpose of obtaining an unauthorized test.
7.     Continuing work on an examination or assignment after the allocated time has elapsed.
8.     Submitting the same work for more than one class without disclosure and approval.

Procedures for Handling Incidents of Academic Dishonesty or Other Academic Misconduct

Faculty are responsible to establish and communicate to students their expectations of behavior with respect to academic honesty and the student's conduct in the course. Responsible instructors will investigate these incidents, determine the facts, and take appropriate action. Finally, the instructor must notify the Honor Code Office of the final disposition of the incident as a means of encouraging behavior change and discouraging repeat violations. If the incident of academic dishonesty involves the violation of a public law, e.g., breaking and entering into an office or stealing an examination, the act should also be reported to University Police. If an affected student disagrees with the determination or action and is unable to resolve the matter to the mutual satisfaction of the student and the instructor, the student may have the matter reviewed through the university's grievance process (Student Academic Grievance Procedure).

Applicable Actions

A wide range of possible actions exists for cases of academic dishonesty. Instructors should take actions that are fair and equitable under the circumstances and should attempt to reach an understanding with the affected student on the imposition of an appropriate action. In some cases, the department, the college, or the university may also take actions independent of the instructor. Examples of possible actions include but are not limited to the following:
For instructors, programs, departments, and colleges:
Reprimanding the student orally or in writing.
Requiring work affected by the academic dishonesty to be redone.
Administering a lower or failing grade on the affected assignment or test.
Administering a lower or failing grade for the course (even if the student withdraws from the course).
Removing the student from the course.
Dismissing the student from the program, department, or college.
Recommending probation, suspension, or dismissal.
For the university:
The university may elect to place an affected student on probation or to suspend or dismiss the student and to place a temporary or permanent notation on the student's permanent academic transcript that he or she was suspended or dismissed due to academic misconduct.
The university may report an incident of academic misconduct to appropriate law enforcement officials and may prosecute an affected student if the act in question involves the commission of a crime (e.g., breaking into an office or building, stealing an examination, etc.). 

Honor Code Office Involvement

The Honor Code Office will maintain a record of all violations of the Academic Honesty Policy reported to it by the faculty. If the occurrence is sufficiently egregious or if a pattern of dishonesty or misconduct is discovered, the Honor Code Office may take additional action on behalf of the university based upon the nature of the infraction(s). The Honor Code Office, in consultation with the involved academic personnel, including the associate academic vice president in charge of undergraduate studies as needed, may determine to place a student on probation or to recommend that a student be suspended or dismissed for academic dishonesty and other forms of academic misconduct.

Shared Responsibility Policy Statement

Students are responsible not only to adhere to the Honor Code requirement to be honest but also to assist other students in fulfilling their commitment to be honest.

Faculty Academic Integrity

The substantive standards of academic honesty stated in this policy apply a fortiori to faculty. Indeed, all members of the BYU community are expected to act according to the highest principles of academic integrity.
A large number of publications and policies of colleges and universities were reviewed in creating BYU's Academic Honesty Policy. Some of the content and structure of this policy were adapted from the following sources:
“Academic Honesty,” a brochure produced by the Office of Judicial Affairs, University of Florida.
“Academic Honesty and Dishonesty,” a brochure produced by the Office of the Dean of Students, University of Delaware.
“Academic Honesty and Dishonesty,” a brochure produced by the Dean of Students Office, Louisiana State University.
“A Statement on Plagiarism,” a committee report from the October 1994 Conference on the Center for Academic Integrity, Tom Langhorne, Binghamton University (chair).
“Definition of Plagiarism,” by Harold C. Martin, taken from The Logic and Rhetoric of Exposition, by Harold C. Martin, Richard M. Ohmann, and James H. Wheatly, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969).
Legal Aspects of Plagiarism, by Ralph D. Mawdsley (Topeka, Kansas: National Organization on Legal Problems of Education, 1985).
“Plagiarism—The Do’s and Don’ts,” a brochure produced by the Office of Student Judicial Affairs of the University of California—Davis.


Joseph Smith said...

While I essentially agree with everything you say, the academic plagiarism standards of universities are not the same for a wife a candidate.

Speech-writers of public figures borrow liberally from speech-writers of other public figures. Plagiarism as it is defined in academic institutions (and for we historians) is not the standard in politics. Hillary Clinton accused Barack Obama of plagiarizing her in 2008. Bernie Sanders accused Hillary Clinton of plagiarizing him in 2016. But they all copy one another freely.

In her 2008 convention speech, Michelle Obama surely borrowed from the speeches of others. I found one example myself. Mrs. Obama said: "The MILITARY FAMILIES who say grace each night with AN EMPTY SEAT AT THE TABLE. The servicemen and women who love this country so much, they leave those they LOVE most to defend it."

Wasn't this borrowed from Laura Bush? In 2001 Mrs. Bush said: "there will be a lot of families who will have AN EMPTY SEAT AT THE TABLE, either because they lost somebody Sept. 11 in New York or the Pentagon or Pennsylvania, or because they're a MILITARY FAMILY and somebody they LOVE is overseas."

And what about Hillary Clinton's 2014 book and its parallels to Carly Fiorina's 2006 book?

Bruce Young said...

I'm honored to have Joseph Smith comment on my blog. (I assume that's not your real name.)

I don't know anything about Hillary Clinton's book. As for the similar phrasing in speeches by Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, there's nothing even approaching plagiarism there. In fact, someone could easily have used Mrs. Obama's phrasing without ever having heard Mrs. Bush's speech. The use of the word "love" is pretty much inevitable, isn't it? (And note that Michelle Obama talks about servicemen loving their country--something that thousands of people have said in almost exactly the same words for at least a couple of hundred years.) Referring to "military families" is also simply the standard way to say that you are talking about military families. The only repeated phrase that is distinctive is "an empty seat at the table." That is basically a cliche--but not a bad one, in my opinion--that many people use to talk about families who have lost loved ones.

The worst you can say about either speech is that both first ladies were using the standard public language of our time to talk about an important topic. But neither could be said to have plagiarized. To plagiarize they would need to copy at length, with only minor modifications. (Imagine, for instance, that Michelle Obama had copied a previous speech that said, "the military families who pray each night with an empty seat at the table. Those in the armed forces who love this country leave those they love most to defend it" or that Laura Bush had copied someone who said "there will be many families who have an empty seat at the table, because they lost someone in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 or because they're a military family and a loved one is overseas." That would be plagiarism.)

It is really not OK even in politics to copy several sentences in a row without attribution, no matter how common the sentiments. On the other hand, having an occasional common word or phrase in two passages by different people on the same topic is not plagiarism.

We work pretty hard as teachers to help students learn the difference and hope they will apply what they learn in their lives beyond the academy as well as while they're in school.

Bruce Young said...

Another parallel some have drawn is Michelle Obama's supposed quotation from Saul Alinsky. Here are the passages:
Saul Alinsky: “The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be.”
Michelle Obama: “And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about ‘the world as it is‘ and ‘the world as it should be.’”

No, this is not plagiarism. The only repeated phrases are "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be"--certainly phrases that were not invented by Saul Alinsky. They could easily have occurred to thousands of people independently, and probably have. This is in no way equivalent to the plagiarism in Melania Trump's speech. I certainly wouldn't deal with them in the same way if they were submitted as papers in one of my classes. Those who are trying to make the cases equivalent are trying to score political points, but in doing so they are blurring the moral and intellectual lines and inviting us to be less clear about what is acceptable and what is not. This is truly bad thing.

Michelle Obama quotes her husband (note the quotation marks), who was (possibly?) quoting Alinsky--though possibly not, since the phrases are very common in community organizing and in the Black community. If you Google them, you'll see lots of uses, in books and web sites. And that's just scratching the surface of the myriad of times they've been used and not published or posted.

Furthermore, plagiarism requires more than repetition of the sort of phrase that essentially belongs to everyone ("Love is blind"; "an empty chair at the table"; etc.). It generally depends on a sequence of items that proceeds in a way that someone else would almost certainly not fall into by chance.

Another interesting point is that the way the Obamas use the phrases "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be" (and the way most others use them) is really the opposite of how Alinsky used them. (This is important to note because some of those pointing out the parallels suggest that the Obamas agree with Alinsky and are at least guilty of radicalism by association.) Alinsky said we need to deal with the world as it is, NOT as we would like it to be (i.e., as we fantasize it should be). The Obamas are saying that we should not be content with the world as it is but seek to bring it closer to how it should be. Or as Robert F. Kennedy put it: "Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not." This is a very different concept and attitude than Alinsky's.

Cliff Sheets said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cliff Sheets said...

I found your article very insightful. I didn't listen to the speech or read the transcript before I read the article. I'm sure I've used "half-baked paraphrasing and even "barely-warmed" paraphrasing in papers I've written. (Just one more thing to add to the long list of reasons why I am not qualified to run for public office.

I would be intersted to hear your analasys on the vague and non-specific claims listed on a recent meme entitled A Brief History of Left-Wing Plagiarism. (One of which you already addressed and refuted in your previous comments).

They are as follows:

President Barack Obama: Plagiarized Masachussets (sic) Governor Deval Patrik in multiple campaign speaches in 2007;
Michelle Obama: Plagarized Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals during her 2008 DNC speech;
Hillary Clinton: Plagarized Senator John Edwards on multiple occasions during 2008 presidential campaign.
Vice President Joe Biden: Plagiarized British Labour Party leader Neal Kinnock during his 1988 presidential campaign."

endy smith said...

If you aim at being successful and proficient in writing, the only thing you should avoid is plagiarism, this source offers top efficient ways in writing to stay unique and original http://edit-it.org/blog/top-10-ways-how-to-determine-plagiarism