By now we’ve all heard how Melania Trump plagiarized portions of the speech she gave last week at the Republican National Convention. And, no matter whether that was her fault or the fault of one of the speechwriters who suddenly popped up around her when the news broke, we can all thank Mrs. Trump for giving us a very public reminder of why plagiarism is never a good idea.
The reason is simple: beyond the not-so-little issue of ethics, plagiarism is nothing more than a short-term solution to a problem — laziness, a lack of originality, or take your pick — that ultimately leaves you exposed to a huge amount of long-term risk.
Basically, it’s a trade-off. You take someone else’s words or ideas, thus saving yourself a fair amount of time, hard work, and, in some cases, even anguish. In exchange, you accept that there could be consequences down the line if you’re ever found out and just hope that you never are. In Melania’s case, discovery came almost the moment she opened her mouth. In others, however, it can be days, weeks, months, or even years until the other shoe drops.
Either way, the result is the same.
If you get caught, your reputation is tarnished, all of your work gets called into question, and people start to doubt your integrity. Now, if you only give speeches at the RNC when you’re potentially going to become the First Lady, eventually things probably blow over. If, however, you’re a writer by profession, you’re in a very different boat. Suddenly that little bit of pain that you avoided by not writing something original seems like a pretty minor inconvenience compared to the world of pain you find yourself in. Not only does your reputation suffer, your whole career could be on the line.
A World Full of Cheaters?
It’s easy to take aim at Mrs. Trump because she got caught in a very public way, and has been skewered for it by the media. But it’s not as though she’s the first to have plagiarized something (whether knowingly or not), nor will she be the last.
In fact, according to one survey of high school students at public and private schools, one in three admitted to having used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment. In another survey of 24,000 students across 70 high schools, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism. By the time they get to college or graduate school, people’s sense of integrity tends to rise. Even so, a third survey shows that 36 percent of undergraduates and 24 percent of graduate students admit to paraphrasing or copying a few sentences from an Internet source without footnoting it.
There are also plenty of other examples of high-profile plagiarists getting caught in the act. A recent article from PlagiarismToday.com, for instance, details the stories of people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Goodall, Johnny Cash, Helen Keller, and T.S. Eliot getting entwined in plagiarism scandals.
What to Do in a World Where Nothing’s Original Anymore?
If you’re concerned about plagiarism (and you certainly should be), there are things that you can do to put your mind at ease.
The first is to check your content to see if it is actually copying someone else’s. If you Google around, you can find a variety of tools (some free, some not) that offer this service. The other thing that you can do is make sure that you always give credit where credit is due. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing someone else’s words or ideas, provided you make it clear to your audience that that’s what you’re doing. When in doubt, link to original sources, use footnotes and bibliographies, and, by all means, let it be known that you’ve consulted other works as part of your writing process.
While it will be interesting to see how Mrs. Trump manages her way through this bump on the campaign trail, take a lesson from her and don’t let it happen to you. It’s really just not worth it.