Experts: ‘1 in a trillion’ chance Melania Trump speech wasn’t plagiarism
© Greg Nash
CLEVELAND — Experts that hunt out plagiarism professionally say there is basically no chance that Melania Trump’s speech Monday night did not steal lines from a 2008 Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaBloomberg threatens to shake up 2020 primary The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg looks to upend Democratic race Michelle Obama unveils all-star lineup for 2020 get-out-the-vote push MORE speech.
 
Turnitin, a California-based company, uses a computer algorithm to automatically vet submitted writing for any matches that could amount to plagiarism. Following the controversy Monday, the company used that tool to analyze Trump’s Republican National Convention speech.
 
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE's presidential campaign has maintained that there was no plagiarism in the remarks, and other Republicans have argued it amounted to common themes and some similar words.
 
But several phrases in Melania Trump’s speech are identical to ones uttered by Michelle Obama, and the plagiarism experts are beyond skeptical of it being a coincidence.
 
Chris Harrick, Turnitin vice president of marketing, told The Hill on Tuesday that 6 percent of Trump’s speech was determined to have language that matched with other existing text. All 6 percent came from Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention.
 
Harrick noted that the company does not play “judge and jury” on whether something was plagiarized, but the odds that Trump’s speech did not include plagiarized content are effectively a mathematical impossibility.
 
According to Turnitin, there is a 1 in 1 trillion chance that two writers would write the same 16-word sequence by coincidence. The longest matching sequence of words between the Trump and Obama speeches was 23 words.
 
For comparison, the odds of winning the record $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot in January was one in 292 million. In other words, it was 3,424 times more likely that a given ticket could win that lottery than that the two speeches' similarities were coincidence.
 
"We cannot say for sure that Melania Trump’s 2016 speech plagiarizes Michelle Obama’s 2008 address. But, by comparing the text of the two speeches, we do see some significant and disconcerting issues," the company wrote in a blog post.
 
The controversy over her speech has dominated the second day of the GOP convention, as press and politicians alike have tried to determine what happened — if anything — and how.
 
Inadvertent plagiarism does exist, and it occurs when someone repeats text they read from elsewhere without realizing it. But Turnitin said it did not appear that the Trump plagiarism was accidental.
 
“More than just the copying of words, a comparison of Melania’s and Michelle’s speeches follows the same sequence of thoughts and ideas,” the company wrote. “To an educator, this belies intent.”
 
Turnitin is primarily used by high schools and colleges to detect cases of plagiarism in student papers, but Harrick said other industries occasionally use it to vet high-profile projects, like corporate research or grant applications — “any real high stakes piece that has to be vetted.”
 
It’s used more rarely for political purposes, but Harrick said the outsize attention on Trump’s speech spurred them to analyze the remarks.
 
“This is a bit of a sideshow, but it’s also the chance to talk about the importance of original writing,” said Harrick.
 
Turnitin’s system is used by most universities in the U.S. and allows anyone to examine over 60 billion web pages, as well as academic journals and newspapers, for any suspiciously similar text. The whole process takes about 10 seconds.
 
Harrick added that in most cases, people do not plagiarize out of malice or a deliberate attempt to steal language. Instead, it’s usually brought on by pressure.
 
“You have a kid who doesn’t feel like he’s up to the assignment and doesn’t know what to say, or procrastinated and it’s the 11th hour and they need to get it in,” he said. “Hopefully there’s lessons around this about being responsible and diligent.”