Beyond Melania, Plagiarism Denial From Politicians, Climate Deniers


Three deadly sins in academe and journalism are Falsification, Fabrication and Plagiarism (FFP).1  Political speechwriters normally take great pains to avoid obvious text-copy plagiarism,2 but on Monday Melania Trump’s speech plagiarized text from Michelle Obama. Trump employee Meredith McIver took responsibility, but new analysis here raises more doubts.

Climate denial is pervaded by FFP examples, the most famous likely that around the Wegman Report, where plagiarism and reactions to its exposure resemble those in the Trump case.

First, high-profile work is trusted to inexperienced people, who can make silly errors. Competent organizations check.
Then, exposure generates contradictory excuses, some clear fabrications, such as personal attacks on irrelevant people.
Finally, the organization takes surprisingly long to produce official explanations, about which doubts may be raised.

1. Plagiarism in Melania Trump’s  speech – was that really from Meredith McIver or Melania herself?
Monday, July 18 , ~8PM PDT,  Jarrett Hill on Twitter (by now, 25K retweets) identified the plagiarism, and the news spread.

On Tuesday the NYTimes carried Questions Over Melania Trump’s Speech Set Off Finger-Pointing and followed with
How Melania Trump’s Speech Veered Off Course and Caused an Uproar.  She had been quoted on Monday, before the talk:

‘It’s unclear how much of her speech Melania actually wrote, but earlier in the day she told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I read once over it and that’s all. Because I wrote it and with [as] little help as possible.”’ (This is a bit ambiguous.)

News continued: Trump Campaign Uses Every Excuse In The Book To Explain Melania’s Plagiarism – Was it Hillary Clinton’s fault? Was it Melania’s fault? Was there no plagiarism? Yes.   and   Manafort: Hillary Caused Melania’s Plagiarism Scandal
Many reactions by Trump staff and social media users paralleled those around the Wegman Report years ago.
NBCNews ran Trump Campaign’s Shifting Story on Speech Raises New Questions, which included:

‘Portions of Scully’s work were,however,included in the text as delivered by Melania Trump on Monday.The first six paragraphs of the text as delivered were largely written by Scully, as well as a significant chunk of the conclusion’3

On Wednesday appeared Who is Meredith McIver, the Trump staffer who took the fall for Melania’s speech?,
Melania Trump’s speechwriter was also blamed for inserting errors in Donald Trump’s books, Staff Writer Takes Blame for ‘Mistakes’ in Melania Trump RNC Speech, The Trump campaign just proved it’s the gang who can’t shoot straight. Again and Behind Melania Trump’s Cribbed Lines, an Ex- Ballerina Who Loved Writing, which included:

‘Today, Ms. McIver is considered part of the extended Trump family. “She is terrific, she’s a terrific woman,” Mr. Trump said in an interview Wednesday. “She’s been with us a long time and she just made a mistake.”
She came in and she said, ‘Mr. Trump, I’d like to say what happened.’ I thought it was such a nice thing. Who knew this was going to be a big story?”    

On Wednesday, July 20, 11:34AM EDT4 Ms McIver had created a one-pager that mostly praised the Trumps, but explained:

Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches.’ This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused …’

Two possible explanations, both possible, insufficient data. Drafts and emails would help, but unlikely to be seen.

MEREDITH-story: People make mistakes, so Meredith’s story is possible, but has several oddities. First, it seemed that she volunteered to solve a mystery (Google: “Meredith McIver” “came forward”).  Surely Donald Trump heard of the plagiarism no later than Tuesday morning, if not on the flight home.  How could the first question to Melania be anything but “What happened?” followed by an quick call to Meredith. Why did it take more than 24 hours for the story to appear?

Second is an issue with the texts shown below.5 Blue shading marks identical, in-order words, with a few ambiguous choices, yellow shows trivial edits of a few words, all in context, This approach highlights the copied text,  but also shows changes, additions and deletions, which can be even more helpful in understanding the plagiarism process.

Michelle’s text at right below is 117 words long, ~66 blue,  This story requires more than casual reading of a few passages. 
Melania had to carefully dictate at least the ~66 blue words, but likely more to make sense.
Meredith had to transcribe every blue word correctly, and then she (or she and Melania) had to do the edits.
The original text included 2 instances of “Barack and I” that had to get removed at some unknown point.
Meredith has written many books with Donald, and seems more likely to be familiar with plagiarism rules than Melania.
THREE PROBLEMS WITH THE MELANIA TRUMP PLAGIARISM ADMISSION noted McIver’s explanation “serves Melania poorly.”

MELANIA-scenario: Melania is no experienced political speaker and may know little of plagiarism rules, given her history. She may have started with a script from others, but rewrote much and naively used Michelle’s text with a few changes. Questions have been raised about her claimed college degree, but the last sentence at left seems authentic.

From long experience chasing plagiarism, those who do it deliberately often change words and their order for disguise, but that does not fit this case. It seems more like inexperience, without adequate checking by anyone knowledgeable.

Of course, the political optics of Melania being inspired by Michelle would not be good, so in this story, Tuesday was spent scrambling to generate a different explanation, using a loyal long-time employee.

Again, either explanation is possible because the data is insufficent, but people can assess the relative likelihoods.
Readers interested in the climate connection might read on, to see why the Trump case felt familiar to me.

2. Reactions to FFP and other problems in climate denialism, especially related to the Wegman Report (WR, 2006)

The plagiarism presentation style evolved from Deep Climate(DC)’s exposure of plagiarism around the Wegman Report (2009, 2009, 2010, and more).  Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report (2010) started with 2 gray shades, but DC suggested colors and after some iterations, we both adopted this general scheme, although it has evolved more since.

Many examples of plagiarism in climate denial have been found, not just those connected with Wegman and his student Yasmin Said.  Despite plagiarism as obvious as that above, George Mason University managed to ignore or deflect multiple complaints by Ray Bradley and others. After 2 years, Provost Peter Stearns wrote a falsehood-laden letter to his own faculty.

As often seen at Retraction Watchretractions are nontrivial, but one paper was retracted in 2011, and another in 2015. 

All this has been documented in exhaustive detail, but it is worth comparing reactions with those in the Trump case.
Trump Campaign Uses Every Excuse In The Book…, offered a nice set of labels, excerpted below, with climate parallels.

There’s no plagiarism.  In the face of accumulating examples akin to that above, many Wegman supporters claimed there was no plagiarism, often creating fanciful interpretations divorced from any practice in academe or journalism.

In their $2M lawsuit last year, Wegman and Said still claimed there was no plagiarism.

It was Melania’s fault.  When plagiarism is found in multi-author works, it is hard to know who did it, but many speculated Yasmin Said did much of it in the WR, given copy-paste-edit similarity with other works of hers.  However, the senior person always bears some responsibility, and other plagiarism was found involving Wegman without Said, as in FOIA Facts 3.
Wegman used a post-doc and several grad students, none with any climate-relevant experience.

It was Hillary’s fault.  Ray Bradley‘s book was plagiarized in the WR. He reported that and other examples to George Mason University, here.  When his complaint was revealed in 2010, Steve McIntyre posted Bradley Copies Fritts, claiming that Ray had copied numerous figures from Hal Fritts. McIntyre showed no understanding of textbook creation and ignored the pages of correct permissions.8   Rather than lodge an academic misconduct complaint, McIntyre wrote baseless defamatory claims, eagerly accepted and repeated at other denial blogs.
Google: “bradley copies fritts”  and compare with “hillary melania trump”

English isn’t Melania’s first language.  Some excused Yasmin Said this way, but she was born in Puerto Rico, spent elementary grades 1-3 in Palestine, then moved to Maryland, as per FOIA Facts, p.135.

Michelle Obama didn’t invent the English language.  The more general form is “there are only so many ways to say this, so similarities are not really plagiarism.”  In the WR 35/91 pages contained alleged plagiarism, so this fails.

Melania wanted to communicate with words people would know.  I do not recall any quite like this.

It doesn’t matter because most of the speech was original.  After plagiarism became clear to even the most recalcitrant Wegman defenders, they shifted to “may be plagiarism, but it does not matter, because the technical arguments are right.”  They were not, as seen in Strange Scholarship… and DC‘s Replication and due diligence, Wegman style, and there was falsification as well.

It was a compliment.  I do not think this arose, although much of the WR plagiarism copied high-quality sources.  That kind of plagiarism is not intended to claim credit for original work, but to simulate non-existent expertise,   Quite often, when changing copied text, errors were introduced, some ludicrous, exposing total lack of expertise, as shown here.

It was just an accident because the writers weren’t organized.  Wegman asked his grad student Denise Reeves to provide some Social Network Analysis text.  She had taken a one-week course and was thus deemed most expert, as basis for one of the most important thrusts of the WR.  She copied from some well-known texts. Wegman/Said edited it into the WR, acknowledged Reeves, but not as a coauthor, which left her off the hook.  He later claimed that he thought it was her original work, and thus all this was just an accident, hence no one was responsible.  However, some of the same text was re-used in several later papers, without acknowledgement.  Strange Tales and Emails describes the contorted excuses.

This was all part of an elaborate plan by the campaign.  I do not recall any like this.  Nobody plans to be exposed.

When plagiarism (or FFP generally) is alleged, many people’s reactions are driven by existing ideologies, not objective evaluation of evidence, even for the easiest cases of obvious plagiarism. People attack the complainants, the plagiarized authors and random others they do not like.  Plagiarism denial is alive and well in both politics and climate denial.

Update 07/24/16: update image with “Barack and I” in gray.
Update 07/26/16: typos
Update 07/28/16:  matching Melania’s 2nd “pass” with Michelle’s raises number of  blue words, update files.
Update 07/30/16: cite Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article, add slightly-annotated copy of Melania’s full speech; Wayback link.

1 Strange Falsifications in Wegman Report(2011) p.1 references academic analyses, including categorizations:
Error : Misconduct : Fraud and Non-Intional : Intentional.  These are found in various combinations:
Falsification – changing information or misrepresenting sources, false citation, cherry-picking, quote-mining
Fabrication – inventing information or sources, i.e., making things up …   this can overlap with falsification.
Plagiarism – copying ideas or near-verbatim text without giving credit, of which near-verbatim text is the easiest to show. 

These often occur together. People copy text/figures from low-credibility sources without correct attribution, or mispresent credible ones. Such abuse of the figure in MedievalDeception 2015 is found in dozens of climate denial books, blogs, etc.
Skeptical Science catalogs numerous bad arguments that get repeated endlessly, often without citations.

2 Politicians seem to employ FF hampered only rarely by fact checkers.  Germany values doctorates in politicians, in whose dissertations plagiarism has been found, as seen in the fine book False Feathers-A perspective on Academic Plagiarism.

3  The post Melania Trump’s full speech omitted  “because we want our children … work for them” in 4th paragraph, which might (or might not) contradict the claim of Scully authorship of the first 6 paragraphs.  A copy of the draft would help!
A slightly-annotated copy of the speech is attached here.  It is plausble that 6 of the first 7 paragraphs started with him.

4 Open the PDF file, and (in Acrobat)  select File>Properties>Additional Metadata>Advanced>XMP Core Properties:
xmp:CreateDate: 2016-07-20T11:35:18-04:00,   unambiguously 11:35AM EDT, as per this and this.  It also shows:
xmp:CreatorTool: LANIER MP C4503, which is this product. Apparently the page was printed on letterhead, then scanned.

5 A 4-page PDF gives this example, with notes, a description of the more general methodology, and a more complex 2-page example. The MS-Word file is provided for anyone who wants to try this approach, without reinventing all the formatting.

See Appendix X attached to  FOIA Facts 3 – More Plagiarism – Get Grants Or Claim Credit, which has further discussion.
The retraction notice from the Washington Academy of Sciences took 2+ years, but did happen. Few enjoy retractions.

“In the 2007 Spring issue, Vol 93, we published an article by Y. Said (then at George Mason University): “On the Eras in the History of Statistics and Data Analysis”. We have since retracted this article because of suggested controversy over its uniqueness.”  

Search site:URL  wegman plagiarism for numerous examples

8 I own Paleoclimatology – Reconstructiing Climates of the Quaternary (both 2nd Ed 1999, 3rd Ed 2015). The 2nd Edition’s references fill pp.513-594, and Copyright Permissions densely fill pp.595-599. These are classic, painsteaking books.

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