Saturday, September 01, 2012

The original sin

DOES plagiarism offend?

In schools, where higher learning is supposed to be more than a diploma, to plagiarize is to commit, as one pundit says, the sin against originality. Two professors used up a combined six hours in two separate sessions to impress on our graduate class how grievously we would sin, as well as the deep hole we would be digging ourselves in, if we got caught passing papers that copied without citing authors: failure for the paper and a formal complaint filed with the college. Plagiarists get a minimum penalty of one year of suspension.

Yet, plagiarism is not just a spat over papers in academia, a small pond bursting with publication time bombs and prickly egos. Journalist Fareed Zakaria discovered this in the fallout following the discovery that he cribbed a paragraph from an April 2012 New Yorker article written by Jill Lepore that he included, unattributed, in his Aug. 20, 2012 column on gun control in TIME Magazine.

Zakaria apologized “unreservedly” to Lepore. TIME and CNN still suspended him. While his employers later absolved and reinstated him after a probe, the scandal has been brutal for a man called by Esquire Magazine as “the most influential foreign policy adviser of his generation”.

Compare the price Zakaria continues to pay for using a paragraph without attribution with the travails of Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III. Sotto moaned to reporters that he is the first senator being cyber-bullied on social network sites for the plagiarism he is accused of committing against American blogger Sarah Pope in his “turno en contra” speech against the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill.

Senator Pia Cayetano is also accused of using unattributed portions of reports in her pro-RH Bill speeches. The plagiarism charges plaguing the Senate may have prompted Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile to propose a law on plagiarism. Let’s ask the bloggers for help, he commented.

It seems strange to consult the blogosphere about authenticity. A lot of piracy gets carried out online. Many teachers, librarians and researchers blame computers and the Internet for making plagiarism viral through online searches and “copy and paste”.

Yet, the online world also eases the tracking of plagiarism. There are software editors and teachers can download for free to screen submissions. The University of the Philippines Virtual Learning Environment (Uvle) subjects all uploaded files to a plagiarism detection service.

The Internet also promotes transparency by embedding in articles hypertext, the blue-colored word or phrase one clicks to reach the origin of information. Getting hold of the original article is better than reading someone’s interpretation of it, goes the research drill. Yet, in Sotto’s speech, his writers did not just cut out the blogger from whose post they first read about the researcher they chose to cite, they also copied the blogger’s synthesis of the research, almost word-for-word, according to texts uploaded by Rappler.

At all costs, one should avoid doing like Sotto to avoid ending in a Sotto-sized hole. The senator snarled back at critics rather than probe first his speech writers. He denied the plagiarism, and after his own staff admitted to the cribbing, bashed the blogger he plagiarized. More inexcusable than being a cheat and a boor is being lazy: too lazy to think, too lazy to say it in his own words.

Or is it the opposite? Zakaria admitted to the New York Times that overwork may have led him to plagiarize, signaling a much needed time-out for “stripping down”. The man is host of CNN’s flagship program on foreign affairs, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine, a columnist of the Washington Post, an author read by powerbrokers, and a speaker commanding $75,000-per-hour.

Should we be more forgiving of an excess of zeal that ends in “accidental” plagiarism? Fielding accusations that he cribbed again in one of his recent books, Zakaria also makes people curious about the similarities between his Harvard Commencement Address last June and a speech he made in Duke University two weeks earlier. Copying oneself without credits is self-plagiarism.

Not being able to know if one is being true to oneself or not is also called something else. Offenders get more than one-year suspension.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebus Sept. 2, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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