The Financial Express

The perils of plagiarism

| Updated: February 05, 2021 20:12:38

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The perils of plagiarism

Plagiarism can lead to devastating consequences. This truth has been manifested anew through the decision of the Dhaka University Syndicate to penalise three teachers of the university on the grave charge of their having lifted material from other people's writings and passing them off as their own. All three teachers have been downgraded in position, which is a terrible thing to happen to any academic.

You might wonder why people need to engage in such shoddy work as plagiarism. If people are ambitious enough to want a higher and more respectable place for themselves in their professions, all they need to do is to be original. Nothing can be more edifying for the soul than for an individual to write essays or theses on his or her own. Of course, there can always be the references to the writings of others, with the proper attributions duly made. It is simply unacceptable, because it is immoral, for any person to think he or she can lift words, sentences and paragraphs from the writings of others and thereby expect to come by the admiration of his or her peers and friends.

But, yes, plagiarists have been around for as long as we can remember. Back in 1988, Joe Biden, today the 46th President of the United States, made his first run for the White House. As he sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency, he went around delivering good, indeed smart speeches, some of which sounded rather familiar. It was soon discovered that his speeches were those made earlier by Britain's then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The discovery embarrassed Biden, to a point where he acknowledged the blunder and took himself out of presidential contention.

Not many years ago, people were surprised to learn that Fareed Zakaria, a well-known television personality and journalist in the United States, had been accused of plagiarising a paragraph from another individual in one of his columns. CNN and TIME magazine, the organisations with which he was involved, placed him under suspension. It was a contrite Zakaria who suffered the consequences. Today, fully rehabilitated, he conducts incisive programmes on CNN on American politics and global affairs.

Another journalist, Jonah Lehrer, the science and technology reporter of The New Yorker, is yet another name in the world of plagiarism. In more recent times, there is the sordid story of how Melania Trump read out a speech at the Republican convention in the US in 2016. Within minutes, it transpired that large parts of the speech were an instance of plagiarism, for she had simply taken the words out of a Michelle Obama speech and thought no one would notice. In this day and age, everyone notices. Digitalisation is a smart thing and Melania Trump was caught in the act. There is too the instance of the writer J.K. Rowling being accused by another writer, Adrian Jacobs, of taking material from his works and presenting them to readers as her own.

On a personal note, I have had some quite amusing experiences where my writings, purloined by others, have been brought to my notice. In the 1990s, I was informed by another journalist that one of my colleagues had regularly been dispatching write-ups to a Middle Eastern newspaper, for which he was a stringer in Dhaka. That was fine, but the trouble was that those write-ups were mine and had already been published in the Morning Sun newspaper. The good man simply cut out my byline and replaced it with his own and sent it on. He was suitably reprimanded by my editor.

And then there is the tale of another contributor who sent me an article for publication in the New Nation, the newspaper I was at the time working for.  Since I often handled the op-ed section, the article fell into my hands. The words sounded familiar, the sentences told me I had read them somewhere before. Suddenly it occurred to me that the entire write-up was mine, had in fact appeared the week before in a weekly journal. How would our 'writer' know that 'his' article had fallen, like a ripe fruit, into my hands?

Twelve years ago, the celebrated American journalist Maureen Dowd, who had exposed Biden's plagiarism in 1988, was herself accused of plagiarism. She survived the resultant furore. And, yes, Biden remains guilty not only of plagiarising Kinnock's speeches but also of quoting verbatim from Robert Kennedy. The same words, the same phrases, the same emotions --- twenty years apart. Kennedy spoke in 1968; Biden was speaking in 1988.

There are instances of writers in Bangladesh stealing from other and more original writers and then having them published in reputed newspapers in Dhaka. Fortunately, such individuals have been caught and left red in the face. In the early years of this century, the late editor of New Age here in Dhaka called me to his office one morning and handed me a faxed letter from a foreign weekly journal. The letter was a complaint that that week's write-up in the newspaper by one of our regular columnists was a report, word for word, in the weekly a few days earlier. We apologised profusely to the journal and removed the columnist from our newspaper. 

Many years ago, a journalist in Dhaka sent a write-up to a newspaper. The English was impeccable and flawless, sounded too good to convince the editorial section of the newspaper that it could be his own writing. Ah, at one point this 'writer' gave himself away. If you recall, it was a time when an intruder had broken into Windsor Castle --- when Queen Elizabeth II happened to be there. And that is precisely where our 'writer' got caught. In the week when the intruder made his way into Windsor Castle, said this 'writer', he was at Oxford enjoying with his friends. Oxford? Windsor Castle? But the sender of the write-up was physically present in Dhaka, with no record of his ever having been to Oxford or studying there! A search quickly turned up the truth. The article had been wholly lifted from Britain's reputed newspaper The Times. Only, the writer's name had been replaced by that of this plagiarist. This 'writer' was informed about his 'ingenuity'. He did not come back.

Plagiarism destroys careers and reputations when it is stretched to the limit. But when people have plagiarised just a little, they have seen their careers survive.

The bigger reality, however, is that plagiarism is theft pure and simple. Left unchecked or unpunished, it swells into a malady. It shows either an absence of originality or a degree of laziness in an individual, enough to have him take recourse, in brazen fashion, to others' words rather than frame his own.  The lesson out of all this: borrow words from others, but do not forget the attribution. It is a truism those aspiring to scholarly life, to higher perches in society, to respectability can ignore at peril to their future.


Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.

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