Thursday, April 25, 2024

The plague of plagiarism

No one bats an eye over plagiarism. After all, “everybody does it”. But the issue here is of integrity, of being honest. Sadly, few think one should get one’s knickers in a twist over this issue

By Bikram Vohra

SHE said she was from Poland. I don’t know anyone in Poland but it was one of those slow news days when the senior well-paid assistant editors do “standard edits” for the Opinion Page. These are rehashed exercises in self-plagiarised pap. Like wildlife, pollution, global warming, traffic safety, corruption, the weight of children’s satchels and other such riveting stuff. The same drivel pumped through another pipe.

Anyway, I digress. Courtesy the slow news day, I took the call. The lady from Warsaw was miffed. Actually, more than miffed, she was righteously indignant and not because she was paying for the call.
Your paper, she said in a voice quivering with outrage, carried my story “verd to verd” by another person.

It is not an accusation one takes lightly and so I order an inquiry. Sure enough, the lady staffer in question had stolen every single word from another article written three years earlier. I order a check on her and we discover the last 17 byline pieces are stolen in most eclectic a fashion. From Warsaw to Washington. A gentle request for a resignation is met with shock and disbelief, followed by rising pique and indignation.
She gives me a defence worthy of the best lawyer: everyone does it.


If I was asked to offer odds on how many of journalists plagiarize copy, I’d cheerfully give 10 to 1 on it being over 60 percent of anyone’s editorial staff. The curious part is that most of them do not think of it as wrong. Whenever I have been confronted with a case, there has been this “so what’s the big deal, everyone does it” defence, as if it was mere bagatelle and the search engines of the Net were some sort of cosmic every man’s land from where you could steal with impunity. Seeing as how we still work in an environment where press releases are dutifully reproduced in identical format with different bylines in different papers and seen as perfectly legitimate, it is difficult to explain to such a mind how wrong it is.
In the case of Fareed Zakaria’s robbery from The New Yorker for his piece on gun control, the chances are that when you work in the rare stratosphere of raw fourth estate power, you tend to harness interns to do your scut work or what us old salts call research. And you do it on trust. If you are the sort who dines with Hillary Clinton and chews the fat with David Cameron, you can’t be that stupid as to swipe stuff from a top drawer magazine which many of your readers access.
Anonymity is the key to safe plagiarism.

Then you get away with it. And two years later, a slew of discoveries indict you for having done more of the same. Yet, no one shows tangible evidence. The ripple effect has been on since August and is now heating up again. A soaring career shot down like a Spitfire. More recently, we have the Chetan Bhagat issue where his new book, Half-Girlfriend, is allegedly ripped off a Dr Birbal Jha play called Englishia Boli. It has been reported that the author is being offered a job by a film-maker.


The odd thing is that accusations of plagiarism are taken lightly by the media, a passing story, perhaps because so many of them do just that. It is an acidic commentary on fourth estate sloth that no one has read both books and made the comparison. Everyone is quoting everyone else but there is no one who has said, okay, read both, it’s true, it is a lie, there is so much common, there is a world of difference. Go figure. Plagiarism cannot be denied. If 75 words are in the same damn order, the odds are either lots of monkeys or you were cogging.

Until intellectual property and copyright protection came into being in their flimsy fashion, creative juices were energized by the Black Book, Google, Clipart, whatever you could grab and rework from this wonderful machine called the computer without any concern for consequences. They weren’t any. That attitude has not gone away.
The laws on intellectual property are nebulous at best and there are no genuine penalties imposed. It is still a bit of a lark. We have 83-odd legislative pieces of paper on official record offering fragile protection. India allows books and movies and songs to be pirated even though there are technical fiats against it. The tolerance level is so high that it makes a mockery of guarding your rights to your works. Ergo, Dr Jha will get no joy. By some curious chemistry and the conspiracy of guilt in the media, he will become a nuisance, period. Legal aid is also dubious. You could age like good whisky before your case came up in the court, so every accusation is a one week soar-and-sink sensation. No one truly cares to see it as a crime.

It is a sobering thought that India comes last in top 25 economies of the world for protecting logos, copyrights, slogans, articles, books and is way behind the curve on Internet manipulation. It is just not seen as cheating and our knock-off industry thrives.

On a larger frame, the bloggers of the world are the keepers at the gate. Their ability to suss out a suspect story that resonates and leak it into the ether and the extent of their bonding is currently the only real deterrent to keeping media honest. They are our best bet. But even they pay the price since there is this general belief that bloggers have no rights, are not real people and cannot take action. Since some of them are brilliant writers, swiping their material is often irresistible and many of them do not have the wherewithal to fight legal wars.

One well-known journalist wrote an in-depth piece on prostitution in India, tracing it back a hundred years. A few of the paragraphs had an almost lyrical cadence to them. The effort was widely praised. One elderly gentleman in a village in Andhra Pradesh had a copy of a book written in the 19th century about a girl who was forced into the profession. It was lyrical. Suffice it to say he was the only man with that book who came forward with the original version. What were the odds that this issue of the magazine would reach him? Word-to-word copied into the write-up.


Assuming that dozens of writers hack away at the search engine and cut and paste lines and paras with connecting words, how do so many get away? Largely because they are so isolated in our part of the world that the connect from the original to them is just too remote and then they learn to camouflage.
Here is a three-point game plan that most of them use. They steal from the 20th page onwards of the site. Like they won’t pick up the first 10 top pages, but burrow deep into the background. Go for the 400th article on gun control and Fareed would still be dining at the White House. They steal from unknowns or, as I said, bloggers who really could not be bothered to pursue legal action. They change key words through online synonyms. This is known as reworking the copy.

One well-known paper okayed a four-page layout of a fashion exhibition with a Danny Boyle version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On 110 gms art paper center-fold. On impulse, the editor just sieved it on the Net and discovered the photographer lived in the Far East and this spread that was going to print was his website portfolio.

Like with all crimes, the criminals leave enough evidence on the scene like replicating the thought process or underscoring their assault on originality by leaving the sequence dramatically the same. Some phrases are missed out as they sanitize and even these can be traced by loading them into a search mode.

The cleverer ones just put it in quotes and hope to cover their required length that much sooner. “Ctrl C and Ctrl V. Done.”
Is there a way to combat this? Yes, to an extent, the matter can be checked out by putting part of it through a search. I once plagiarized myself from the Net and was updating a piece…when I put two paras into Google, the original came up.

A good section head needs to do that even though no one appreciates how time consuming it is and how it bruises morale, especially for the ones who are honest. You point a flinty finger every day, who wants to work for you? Catch-22 time.
It has to be said when you have been in this business long enough, you can sense something is out of kilter. That staffer could not possibly have written this stuff, whirr whirr, there goes the warning antenna.

Just don’t overlook it. If we do not drum the cheats out and let them get away with it, they will ruin the profession…or what is left of it.


News Update