There is nothing worse for a newspaper, magazine, or a non-fiction book publisher to learn that a piece of writing that they have published had been plagiarized or fabricated. As an Editor, it gives you a sick, disgusted, and sinking feeling, and you wonder how you didn’t catch it. But, like most unethical acts, it has happened before and will continue to happen, even to the best of us. However, educating the public and spreading awareness on a practice that has blurred lines in the age of the Internet and social media, is becoming increasingly necessary.
I can now imagine how the New York Times Editors must have felt when they realized that Jayson Blair a former journalist who worked with the paper from 1999 to 2003 had been gloriously plagiarizing and fabricating articles for the renowned newspaper, not once, but over a period of time. The discovery of his plagiarism was so shameful to the New York Times it was, they called it, the lowest point in the 152-year old history of the newspaper. Sadly today if you google Jayson Blair, his name is associated with nothing, but plagiarism.
Then there was James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces”, who it turns out had fabricated parts of his number one selling memoir. Oprah Winfrey who had endorsed him and promoted him on her TV Book Club, called him back to humiliate him the way he had humiliated and duped the public.
How did he and Jayson Blair get away with it, and what were they thinking? Did they not realize that when they worked with such high-profile organizations, the fall would become that much harder? But the story of plagiarism doesn’t end there. There are many people, especially artists, who have been accused of plagiarism and been sued for it. Bob Dylan is someone who comes to mind – probably a genius when it comes to adapting someone’s work as his own. Amongst the many accusations of plagiarism is one in which he used several lines from Japanese writer Junichi Saga’s book “Confessions of a Yakuza” in his best selling album “Love and Theft”. And it is said that artists do this all the time. “Just don’t get caught” is what they say, or do it in a way that you alter the idea or work to make it your own.
While in the art world this may be ok – to adapt and make it your own – in the business of journalism it is not. In the art world copyrights help protect their ideas and work to a certain extent, but in journalism there is no way of copyrighting every article or body of work, except by putting your name on it. Even then, sentences and phrases get lifted, if not the whole thing. We just have to rely on our ethics and on each other to point this out and catch the unscrupulous ones who steal others work.
Closer to home, it was only a matter of time that this discussion would come up. Many Bhutanese have been brazenly getting away with passing off others work as their own. But before we get to it, lets define Plagiarism, because it seems that many don’t know, or don’t understand what it exactly means. Or maybe they do, but they simply think they can get away with it because nobody is checking, and there is no penalty for doing it.
What is Plagiarism? There are varying definitions of it out there, but the most simple and comprehensive one from the Oxford Dictionary is – “The practice of taking someone else’s work and ideas and passing it off as ones own.” In other words, it is stealing, and the same moral standards apply to this act as it does to stealing anything else, only, one does not get penalized for it.
It is not uncommon on Bhutanese social media to see many wise and witty updates and statuses, quotes and sayings that have been lifted from somewhere else, not attributed, but passed off as their own. What people probably fail to realize is that when you don’t attribute work/words you have lifted, or credit them as quotes, it is plagiarism. And when people find out, you look like a thief because you have just taken something that wasn’t yours and put it out there as yours. Plagiarism is not only unethical but also a sign of sheer laziness. A journalist or writer who decides to lift work off another and use it verbatim or cleverly alter a few words here and there so that he/she doesn’t have to do the legwork, tells you a great deal about his/her character and work ethics. It also tells you their lack of respect for other writers and their work.
But if plagiarism in Bhutan were confined to just Facebook statuses, we in the journalism and education business wouldn’t have much to worry about. But it is not. A few weeks ago, The Raven received notice from a reader that an article on Mushrooms in the July/August issue had lifted content from Wikipedia. Not only that, the reader also mentioned that the picture that was used for the article was one that he had taken and posted on his blog. Once again, neither he nor his blog and been accredited by The Raven contributor, much to the shame of The Raven. When the issue was reported, an apology was issued to the complainer, but there was little that we could do as both people responsible for that article – the contributor, and the editor of that issue, had already left the organization. Many Bhutanese who have noticed this kind of journalistic practice have aptly described it as “Cut and Paste” journalism that seems to be quite commonly practiced knowingly or unknowingly by some.
It would be fair to say that The Raven had been warned that some journalists in the Bhutanese media have done this in the past – lifting information from Wikipedia and passing it off as their own. Accreditation for quotes and information lifted was stressed to The Raven writers and editors, but probably not enough.
Coincidentally a few days later on Facebook an American woman who had visited Bhutan and celebrated her wedding in a traditional Bhutanese ceremony had put an angry status about how her pictures had been stolen by her Bhutanese guide, who was now posting them as his own. She seemed very disturbed by this.
After a list of sympathetic posts from her friends, there was an angry comeback from the Bhutanese guide who seemed to think he had done nothing wrong, saying that he had posted them because she had given him some of these pictures. What the guide failed to realize was that even if some of the pictures were given to him, he still didn’t have the right to pass them off as his own. The picture was taken by somebody else, not him and by refusing to acknowledge that, made him not only a thief or sorts, but also a liar.
A Bhutanese official from Education who had written a short story and had it published in a magazine in Bhutan was rather surprised when he saw the story reappear in Kuensel under somebody else’s name. “Kuensel [had] printed it with someone else’s name as the author …lifted from a magazine I contributed to,” he said. Upon calling Kuensel and asking for an explanation, he was told that they had no idea that he had written it, as the person who claimed to have written it had contributed it to Kuensel. The person wasn’t a staff writer.
While it is understandable that The Raven, if not Kuensel, at least has valid reasons for failing to check and catch plagiarism because of a lack of trained personnel like editors, proofers, and copy-editors, the blame still falls on us for failing to do so. We are ultimately responsible for carrying such work, and we must own up to it when we realize these errors, even though it means we risk losing credibility.
While in the art world this may be ok to adapt and make it your own – in the business of journalism it is not.
In the age of the Internet and with so much information out there, plagiarists should remember – it is easy to lift and steal, but it is also easy to get caught. The practice has become so rampant especially among academia and students that it is taken very seriously by universities and schools. In many reputed institutions of learning you lose marks and get a warning the first time, the second time it amounts to expulsion. For bigger institutions or news organizations there are now ways to detect plagiarized work, but for smaller ones (like The Raven), we just have to stay on our toes, edit well, and rely on the ethics of our contributors and editors not to engage in this practice. And if they do, they should just remember that their lazy and unethical practices will harm not just that paper or organization, but damage their own reputation. Eventually, people come to know and there is nothing more awful for a writer or journalist to be slapped on with the label of a plagiarizer.