Monday 20 August 2012

The rise of plagiarism and the crisis of honesty

More are getting caught for copying but it is not enough to rely on online vigilantes, say experts
Published The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2012

New York - Thanks to vigilant online sleuths, many - from Filipino senators and senior editors to European politicians - are being accused of plagiarism as they give in to temptation and lift information from the Web.

Philippine Senator Vicente Sotto III is the latest to be ensnared: American Sarah Pope accused him last week of plagiarising her blog during an acrimonious debate on a contraception Bill that has divided the Philippines.

Mr Sotto initially denied using parts of Ms Pope's blog when he argued against the Bill to distribute contraceptives in government-run health clinics.

But after she called him a "lying thief" in a blog post last Thursday, his chief of staff, Mr Hector Villacorta, acknowledged that a staff member had used her blog without attribution.

Still, the senator maintains his ground and says both he and Ms Pope cited the same source, a Russian-born physician who claims that contraceptives cause an imbalance between good and bad bacteria in a person's intestines.

The case emerges soon after the controversy surrounding CNN and Time magazine journalist Fareed Zakaria's suspension. Some readers had noticed that a paragraph in his latest column was similar to one in an article in The New Yorker.

Mr Zakaria was reinstated last Friday after Time described his error as "unintentional" while CNN said a review of his work suggested that the suspension could be lifted.

Mr Zakaria's case was the second prominent case of plagiarism by a journalist, following that of science writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned from The New Yorker for trouble with "self-plagiarism" and more seriously, fabrication.

In both cases, the journalists were exposed not by those they misquoted or quoted without attribution, but by online sleuths who were quick to point out the problems.

Journalism is not the only field that has had to deal with cheats and copiers.

Colleges and universities deal daily with the issue of dishonest work - and not just among their students. Recent research suggests that 1 per cent of papers published in academic journals are strikingly similar to papers already published, leading to a growing concern about the rise of scientific plagiarism.

And throughout Europe, politicians are being accused of plagiarism on a wide scale.

Government leaders in Germany, Romania and Hungary have faced criticism - and sometimes dismissal - for stealing text for academic papers and dissertations.

Tackling the problem is difficult. Even media watchdogs are not sure of the extent of plagiarism and how much it has grown since the advent of the Internet.

Digital technology has removed many barriers for lazy or time-pressured writers looking to lift a few passages from an already-published source.

"Copy-and-paste was the biggest step forward for the plagiarist ever," says Mr Jonathan Bailey, creator of the website Plagiarism Today.

Once requiring a lot of research and retyping, plagiarism is now a shortcut, he says.

The Internet has also created the demand for ever more content from authors and pundits. Mr Zakaria, for instance, hosted a television show and wrote for Time magazine.

The increased workload can sometimes lead authors to produce work by committee, with assistants, editors and writers composing a piece under the byline of a single star. This process leaves lots of room for missing attribution and sloppy copy.

Whether or not plagiarism is on the rise, the widespread online availability of troves of past work has empowered a network of literary vigilantes who are quick to point out when an author has breached an ethical boundary.

"That's a huge change," says Mr Bailey.

"It's the crowdsourcing of plagiarism detection."

Using Wikipedia pages to document their findings, researchers now seek out copying in the dissertations and publications of notable politicians.

In one case, the paper in question had been written two decades ago - years before students could enter their thesis topic into Google.

"In Romania, it's an issue of (these officials) doing it forever and just now getting caught," says Mr Bailey.

And increasingly, software can quickly examine the literature in a crowded and complicated field, notes Mr Harold Garner of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech University.

"No one was looking or had any technology to do so a few years ago," he says.

Mr Garner's team developed a program that can compare more than 8,000 academic papers for language similarities.

No matter what the field and how it is caught, those who monitor plagiarism worry that catching the offenders after the fact is not enough to keep plagiarism at bay.

"I don't think there's enough support to do an effective job," says Mr Garner.

"We're doing it on the side, but there needs to be more oversight to make sure we have the best quality literature in the world."

New York Times, AP, Reuters


Fareed Zakaria, Time journalist
Mr Zakaria's suspension came as bloggers spotted similarities in some passages of his Time column, The Case for Gun Control, with those in a longer article on guns in America by historian Jill Lepore that was in the April 23 issue of The New Yorker.

The similar text was spotted by the conservative website NewsBusters, and the news spread quickly across the Internet after appearing on, a media blog.

Vicente Sotto III, Philippine senator
American blogger Sarah Pope said she came to know that some of her work had been plagiarised when she started getting a lot of Internet traffic from the Philippines.

According to ABS-CBN News, her blog started getting the traffic after Mr Alfredo Melgar of the Filipino Freethinkers alleged that Senator Vicente Sotto III had lifted information from her posts.

Her Facebook friends later joined the fray, and asked that she sue Senator Sotto.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, former German defence minister
Mr zu Guttenberg found himself in trouble in February when a reviewer discovered that his doctoral dissertation had some plagiarised passages.

Mr zu Guttenberg called the accusations "absurd", and said he would fix it for the second edition. Within days, a group of people formed a wiki they called GuttenPlag Wiki and proved him to be quite wrong. He had to resign just two weeks later.

Victor Ponta, Romanian Prime Minister
Mr Ponta faced accusations of plagiarism this year from leading scientific journal Nature.

Nature said it had seen documents compiled by an anonymous whistleblower indicating that more than half of Mr Ponta's 432-page, Romanian-language thesis on the functioning of the International Criminal Court consisted of duplicated text. Mr Ponta denied wrongdoing. He retains his position.


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