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Mihir S Sharma: The season of plagiarism

How the world's definition of plagiarism is changing -- but India's ethics are not

Mihir Sharma 

First of all, a disclaimer: nothing in this column is original.

Really, at the rate at which plagiarism scandals are hitting us, a pre-emptive statement of that sort seems advisable. Particularly when you have the sort of fuzzy and imprecise hindbrain, as I do, that throws up every now and then a line or an idea that it read or heard from somebody else – and assures your worried forebrain that it’s 100% original, seriously, bite it and see. Recently, while writing a column, I started with what I thought was a delightful joke only to discover that one of this newspaper’s of the day had used it too. Odd, I thought – till I remembered we’d had lunch together the previous day. In a mild panic, I called her to check; and, sure enough, she’d come up with the joke and I had subconsciously appropriated it. Oops.

It’s that sort of thing that can lose you friends. The painter James McNeill Whistler, sitting down once to dinner with notorious line-filcher Oscar Wilde, happened to say something funny; oh-so-poised Oscar forgot himself so far as to breathe “oh, I wish I’d said that”; at which Whistler, quick as a flash, said, “you will, Oscar, you will.” One tries to avoid that reputation. I personally use what I call the McCartney Test. If anything that I write sounds particularly good, I assume it isn’t original, and spend ages hunting for who said it first. My inspiration in this, as in so much else, is Paul McCartney, who woke up one morning humming the tune that would become ‘Yesterday’ and then spent a week wandering around London asking people if they’d heard it before, because it seemed too good, too hauntingly familiar to be original. Look, if the greatest melody-writer of the past 64 years worries about that, the rest of us should too.

Writing about plagiarism, therefore, is a tricky thing to choose to do. I definitely can’t sound too pompously disapproving, just in case I actually use somebody else’s phrase without attribution sometime soon. Hopefully, even if it happens, it won’t happen with the hilarious and apposite timing with which the far-right website Niticentral got its comeuppance recently – when its campaign against “plagiarism” in the “left-liberal media” kicked off just before people noticed one of the articles on the website had plagiarised something from

The problem is that plagiarism, always an inexact term, is applied these days to a wide and expanding swathe of offences. Time was when only wholesale lifting of somebody else’s writing got you in trouble, like in 1999 when the editor of The Hindustan Times, V N Narayanan, quit after The Pioneer revealed he’d been pinching large bits of his columns from the Sunday Times Magazine’s Bryan Appleyard. Of course, that sort of obvious error wasn’t always penalised. Definitely not if you were the owner: consider the case of Aroon Purie, whose  letter to the readers of India Today a few years ago was immediately recognised as having taken a lengthy passage from one of Slate’s most read pieces of the year, on Rajnikanth. (Part of Mr Purie’s rather odd defence, not one available to Mr Narayanan, was that he was jet-lagged.)

And public memory can be short. One of the most egregious plagiarists of recent times currently expects to be re-elected to the second most powerful office in the United States. Joe Biden’s standard campaign speech, when he was running for president in 1988, was discovered to be an almost-exact copy of a speech delivered by the inspirational speaker who then led Britain’s Labour Party, the Welshman Neil Kinnock. Mr Biden hadn’t just cannibalised what Mr Kinnock said, and how he said it. Disdaining such paltry ambition as unworthy of a presidential aspirant, Mr Biden set his sights much higher -- claiming Mr Kinnock’s entire ancestry and biography as his own, even inventing coal-mining forebears in order to avoid changing a word. Not the sort of ethical slipperiness one would want, you’d think, in one’s leaders – but, as I said, public memory everywhere is short.

Yet the intensity of the anger that accompanies accusations of plagiarism sometimes surprises me – and it’s particularly intriguing how that intensity seems to have increased of late. We live in times when the dominant intellectual strain is represented by anti-copyright advocates use postmodernist wriggling to dismiss “originality” as an invented concept (though the same people would probably be pretty damn irritated if anyone used their stuff without attribution). I sometimes think that, in the world media, there is no sin but plagiarism; you can shill for vested interests with impunity; you can base all your entire published work on whispers, innuendo and anonymous sources; your data can be disproved and your predictions falsified; you can be boring, ungrammatical, incomprehensible or just plain stupid – but you could nevertheless have a long, satisfying career. (And if you manage to accomplish all the above with sufficiently brazen élan, you might rise to the summit of the profession, The New York Times’ op-ed page.) But heaven help you if do anything that looks, even sideways-on, like plagiarism. Why is that, I wonder?

Perhaps an answer emerges when we look at some of the plagiarism scandals that have been exercising our interest and outrage of late. This season of plagiarism began with the undoing of Jonah Lehrer, an undeserving wunderkind (the correct description of anyone who has a column in the New Yorker and Wired in spite of being two years younger than I am). He was first discovered to be repeating himself – self-plagiarism is also, apparently, now a sin of equal weight, which really worries me -- before it was revealed that his book on Bob Dylan was littered with quotes that he had stolen, spliced together, or fabricated.

We do not know, for certain, what Mr Dylan thinks about Mr Lehrer’s crime. After all, Mr Dylan is celebrated as one of the greatest artists of his and our day, and the chap’s a total theft factory. Of course, big chunks of his autobiography are just plain made up. His persona, with Woody Guthrie voice and Roy Orbison glasses, isn’t too original either. And his last two albums made off with good lines from one of the poets of the American South in the Civil War, Henry Timrod, and the finest chronicler of the Japanese underworld, Junichi Saga. Mr Dylan, for the first time, addressed these claims this week in a long interview with Rolling Stone. You’re supposed to lift things in folk music, he announced. (Untrue: the brilliant Rian Malan spearheaded an exploration, a decade ago, of how folk music was coming round to figuring out that one of its seminal tracks, “Wimoweh”, needed to be credited to the original African artists.) Mr Dylan added, a little unpleasantly, that Timrod’s descendants must be thanking him. Oh, and that people worrying about plagiarism are “wussies and pussies.” All righty then.

Mr Dylan, secure in the knowledge that in today’s world there are no longer any ethical standards for art, can make arguments the journalist Mr Lehrer can’t quite appropriate, however much he’d want to. An investigation by journalism professor Charles Seife of Mr Lehrer’s work for Wired magazine – commissioned by Wired but published in Slate – found multiple examples of Mr Lehrer committing all sorts of journalistic sins: recycling; making stuff up; straightforward plagiarism; misquotation; and recycling press releases, which in India is less a journalistic sin and more a journalistic staple.

Yet why would Mr Lehrer do it? Why would the archetypal hipster intellectual, who even lives in one of the coolest houses in the world, risk exchanging universal admiration for the kind of nose-wrinkly disdain which characterises how we treat plagiarists? After much head-scratching, North America’s head-scratching classes decided on the answer: the fatal disease that is Expertitis. Once you catch it, there’s no cure.

What are the symptoms of Expertitis? Well, megalomania. Self-inflicted omniscience. Unbearable pressure. Basically you’re expected to have things to say that are simultaneously novel, intelligent, unusual and quirky. And instead of having maybe half a decade to work on and refine an idea, to check it empirically and place it in the history of thought, you need to produce three pieces a week that combine all these desirable qualities – or nobody thinks you’re important at all.
Not only that, it better be cutting-edge; you must sound like an expert, even though you’re clearly nothing of the sort. Hence Mr Lehrer, talking about the frontiers of neuroscience, repeatedly ripped off university mailers and press releases in order to sound more informed. Yes, press releases are in the public domain, and you’re encouraged to quote from them, or even use their text unattributed; the problem with his behaviour was that he chose to use them in order to acquire an air of expertise that wasn’t warranted.

That, too, was the subtext of the precipitous fall and apparent recovery of Fareed Zakaria. Indeed, Mr Zakaria’s errors were actually complex enough in nature to properly require a conclave of ethicists to sit all night to work out exactly what he did was wrong.

Consider this knotty conundrum: Mr Zakaria, in a discussion of gun violence, quotes a Texan high court judge, correctly attributing that quote. Sounds impressive. After all, who reads what nineteenth-century Texan jurists have to say? Which is why that quote isn’t enough; he has to also credit the person who found the quote, the law professor Adam Winkler, and his book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. You’d think that was enough. Mr Winkler is a widely-read columnist, and his book sold well, and was reviewed everywhere. But no; because the same excerpts from Gunfight had also appeared in a blog post by Jill Lepore for the New Yorker, Mr Zakaria was held guilty by that conclave of ethicists.

In some ways, this is raising the bar significantly. Clearly Mr Zakaria – or, more likely, his research assistants – had, in fact, read Ms Lepore’s blog post and used the same set of quotes from a widely-read book. But is it now the case that we have to present ideas with an entire provenance, a thread of history linking back to some original stater in the dead past, a chain of he-reads and then she-heards, almost like the hadiths of the Prophet? The quick and easy condemnation of Mr Zakaria – one driven, in many cases, by pre-existing disagreement or political differences – hid, to my mind, a substantial expansion of the domain of plagiarism, and one that needs explanation.

Mr Zakaria is a professional expert, not a journalist. He hosts a TV show of considerable quality, and receives speaking fees for a few hours that seem like more than you or I will likely earn over our lifetimes. He needs to sound as if he can command, at a moment’s notice, all the relevant facts – historical, academic, political, hidden – about whatever’s in the news at the moment. If someone goes on a shooting spree, and we demand to have America’s history with guns explained to us, Mr Zakaria had better be ready to do so, or give up his Expert-for-hire card. And thus you have research assistants who collect all sorts of interesting quotes, passing them up and down the chain of researchers that constitute Fareed Zakaria Incorporated; and thus you lose sight of who said what. Perhaps, if Mr Zakaria had put in enough work on each of his endless columns or blog posts or TV shows or speeches, and had limited himself to subjects on which he had done the extensive background reading himself, this wouldn’t have happened.

Or would it? Other recent accusations of this new, broader notion of plagiarism suggest that there are additional pitfalls. The accusations levelled at Hindustan Times editor-at large Samar Halarnkar, for example, are illustrative. A column in April by Mr Halarnkar on food security in the Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte starts with a long discussion of the sequence of events in Belo that is, in essence, directly taken from the sequence reported in a Yes magazine article by Frances Moore Lappe. Importantly, at one point, Ms Lappe is directly quoted – but as the author of a classic 1971 book on hunger. The Yes magazine article itself is neither mentioned nor hyperlinked.

In this case, why didn’t quoting Ms Lappe, even in passing, feel like enough to many of us? First, because that falsely implies that the author, Ms Lappe, bears all the credit for a published piece of this sort, not the publication, Yes, that did the editing and fact-checking. And second, it leaves the reader without the crucial information that 90 per cent of what she is reading in the Brazil section of Mr Halarnkar’s piece is, essentially, from this other article. (In response, Mr Halarnkar has pointed to two other sources from which he took details; Newslaundry examined this explanation, and found it wanting.) We wind up thinking, in essence, that Mr Halarnkar has compiled this information on Belo, done the math on proportions of poverty and child hunger, himself. And this impression is entirely due to attribution that is, at best, sloppy.

Perhaps this is not plagiarism as we have traditionally imagined it, in this country at least. Some of the responses seem to suggest that. One attacks the antecedents of the blogger who pointed it out. One says that you don’t credit facts in the public domain. Perhaps; but it appears, judging by the Zakaria example, that you credit a compilation of those facts you’ve drawn on heavily. A third, a comment by former Time Out editor Naresh Fernandes on the Newslaundry post, says two interesting things. The first: in commentary, it’s analysis that’s important, not information; so the sources need not be credited. But commentary crucially involves the discovery and organisation of facts to make a point. If that discovery and organisation has been done by someone else, then you should avoid leaving readers with the impression that you have done it yourself.

Indeed – and here’s the crucial difference from the past -- given how easily facts are now available, it is those who perform a curatorial function with publicly-available facts who have true value in the marketplace of ideas and of commentary. This is the reason why the definition of plagiarism seems to be expanding. What we now value is the ability to organise facts that are already known. So it doesn’t really matter if you are also reporting publicly-known facts and analysing them differently; you need to credit the person who originally did the work of discovering what’s relevant in the befuddling, immersing swirl of data in which we spend our days.

Mr Fernandes also says this – no credit for facts, etc – is the convention for commentary-writing in the mainstream media. I run a commentary page, and on this at least I am forced to disagree with Mr Fernandes. If a similar problem were brought to my attention in one of the pieces I’m editing, I would suggest that the attribution to the original compiler – the Ms Lappe-equivalent – be made clearly, at the first point in the story in which facts based on her article are introduced; and the phrasing of the attribution is such that the reader understands that most of what follows was originally compiled by the Ms Lappe-equivalent.

The varying responses to Mr Zakaria and Mr Halarnkar, however, reveal the problem with so expanding the definitions of an already fuzzy sin, and then attaching to it such moral weight. To my eyes, the errors of Messrs Zakaria and Halarnkar are not so very different. They’re both mild errors, mind – in fact, Mr Zakaria apologised and was reinstated within days, and his career does not seem to have suffered. Yet some of the same people defending Mr Halarnkar – a journalist who has done stalwart work in the field of hunger in particular – were also those attacking that neoliberal sell-out Mr Zakaria. Niticentral’s double standard, in which its own plagiarism was “over-enthusiasm” while other people’s plagiarism was a damnable conspiracy of left-liberal silence, is also instructive. In the absence of clear standards, what becomes important is how much you value what they’re doing, or whether they’re on the same side as you politically. That’s simply not OK.

Double standards demean us doubly. Mr Zakaria jumped through hoops to be forgiven for making money off his expert brand-name, overwriting away while passing off other’s compilations as his own; Mr Halarnkar– who has, after all written over a hundred articles on hunger in the past couple of years – should hold himself to, and be held to, the same standards. Or higher standards, given that he teaches journalism at Berkeley. But there does seem to be a difference between the rest of the world and India on this point.

Oh, and nobody should be allowed a free pass for Expertitis. (I, fortunately, will never have that problem. Sadly, I am not an Expert at anything except how other people are wrong.)

An interesting exercise in the double standards that our fuzziness over what constitutes plagiarism encourages was visible in another recent flap, over Simon Denyer’s report for the Washington Post that apparently deserves some credit for getting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reforming again. He quoted the PM’s former media advisor, and a former editor of this newspaper, Sanjaya Baru. Yet Dr Baru was quick to deny that Mr Denyer had talked to him. And the quote in question – along with another attributed to the historian Ramachandra Guha – did seem familiar.

Which it was, because Drs Baru and Guha had in fact given them to Caravan editor Vinod K Jose for his long profile of the PM last year. Mr Denyer had spoken to both Dr Guha and Dr Baru, and gotten them to confirm that they stood by their quotes; but the Post piece, as originally written, left the reader with a sense that Mr Denyer had picked out those quotes as important from a lengthy interview, or possibly teased the damning words about the PM out of Dr Singh’s friends and admirers. That achievement was, in fact, Vinod Jose’s and not Simon Denyer’s. Again, not plagiarism as we know it, but a sense of being slightly deceived.

Eventually, the Post had to update their story after the flap. Every Indian reporter who has ever had his patiently-excavated bit of news repeated without attribution by a foreign correspondent treated himself to a celebratory Old Monk at the Press Club.

But, as Hartosh Singh Bal points out in the latest issue of Open magazine, aren’t the double standards ridiculous? In Indian journalism, people routinely dissect other people’s quotes, or call up contacts and put quotes in their mouth (“would you say that....”). “The direct quote, especially in the English media, is a myth,” writes Mr Bal. (That’s a direct quote.). Nine out of ten “unnamed-source” quotes that substantiate gossipy political stories are made up, Mr Bal adds; and in India “you won’t get sacked for doing what Lehrer did, you won’t even get noticed.”

He’s right. Fooling around with quotes is endemic in this country. If we then expand the borders of plagiarism to include not naming your entire set of sources; or deceiving readers as to whether you’ve relied heavily on another published piece for research, or compilation, or interviewing; then we’ll be in real trouble the moment we apply any ethical standards to ourselves.

Fortunately, we’re unlikely to. Because what Mr Bal doesn’t say is that we’re a nation of copiers.

It’s our only real skill, copying. We learn it in school exams. We praise it in our industry. We photocopy textbooks. We follow each other down one-way streets. We listen to songs “inspired” by other people’s melodies, in movies that are ghastly, ungrateful rip-offs of other nations’ cinema. We neither prize nor celebrate nor aspire to originality. So, of course, India is the natural home of plagiarism.

But, meanwhile, the rest of the world is evolving towards a stricter standard for plagiarism. Different things are expected from the media, so different ethics are accepted from it, too. The curatorial, collating and editorial side is slowly coming to dominate the pure reportage side as the reason people turn to the mainstream media; consequently, the spirit underlying plagiarism, of doing things differently from everyone else, has to be introduced to the act of curating facts as well.

And the place where these harsher global standards meet the ethical sinkhole that is India, is our media. Naturally, there will be conflict. There will be communication gaps, and angry accusations, and culture clashes. This is just the start of our long hot season of plagiarism.

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First Published: Thu, September 20 2012. 13:44 IST