Reflections on Plagiarism

A few times each year, like clockwork, a well-known writer or journalist at a major source is exposed for plagiarism. There are many definitions of what plagiarism actually is, but the basic principle behind it is that one must simply cite any thought that is not an original to that person. There aren’t hard rules, but generally it’s as simple as mentioning a writer, or linking to a piece, or referencing another piece of work. This paradigm is born from academia, where intellectual property theft was a risk. The convention built as a solution was to cite work, to help properly assign attribution and track it over time. Fast forward to today, it’s widely known that plagiarism is frowned upon greatly, yet the temptation to lift tiny paragraphs, words, or even just thoughts is still very real, very human.

I’m normally not surprised to hear of a well-known writer being caught. However, I was shocked to hear that Fareed Zakaria was caught and quickly admitted his guilt. Zakaria is already so experienced with media and punditry, a global brand in his own right. My wife’s uncle went to graduate school with him and remarked that, during those times, it was evident that Zakaria was simply many cuts above the rest — a superstar in the making. Yet, after all of his columns, television shows, and public appearances, he was caught today for almost lifting entire paragraphs from another writer’s work in The New Yorker. Given how righteous Zakaria’s commentary could be, I don’t see how he survives this episode. He broke the code, from a position of strength and when he should have known better.

Today’s story reminded me of an instance in my life I am not too proud of. I didn’t plagiarize, but I was taught a frightening lesson. In high school, I had written a long series of individual papers about Vietnam, dating all the way back to the French invasion of Dien Bien Phu all the way to the mid-1970s. I had written so much that my college asked for writing samples so that I could be placed in another track and skip the initial courses. I used one 2-3 page sample about the Tet Offensive.

Fast forward to that first semester in expository writing. I took my original paper and, as a shortcut, reworked it into a longer paper. Technically, I plagiarized myself. The professor felt it was a weird topic for a college freshman, investigated my file, and saw that I had used parts of the original in my application materials. Now, her assignment didn’t say the essay assignment had to be original, but I guess it was implied. And I took a shortcut. In turn, she was very stern, called me to stay after class, called me into her office, told me of her investigation, and said she had no recourse but to forward this to the academic dean, who would then have the right to impose discipline, perhaps even suspension or worse.

Ultimately, it was just a trick played by my professor. She was personally angry that I took a shortcut instead of going through her exercise with integrity. And, well, she scared the shit out of me for 24 hours, that’s for sure. She eventually told me that she felt that it was a slippery slope, and she saw her role as being the one to teach by instilling fear. Point taken!

I can’t claim any moral high ground here. If I didn’t have that experience in my first year of college, who knows what could have happened. I hadn’t even thought of this incident for years until today. Maybe Zakaria never got scared about repercussions, or maybe he felt he was untouchable, or better than another writer, or that it was no big deal, that people retweet content or share others’ pictures for their own without permission or, worse, without attribution. This isn’t limited to text, to words. It gets worse on blogs, of course. It happens to pictures, which is why Creative Commons and Stipple exist. It happens in the press, as writers rework press releases. It happens to design for websites, which is why literally thousands of web designers are virtually copying the Pinterest interface, and it happens to hardware manufacturers like Apple who design one of the most disruptive technological devices the world has ever seen, only to be ruthlessly copied, or plagiarized, by an another company.

Plagiarism in any form is simply copying without proper attribution. The old saying goes that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but in this context, which is quite broad, it turns out it’s the exact opposite of sincere.