Why plagiarism is a form of identity theft
In my first role as a desk editor, I felt like a governess watching over a child’s mistakes.
One of the ‘serious’ assignments in the journalism school I attended was proofreading. We would scan five newspapers and encircle mistakes that went into the print edition. It was a tedious task, but one that instilled in us the importance of the role a desk plays in a newsroom. They’re the first readers of a copy, who also make it palatable for a wider readership once an issue is printed, I gathered. But it wasn’t until I joined a newspaper myself that I realised that the scope of the work exceeded beyond proofing and rewriting.
In my first role as a desk editor, I felt like a governess watching over a child’s mistakes. These would include reinstating the L in luck which the writer had substituted with an M, or sometimes taking notes from the reporter on what exactly happened at an event to basically write their copy for them. But one challenge that I wasn’t really prepared for was going through a piece line by line to check if the content was 100 per cent original. To my surprise, it wasn’t so always.
Journalism schools often infect you with an idealism that usually has no place in the real world. Why would a writer, who is getting a byline in a leading paper, think of plagiarising, I’d wonder. The reasons were aplenty. Tight deadlines, writer’s block and, sometimes, looking at a copy to get inspired and ending up pasting it as it is unconsciously. None of it made sense, until a controversy broke at an organisation I worked for when its Letter From The Editor had parts that were lifted from a piece in Slate.
Plagiarism is problematic. Writers not only own their words, but also the thoughts that inform the writing. And when this is reproduced without attribution, it amounts to intellectual and identity theft. The plagiarist then is selling a lie to the reader when s/he has them believe these are their own perspectives.
The Internet has enabled plagiarism unconsciously. When there is a plethora of reading material available online, it is easy to copy-paste and reproduce work. But even if this is the case, the individual onus cannot be overlooked. As for the question “why plagiarise?”, there are many interesting perspectives. A few years ago, a Times investigation revealed that nearly 50,000 students across UK universities had plagiarised. The media was quick to give it a moniker of the plagiarism epidemic.
Following up on the story, The Guardian tracked the journey of a student who was accused of plagiarising, and ended up finding that it was a case of not being able to reference articles properly. Can plagiarism be born out of callousness or lack of knowledge on protocols for referencing? Certainly. But should it go unnoticed and unchallenged? Certainly not. If the Internet has made content easily available to us, it is only fair that a writer is held to greater accountability.
When we talk about plagiarism, we also assume it is limited to words. But outside the scope of language, ideas get plagiarised too. This is quite possibly a more heinous form of plagiarism because the intent is clear when a plagiarist very consciously sets out to rewrite a piece and reproduce it as his/her own idea. This is more acutely felt in the contemporary media scene, where the role of a news organisation is either to break news or offer views. At a time when news breaks on Facebook and Twitter all the time, most newspapers across the world have also had to redefine themselves as ‘views’ papers, i.e., entities that offer considered analyses and opinions on events.
In such a scenario, where the opinion defines the identity of a news organisation, reproducing the ideas without attribution costs us all dearly. What’s more, there are still no definite checks and balances in place to identify plagiarism of ideas.
So, is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Not when you are denied ownership of your words and thoughts.
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