Sunday September 16, 2012
We may stand on another’s shoulders to get somewhere, but we should enhance what we learn from that.
ONCE in university, my tutor confronted me about a solution to a maths problem I had submitted. “Tell me, which textbook did you get this from?”
Fortunately, my friend backed me up by saying he had gotten his answer wrong precisely because no textbook in the library had a readily available solution to that problem.
What my tutor didn’t understand was that my ego was (and still is) too large for me to readily admit defeat. I would much rather spend hours working on an original solution that could be wrong, than just lift a correct answer from a book. To me, copying is like giving in and if you don’t admit to it, it’s very wrong.
It clearly isn’t to some people. In 2005, a theatre critic writing in a local newspaper was accused of lifting a review of a Malaysian production of Macbeth from the Financial Times and the website for the Edinburgh Festival. In 2008, an aspiring young writer was caught out when her book of poetry was shown to contain literal translations from English to Malay of works of more established Western poets. Recently, Twittersphere has been full of chatter about more possible cases of plagiarism.
This seems to be the year of high-profile journalistic cheats. Last month, renowned analyst and journalist Fareed Zakaria was accused of lifting a paragraph practically verbatim for his article from another magazine.
It must be noted that Fareed is not some junior hack who lacks talent. He has written for publications such as Newsweek, Time magazine and the Washington Post, as well as been a pundit on CNN. He has also been invited to have off-the-record conversations with President Barack Obama.
Although it was only one paragraph, Fareed came out and apologised straight away. Time and CNN still suspended him, but he was later reinstated after an investigation.
Nevertheless, his reputation has taken a battering and I’m not sure if he’ll get many more invitations to the White House.
That said, what Fareed Zakaria did was relatively minor when compared to another journalist, Jonah Lehrer.
Lehrer is no intellectual slouch. He studied 20th-century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and has written for The New Yorker, Wired, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, amongst others.
In June this year, Lehrer was accused of a strange crime: self-plagiarism. In what was passed off as new articles for the New Yorker magazine were extracts of text that first appeared in older articles written by him.
Although it’s not nice to pass off old writing as new (copy-and-paste takes far less effort than original thought), there wasn’t much of an uproar. Instead we saw plenty of intellectual debate about what shade of wrong his transgression was.
That is, until another scandal involving him broke out.
In July, an article appeared that accused Lehrer of making facts up for his latest book. He was caught out because the first chapter was about Bob Dylan, and a journalist who was a big fan of the singer thought that something was odd about the quotes.
A journalism professor was asked to investigate further, and he discovered many, many more examples of self-plagiarism, invented facts, quotes that could not be verified, and direct reuse of press releases.
Despite all the good work he may have done in other articles, it is likely that Lehrer will not be taken seriously for quite some time.
The irony is that cases of plagiarism can usually be avoided quite easily if authors just took the trouble to attribute their sources.
With the addition of a few brackets and a URL in-between, you would have turned from a cheat into a diligent researcher.
(Lehrer could have admitted his invented facts were his fantasy – although that would have negated the point of his articles in the first place!)
Some element of judgment is to be used. I, too, am guilty of not attributing every single source in my columns. But it shouldn’t surprise the reader that an article such as this is an amalgamation of facts gleaned with the help of Google.
For example, the fact that Jonah Lehrer was a Rhodes scholar was sourced from Wikipedia, and checked with the original source cited there. The original quote on the site is, “He then studied 20th-century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.”
Note the similarity to my line above. I would challenge anybody who accuses me of plagiarism to present exactly what original idea it was that I stole.
True, I could have reworded the sentence by simply rearranging its structure, but the difference is too minor to quibble over. Yet, I must almost admit that if I copied only one other extra sentence before or after my example above, something in me would have tempted me to add, “According to the article on Wikipedia ...”
I can also imagine there might be readers out there who feel that every researched idea should be attributed, but let me point out what I think is obvious: There is very little true original thought left in the world.
Especially now, in the digital age, a billion Internet commentators are hitting keys not quite at random and will eventually convey all the most obvious ideas out there, even if it’s not quite Shakespeare.
The difference between plagiarism and inspiration is this: Do you have any original idea, however small, that you think will make a positive contribution to the world? And are you willing to attribute the source materials that led you to your destination?
Let’s say you are writing an article on how to buy a yacht, and you find an interesting source on the Internet that gives lots of ideas. If you just copied it outright, that wouldn’t be very good.
But what if you had gone one extra step, to say, for example: “This advice is readily available and seems like common sense, but people don’t normally take it.” Or, “We see people saying this all the time – but it’s wrong!”
Immediately, unoriginal copy becomes an original analysis. And I have no problem with standing on other men’s shoulders to get somewhere new.
I think the value we bring is to try enhance what we know of the world now, even if what we come up with is not very clever or perhaps plain wrong. At least, it’s a contribution and not just a con job.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.