Saturday, December 07, 2013
Kleptomaniacs of the Word
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes
Published: April 30, 2014
Seldom a day goes by that we don’t open a paper or read a release to learn about another instance of plagiarism. A few weeks ago it was Fareed Zakaria, now Jonah Lehrer has been caught with his hand in the till where other writers store their creations.
There seems to be an epidemic, no longer limited to the traditional workers of the pen. All over the place lawyers, judges, doctors; the tailor, the baker and the candlestick maker have resorted to shamelessly steal the words of others. Even politicians, traditionally spared embarrassment behind a cohort of acolytes who could take the rap are not immune.
Romania’s Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, has been accused of plagiarism by Nature, the scientific magazine, further corroborated by Reuters, and the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Other members of the new Romanian Government were also accused of plagiarism. Hungary’s President and the German Defense Minister stepped down after plagiarism charges. The epidemic spreads unchecked. But… does it?
The other day I discussed the issue with Renée when she made one of her diabolically incisive remarks. Renée Miller, besides her numerous talents—which I’m not about to publicize lest evil minds think I’m attempting to play up to her ego—has a phenomenal brain and a knack to dissect the most spiny issues. She wrote:
But you know, before the age of the Internet, this shit probably happened more and wasn't ever caught. Right?
I sipped a tiny bit of the Lagavulin that should last me till midnight and mulled over Renée’s judgment. Right.
Two decades ago and beyond, spotting instances of plagiarism was hard; it needed
conscientious readers with
good memories. Even voracious readers had it difficult unless they daily perused scores of publications, and even then their chances were slim if plagiarism wasn’t circumscribed to their area of interest.
Traditionally, scientists, newspaper editors, genre readers and literary buffs were the front line against cheats, for obvious reasons. Scientists literally pore over hundreds of papers related to their line of research or interest, and concepts, ideas or chunks of prose lifted from elsewhere stand out. The same is true of newspaper editors, who read or skimmed through competing publications to keep an eye on their shenanigans. Genre readers would consume prodigious quantities of prose within a narrow area of interest. In doing so, their detector for similarly-sounding ideas, style or content was finely tuned. SF readers, to put an example, would go up in arms if anyone dared to name “Mule” anyone with outstanding mental powers and denounce that Isaac Asimov had written such a character half-a-century earlier.
Finally, literary readers had to explore anything the sacred cows produced, if only to appear knowledgeable at séances.
You would have noticed that with the exception of genre readers, most people in a position to detect even subtle instances of plagiarism were professionals. This seemingly inconsequential detail kept most instances of literary dishonesty—but for glaring examples that couldn’t be swept under the carpet—within the family. Professionals dealt with transgressors behind locked doors, careful not to publicize anything that could tarnish their image.
But the Internet changed the rules of the game.
To be fair, the Internet didn’t change anything by itself, but afforded everyone access to huge databases. Sophisticated software with the capacity to compare billions of documents—accessible from the lowliest computer—did the trick.
Renée writes articles for living; she daily churns out thousands of words touching subjects and themes that go from the sublime to the ridiculous. It follows that she must document her pieces from many sources; libraries, scientific journals and papers, encyclopedias and the archives of newspapers and universities. Once she’s rewritten and finished an article, she runs her prose through a series of subscription services to analyze each word, sentence and paragraph to ensure that her output is original.
To give you a little insight into the world of professional writing, the newspapers and magazines to which she contributes her pieces double check the originality of her prose by running it through similar services. They do it with the work of every reporter.
If there is a single line that smells the tiniest bit plagiarized, no matter how logical the reason, the article is refused and the writer does not get paid.
Then, if publishers take pains to ensure honesty of writing, why do the likes of Zakaria and Lehrer risk stealing a few lines here and there? Why were their articles published unchecked? How could anyone with even scant knowledge of the Internet’s capacity for comparison dream they could get away with theft?
The first question is the simplest to answer and yet it conceals what I consider is the kernel of most blatant plagiarism. The Zakarias of this world have chosen a life of hard-to-describe stress, in an industry where deadlines are sacrosanct. Sick, weary, uninspired, depressed, or simply drained after never-ending vigils, they
produce copy. And no excuse is valid to the editor who must feed the printing presses, the feature on a webpage or the instruction manual for the latest gadget. Missing a deadline can cost millions, and ruin a career.
But there’s another, much more insidious source of plagiarism. The world is full of talented people, brimming with new ideas and takes on old ones, and the Internet has made them accessible. It only takes a few minutes browsing to come across brilliant concepts and prose of rare beauty. Writers explore these ideas—often awed before the raw unknown talent that crafted them—and run them in their mind until they feel self-created. Then they pen them, and I want to believe that nine times out of ten are so immersed in their work they don’t realize the sin they’re committing. I may be naïve, but it’s hard to swallow that such people could stamp their byline on the work of someone else.
So, why do publishers—always so careful to test the honesty of lesser scribes—skip the checks on the lines of their star performers? The Roman poet Juvenal proposed an answer in his Satires, alas disguised as another question:
quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Loosely translated as "Who watches the watchmen?" Some people are so high up in the lofty realms of publishing that their product is considered almost holy.
This leaves the last question: How could anyone in the Internet era hope to get away with theft? I have no answer, though I suspect many people ignore the awesome power of comparing software.
Nowadays, stealing words on purpose is stupid; akin to snatching a bag in a police station. And to steal without premeditation or even consciousness of the fact is tragic: Ignorance is never accepted as defense in any Court of law.
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