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Plagiarism: Dealing with Stolen Words

September 6, 2010

By JAHZEEL ABIHAIL G. CRUZ

As detailed in this latest issue of Expat Newspaper, the allegations of plagiarism plaguing the Philippine Supreme Court have already had far-reaching implications. And while the matter has already been referred to an ethics committee, one can’t help but wonder what the guidelines are in place to combat such instances of intellectual theft.

In the Philippines, one will be hard-pressed to find all-encompassing rules against plagiarism. In the academe, where such incidents are most often at play, guidelines are determined per institution, with varying definitions and corresponding penalties. Elsewhere, plagiarism is even harder to track and punish. The Internet has opened doors not only to truckloads of information, but to venues for widespread publication of anything written. Indeed, netizens face a growing concern in blog plagiarism.

Plagiarism’s rudimentary definition is taking another’s words and passing them as your own. In the digital age, this has never been easier than using the cut-and-paste function on one’s computer, but the act ranges from unintentional to downright savvy. While some instances of plagiarism boil down to a matter of improper citation, others are passed off as clever rewordings of others’ statements. The line is rarely clear, because what can be described as taking the ideas of others can also be defended as merely citing their research to back up a claim. Based on Heyward Erlich’s (of Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA) outline of the problem, the issue is clearly complex.

Even before talking about how to deal with plagiarism, there’s the problem of how to detect it. Erlich says this is a painstaking task in itself, because one has to rely on clues rather than glaring signs, and he/she would have to do research of his/her own. He goes on to suggest ways on how to proceed with confirming suspicions of plagiarism, citing common websites used in “assembling” papers rather than writing them.

Of course, academic writing is only one venue where plagiarism takes place. And in the Philippines, the Supreme Court decision was not the only high-profile one. Earlier this year, prominent businessman Manny Pangilinan was caught reading a plagiarized commencement speech to graduates of the Ateneo de Manila University. The copied words may not have been identical, but they were similar enough to elevate inspiration into plagiarism. Pangilinan has since apologized, and even resigned from the University’s board, but many have noted that these are mere slaps on the wrist compared to penalty of expulsion that students face for the same offense.

There most definitely is an inherent outrage to be felt at having one’s words being passed off as others, but a case in the United States involving a journalist taking without attribution not only the words, but necessarily the legwork, of an investigative website  paints the picture of how convoluted plagiarism can get.

Are penalties needed outside schools? If so, how are to define the offense, i.e. what constitutes plagiarism and what doesn’t? These questions need further research to be answered. For now, at least one of the allegedly plagiarized authors in the Supreme Court case, Prof. Christian Tams, believes the best way is to get instances like these out in the open. He writes in an email to Expat: “Generally, I believe problems like this are best addressed by reporting them widely, and by a broad and critical debate among judges, lawyers, officials and academics.”

Grab a copy of the latest issue of Expat Newspaper, out now.

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