[Bodymind] Lessons from plagiarism

[Bodymind] Lessons from plagiarism
What is plagiarism and when does one truly commit it? Before being discovered or after the fact? Dr Margie Holmes tackles some important questions and more.

I am writing about plagiarism because I fear that many have tried to minimize its unacceptability in order to magnify the sadness of Liam Madamba’s death. Plagiarism is enough of a problem without us making it worse by pretending it isn’t.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as the practice of taking someone elses work or ideas and passing them off as ones own. 

Good old Wikipedia, source of many studentscut-and-paste efforts, states that“…Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like penalties, suspension, and even expulsion….Plagiarism is not a crime per se but in academia and industry, it is a serious ethical offense, and cases of plagiarism can constitute copyright infringement.

However, the definition and examples I like most are from urban dictionary, contributed by spinningtabletop (a student):

Plagiarism (is) what people who either can’t write or are too lazy do whenever a paper is due. Any usage of someone else’s writing as one’s own is plagiarism, no matter how cleverly disguised (or not) it is. 

Perhaps the most common way is to search for or download existing papers, cut and paste, change the wording superficially and scramble it a little, and turn it in as your own. Other common methods are to simply copy other students’ work in one’s class, changing it superficially, or to download or even buy papers online.

Any way you do it, it’s a reprehensible practice that can, and should get you in big trouble. There are known cases where students have been held back a year, or even expelled. Unfortunately, plagiarism still seems to be a growing problem, and students usually get away with it.

Nowhere do any of the above definitions require a certain number of paragraphs to be copied before qualifying as plagiarism, a precondition Philippine articles seem to make much of, at least when writing about how Liam Madambas behavior was not really plagiarism” (quotes mine).  

However, at least one other columnist expresses indignation because Ms Mann considered that one paragraph in a first draft constituted plagiarism.

My opinion, based on all the dictionary definitions I’ve found so far, is that one paragraph – indeed, one sentence – can be plagiarism, the same way an entire chapter, indeed an entire book, is.  The logic behind this, at least as far as I, a former professor, see it,  is: A person capable of plagiarism just might continue with that sole ‘paragraph’ in the first draft were he not found out. Thus, best to nip it in the bud (as it were).

Analyzing Liam Madamba’s plagiarism case is complicated by his tragic death, which has had the unfortunate effect of adding sensationalism, high emotion and a false sense of nationalism (cold, arrogant Brits vs warmhearted Filipinos) to the already potent mix. It is possibly further complicated by the nature of the source material – the media. We have no way of knowing if what is reported is the whole story since we have no access to the protagonists, other than by way of published sound bites, probably carefully polished for maximum effect by publicists and other heavily biased intermediaries.

What frightens me is that, in an effort to show sympathy for Liam, many will pretend, as they do now, that Liam did not plagiarize. He did. 

I am afraid that plagiarism will be re-defined so that Liams behavior when he submitted his work will seem like small potatoes. Dont get me wrong. It is small in that I doubt Ms Manns move to call out Liam on it was sufficient reason for him to commit suicide – as many people have suggested and even accused her of. 

To even think that such is a possibility would be an insult to Liams memory. Was he really so mababaw (shallow), introverted though he was – as his mother said and Issabella Ver, the student who was scolded along with him confirmed – that being scolded was sufficient reason to take his life?  

Are we going to allow Liams legacy to be fear? Fear on the part of teachers to tell students they plagiarised even if they did, simply because interested parties want to blame them for any subsequent behavior? Will all our teachers now be afraid (and rightly so) to apply disciplinary measures in case they get demonized like Ms Mann? Measures, I might add, that Issabella Ver (who copied the same paragraph from the same source) felt were reasonable and justified.

She seemed more disappointed than angry,” Ms Ver shared with me, and the threats she supposedly made, were not made in my presence. 

And you know something, Ms Vers observations seem more realistic and more accurate than Mrs Madambas at this point.  

Yes, Mrs Madamba is grieving. Yes, she has been strong and dignified beyond any mother’s capacity to be so soon after her sons death.  But while Mrs Madamba can be forgiven for raging against anyone who to her mind caused Liams suicide, we cannot be forgiven for allowing her interpretation to prevail unless we have more proof than a mothers accusations.

If we do so, it will be a tragedy not only for the BSM, but also for all the learning, not to mention the governing, even the thinking and professional, institutions in our country.

Note: In the interest of full self disclosure, I plagiarized at least once, but before anyone found out (thank God), I realized my mistake and cited the bibliographic details in future printings of the essay. – Rappler.com


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