A primer on plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism, derived from the Latin plagiarus (literally, “kidnapper”)—which in turn is derived from plagium (literally, “kidnapping”)—may be defined as follows: an act or instance of stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s won; using a created production without crediting the source; committing literary theft; or presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source (“Plagiarism”; “Plagiarize”; “Plagiary”).

Irving Hexham, a professor at the University of Calgary, provides a definition specifically for an academic context:

Plagiarism is the deliberate attempt to deceive the reader through the appropriation and representation as one’s own the work and words of others. Academic plagiarism occurs when a writer repeatedly uses more than four words from a printed source without the use of quotation marks and a precise reference to the original source in a work presented as the author’s own research and scholarship. Continuous paraphrasing without serious interaction with another person’s views, by way [of] argument or the addition of new material [and] insights, is a form of plagiarism in academic work. (emphasis added)

Based on the foregoing, deliberateness, as a condition of plagiarism, is determined not by the intention of the author per se, but by how the author appropriated and represented his/her own work and the work of others. While one may not desire to commit plagiarism, the mere fact that one did not act to prevent it still renders one culpable. Willful blindness does not exempt one from accountability.

Plagiarism is the kidnapping—and mutilation—of ideas. It is akin to kidnapping the child of another, hacking off its limbs, and sewing these limbs onto one’s own already horribly deformed infant, creating an even worse monster than what one had to begin with.

Plagiarism is considered a heinous violation of ethics in the academe, as well as in fields like journalism. It is not the same thing as copyright infringement, though the two are often conflated. Obtaining permission from the originator of an idea is not an impediment to plagiarism, which in any case is not a legal issue.

How is plagiarism committed?

When one lifts information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, off-setting, and/or documentation, one has already committed plagiarism. Even should one completely paraphrase or rewrite information or material from a source, one still needs to cite said source. Paraphrasing, however extensive, is still a form of lifting.

Only information or material derived from common knowledge or one’s personal experience may be lifted with relative impunity.

It is difficult to provide an exact definition of “common knowledge”, but it may be said to be composed of ideas or concepts that (a) require little or no specialized knowledge to be understood; (b) are easily confirmed by an exercise of sound judgment or through unaided human experience; and (c) are widely held to be true.

According to Purdue OWL:

Generally speaking, you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources. Additionally, it might be common knowledge if you think the information you’re presenting is something your readers will already know, or something that a person could easily find in general reference sources. But when in doubt, cite; if the citation turns out to be unnecessary, your teacher or editor will tell you.

Take note, however, that when one lifts substantial information or material from artifacts of personal experience, such as diaries, letters, transcripts of discussions, and online postings, among others, such sources should be cited.

What are the types of plagiarism?

There are many ways of classifying acts of plagiarism, but for the purpose of this primer, these types will be discussed: incidental plagiarism, substantial plagiarism, and self-plagiarism.

  • Incidental plagiarism pertains to the minor lifting of information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, off-setting, and/or documentation.
  • Substantial plagiarism pertains to the considerable lifting of information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, off-setting, and/or documentation (Ehrlich). The most egregious cases involve at least one of the following: (a) copying a text in its entirety and passing it off as one’s own work; (b) purchasing a text and passing it off as one’s own work; or (c) the hiring of someone to prepare a text and passing it off as one’s own work (Ehrlich). [This last act is actually part of Ehrlich’s definition for “fraud”, but for purposes of this primer, it has been included as part of “substantial plagiarism”.]

The above distinctions are predicated on these operational definitions, which have been formulated based on material from Ehrlich, Hexham, and Purdue OWL:

  • Lifting – the act of copying, inserting, paraphrasing, summarizing, downloading, translating, or otherwise utilizing information or material from a source
  • Minor lifting – the lifting of more than four words, but less than three sentences—or the substantive equivalent thereof—from a source
  • Considerable lifting – the lifting of three or more sentences—or the substantive equivalent thereof—from a source
  • Off-setting – the indention of quoted material, a formatting convention that is applied to long quotations
  • Documentation – the proper acknowledgement of sources of information or material, in adherence with the prescribed documentation style

Self-plagiarism, also known as recycling fraud, pertains to the disguising of a work that one has previously written as an entirely new work, as when a student submits essentially the same paper to different courses (Hexham). While it is acceptable to redeploy one’s ideas and opinions from an older work to a newer one, the writer must ensure that the works are clearly distinct from each other in terms of examples, arguments, and/or conclusions presented (Hexham).

How does one avoid committing plagiarism?

One can avoid plagiarism by undertaking the task of documentation with due diligence. A good rule of thumb would be: When in doubt, cite the source.

A caveat: One must ensure that information or material lifted from sources does not constitute the bulk of one’s work, such that one’s work is essentially a collage of ideas without a clear, individuated perspective. Why bother writing anything otherwise?

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Works Cited

Ehrlich, Heyward. “Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism”. Heyward Ehrlich, English Dept., Rutgers-Newark. 20 Mar. 2008. Rutgers U. 26 Jun. 2008.

Hexham, Irving. “Academic Plagiarism Defined”. Irving Hexham’s Home Page. 2005. U of Calgary. 26 Jun. 2008.

Plagiarism”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 25 June 2009

Plagiarize”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 25 June 2009

Plagiary”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 25 June 2009

Purdue OWL. “Avoiding Plagiarism”. The Online Writing Lab at Purdue. 10 May 2008. Purdue University Writing Lab. 07 Sep. 2008.

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Should Pedrosa be fired?

Eric Tomas of Daily Musings apparently wrote to The Philippine Star when he caught Carmen N. Pedrosa plagiarizing Dave Berman back in 2006, but to no avail. He also believes that Pedrosa should leave the Star, comparing her case to that Hilarion “Larry” M. Henares, Jr., whom Philippine Daily Inquirer sacked back in 1990 when he was caught plagiarizing from the International Herald Tribune. (Funnily enough, Manila Standard, now Manila Standard Today, praised Inquirer for “upholding the standards of professional journalism“, then hired Henares shortly afterwards. Would it be a stretch to say that this move presaged the reinstatement of Malu Fernandez?)

I posted my entry on Pedrosa primarily out of pique, not realizing the extent to which the problem of plagiarism pervades Philippine journalism. (Consider, just as an example, this article by Hector Bryant L. Macale of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility). That it is apparently rampant should be disturbing, at the very least, because, as pointed out on Eye on Ethics: Asia Media Forum, “The practice of journalism involves the use of power: the power to influence the way people look at themselves, their societies, and the world; the power to help shape the attitudes and values of others; and the power to help liberate men and women from the shackles of ignorance so they may exercise their sovereign human right to decide their destinies.”

I suppose it would be trite to quote Ben Parker, but great responsibility does come with great power. And the journalist who plagiarizes, as David Plotz of Slate puts it, “is the cop who frames innocents, the doctor who kills his patients. The plagiarist violates the essential rule of his trade. He steals the lifeblood of a colleague”.

On a lighter note, I found some indescribably lovely photos of Carmen Pedrosa, courtesy of Joe Galvez.

Carmen N. Pedrosa, serial plagiarist?

As I suspected, given that plagiarism all too easily develops into a bad habit, Carmen N. Pedrosa’s plagiarism of a Wikipedia article in her 20 June column is by no means an isolated incident.

A Google search led me to the blog Daily Musings, whose author, Eric Tomas, reads Pedrosa’s column regularly in order to “see what counter-arguments can be readied against her [pro–charter change] assertions”. (There are, in fact, several posts that specifically mention Pedrosa.) In a post entitled “Postnote to Pedrosa Article“, Tomas points out that Pedrosa’s 5 November 2006 column lifts a sentence directly from “Advocacy Journalism, The Least You Can Do, and The No Confidence Movement“, an article by Dave Berman, without any acknowledgement.

It may be observed that the same article–the same sentence–is properly quoted by the Wikipedia page on advocacy journalism. (The 16 October 2006 version, a copy of which I have uploaded to Scribd and included below, would have been the latest Pedrosa could have–and probably did–read prior to the publication of her column.)

Tomas, toward the end of his post, asks, “How can she rail about the lack of integrity that she perceives in the Supreme Court for trashing the Sigaw ng Bayan petition, when she herself doesn’t practice integrity in her writing, in this case, giving credit where credit is due?

How, indeed? Does she think that she is somehow magically exempt from acknowledging her sources–akin, perhaps, to how she seems to think that the parliamentary system is a magic bullet against the problems of the country?

Citations needed, or: Plagiarism and Carmen N. Pedrosa

This post was initially conceived as an attempt to respond to Carmen N. Pedrosa, who of late has been again advocating charter change toward a parliamentary form of government in “From A Distance”, her column in the The Philippine Star.

Yesterday’s installment caught my attention because she began by characterizing the choice between charter change now or presidential elections in 2010 as a catch-22. That she subsequently spoke of charter change as the better option—as the way out of this supposed double bind—seems to speak of a turn of mind that is rather strange, to say the least, considering that a catch-22 is supposed to be irresoluble.

Even stranger to me was this statement: “Changing persons without changing the system means more of the same in our flawed presidential system.” After all, are not the persons in any given system, political or otherwise, themselves the causes and/or perpetuators of flaws? Can a system and the persons that animate it and circulate within it indeed be separated, not merely for theoretical purposes, but for pragmatic ones? And simply appalling to me was this: “The question boils down to this. Who should be followed? It is not about rightness or wrongness.”

Bearing these thoughts in mind, I decided to review Pedrosa’s earlier columns [registration required] in order to better understand her position. I also decided to consult a few online sources regarding the presidential and parliamentary systems of government, among them Wikipedia.

Notwithstanding the criticism against the community-generated encyclopedia—which, naturally, is documented in a Wikipedia page of its own (a page that, also naturally, has been flagged for questionable neutrality)—I have found it to be a valuable resource. I would not set much store by its reliability or its appropriateness for research, but it serves very well as a primer to the veritable swamp of information that is the Internet. It is even gaining slow acceptance in journalistic circles. It was also here that I found the actual subject matter of this post: plagiarism.

Plagiarism, derived from the Latin plagiarus (literally, “kidnapper”)—which in turn is derived from plagium (literally, “kidnapping”)—may be defined as follows: an act or instance of stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s won; using a created production without crediting the source; committing literary theft; or presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

Plagiarism, as far as I am concerned, is the kidnapping—and mutilation—of ideas. It is akin to kidnapping the child of another, hacking off its limbs, and sewing these limbs onto one’s own already horribly deformed infant, creating an even worse monster than what one had to begin with.

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The Wikipedia page on the presidential system was last edited on 15 June 2009, 11:14 AM, by user Reub2000. (Below is a copy of the aforementioned version of the Wikipedia page uploaded to Scribd.)

One will find it interesting to juxtapose the section discussing criticism of the presidential system to Pedrosa’s 20 June article, which is entitled “Gridlock rears its ugly head“.

(1) THE DISADVANTAGES OF THE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM

Wikipedia

Critics generally claim three basic disadvantages for presidential systems:

  • Tendency towards authoritarianism — some political scientists say that presidentialism is not constitutionally stable. According to some political scientists, such as Fred Riggs, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in nearly every country it has been attempted.
  • Separation of powers — a presidential system establishes the presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures. Critics argue that this creates undesirable gridlock, and that it reduces accountability by allowing the president and the legislature to shift blame to each other.
  • Impediments to leadership change — it is claimed that the difficulty in removing an unsuitable president from office before his or her term has expired represents a significant problem.

Pedrosa

Political scientists agree that gridlock is a major disadvantage of the presidential system. There are others — the tendency towards authoritarianism. Because the presidential system is not constitutionally stable it easily deteriorates into authoritarianism. According to Fred Riggs, a political scientist, presidentialism has fallen into authoritarianism in every country it has been attempted, except the United States.

(2) THE PRESIDENT V. THE PRIME MINISTER

Wikipedia

Winning the presidency is a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize. A prime minister who does not enjoy a majority in the legislature will have to either form a coalition or, if he is able to lead a minority government, govern in a manner acceptable to at least some of the opposition parties. Even if the prime minister leads a majority government, he must still govern within (perhaps unwritten) constraints as determined by the members of his party—a premier in this situation is often at greater risk of losing his party leadership than his party is at risk of losing the next election. On the other hand, once elected a president can not only marginalize the influence of other parties, but can exclude rival factions in his own party as well, or even leave the party whose ticket he was elected under. The president can thus rule without any allies for the duration of one or possibly multiple terms, a worrisome situation for many interest groups.

Pedrosa

The presidency by the nature of the system is “a winner-take-all, zero-sum prize — unlike a prime minister, who may have to form a coalition. The president and her/his party can rule without any allies for up to six years. That becomes a threat for other interest groups.

(3) THE SEPARATION OF POWERS

Wikipedia

Presidential systems are said by critics not to offer voters the kind of accountability seen in parliamentary systems. It is easy for either the president or Congress to escape blame by blaming the other.

Pedrosa

As mentioned earlier the separation of powers in a presidential system is a disadvantage rather than an advantage. The presidency and the Congress as two parallel structures inevitably create gridlock and make it often impossible to govern. Worse it reduces accountability because the president and Congress end up blaming each other for perceived wrongs.

(4) THE ARGUMENT OF JUAN LINZ, POLITICAL SCIENTIST

Wikipedia

Juan Linz argues, “The danger that zero-sum presidential elections pose is compounded by the rigidity of the president’s fixed term in office. Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate… losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization.

Pedrosa

“Winners and losers are sharply defined for the entire period of the presidential mandate. . . losers must wait four or five years without any access to executive power and patronage. The zero-sum game in presidential regimes raises the stakes of presidential elections and inevitably exacerbates their attendant tension and polarization,” argues Juan Linz.

(5) THE CASE OF ECUADOR

Wikipedia

Ecuador is sometimes presented as a case study of democratic failures over the past quarter-century. Presidents have ignored the legislature or bypassed it altogether. One president had the National Assembly teargassed, while another was kidnapped by paratroopers until he agreed to certain congressional demands. From 1979 through 1988, Ecuador staggered through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations that created a near permanent crisis atmosphere in the policy.

Pedrosa

Ecuador is cited as a good example of democratic failures with a presidential system. Often, presidents ignore the legislature. Things got so bad that one president was driven to teargas the National Assembly.

The country went through a succession of executive-legislative confrontations from 1979 to 1988.

(6) LEADERSHIP CHANGE

Wikipedia

In parliamentary systems, unpopular leaders can be quickly removed by a vote of no confidence, a procedure which is reckoned to be a “pressure release valve” for political tension.

Pedrosa

This would not have been necessary in a parliamentary system when an unpopular leader could be removed by a vote of no confidence. This is a device comparable to a “pressure release valve” in a country besieged by political tension.

(7) SLOWNESS OF RESPONSE TO THE NEEDS OF CITIZENS

Wikipedia

Finally, many have criticized presidential systems for their alleged slowness in responding to their citizens’ needs. Often, the checks and balances make action extremely difficult. Walter Bagehot said of the American system “the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others [and not itself] will suffer the effects”.

Pedrosa

Finally, the presidential system by its nature is slow to respond to citizens’ needs. Often, the “checks and balances” make action extremely difficult.

Since the Philippines followed the American presidential system, let us hear what one constitutionalist said of the American system: “the executive is crippled by not getting the law it needs, and the legislature is spoiled by having to act without responsibility: the executive becomes unfit for its name, since it cannot execute what it decides on; the legislature is demoralized by liberty, by taking decisions of others will suffer the effects.”

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The sixth provision of the Journalist’s Code of Ethics as adopted by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines is, “I shall not commit any act of plagiarism.” The necessity of this provision should be obvious enough. How can a journalist be considered credible when he or she steals ideas from others? Or, as in this case, when she lifts and paraphrases, without proper citations, entire sections of a text that is governed by a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License?

More significantly for Pedrosa, how can she endorse a form of government that she believes is more accountable and more transparent to its citizens, when she herself is evidently unwilling or unable to be accountable and transparent to her reading public? Perhaps she ought to ask herself the question that she posed last 17 May: When is change real change?

For the record, I am not wholly or fanatically against amending the Constitution or shifting to a parliamentary system. And yet I think it is fair to expect that a person who supports a cause for ostensibly moral reasons, the tack that Pedrosa seems to have taken in beating the drum for charter change, ought to be himself or herself beyond most, if not all, reproach.