Plagiarism pandemic: Is copying contagious?

It is shocking, unthinkable, and embarrassing, that a senator of the Republic of the Philippines will deliver a speech, for everyone to hear, with passages copied from a blog that everyone with an internet connection can access.

High-profile copying, however, is no longer an original act.

In an online world overloaded with information, where cutting-and-pasting has become an easy alternative to originality, copying is becoming contagious.

We are now facing a plagiarism pandemic.

The past month alone:

  • New Yorker magazine staff writer Jonah Lehrer was forced to quit for recycling his columns in different publications (in effect plagiarizing himself), and for fabricating quotes for a book he wrote.
  • CNN TV host Fareed Zakaria, a Harvard Ph.D graduate, apologized for copying a paragraph from the New Yorker for a column he wrote for Time magazine. Both CNN and Time have agreed to reinstate him after finding it was an isolated case.
  • In the Philippines, parts of Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto’s emotional speech against the reproductive health bill were found to have been lifted verbatim from a blog. Some speeches by the bill’s proponent, Sen. Pia Cayetano, may have also been lifted from other sources without attribution, according to local reports.

Two years ago, influential Filipino businessman Manny Pangilinan had to apologize after parts of his commencement address for the Ateneo De Manila University sounded familiar: They were assembled from different speeches delivered by author J.K. Rowling, TV host Oprah Winfrey, and US President Barack Obama, among others.

Though it was their speech writers and research assistants who plagiarized those passages, these personalities are not blameless.

Simply put, plagiarism is passing someone else’s as one’s own work.

When public officials and prominent personalities deliver speeches they did not write—even if it is a widely accepted practice, even if it is from speechwriters whom they pay—it is still a case of dishonesty.

They are invited to give speeches so people can listen not to what others have written, but to what they have to say, their own thoughts in their own words—a peek into the mind and heart of a supposedly great person worthy of that invitation.

In the end, it all boils down to respect.

If we want to encourage more creative and original work, we must respect those who produce original knowledge. A simple attribution will suffice. Give credit where credit is due.

It is also about respecting ourselves. Stealing someone else’s work is a form of self-disrespect. Plagiarism means doubting your own ideas, being embarrassed by your own words and refusing to nurture your own creativity.

Or it just means being lazy.

A simple reminder: What you can find using Google, the remaining one billion Google users can find, too.


Why freedom of information can make people happy

Dr. Takahashi and I presented a version of this paper at the ICA Conference in Phoenix in May 2012.

Dr. Takahashi and I presented a version of this paper at the ICA Conference in Phoenix in May 2012.

The Philippines takes pride in having a free press, and yet the Freedom House Index (FHI), the most cited index of press freedom, rates the country as only “partly free.” Having a free press is important for democracy to flourish, and this is especially true for young democracies such as the Philippines.

In a study I co-authored with Dr. Bruno Takahashi of Michigan State University, published by the Social Indicators Research journal, we found that press freedom also contributes to increasing life satisfaction among citizens. Using a path analysis model involving data from 161 countries collected by different organizations, we found that countries with press freedom tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction among their citizens. Press freedom also contributes to having healthier environments and better standards of living, which then also contribute to happiness.

So where’s the link to having freedom of information (FOI), something the Philippines still does not have?

Having established that press freedom contributes to happiness, the next step is to understand what conditions are linked to it. Freedom House Index’s ratings look at three broad categories: the legal environment (e.g. laws and regulations that could influence media content), the political environment (e.g. pressure by the government, censorship, and violence against journalists), and the economic environment (e.g. structure of media ownership). FOI, I believe, is an important legal mechanism to ensure a free flow of information that guarantees press freedom.

With my happiness research as the springboard, I embarked on a new project, this time comparing press freedom, corruption ratings and freedom of information laws among 168 countries. In this still unpublished paper, I found that countries which have institutionalized FOI laws for a longer period of time tend to enjoy higher press freedom ratings.

Having an FOI law also leads to lower corruption levels and higher levels of human development. The global trend points to a positive effect of institutionalizing an FOI law on lowering corruption and improving human development.

This empirical evidence from the experiences of countries around the world shows how the Philippines, a country still wiggling out of economic inequality and corruption, can benefit from having its own FOI law.

Of course, enforcement is another matter, but let’s cross the bridge when we get there.

A story about these rants was published today on Inquirer’s frontpage. You will also find the article here:

And here is what our school had posted on its website:

Noynoy, Noli and the norm of objectivity

Inquirer Newsroom; 2010 national elections

President Noynoy Aquino has been criticized for criticizing Noli de Castro, a former vice president and an anchor of ABS-CBN’s news program TV Patrol. It was very rude, even childish, others said, for the President to devote parts of his speech for TV Patrol’s silver anniversary to his tirades against the former vice president.

Others praised the President, saying ABS-CBN was begging for it, as the network brought De Castro back into its flagship news program right after his stint as vice president for the unpopular Arroyo administration. A former vice president delivering and commenting on political stories that involve his political allies and their enemies represents, as others have correctly pointed out, a clear case of conflict of interest. For those using this line of argument, De Castro cannot be objective because of his political connections. Journalists are supposed to be objective.

Objectivity in journalism is an American invention. Its history traces back to economic, not journalistic, pursuits. American newspapers used to be partisan and heavily driven by ideology. But then wire services found they could sell the same stories to newspapers of different ideologies if they kept stories objective. Soon, the drive to appeal to more readers, regardless of political leanings, in order to attract more advertisers, led most news organizations to trumpet objectivity.

However, objectivity fails as a standard. Many argue that journalists cannot be objective; they have personal biases that can still spill into their outputs no matter how they try to control them. Others say objectivity is a response to newsroom constraints. With insufficient resources and time to verify facts, journalists just attribute them to sources and then get the other side just in case a claim turns out to be wrong. Finally, objectivity predisposes journalism into pursuing conflict. Journalists must always get the other side of the story, even if sometimes there is only one side to the story.

A better standard, which bloggers and citizen journalists celebrate, is the norm of transparency. Journalists have biases they cannot control, but if they are transparent about them, then readers are better equipped to evaluate what they read.

If De Castro fails a journalistic standard, it is not objectivity. It is moral ascendancy. He cannot criticize government officials for the same things he failed to do when he was given the chance. He should have realized he would never measure up to this standard when he decided to return to the same broadcasting job that had successfully brought him to politics.

But let’s look at the glass half-full: at least De Castro’s political record and leanings are a matter of public record.

We cannot expect Noli De Castro to be objective. Just like other journalists, he will never be. But for people who know better, at least they know what to believe.