Plagiarism

In all the turmoil around Craig Thomson and his use (or otherwise) of HSU credit cards to procure prostitution services for himself (or for someone else), I’d forgotten about this gem from December last year: Craig Thomson may also be a common plagiarist. His sources for a report about what Australia could learn from Europe’s GFC experience were, apparently, no more highbrow than what any school or university student pulling an all-nighter would have been able to find on Wikipedia and other freely available internet authorities.

He’s got off lightly, with the plagiarism scandal far outshone by his other alleged activities. Not everyone is so lucky: last month the Hungarian President, Pál Schmitt, quit his job under allegations that his Doctorate was largely the work of two other academics. In Germany, a similar case occurred in March last year when the Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was stripped of his PhD due to plagiarism. He resigned his position, which even spawned a Facebook page, ‘Wir wollen Guttenberg zurück’ (We want Guttenberg back) – it has more than 510,000 likes. In England, the London School of Economics has investigated claims of plagiarism and ghost-writing in the doctoral thesis  of Seif-al-Islam el-Qaddafi, and in Russia, Vladamir Putin’s thesis also came under fire for large sections of it possibly being the unattributed work of others; he, at least, has managed to stay where he is.

In music there have been some expensive cases, such as Michael Bolton’s  massive $5.4 million fine for plagiarism in 2000, and George Harrison’s payout of close to $600,000 in 1981, in a case that dragged on for years even after the decision was made. And in comedy last year, Jordan Paris ripped off jokes from other comedians, then apologised by … ripping off another comedian’s joke! It makes me want to tell you the one about the plagiarist who … but no, you’ll have heard it before.

The pejorative connotations of plagiarism are relatively new – years ago (we’re talking the 18th century) it was considered appropriate to copy the masters. It is still not uniformly regarded negatively; Helen Zhang talks here about the Chinese cultural values of rote learning and emulating teachers as a barrier to the developing scientific culture there. India has experienced a high profile case that affected both scientific and political circles – the science advisor to India’s Prime Minister had to apologise to scientific journal Advanced Materials for copying the work of other scientists.

That’s why I think that there’s something missing out of this list of 10 reasons why you should operate without copyeditors at your own risk; copyeditors pick up plagiarism. (Alright, it was maybe implied in reason 2: A libel suit for a carelessly written story can cost more than a copy editor’s salary.) I have certainly seen examples of it in my work. There’s something about a change of style, a familiar run of words or development of argument, a disconnect between paragraphs that alerts a sharp editor to when material may have been lifted. Often it’s just a matter of alerting the author to the correct attribution – all works build on the work of others, after all. The key is to acknowledge the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

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