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Feature Article of Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Columnist: Tawiah-Benjamin, Kwesi

Plagiarism Also Includes Copying From Your Own Previous Work

Yes, if I lift portions from any of my old articles and plant them in a new work, it is just as bad as stealing from another writer. That is exactly what happened to celebrated science columnist of The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer. He was lucky to have kept his job, but he was fired when it was later discovered that he had stolen some Bob Dylan quotes for his book. The work, which had reportedly sold several thousand copies, was pulled by the publisher. Even when a speaker repeats some of his own expressions and sayings from an address he penned himself and delivered in the past, experts do not judge fairly on that. It is also self-plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a very tempting sin. Many of us have been tempted to befriend a certain fine idea or expression in somebody’s work, and yank it altogether for our glory. Or when our conscience pricks us to leave some honour for the original author, we do him a favour by rephrasing the theft in our own words. That is usually not rapacious theft, because at least we invested some effort in saying the same thing in a different way. Sometimes it is very difficult to say it in our own words because the original author may have been too quick to use the words we would have employed if we were to have done the first article. He leaves us no option but to borrow the words and ideas we lent him. Showing originality in plagiarism is a very difficult thing. Yet, we have managed to plagiarise our way through three degrees by simply acknowledging the source of our theft. That is research. However, when you forget to give the source of your fraud any mention, you are a plagiarist. So, to be on the safe side, just go ahead and steal, but be kind enough to reference your theft, and your professors will be happy.

While many simpletons have succeeded in building great careers this way, Yale and Harvard educated Time Editor and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, could not manage it on a simple article on gun control. Fareed was found to have stolen lines from fellow Yale educated writer, Jill Lepore, for a column he did for Time. When I read the paragraph he stole from Jill, and realised just how similar the two were, I couldn’t help but join journalist Ato Kwamina Dadzie to exclaim on Facebook: “Ah Fareed Zakaria paaa! Caught plagiarizing? A shameful letdown!.” The Indian born journalist and scholar has been suspended by both Time and CNN for the offence. He has since apologised to his readers and employers for what he terms a serious error. There are also suspicions that Zakaria may lose other things, including his trusteeship at Yale. He also risks losing the frequent $75,000 he commands for his many talks in intellectual and business circles.

Plagiarism is easier these days that it was in the days of old. Yet, many legends whose great works and lives marked generations in the past were said to have been insincere in achieving the very things that defined their place in history. Even now, the debate still rages on about whether Shakespeare authored all his plays and sonnets. A very recent movie suggests that the Earl of Oxford, in fact, wrote the Shakespearean plays and asked the Stratford Upon Avon bard to popularise them. Of course, many still believe that William Shakespeare, husband of Anne Hathaway, wrote all his plays. Still, people wonder: If the lingering questions about the authorship are illegitimate and unfounded, why are they still lingering?

Dr Luther King has had his own share of accusations of plagiarism. It is said the popular ‘I Have a Dream speech’ was only his dream but not the product of his brains. And very recently, politicians in Germany had questions to answer about the source of material for their PhDs. I have had mine too, and I have been unashamed to confess it on many pro-Ghanaian internet portals. Have I stopped plagiarising? I still find it very tempting. For instance, just two months ago when I visited Ghana, a very old friend (we go back since primary class 2) approached me to write him a manifesto for a university election. I had done him one the previous year. He won the elections so when he resolved to contest for a higher office, he found a genius in his old friend to do it again for him. I couldn’t tell him that he should have learnt how to write by now, but I decided to pull a very fast one on him. I simply regurgitated most portions of the first manifesto I penned for him and changed a few things. He was happy. He won again.

What? That crap won you an election? Your electorate must be very foolish to have voted for you. He himself has yet to notice the similarities between the two manifestos. In fact, he kept singing my praises that the new one was a big improvement on the first. Are there any more intelligent people on this planet apart from Richard Dawkins and Umberto Eco? A disappointed Fareed fan, Tsidi Dawson, who commented on Ato’s post on Facebook, queried: Or Fareed is not as intelligent as we thought. Now, folks would begin fishing through the sea of articles he has penned in the past to seize portions that bear the same nose or ear as theirs. On my part, I hope nobody digs into the archives to read my previous writing on plagiarism when Hon Haruna Iddrisu was alleged to have offended Legon. Oh journalism, Ahoy! Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a journalist. He lives in Ottawa, Canada

Email: bigfrontiers@gmail.com .

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