Innocent Plagiarism

It has been quite some time since my last entry. While waiting for water to boil for my coffee or perhaps jasmine green tea, I though I better write something based on my recent readings. I’m currently reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, “What the dog saw”. It is a collection of the author’s writing on various topics, all of which, so far, made me think deeper. It was good as I enjoyed any thought provoking arguments. It keeps man alive.

In one of the chapter, the subject of plagiarism was brought up. Interestingly, in daily life, plagiarisms are handled in different manners depending on communities involved – music, movie and play, academia, technology invention, drugs manufacturing and many others. In academia, if a student is caught to plagiarize the work of other scholars or researchers, he may be severely punished. Similarly, if you manufacture and market a product protected by intellectual property rights such as patents, you can get sued.

In one perspective, plagiarism is like theft because as one plagiarize he is actually stealing something from others. In another perspective, why do we have to be stingy with ideas, especially if it does not involve any costs except some efforts using your brain given to you by God Almighty free-of-charge. So, lines should be drawn somewhere. In IP’s, patent rights are given something like 20 years. Beyond that, it will be a public property, anybody can use it freely. Perhaps it is too long when we consider products like drugs to fight fatal viruses that have been killing large number of people. A question had been asked, can’t we make some of those drugs monopolized by pharmaceutical giants cheaper for the third world? Mixed reactions were obtained.

Consider somebody who invented some gadgets on his own without referring to any patents or other people ideas. When he was about to commercialize the products, he realized that similar products had been patented. What a luck, isn’t it? Yes, under current practices, he should have filed for patent as he completed making component by component, but you know what, it is not an easy task! Making patent search is already painstaking, not to forget that you have to pay for filing and documentation. In the end, IP protection in itself is a business.

In another context, a group of researchers are doing similar works. When they write papers or theses, they are bound to be some similarities, and they were not deliberately copying each other. But when you compare the two products, you might be tempted that they have plagiarized. I was told that in a university abroad, a research group share the same literature review for their thesis. New students upgraded those prepared by earlier ones and the practice continued. Can that be accepted?

Not long ago, I came across with another situation. It was a student reproducing his previous works in a PhD thesis without citing the previous publication (M.Sc thesis). Some people thought that was plagiarism and I thought it was not.  After all it was his own work. It was some technical faults that can be corrected, based on standard practice of thesis writing.

So, when we judge  issues such as plagiarism we need to consider various angles. At times we need to give the benefit of the doubts. More importantly, we do not want to punish those who do not deserve punishment. I remember an interesting quote, either from a book or perhaps a movie (it was long ago),  “if the law cannot protect the guilty, never mind the innocent”. How about that? Require some thinking?

However, in our daily practice, we should generously give credits to people especially when it is due. Acknowledge those who should be acknowledged. Let us be fair to everybody in the manner that we want others to be fair to us. Wherever and whenever appropriate, we should be generous to share what we have with others – ideas, knowledges etc. With abundance mentality, we’ll make more progress. IP protection should be handle within context and in good spirit. yes it is needed but we somehow have to admit that not everything should be protected.

The opposite

In the 1980’s, a TV channel ( I think it was the USA cable Networks) aired a program called Kungfu Theater in the weekend. At the start of the program it was written on the screen “Confucius said…A person who watches KungFu Theater is truly a viewer of virtue”. I think it was a joke but I liked the statement very much as I was a fan of the program. Some people may even think that Confucius really said that. Depending on how you look at it, the TV channel could have been considered telling lies… (Well, I don’t think Confucius had ever said that).

Similarly, some people like to quote other more authoritative individuals to strengthen his arguments. In debates, they sometimes made it up. It was a lie and they did it because what matters was winning arguments. Sometimes, they get caught, sometimes they didn’t. Similarly, religious sects were willing to create the saying of the prophets (this was the origin of many False Hadith). The purpose was again, to stengthen their position using somebody else’s authority.

While plagiarism is wrong, purposely giving wrong quotes is also wrong.


About Dr. AA

I am an educator, professional trainer, safety consultant, researcher, social worker, outdoor enthusiast, and a thinker.
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2 Responses to Innocent Plagiarism

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