Plagiarism is in the news. Fareed Zakaria, Time Magazine columnist and CNN television show host, was perhaps a predictable victim of overcommitment: there are only 24 hours in a day. It appears he overreached as he sought to grasp multiple topics outside his usual field, foreign policy. Plagiarism seemed to be an easy solution to the impossible demands on his time, as he tried to maintain “pundit” status.
His misfortune was to pilfer from Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor and a staff writer for The New Yorker, a magazine that all intellectuals read. The plagiarism was caught, however, not by the magazine (for intellectuals do not read Time, not even at the dentist) but by a blogger of little distinction.
How could such a lapse happen? Could Mr Zakaria not have called up Ms Lepore and discussed her views at first hand, as he used to do regularly with me?
The punishment will probably be to banish him from journalism, even though the profit motive is clearly prompting CNN and Time to test the waters by starting only with a “suspension”. Mr Zakaria is probably a cash cow for them. The Indian government will be under pressure to withdraw the prestigious Padma Bhushan award that was conferred on him as a distinguished Indian journalist. It is also certain that prestigious schools of journalism, such as the one at Columbia University (where I teach), will have no alternative but to keep plagiarists at a distance and condemn them.
But the unfortunate Zakaria case also raises the question of plagiarism in higher education. Universities have become victims of plagiarism by students in an age when there is free access to information and assignments can be written by simply copying huge chunks of text, even entire essays, from the internet.
Once difficult to perpetrate, plagiarism is now so easy that a university such as Columbia will explicitly warn incoming students of the dire consequences, such as expulsion, if a student is caught. In addition, we warn students that, if they steal from others, there is software that can unmask them. I can feed a paragraph, even a few sentences, into the computer and lo and behold it will tell you who wrote much the same thing earlier. I know of many instances where plagiarism has been exposed in this way.
But universities can do more to stamp out plagiarism. For example, since essays are the natural medium for plagiarism, a remedy that I find useful is to ensure that a fraction of the grade depends on multiple-choice examinations where one cannot steal or copy. This would not merely insulate a significant fraction of the grade from plagiarism. It would also suggest that, if a student fails the multiple choice but scores highly on the essay, the latter needs to be examined for plagiarism.
Universities should also ensure that big fish such as Mr Zakaria who are caught plagiarising are firmly dealt with: letting them off with a soft rap on the knuckles can only breed cynicism among students who are exhorted not to plagiarise. Withdrawal of honorary degrees and expulsion from boards of trustees are among the punishments that should be automatic once plagiarism has been acknowledged.
But the issue of plagiarism is not confined to students facing the pressures of examination and competitive performance. It has spread to faculty members where charges of plagiarism, sometimes far-fetched, sometimes accurate, have proliferated, reflecting the pressures of a “publish-or-perish” culture.
The pressures that can fuel plagiarism by the “superstars” in academia, however, are different, perhaps similar to those that felled Mr Zakaria. The need to write something that “catches the public eye” has for many become an obsession. The media is a playground for achieving celebrity academic status, which is pleasurable in itself but also leads to large lecturing fees. And so it leads to borrowing ideas without attribution.
I noticed it when a distinguished economist happened to take a concept of mine that I had written about many times. They used the idea in an article, without attribution. In that instance, I am happy to believe that it was an unwitting omission. But it illustrates what academics have to guard against with zealous scrupulousness. It can surely be done.
The original article appeared in Financial Times.