Photo courtesy of Copyleaks

While Sri Lankans are famous for defending their property rights when it comes to land ownership and title deeds, intellectual property is not exactly sacrosanct. From Aishwarya Rai “endorsing” beauty parlours to stores selling pirated DVDs, we are lax on acknowledging what is ours and what is not.

Plagiarism is a serious crime and is punishable by law. In a nutshell, it means the passing off of someone else’s work as one’s own. People can plagiarise anything conceived of and created by another, including a written piece as in academic papers or pieces of creative writing.

Within intellectual property law, there is a reasonable allowance given for the unconscious influence of something we have read, watched or listened to. This is how songs and music have been defended over the years where similar sounding bass lines, beats, riffs or chord arrangements could have been subconsciously influenced.

When it comes to literary works of any sort, the verbatim copying of someone else’s work within one’s own is plagiarism. One is always free to read, refer and when using another’s work, to give due credit by citing the original author. But there are many instances of blatant plagiarism of another’s work and not just in English. The most recent case in Sri Lanka concerns Sujatha Alahakoon’s work “Eth Api Piyambamu”, which allegedly contained plagiarised parts from Ganga Suduwelikanda’s translated “Thanithalawe Pihiti Kuda Nagaraya” and “Mihirathi Sonduru Samaya”. Godage publishers revoked the awards given to Ms. Alahakoon over these allegations until a further investigation was completed. Many criticised the judges but that is unfair because judges cannot be expected to remember verbatim sections from another author’s work unless it is like Shakespeare and sufficiently popular to be remembered.

A related malaise plaguing the academic world on a commercial level is the emergence of private individuals and organisations offering to write assignments, dissertations and theses on behalf of students for a fee. Any legitimate academic institution is extremely strict about plagiarism and there are many tracking and online tools to identify and expose plagiarised work. Technology can be used to determine if any work a student submits electronically is original or a copy of another writer’s words. This is based on the fact that, like human fingerprints, no individual’s writing style and unique patterning of words is the same as another’s.

But with someone else writing for you, work cannot be tracked as not your own. A teacher can notice plagiarised sections when marking assignments because the writer’s style and use of words changes. Yet if it’s a third party writing, there is no way to know unless the teacher compares the assignment to an exam paper since at the exam it is not possible to plagiarise.

Why do people plagiarise? People grab other people’s work and pass it off as their own in the spheres of education and literature for several reasons. Many do it for convenience. It’s so much easier to use someone else’s work and pay someone else rather than to spend time doing your own work. Those who are working full time and also doing professional degrees such as MBAs and CIM would rather pay someone than have to endure doing theses and assignments themselves.

A school student suffering from the pressure of performance anxiety and stress trying to complete an essay by a deadline may decide to quote her tutor’s notes word for word in her essay, hoping the school teacher would not notice the difference in style. The student when confronted by her tutor admits her action was selfish and lazy but does not admit it is a legal offense. Her justification is that her tutor’s words are so much better than her own. The school will see her action differently. Students who substitute other people’s words for their own in university assessments will be excluded from their courses, disqualified from attaining their degree and not permitted to continue their studies.

Many people who write work for others do it for quick money. College students are known for doing their classmates’ assignments as a favour or to earn quick cash. Money is a great motivator. Yet what are the ethical and moral implications?

A student who has plagiarised other people’s work throughout their  academic career has never learnt anything. Many think fooling their lecturers and systems is something to be proud of but not if your goal is to learn. You become a fraud with no real knowledge and no confidence in your own skills.

When a postgraduate student submits a research thesis or dissertation, it is 100,000 words of original research that contributes substantially to a specialist field of study. The successful completion and awarding of this doctoral degree recognises the applicant as an expert in their chosen field of research.

The student will have researched hundreds of books and articles in order to ground and substantiate their arguments, and will have listed these primary and secondary resources in their bibliography. They are required to sign a legal statement as a preface to the printed thesis on submission stating that the work presented is their own, both in ideas and words, and no one else’s. Originality is highly valued at this level of education. Indeed, it is a qualification for entry into the higher academic realm.

In the contemporary world, with the cost of higher education, being able to complete a doctoral thesis is seen as a privilege, particularly in the “non-essential” arts and humanities fields, which are not specifically vocationally directed. When one hears people decrying the value of traditional university courses and the length, cost and uselessness of higher degrees and qualifications, one realises this devaluing of academic development, which is becoming normalised, is partially to blame for the intellectual laziness which underlies plagiarism.

When a person takes the trouble to formally acknowledge and recognise the contribution of another, it is an act of respect that builds the professional community in which they work. Correct and accurate citation does not devalue the original work of a writer who acknowledges others. In fact, it clearly and respectfully demarcates the boundaries between their efforts and the original work done by others. To quote verbatim without the writer’s consent is a form of fraud as well as an act of robbery.

When we see institutions selling and offering outsourcing of assignments, it is important to recognise that the plagiarism of another’s creative work is a crime. Even if it is technically with the consent of the owner of the work, written works do belong to the writer and it is only right to give them due credit. There is a notion that written work and content creation is not really creative work and many would not assign the same importance to it as they would assign to a piece of art or music. One can see this disrespectful assumption in operation when considering the pittance many corporates are willing to pay creative writers for written material and content creation.

At the heart of an act of conscious plagiarism is a lack of understanding of the uniqueness of each individual’s life experience, perspective and form of expression. Just as each of us is unique and not interchangeable with – or available to be used without our consent by – any other human being, so ideally should our writing be regarded as a unique expression of our self and something that cannot be replicated without our permission.

The education system itself, with its outdated emphasis on passive systems, memorising and rote learning of content rather than active learning of skills of analysis, interpretation and structuring and communication of ideas, can be held partly responsible for this failure of creativity and confidence on the students’ part. When students are not rewarded for asking questions, for wanting to explore issues arising from the class discussion or for trying to contribute original ideas, when they are punished or criticised by teachers for slowing the class down with irrelevant interruptions and instead told to regurgitate the teachers’ dictated class notes to get good grades in their assessments and exams, this erodes their self-belief and sets the foundation for future passivity, of which plagiarism is one pernicious form.

If a student is not trained and encouraged from the start to correctly cite the details of the primary and secondary sources they have used in their work, they are taught by default that it is not important to make the effort to differentiate between their own work and that of others whose ideas they utilise.

It is important that institutions of learning, from O’Level onwards, should emphasise the ethical frameworks of research and essay writing so that these principles are built into students’ understanding of education.

Academics, whose career paths and tenure security are based in part on their publishing of their original work and scholarly contributions to their fields of special interest are also vulnerable, mid-career, to the competitive thrust of their industry. There have been instances where a post graduate student confronted his supervisor when he found the supervisor using the student’s original research ideas as part of a conference paper the supervisor presented at a symposium.

Many arts graduates who need to pay their bills and are not paid enough in their primary employment, turn to ghost writing to supplement their income. While this is not illegal, it is a clear violation of the principle of ownership of one’s own written work. Ghost writers get paid to write a book that will have someone else’s name on it. The person who has paid them for their skill and effort will profit from their labour. As the word ghost suggests, the act of writing for another erases the identity of the writer and estranges them from their creation.

Owning your own words is at the heart of a protest against plagiarism. To have confidence in your right to express yourself, you need to practice putting your original thoughts into original words. You need to have teachers and editors throughout your writing life who tell you directly that other people’s words are not as special or as valuable as your own and who put a red or blue line through clichés and threadbare phrases which you have used in carelessness or laziness and which blanket and obscure your true and original thoughts.