Plagiarism in the internet age

Some “Content creators” have, for a while now, been running in panic of the “internet age” — where content is available, freely, both legally and illegally, for everyone in the world to use. But for many of us, this is not so much of a problem as an opportunity — as long as we play by some very simple rules. Alas, most of us seem ignorant of those rules, which predate the internet and, really, amount to basic civility and courtesy.

Yet again, Abi posts on a paper that was retracted due to plagiarism. This time one source of the plagiarised passages is Wikipedia. Abi gives an example (he links the current Wikipedia, but the version of the page prior to publication of this article has the same passage). I will hold off comment on this until it becomes clearer how the plagiarism occurred: for instance, it is conceivable that the Wikipedia passage was in fact authored by the same people as the paper.

Just a few days ago India’s top academies were embarrassed by an accusation of plagiarism in the report on GM crops and Bt brinjal that they submitted to the minister on his request. This was the subject of my previous post: Gautam Menon and I noted that the plagiarism problem is hardly the only problem with the report, and it was unprofessional on several other counts. Still, the plagiarism accusation is an important and eye-catching one: practically all of the section on Bt brinjal was lifted, with minor changes, from a previous article by P Ananda Kumar. Did the scientists involved understand the gravity of this charge? The initial defence was not encouraging: Kumar said his views were sought and he contributed the same words that he had used previously (which ended up in the report without attribution), and a fellow of one of the academies called the charge “ridiculous”.

Plagiarism can occur at several levels, and self-plagiarism has to be one of the lesser offences: the main problem with the Academies’ report, in the view of Gautam and myself, was the lack of authorship, attribution and references. If the section on Bt brinjal had had its authors listed as Dr Ananda Kumar, and if his interests in the matter had been declared, it would have mattered less (though it would still be disappointing that the academies couldn’t find a fresh perspective on the matter.)

My concern is with how we view the matter, as a society. Newspapers routinely lift matter from the internet without attribution [1, 2]. (In the second case, they were in fact free to use the image, which was licensed under the “creative commons” license, but were required to credit it, and didn’t.) In both cases they apologised, but one wonders in how many cases they don’t. The Hindu’s longtime film reviewer, Gautaman Bhaskaran, was caught by a blogger lifting material from the New York Times. His byline eventually disappeared from The Hindu but I know of no public statement from him or his employer on the matter.

I wonder if this starts at school. “Project work” seems to be a part of the educational system at all schools, mainstream and “alternative”. In our day we would cut out pictures from magazines and paste them on chart paper, with annotations. I don’t remember ever being told of the importance of attribution, but at some point I suppose I picked it up. These days it looks like images and text are downloaded from the internet, printed on inkjet paper, and stuck on to chart paper. (Recently at a school project exhibit I recognised this Wikipedia image of potatoes — without attribution, of course). How many schools ask their students to attribute material properly, and to respect copyrights? Indeed, how many schools themselves respect these things? I remember my school songbook included songs like “Blowin’ in the wind” and a modified “This land is your land”, which are still covered by copyright, as very likely were many of the songs in Hindi. There was no copyright notice and no attribution. A kindergarten school songbook I saw last year was just the same: “Do-re-mi” and other well-known songs were included without attribution.

I suspect that this attitude towards re-using material pervades our society at all levels. And I know it is not unique to India, but I suspect it is more prevalent here. What is “jugaad” but re-using cheap parts creatively? But there is a difference between re-using materials that belong to you, and re-using words and images that belong to someone else. Many students whom I have talked to seemed genuinely not to appreciate the problem. But, as the reactions to the academies’ report case showed, senior scientists don’t grasp the problem much better. At the most basic level, as I said above, it is a simple matter of courtesy to your audience and to the people whose material you are using.

Paradoxically, we live in a time when we can, in fact, re-use a huge amount of publicly-available material freely and legally. The creative commons movement has exploded in the last decade. Wikipedia is only one example of a site that uses creative commons licenses for all its material. But, increasingly, many academic publishers are going the CC route too — PLoS and BMC being the most prominent examples. Sometimes only non-commercial use is allowed (which means it is fine for school projects, say), but often only attribution is required. This is a formalisation of a sharing culture that was commonplace in earlier times, and was more recently propagated by musicians like the Grateful Dead (who encouraged trading of tapes of their concerts). Recently some spectacular creative works have emerged from this, such as the Emmy-winning Star Wars Uncut.

An analogous (and somewhat earlier) phenomenon is the explosion of free software, often under “copyleft” licenses that require derivative works also to be freely available. Software like the Linux operating system, the Mozilla Firefox browser, the OpenOffice office suite, and others, are available not just free for personal use (like the “shareware” programs of the 1980s), but free for any use subject to some conditions, with source code for students to study and hackers to modify. Linux now powers devices ranging from Android phones to the most powerful supercomputers. Webkit, the rendering engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser, started life (as “khtml”) as the browser component of the KDE desktop project; it now powers Safari, Google Chrome, and numerous mobile browsers. The examples go on.

Even when a work is not available under the CC license, copyright law generally recognises “fair use”: excerpts for academic purposes are fine, for example. But correct attribution is still required, both legally and morally! To use someone else’s work, with attribution and without payment, for your own profit could amount to stealing, legally. But to claim someone else’s work as your own is stealing, both legally and morally!

In short, the internet age not only makes enormous amounts of material available to all of us, but in many cases makes it available for our own use, free. It is, in many ways, the ideal world for the land of “jugaad”. But some basic ethical guidelines still need to be followed. Very often, the only requirement is proper attribution. This is a simple thing to do, and if you are willing to play by the rules, a huge number of possibilities arise. But even this elementary necessity is not being recognised. I believe it is not being deliberately ignored — people simply don’t realise that it is important. And perhaps will only realise it when their own work is “ripped off”, by others, without attribution.

How do we get the message across? I don’t know, but I suspect it has to start from the top. I wonder if the science academies can think of an initiative to educate people on ethical use of publicly-available material. It is an important topic and, in an age when you can access the world’s resources from your desktop, becoming more and more important. Not only do we need to play by the rules, but — in the creative-commons world — the rules are really rather simple, and the benefits are enormous!

Note to self: re-read before posting. Among other infelicities, I used “matter” or “mattered” six times in a 150 word passage above.

Leave a comment


  1. Anonymous

     /  October 10, 2010

    Suresh Radhakrishnan has some suggestions in the USA context:

  2. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  October 12, 2010

    Anonymous – thanks!

  3. gaddeswarup

     /  October 17, 2010

    I remember reading this but do not have the book anymore. I think that this sort of plagiarism making an idea from somebody one’s own often happens sometimes unconsciously.;col1
    “Bill helped me sell that book [Men Working] but he used the plots of
    those two stories of mine he read. It was not stealing, as he claimed to
    Mother. I knew better and never blamed him for it. His stories were
    published in Collier’s but I doubt if he knew where the idea for them had
    come from or thought about it one way or another till Mother said something
    to him about it. That was when he told me any writer will steal from any

    Of course, Mother got upset about it and called me when she read Bill’s
    stories in the magazine. She had read mine in original manuscript.”

  4. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  October 17, 2010

    Gaddeswarup – thanks for the link. I recently came across a similar example of “unconscious plagiarism”. The most famous such case is probably of George Harrison whose first post-Beatles hit, “My Sweet Lord”, turned out to be very similar to an earlier song by the Chiffons, “He’s so fine” — this is discussed in the link above.


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