How to react when you’re ripped off

[UPDATE 21/10/2010: Aroon Purie wrote personally to Grady Hendrix, to non-apologise. And sent a longer explanatory letter to Slate’s editor, which Hendrix — generously, in my opinion — accepts as a “satisfactory close to the matter”. However, I am a bit alarmed about the “serious action taken against those concerned”. Asked for inputs, apparently some staffer sent Purie Hendrix’s article — but it was Purie who cut-and-pasted it into his own signed piece. Did Purie take serious action against himself? Or was some poor lackey in the office made to take the blame?]

I don’t intend my blog, in its new abode, to be exclusively about ethics and plagiarism. But, please, just one more.

Via Nilanjana (whose take on the India Today plagiarism case is worth reading), I came across the response of Grady Hendrix, the original author of the lines in question. To recapitulate, Aroon Purie wrote an editorial on film star Rajinikanth whose first two paragraphs are lifted directly from Hendrix’s piece in Slate. India Today staffers then searched the net for blogs that referenced the episode, and inserted Purie’s apology as a comment in every blog that they found.

India Today hasn’t offered space to Hendrix, but here is Hendrix’s reaction on his own blog. And here is a comment by him (scroll down). Choice quote from the latter:

It must be very difficult for the staff of India Today that when Mr. Purie gets “jet-lagged” he steals things. I would imagine that whenever they see their boss yawning, or looking sleepy, all of his employees must frantically lock up their laptops and hide their wallets lest he lifts them…

Indeed, if I meet Aroon Purie perhaps I should watch my pockets. As for my writings on this blog (and many of my writings elsewhere), however, he is welcome to them if he credits me properly. But I applaud Hendrix’s sense of humour about the thing. I’m sure he sees that it is Aroon Purie, not he, who comes off looking sorry in this episode.

Purie’s response has been dissected nicely by Nilanjana and others. We have learned from his response that

  • He feels the need to write on topics on which he is not an expert, merely by virtue of his being editor-in-chief.
  • Therefore, not only does he need “inputs” from his staffers, but he sees nothing wrong in cutting and pasting those “inputs”, verbatim, into his own articles. Are his staffers held to higher ethical standards? (We should note that his staffers were responding to his request for inputs — not writing an article for publication. So who’s to blame here?)
  • He can’t count. He lifted a dozen (12) sentences, not a couple (2). (Actually, he only claims that a couple were “sent” to him: perhaps he is himself responsible for copying the remaining 10 sentences?)
  • He still doesn’t think it necessary to credit Grady Hendrix or Slate. (Or even, we learn from Hendrix, to respond to their emails.)
  • An excuse, we learn, is not an explanation. But it isn’t clear which his apology is intended to be.

Such, it seems, are the ethical standards of one of our leading newsmagazines. It reminds me of a similar “explanation” (or “excuse”?) from the Reader’s Editor of one of our leading newspapers: after they captioned a photograph of African elephants as “prowling the plains of Kodagu”, the RE quoted the correspondent’s “clarification” that the photograph was downloaded from the internet by an ignorant photographer. The Hindu sees no issue in using downloaded photographs without credit: the only problem here was the “photographer”‘s ignorance of one of our iconic animals.

Meanwhile, Swarup links to a clear-cut case of academic plagiarism where the plagiariser, a professor at Rutgers University, actually claims that his numerous, documented instances of lifting passages verbatim from others, were “only sloppiness” and “not all that uncommon”. (Unlike Mr Purie, he cited his sources, but he did not make it clear that he was using their text verbatim.) That story is still evolving, but is already notable for the involvement of Alan Sokal, of Sokal Hoax fame.

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