Thursday, August 30, 2012

What to Do When You Are Caught Plagiarizing

As strange as it seems to be a fan of a news magazine columnist, I have to say I'm a fan of Fareed Zakaria. I followed his columns when he was at Newsweek, and followed his career to Time and CNN. His writing style influenced the way I write prose on my blog posts, aiming for his balance of opinion backed up with solid statistics and research.

So it was a bit distressing to learn, from Zakaria himself on Facebook, that he had been caught lifting the words from another author's essay and passing them off as his own:

Fareed Zakaria
August 10 near New York, NY
Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, a version of which was posted here on Facebook, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere.

It's upsetting to learn that such a respected journalist had committed such a grim offense, but his sober response made it possible to both acknowledge the lapse and hold on to respect for the guy.

Now, compare this to Senator Tito Sotto's recent crisis of integrity, and the disastrous public relations catastrophe he continues to inflict upon himself. The offenses may be similar, but the resulting damage control response could not be more different. Short of using a time machine to fix the offense before it is commited, Zakaria's response is a shining example of the Right Thing to Do.

1. Acknowledge the mistake.

The evidence is out there, the world knows what you did. You simply cannot deny it at this point, you were caught. As embarassing as it may be, the best thing to do at this point would be to acknowledge it with as much directness and dignity as you can muster. And do it as soon as possible, lest you allow the internet to control the message and paint you as a dirty liar.

2. Apologize unreservedly

It may not be intentional, it may not even be illegal, but plagiarism is unmistakably wrong. Without skirting around the issue or making excuses for himself, Zakaria concisely said his apologies to everyone he possibly could. He apologized to the people employing him as a journalist. He apologized to the person he took the words from. He apologized to the people who listen and look up to him.

3. Shut up

After he made the Facebook post apologizing for the plagiarism, Zakaria's account suddenly fell quiet. He normally makes several posts per day, so the abrupt silence was evident-- but then again, after being caught in an act of dishonesty, a heavy dose of humility is required. The next post he made was a week later, announcing stoically that CNN was lifting his suspension. The next post was the following day saying that Time had done the same.

Only then did he return to his regular routine of several posts per day, imparting his wisdom to the world, his reputation strongly shaken but emerging stronger than ever before.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Even Sotto's Wikipedia Article Was Plagiarized

By now we all have heard enough of Senator Vicente Sotto III's disgraceful work in ripping the words from an American blogger in his speech opposing the RH Bill. Even worse were his initial denials, his continued refusal to accept responsibility, and his staff's lame attempts at defense:

  • "Copying is a common practice. Why do you need to think of a brand-new measure when a good one that was not enacted already exists?"
  • "We plagiarized the US Constitution. All the amendments became our Bill of Rights. But do they call us a plagiaristic country?"
  • "It is public domain [...] blogs are not covered by copyright."
  • “Even our image was copied from God. We are all plagiarists”

Sotto and his staff really need to stop speaking. Everyone that comes into contact with these words is now dumber merely for having heard them. It would take a sacrifice of my own dignity to even lower myself to the position of countering such a boneheaded argument. It's of small comfort to me to know that Sotto's lawyers and public relations people are as incompetent as his speechwriters.

And now here's another gem-- until yesterday, the vast majority of the Senator's own Wikipedia page was copied and pasted from his official Senate biography. (See how the page existed yesterday)

Now, anyone familiar with Wikipedia knows that it's not written or edited by any paid staff-- it's contributed entirely by the public. Anyone can and should edit the articles to work towards building a better source of information, provided they have good intentions. There was a controversy a few years ago involving US congressional staff maliciously editing articles of members of congress to add favorable information, cover up controversies, or negative information on the articles of their opponents.

Prior to the plagarism scandal erupting, a good 90% of the prose from Senator Sotto's Wikipedia article was copied word for word from his glowing official senate biography. The article has apparently existed in this form as far back as October 2010, nearly two years ago, when one brazen editor shamelessly slapped it all in there.

Prior to his entry into public service, Senator Sotto was a well-known composer, actor and musical artist. He was a prime mover in the irreversible trend toward the popularity of the Filipino singers and local compositions during the 1970s and the 1980s when he was the Vice-President for production of the Vicor Group of Companies. Among his popular compositions is the song Magkaisa, considered the anthem of the 1986 People Power Revolution.
Official Senate bio:
Prior to his entry into public service, Senator Sotto was a well-known composer, actor and musical artist. He was a prime mover in the irreversible trend toward the popularity of the Filipino singers and local compositions during the 1970's and the 1980's when he was the Vice-President for production of the Vicor Group of Companies. Among his popular compositions is the song Magkaisa, considered the anthem of the 1986 People Power Revolution. 
Pretty much the whole article was like this, but with the order and formatting changed slightly to fit Wikipedia's formatting.

Additionally, the whole tone of the thing violated Wikipedia's policy of presenting articles from a neutral point of view, it included such unabashedly biased gems like:

  • "A pragmatic nationalist who envisions a country free from the dictates of violence and internal threats, Senator Sotto voted for..."
  • "The two books clearly revealed the visionary character of Senator Sotto an his sincere desire to have a better Philippines for the future generation."
  • "His genuine concern for the welfare of the Filipino youth expanded the horizon of Senator Sotto when he..."

The plagiarized content covered his Senate career, his term as vice mayor of Quezon City, his entertainment career, his educational background, and even his birth. In fact, as of yesterday the only original content on the page was a few sentences about Sotto's failed 2007 senatorial run, his appointment to the Dangerous Drug Board, his 2010 election win, and a huge section about the plagiarism scandal. (The plagiarism section as it currently exists is way too long, but that's beside the point.)

The page view statistics tell that the article was viewed over 11,000 times in the past 30 days. It pains me to think how many people came to Wikipedia for information and had to deal with this mess over the last two years.

Being the helpful citizen of Wikipedia that I am, I took it upon myself and scrapped all the offending content, replacing it with the basic sentences to start it anew as a responsibly written article-- with encyclopedic tone and inline citations, based on verifiable sources but using original wording (a concept apparently unknown to Sotto and his staff). See the article as it is now, and feel free to edit away.

Now, just to be clear, I don't want to jump to conclusions and accuse someone in Sotto's circles to be the ones turning his Wikipedia article into a public relations tool or campaign vehicle. The Wikipedia user that added the pasted content is named Democraticsystem, and the only information available about him is his contributions, showing he mainly edits articles on politicians and hasn't been very active in the past year.

There's no evidence linking him to Sotto personally, but wouldn't that be something poetic...