Getting in on the Act: Plagiarism in the Age of the Internet

Getting in on the Act: Plagiarism in the Age of the Internet

Friday, February 12, 2021 10:11 am

Dr. Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

Stolen water is sweet; and so is reaping where you have not sown. You are spared the sweat, the tears and the blood of true success, of “solid personal achievement”. It is human nature to go for the weakest link in the chain. It’s the rule of the least resistance. To be sure, in the grand scheme of things, and, if you subscribe to the Biblical account of the genesis of suffering, you’d realise that we are given to believe that the physical exertions, the mental anguish and the sheer pain(s) associated with labour or work is actually a curse, a divine malediction pronounced by God upon humankind: “By the sweat of your brow …”

Humanity through the ages has always sought ways and means to circumvent this primal curse of labour, the necessary suffering that ensures human prosperity, societal advancement and collective fulfilment. Hence, people steal, kill and destroy in order to gain greatness, however hollow and ephemeral this may prove in the end. Whether in politics, warfare, land disputes, sport, examinations, love affairs, marriages, inheritance, name it. Hardly ever do people try to follow the beaten track, the right and proper course of action; it’s Machiavellian sweepstakes all the way: namely, the end justifies the means. But we are not interested in the overarching predilection in man to cut corners, to break the law in his desperation for achievement.

We are rather concerned with plagiarism, the academic practice of passing off another person’s work as yours. This act is analogous to drinking stolen water or reaping where you have not sown. Not unlike many aspects of human activity, some students, scholars, researchers, intellectuals, politicians, writers, etc, tend to attempt getting in on the act, i.e., to plagiarise other people’s intellectual property. This usually takes varied and multiple forms ranging from citing a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph or a passage or even a whole article or essay without due acknowledgement of the source of the information. In other cases, plagiarism may take the form of reformulating, rehashing, repackaging another person’s ideas/work in the form of music, a write-up, a report, a speech, a business model, inter alia, without acknowledgement of indebtedness. When, however, you look or consider the matter a bit more closely with calm dispassion and deep introspection, you’d realise that you’ve been an innocent plagiarist the whole time, all your life: your first lisping of the living word as a baby; your acquisition of language which, in turn, shaped and continues to shape your thoughts, your dream-work (or dream-scape), your cognition of objective reality and, indeed your sense of self and individuality, your ontology. You derive all of this from others, be they your parents, relatives, friends, neighbours, strangers or teachers. Society or the community owns everything.

It makes you. And it’s capable of also marring you, as the case may be. But the fact of the matter is that there is nothing you have today which you did not receive from others, as the Bible rightly asserts. But what makes this type of “plagiarism” acceptable is because it’s conventional. It is part of the elementary grammar of the human community. Everyone must be so socialised to fit in. But even so, it’s taken for granted that our socialisation as social animals is at the expense of others – family, school, church, peer group, the mass media, among others. Thus, in a sense, this is not plagiarism qua plagiarism, since we do not deliberately poach or quarry others’ cisterns or vineyards without licence or permission. Yet, the same process of socialisation; of trying to fit in undergirds the mindset of plagiarism. If we rely on others to learn language, to acquire social etiquette and other forms of moral codes, by the same token, we equally leverage the collective harvest of others’ academic or/and intellectual “sweat” as springboard to vault ourselves onto the commanding heights.

The difference between socialisation, on the one hand and plagiarism, on the other is that, whilst the former does not require overt acknowledgment of debt, the latter does, failure which the charge of culpability is levelled against the offender. Let’s now break the issue down for better and clearer apprehension. Research, by definition, is the act of familiarising oneself with the existing body of knowledge stored in whatever form – oral or/and scribal – and utilising same to solve an identified or specific problem(s) of society. The prefix “re-” in research indicates a return to what already exists; a rethinking, a re-imagining, a modification of the extant body of knowledge – of “tradition”. The philosophy of knowledge implies, thus, that knowledge is eternally plagued with imperfection, blind-spots, inductive deficiencies and deductive faux pas, necessitating a re-examination of the protocols, the methodologies of research. It’s a never-ending endeavour; a life-long game of intellectual hide-and-seek. Hence, it’s research, meaning you’re compelled to return to the starting-block, something akin to the Nigerian “drawing-board”. On and on you go ad nauseam. The totality of your knowledge is the product of the intellectual labour of love by those who have gone before. Can you be guilty of plagiarism without realising it? Yes. Most times, this inadvertent act of commission is down to forgetfulness on the part of the innocent plagiarist to acknowledge their indebtedness; or it might arise due to ignorance of the rules of scholarship and in other cases, it might be caused by carelessness on the part of the researcher. Thus there is a sense in which there is a bit of the plagiarist in all of us. This is particularly apparent among the intelligentsia. T.S. Eliot, writing about verse-making, contends: “one of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal, bad poets deface what they take; and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” “Plagiary, a derivative of plagiarus, was introduced into English in 1601 by dramatist Ben Jonson during the Jacobean Era to describe someone guilty of literary theft. The derived form plagiarism was introduced into English around 1620” (see Google). At all events, it is standard practice in the academia for scholars to acknowledge their debts; to pay due homage to authorities much in the same manner as ancient raconteurs, bards, minstrels and oral performers did in the African experience. What’s more, this universality of homage-paying is exemplified in such canonical writers as Homer, Virgil, Spencer and Milton, all of them, writers of epics. They acknowledge their sources of information-cum-inspiration in the opening lines of their works. We see this in Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Faery Queene, and Paradise Lost. In the same connection, no oral chanter dares perform before an audience without first of all paying homage (Yoruba “Ijuba”) to the living and the undead, his master and then invoking the aid of the Benevolent Spirits. If he uses a material reputedly owned by another performer, he is absolved of the charge of plagiarism after openly saluting that person. Accordingly, as it is in traditional society so it is in modern-day society, and, more so in the academia. The right and proper thing to do is to acknowledge ALL sources of information such as gossip, hear-say, oral interview, radio, television, dictionaries, thesaurus, encyclopaedia, case files, minutes of meetings, classified archives, etc. Interestingly, society has transitioned from the print to the visual culture. This change from logocentrism to phonocentrism, or, more broadly, from print technology to audiovisual and virtual/digital technologies has further complicated the plot. Although the reading culture is on the wane of late, giving way to the obsession with the internet, the problem of plagiarism has intensified. As a researcher, all you need is on the internet. There’s no better time to do anything than now – the so-called digital revolution. Thus, whatever you want, as the saying goes – just Google it! In fact, we now have lots of search engines at our finger tips: Google, Bing, Yandex, CCSearch, Start Page, Search Encrypt, Gibiru, Onesearch,, Twitter, Internet Archive, among others. These days, university students who want to write their BA/BSc, MA/MSc and PhD, simply Goggle it. Simple as that! Secondary school entrance examinations, exit examinations from primary school to university level are a click away. Lecture notes are all over the web. Class attendance nowadays is anachronistic, simply un-sexy; old-school! More worryingly, the scourge is spreading apace such that no one, however, highly-placed and powerful, is immune. Government ministers, politicians, top international business moguls and heads of states and presidents have been found guilty of plagiarism. We shall refrain from finger-pointing or the ungracious and mean act of naming and shaming, for obvious reasons, not least, diplomatic. Heads do roll from time to time in the academy both here in Africa and overseas. Sundry measures have been put in place in Nigeria to curb the menace and reduce it to a minimum. Twenty-one-year jail-term awaits any offender. Also, universities across the world are fighting the problem through the use of anti- plagiarism software deployed in vetting students’ and scholars’ work. Journal editors, publishers, government parastatals, embassies, media houses, etc are equally involved in smoking out offenders and punishing them accordingly. But after all said and done, you are constrained to wonder what percentage of “stealing”, “borrowing”, “echoing” or “lifting” is acceptable: 10%, 20%, 30% or what? The whole business of calibrating plagiarism is a bit of a toss-up, really. What do we say, for instance, of a country which produces nothing but depends on other nations for everything, from toothpick to Demoncrazy? Isn’t that a plagiarising country? Well, as we can see, the internet encourages and promotes mental indolence, disregard for academic rigour and disincentivises industry and intellectual curiosity. It blunts the edge of scholarship owing to the glut of information on offer. Thus surfeit breeds satiety, and satiety stupefaction and nescience. The immortal warning given by Walter Benjamin comes to mind: humanity’s scientific advancement is, at root, a simultaneity of civilisation and barbarism. As the world goes increasingly virtual, you wonder: what a Brave New World of human robots, zombies and simpletons beckons!Chris Anyokwu, PhD.Associate Professor of English,University of Lagos.

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