I confess to a measure of trepidation in writing today’s column. I am actually bracing myself for plenty of brickbats. All I plead is that my expostulation should not be seen as defence of plagiarism.

It is simply by way of reminding ourselves of an age-old precept to temper justice with mercy.

Plagiarism is an ugly word. Even to read its dictionary meanings is repulsive: Stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one's own; committing literary theft by presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. These are the kinds of abhorrent acts that the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes (to quote the source, lest I too be accused of plagiarising!) as plagiarism.

I am unable to approach l’affaire Fareed without something sticking in my throat. For, I too am a columnist, writing thrice a week at a stretch for the past 19 years.

I doubt whether there is one columnist anywhere in the world writing in any language who, on coming to know of Fareed’s plight, has not said to himself: There, but for the grace of God, go I! Is there one among the lot who can cast the first stone?

Ideas and sentences and phrases are constantly reproduced by columnists. Not always with attribution. That is because there is not that much of scope left for original thinking or brilliant composition: Everything that is of interest or substance has been covered many times over. Hardly is there a subject for a column over which the columnist can, a la Archimedes, (to be in the clear by mentioning the source), cry: Eureka.

VERBAL ALCHEMY

Overworked columnists fighting deadlines have, however, developed a variety of ingenious techniques to beat the potential stone-throwers. One is to fleetingly mention the source once somewhere at random in the piece (like Alfred Hitchcock appearing momentarily at some point in the films directed by him!), and then go on filling it with the gist of the original but changing the words, the syntax and the sequence. This makes it hard for even an erudite or scrutinising reader to get an inkling of the verbal alchemy performed on an existing writing.

Another is to seem like a conscientious contributor by solemnly acknowledging the source and giving a few passages in quotes, but carrying on with one’s own re-writing of the contents of the pre-existing material in the rest of the article. The stock of the columnist sky-rockets since the reader (or the editor) is highly impressed by his ethical uprightness.

The third is recycling from one’s own earlier writings in order somehow to fill the space. Purists may denounce it self-plagiarisation, but I say, purists be damned! I see nothing wrong or unethical in it.

The only question to be asked is whether the recycled stuff is relevant to the theme or the context, and if it is, there is no harm in the columnist reiterating a view already expressed by himself.

DRESSED UP INTERVIEW

However, it is best for intelligent columnists not to recycle from own writings less than a year or two old. This will allow for sufficient time for it to fade from memory.

Now, to Fareed Zakaria. Here’s a graduate of Yale and Harvard, and apparently sharp and smart, famed as a gifted writer and speaker, fully cognisant of prevalent sensibilities. How come he is so ignorant of the avenues for covering his tracks and transfers without attribution, a whole paragraph from an article of another writer, leaving a bunch of clues everywhere, which even a moronic detective can piece together?

First, he lifts it from a prominent and widely read magazine like the New Yorker; next, he copies from an article published as recently as on April 23; third, he leaves the words of the purloined article as they are, merely tweaking a couple of them here and there; fourth, just as in the case of the original, he does it in the very first para which draws the most attention.

And all this when he knew he had to be doubly careful in the light of an earlier accusation against him about a dressed up interview transplanted without acknowledgment from a piece in The Atlantic.

If he was asking for what he got, he couldn’t have done better!

(This article was published on August 12, 2012)
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