Readers' Editor

An offence nonpareil

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

There are some lines that are sacrosanct. As a newspaper committed to the core values and cardinal principles of journalism, The Hindu views plagiarism as a serious offence. It is nothing short of subversion of digital possibilities if writers resort to ‘cut-and-paste’. Almost every plagiarist secretly hopes that his surreptitious action would go unnoticed. Without exception, the transgression is soon revealed at a cost.

Way back in 2006, my predecessor, K. Narayanan in his column, “ >Unfair omission: an author’s protest”, wrote: “Borrowing words and ideas from another writer is a common practice among journalists; but it becomes an infraction when the source is not mentioned. The reader has a right to know, and to expect fairness. So does the original author. When the “borrowing” is extensive or major, it leads to a charge of plagiarism.” A year later, he had to revisit the issue: “Plagiarism is a dread word for newspersons. But that does not prevent subtle resort to the practice by some, in the hope that they will not be found out. And when they are, the ignominy sticks and sticks.” I wonder why these strong words failed to act as a deterrent. In less than three years, I was witness to cases of plagiarism where the authors varied from academics to senior journalists to senior politicians.

In this newspaper there is zero tolerance for ethical breaches. Proven plagiarism has led to termination of employment for journalists. In the case of external contributors, the offending author is named.

Veerappa Moily article

Readers would not have missed the following announcement carried in the newspaper on June 12, 2015: “The article headlined “From welfare to paternalism” by M. Veerappa Moily published in The Hindu on June 11, 2015, has been found to have copied verbatim several passages from the article, “ >Mr. Modi’s war on welfare”, by G. Sampath published in The Hindu on May 26, 2015. … The Hindu regrets the publication of Dr. Moily’s article, which amounted to unacceptable plagiarism, and has withdrawn it from the online edition.”

Last December, the newspaper carried an open denouncement of plagiarism: “We regret to state that the article headlined “What we are and why really we are so”, by Dr. Mohana Krishnaswamy, published on ‘Open Page’ on December 14, 2014, had portions in the text amounting to plagiarism, taken from the book, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. …” The paper found her explanation unacceptable and removed the article from its website.

The most common excuse from authors when confronted with charges of plagiarism is that they inadvertently failed to provide proper attribution. Let’s look at two examples where the newspaper acknowledged the non-attribution of sources.

First, the Bengaluru edition of the newspaper carried a clarification early this week: “The report headlined “ >When gynaecologists treat sexuality through a ‘moral’ lens”, published in the Karnataka edition on June 9, was based mainly on a post headlined “Yes, Your Gynaec’s Thoo-Thoo Chee-Chee Prudery Can Ruin Your Health”, that appeared at http://theladiesfinger.com, and also on posts on social media such as Facebook put up by users on the responses of some gynaecologists. The women and doctors quoted in it were contacted independently by the The Hindu’sReporter. The accompanying panel titled “Crowdsourced directory” omitted to mention that ‘The Ladies Finger’ website and several Twitter activists including @AmbaAzaad and @Pavithra420 @jimanish @hirishitalkies have been campaigning to create such a list of medical professionals. The Hindu regrets the non-attribution of the sources.”

Second, on March 4, 2014, an acknowledgement was published in the Comment page: “Dr. Shivprasad Swaminathan, author of the article, ‘ >Scribblers, Scholars in the same boat’ published in The Hindu on February 25, 2014 wishes to thank Dr. Neeti Nair, “Beyond the ‘Communal’ 1920s: The Problem of Intention, Legislative Pragmatism, and the Making of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code”, published in the Indian Economic & Social History Review, vol. 50:3, (September 2013), pp. 317-40 for her in-depth and illuminating research on the Central Legislative Assembly Debates, 1927 discussed in this piece in the section “Relevant section and scope”. He also thanks A.G. Noorani, Ayesha Jalal, B. Krishna, Gene Thursby, Soli Sorabjee, J. Balkin and Michael Meyerson for their contributions on this issue.”

In both these cases, some amends were made post-publication. But, if I were to be the original author, I would consider the acts of these writers as nothing short of plagiarism. While it is incumbent on writers to refrain from plagiarism, the gate-keeping process within the newspaper needs to be tightened. Regarding the 2007 case, Mr. Narayanan wrote: “In theory, the desk is the last gate a news item has to cross before it is finalised for printing; in this case, the gate was dysfunctional.” I think plagiarism has become a recurring problem because, like the legal framework where one is innocent till proven guilty, the desk assumes writers shares their original work. It may be prudent for the gatekeeping team to invert this assumption to protect the readers from plagiarist’s prowl.

One of the self-imposed rules that I follow while carrying the daily Corrections and Clarifications column is to refrain from naming the reporter or the writer in instances where the errors resulted from oversight. But plagiarism is a premeditated act and one is left with no choice but to name the offender.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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