Blown cover of plagiarism should not stop the flow of original opinions
Stabroek News
April 29, 2002

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Dear Editor,

Plagiarism long has been a problem associated with writers who share another's written views on a subject, but either were too lazy to analyze those views to derive a shared perspective, or simply thought they could get away with lifting, unedited, another writer's entire sentences or paragraphs, without attributing or sourcing the material.

A couple of months ago, two renowned American authors, a male and female, made headline news when they were accused of lifting, word by word, materials from previously written works and publishing them in two potentially best-selling new books, without sourcing the materials to the original writers.

If my memory serves me well, I believe the two authors' reputable publishing companies, embarrassed by the discoveries, immediately pulled the books off the store shelves, while the authors themselves either apologized or offered an explanation that rendered their actions as inadvertent errors or oversights. But because these two authors had developed their own readership, the publishers did not drop them from the list of authors whose works are competitively sought after for publication.

While it is unfortunate that plagiarism is now being allegedly associated with the local letter columns, it can only be hoped that you will not drop contributors whose views, as hotly debatable as they may be, may contribute to the liveliness of the letters forum.

Furthermore, the mere fact that a couple of other readers/writers could have detected this alleged journalistic infraction and brought it to your attention, says something about the caliber of the readership these columns have attracted. Even the caliber of views, analyses, commentaries and concerns on a wide range of issues has become qualitatively and quantitatively better.

Now that the issue has been brought to the forefront, I also do not think one or two errors should suddenly force contributors into seclusion for fear of not being respected as writers; in fact, I believe the errors should be used as reminders and guides to be more creative in developing story ideas and interpreting news for analyses with which people can connect.

When I first started writing for the news in 1981, one of the cardinal sins of journalism I was warned against was plagiarism. I have since found there are professional news commentators and analysts who share or expand on views that were previously written or expressed, without repeating them verbatim, and have gone on to brighten otherwise dull perspectives. Some original writers and speakers have even come around to acknowledging that the brightening helped them, too.

As an ardent cable news and 'talk show' news viewer, I also find there are views with which I disagree, and others with which I agree. The same goes for articles in newspapers and newsmagazines. I tend to focus on substance rather than style or the projection of personalities. The more substance people have, whether good, bad or different, the more interesting the topic becomes.

But when people do not have substance, and plagiarism is visibly absent, then their shallowness becomes so transparent as they focus excessively on personalities and not the issues. TV news producers can find their shows being canned if a programme that should deal with serious issues to attract a certain audience, winds up focusing on personalities and styles. Likewise, newspaper editors can quickly find their letter columns being dragged down into personality clashes, whereas the columns should be dealing largely with issues in the news and affecting people's lives.

I have every bit of confidence in your editorial competence to try to discern and discourage plagiarism, just as you would discern and discourage personality-focused letters in favour of issue-focused letters.

Yours faithfully,

Emile Mervin