Fareed Zakaria and the plagiarism debate

Fareed Zakaria Zakaria had been recognised as an expert analyst of foreign policy and geopolitics

Several high-profile cases of plagiarism have come to light across the world in recent months. Is our digital world enabling intellectual cheats - or does it help us better identify them?

Last week, CNN and Time journalist Fareed Zakaria was suspended after readers noticed a paragraph in his latest column read too closely to an article in the New Yorker.

This happened soon after science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker for trouble with "self plagiarism" and, more seriously, fabrication.

In both cases, the journalists were exposed not by those they misquoted or quoted without attribution, but by online sleuths who were quickly able to point out the problems.

Journalism isn't the only field that's had to deal with cheats and copiers.

Colleges and universities deal daily with the issue of dishonest work - and not just among their students.

Recent research suggests that 1% of papers published in academic journals are strikingly similar to papers already published, leading to a growing concern about the rise of scientific plagiarism.

And throughout Europe, politicians are being accused of plagiarism on a wide scale. Government leaders in Germany, Romania and Hungary have faced criticism - and sometimes dismissal - for stealing text for academic papers and dissertations.

A recent history of copying

  • German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned after multiple instances of apparent plagiarism in his 2007 dissertation emerged
  • Paresh Jha, a newspaper reporter in Connecticut, won awards for his work before it was revealed he made up material in more than 25 stories
  • Science writer Jonah Lehrer was accused of reusing his previous material without properly informing editors and readers, and further examination of his work revealed he had fabricated quotes and copied material
  • Fareed Zakaria, the CNN and Time journalist, included a passage in a column on gun control similar to a passage by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker

It's difficult for watchdogs to know how widespread plagiarism is and how much it has grown since the advent of the internet.

"There hasn't been any kind of definitive catalogue," says Craig Silverman, who writes about media errors, accuracy and incidence of plagiarism for the Poynter Institute, a journalism training school.

"For all the instances we know about, there is an unknown number that we don't know about it."

But digital technology has removed many barriers for lazy or time-pressured writers looking to lift a few passages from an already-published source.

"Copy-and-paste was the biggest step forward for the plagiarist ever," says Jonathan Bailey, creator of the website Plagiarism Today.

Once requiring a lot of research and retyping, plagiarism is now a shortcut, he says.

The internet has also created the demand for ever more content from authors and pundits. Zakaria, for instance, hosted a television show and wrote for Time magazine.

The increased workload can sometimes lead authors to produce work by committee, with assistants, editors and writers composing a piece under the byline of a single star. That process that leaves lots of room for missing attribution and sloppy copy.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg Guttenberg resigned after it was revealed he had copied parts of a doctoral dissertation

Whether or not plagiarism is on the rise, the widespread online availability of troves of past work has empowered a network of literary vigilantes quick to point out when an author has breached an ethical boundary.

"That's a huge change," says Bailey. "It's the crowdsourcing of plagiarism detection."

Using Wikipedia pages to document their findings, researchers now seek out copying in the dissertations and publications of notable politicians.

In one case, the paper in question had been written two decades ago - years before students could enter their thesis topic into Google.

"In Romania, it's an issue of [these officials] doing it forever and just now getting caught," says Bailey.

And increasingly, software can quickly examine the literature in a crowded and complicated field, says Harold Garner, of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech University.

"No one was looking or had any technology to do so a few years ago," he says.

Garner's team developed a program that can compare more than 8,000 academic papers for language similarities.

No matter what the field and how it is caught, those who monitor plagiarism worry that catching the offenders after the fact is not enough to keep plagiarism at bay.

"I don't think there's enough support to do an effective job," says Garner. "We're doing it on the side, but there needs to be more oversight to make sure we have the best quality literature in the world."

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