Plagiarism: Up Close and Personal

While in college, I used to dream of writing for the largest selling technology publication in India of that time. Therefore, when I got an offer from them, I was overjoyed at getting this honor. From the moment I got off at Mumbai’s Borivali station, I was eager to get started, determined to make a mark for myself, and show to colleagues what this 22-year old was capable of! I was sure of finishing my assignments well within the deadlines. However, during the first few days at CHIP, something happened; something that could have ended my dream of a career in technical writing, and something that I rate as the most embarrassing moment of my life.

Soon after I joined this magazine, the editor asked me to write on RFID and its capabilities. Honestly speaking I had never heard of RFID, and at first thought of it as the latest NASA spacecraft, or something more sinister. Despite my knowledge, or rather the lack thereof of RFID, I was convinced that the newly launched search engine Google would see me through. Google was relatively unknown then and people were still using Yahoo or Altavista to search the Internet.

No one expected me to write a thesis on RFID, all I needed to do was write a two-page article giving all the gyaan and mumbo-jumbo about RFID. I just needed to think of the right keywords and Google would do the rest. In an effort to cover my tracks, I copied the content not from one but multiple websites, thereby making detection almost impossible, or so I thought. By the end of the day I was assigned the article, I was done with it, but submitting it so quickly would attract undue attention. So I whiled away the next two days pretending to be hard at work, talking to peers and searching the Internet for information. Two-days shy of the deadline, I submitted the article to the copy editor, typed in double-space, and sealed in an envelope with my name on it. How proud I felt that day!

A couple of days later, my team leader came over to my desk and asked me to follow him to his editor’s cabin. Surely, the editor wanted to congratulate me in person for the fabulous article I had written. As I entered the cabin, I exchanged glances with not only the editor, but also the copy editor and even the brand manager of the magazine. None of them looked too happy; a clear indication that I had messed up. My team lead connected his laptop to the projector, opened my RFID article, and asked if that was what I had written.

The content looked familiar but for unknown reasons, it was highlighted red, yellow, and so forth. I nodded as a sign of affirmation only to have another question shot back at me. My team leader asked if the article was plagiarized. I did not know how to answer this question because I did not know what plagiarism was. Seeing the blank look on my face, my team leader rephrased the question and asked if I had written the article on my own. My answer was neither a yes, nor a no, and followed it up by adding that some of the content was “borrowed” from various websites, but the majority of it I had written on my own. However, the truth was that the only original content in the article was the headline, which was not very good either. The editor disagreed with my response, and opened the websites I had so cleverly copied from.

My cover was blown and the truth was out in the open. There I stood with my head bowed in shame, subconsciously thinking of which train to take back to Chandigarh, and once there, what else to do because as far as I knew, my career as a writer had flopped even before it could start.

Thankfully, none of this happened. The editor, though extremely upset with my actions, let me off the hook with a short speech on plagiarism and the trouble it could land the magazine into if detected. As I was about to leave the editor’s cabin, he stopped me and said something that I can never forget:

“Manu, firstly never copy what other people have written. But if the subject is beyond your intellect and therefore warrants copying, ensure that you do not get caught!

Looking back, I realize how naive I was. I thought that copying from multiple websites, or changing the font size and style was enough to claim an article as my own. In reality, if even 10-12 consecutive words in your article are an exact match of stuff available on the Internet, then you are guilty of plagiarism.

Detecting plagiarism is not rocket science. What I did not realize then and probably you do not even now is that the very Google you use to steal content is perhaps the best free tool for detecting plagiarism.

On occasions, colleagues, both past and present, caught in the act deny being plagiarists because of their inexperience. My suggestion to such people — especially to novice writers— is that their youth and inexperience is an explanation and not an excuse for plagiarism.

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  • arshi
    January 9, 2009 - 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Me too not from Hyd…….basically from Gujarat!! settld in hyd from past 5 yrs. house is in s’bad!

    but as of now enjoying the advantages of being an NRI………..ooooh!!

    While I was in India, tht is 6 months back……..i was working for GVK group!

    Tk care

  • January 8, 2009 - 11:27 pm | Permalink

    No manu I didnt mean that

    What i am trying to say is “See you are writing genuine Content Now !…..” that what I meant Actually !

    Anyway Keep Moving !

  • Arshi
    January 7, 2009 - 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mannu!!!
    Was just searching for Big B’s blog and came across your site. I must admit………the product of your left over creativity is awesome!!!! Bravo man!

    Well……….me arshi from UAE. Actually from Hyd. recently moved to Abu Dhabi. Nice to know you buddy!

    tk care

    • January 8, 2009 - 10:45 pm | Permalink

      Hyderabad??? That’s where I am based, don’t belong to this place, just happen to be working here. Currently with Satyam and staying on Road Number 12, Banjara Hills. Where’s your house?

  • January 6, 2009 - 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for stopping by Amit. I’m not at all disheartened. If I were I’d be doing something else today. BTW when you say “See You are doing it all Over” what do you mean? Are you saying that I’m plagiarizing once again.

  • January 6, 2009 - 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Very Good manu ! At least You showed some Guts to write the True Story !……

    Don’t Feel disheartned…See You are doing it all Over ….Learned a Lesson today from your Post….

    Keep going !

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