x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Plagiarism is nothing new, or so my research shows

Colin Randall discusses the Skeikh Zayed Book Award scandal.

"Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from many, it's research."
"Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from many, it's research."

There is nothing wrong with plagiarism, one esteemed correspondent of The Times of London was fond of saying, "provided it can be passed off as research".

Even back then, the early 1980s, the blithe assertion would not have washed among purists in the matter of intellectual property.

But it was a different age, one in which - certainly in Britain - journalists would "pull together" quick articles on any subject by drawing, sometimes heavily, on what had appeared elsewhere. Somehow, they knew, and avoided crossing, the line at which the exercise moved from legitimate use of published material to the shameless plundering of other people's work.

It is an ethical distinction that does not appear to have occurred to Hafnaoui Baali, an Algerian academic who this week suffered the indignity of being stripped of the first prize in the literature category of the 2010 Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

The committee responsible for the awards, we learnt this week, wishes to reclaim the Dh750,000 cash prize, the certificate of merit and a gold medal, worth about Dh75,000, presented to Dr Baali for his book Comparative Cultural Criticism: An Introduction.

The book, the SZBA judges said, contained "wrongful appropriation of other authors' thoughts, ideas, and expressions, and the representation of them as one's own original work".

The language was restrained, but the message clear. Dr Baali, a professor in the arts and humanities faculty of Annaba University, which lies 600km east of Algiers, stood accused of blatant plagiarism: "lifting" text from another book.

Astonishingly, the copied passages were originally the work of one of the award judges. They were alleged to have been taken by Dr Baali from Cultural Criticism: A Look at Arab Cultural Patterns, by the Saudi Arabian author Abdullah al Ghathami, a professor in theory and criticism at the King Saud University in Riyadh.

As the blog Literary Saloon put it: "Submitting a book for a prize in which you've plagiarised from someone on the judging panel - not a brilliant career move."

For any author in Dr Baali's position, whether guilty of a calculated piece of literary theft or merely an oversight that might have been remedied by the simple inclusion of proper attribution, the sense of humiliation must be overwhelming. In either case, he has seen his work hailed as a masterpiece of its kind only to have it denounced later as - in part - a fraud.

From the coverage of Dr Baali's disqualification, it is obvious that the victim of the plagiarism, Dr Ghathami, has mustered considerable dignity in dealing with what, on the worst analysis, amounts to the theft of his ideas. He insisted that he bore no grudge against Dr Baali, though he felt shocked at his lack of respect for the ethics of literature.

"Lack of respect", on the face it, seems a glaring understatement. The website of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm states bluntly: "Egyptian critic Abdallah al Samti, who exposed the violation, said the awarded literature stole more than 30 long paragraphs from a book published in 2000 by critic Abdullah al Ghathami. According to al Samti, Baali cited illusory references for the plagiarised text."

There is nothing new in charges of plagiarism. The history of the written word, music and speech is littered with such controversy. From Shakespeare to Wilde, Brahms to the late former Beatle George Harrison, people considered to possess rare gifts have had their work scrutinised for evidence that it was based on or stolen from others.

These days, we have the added dimension of the internet. Anyone whose writing appears on the web will be familiar with seeing chunks of it, or even whole articles, reproduced without permission at other sites.

But just as the internet has made it easier to commit plagiarism, by copying entire passages of text from one place to another, so has the practice become easier to detect.

There is a respectable case to be advanced for welcoming this development: the lazy journalist tempted to cut corners by plundering the work of confrères may be deterred by the real risk of exposure; the unscrupulous student may think twice before submitting course work making liberal use of "borrowed" material.

Perhaps, then, it is no bad thing vigilance has heightened, especially in the United States, where there have been several highly publicised instances of plagiarism in media, cultural and academic life. No one is too grand to be pilloried: the memory of Martin Luther King Jr was tainted when, many years after his assassination, the dissertation for his doctorate was found to have contained plagiarised text.

There was also acute embarrassment at disclosures that an official British document, used to support the case for war in Iraq and warmly praised in Washington, involved in large measure a "cut and paste" operation incorporating extracts from academic articles, some years old.

Even writing about plagiarism can be tricky.

When The Guardian's Stephen Moss devoted a column to the subject, the footnote conscientiously listed several sources, accompanied by the line: "We apologise for the fact that three words of the above piece are the author's own."

It was a humorous aside. But you can bet that Moss wished to disarm readers inclined to question the provenance of his cited examples, including one priceless observation by the novelist Julian Barnes on the row over a claim that the 1996 Booker Prize winner, Graham Swift, had imitated the plot of a 1930 book by William Faulkner.

The columnist reported that Swift had described his book as an "echo" of Faulkner's and quoted Barnes as saying: "I can sum up my thoughts on this in two lines. When Brahms wrote his first symphony, he was accused of having used a big theme from Beethoven's Ninth. His reply was that any fool could see that."

It was a splendid, defensive riposte, and probably needed to be, since, in music, the distinction between influence and imitation is especially pronounced.

Yet Brahms was hardly alone in being suspected of crossing the line. Classical composers have cheerfully adapted traditional folk melodies; plenty of what, in the 1960s, was known as the Beatles-led Mersey Sound was an attempt to replicate American rhythm and blues. In the case of George Harrison, it was successfully argued that he had copied the tune of the Chiffons' 1960s hit He's So Fine for the main hook of My Sweet Lord.

There was more than a hint of realism when the American writer and lyricist Howard Dietz said something along the lines of "I don't like composers who think. It gets in the way of their plagiarism."

So Dr Baali finds himself in exalted company. But what on earth was going through his mind when he injected the Saudi professor's text into his own manuscript?

The only viable defence would surely be that the author knew what he was doing but had no intention of hoodwinking readers and simply forgot to credit the source. That would make it an act of gross negligence while removing any suggestion of dishonesty. If his use of Dr Ghathami's work was less innocent, another point arises: what, given the level of scrutiny that now goes on, persuaded him that he would get away with it, given the high profile and lavish prizes of the awards?

And what is going through his mind now? What do his family, friends and colleagues, and of course those readers, now make of a work that only a few months ago was lauded by Rashid al Oraimi, the secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, as "a monumental intervention in cultural history and philosophy"?

Only Dr Baali has the full answers to such questions.

Authors, composers, artists and the millions of people who take immense pleasure in their work would probably agree that it would be a great shame if an obsession with intellectual integrity led to every new piece of writing or art being viewed with a presumption of plagiarism until originality could be established.

But think back to the beginning of this article and that man from The Times. Is it possible that his own clever catchphrase owed more than a little to a quote attributed in many references (which also vary the precise wording) to the US playwright Wilson Mizner?

"Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from many, it's research."