Filipino industrialist’s plagiarism scandal and the importance of ethics

N.B. – This was published in Asian Correspondent (April 5, 5:47 p.m.) where I write a weekly column (Philippine Fantasy).

A Filipino industrialist publicly apologized for a speech he delivered before a graduating class which had borrowed passages in other graduation speeches without proper attribution. While his decision to assume responsibility for what his speechwriters did is laudable, it must be stressed that his situation reflects the lack of knowledge not only about plagiarism and but also the role of ethics in mass communication.

More than the simple Do’s and Dont’s, ethical guidelines provide the necessary standards in the conduct of an activity, in this case speech writing. Through ethics, the people are given a sense of what is right and wrong in making decisions.

Plagiarism could either be a conscious or unconscious copying of someone else’s work for various reasons (e.g., for profit, for higher grades). In the context of ethics, students, researchers and other concerned people should be properly guided on what constitutes plagiarism. Very few people know, for example, that there is such a thing as autoplagiarism, a situation where a person plagiarizes not others but himself or herself.

As a full-time teacher since 2001, I have confronted students regarding their papers which I suspected to be plagiarized. When I was assigned as chair of the College Anti-Plagiarism Committee of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (UP CMC) in the past, I also knew about some complaints of plagiarism filed by professors against certain students.

There are many reasons for engaging in plagiarism, whether consciously or unconsciously. It could be done for commercial or other forms of personal gain. Others may argue that it is just a result of plain laziness.

As stated, there are times when plagiarism is unconsciously done, but it is not an excuse for committing what is inherently wrong. As an old legal maxim goes, “Ignorantia legis neminem excusat (Ignorance of the law excuses no one).”

Modern technology provides both the opportunity and the temptation to just simply “copy and paste” from the Net. While it’s easier for people to plagiarize through the Net, it must be stressed that it’s also much easier to detect plagiarized works through various software programs, meticulous Web surfing and other methods, provided that the person doing the investigation is tech-savvy enough to do so.

As I stressed in an October 2009 entry in my blog,”I personally use Google Alerts, CopyGator, relevant `keyword searching’ and regular `ego-surfing’ to know if any of my articles are being plagiarized. There are other free anti-plagiarism tools available on the Net.”

Indeed, cyberethics is very broad and obviously goes beyond the practice of online journalism. In the same blog entry I wrote, I noted, “(I)t also includes etiquette on the Internet (sometimes referred to as Netiquette). In the case of the blogosphere, there exists A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics which is supposed to guide people in blogging responsibly.”

The awareness of one’s responsibility motivates him or her to exercise more caution in the performance of his or her job. Whether or not he or she is a journalist, a person would benefit much from knowing the necessary professional and ethical standards in the shaping of public opinion.

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