Plagiarism in The News

Posted on November 14, 2010 by

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My very recent foray into the world of formal writing took off with op-eds that I started writing for Daily Times some two months back (thank you @Mehmal for giving me the opportunity). Since then, I’ve been struggling to balance formal studies and amateur writing and have written nine columns for Daily Times. My October 20 op-ed published in Daily Times was titled “In memory of Dr. Salam” and I had tried to write a brief account that covered Dr Salam’s life, his legacy and our treatment of that great person at the anniversary of the Nobel Prize announcement. I got great feedback on that column and was honoured that one of the most renowned living scientists in Pakistan, Dr Asghar Qadir  – a colleague of Salam’s and an institution in himself – also contacted me and corrected me on a few points.

In The News on Sunday, published November 14, 2010, my work was copied verbatim without giving me any credit. It was published on the op-ed pages under the title “Who’s afraid of Dr Salam?” as a column written by Masood Hasan as part his weekly column called “Over the top”. Masood Hasan sahib is a great columnist. His weekly column published in The News every Sunday for the past many years has been a compulsory read for his extraordinary wit and humor. His jabs at the PCB, babus, Gymkhana Club, Shaukat Aziz and Musharraf are always top notch and I love to read his work every week alongwith Ghazi Salahuddin’s (not a fan of Farrukh Saleem’s Wikipedia posts).

But I did not expect this to happen. Least of all when my work wasn’t some unpublished thing, or posted on a small time blog, it was published in another English language daily and I think nobody would expect papers to plagiarise each other so easily.

Masood Hasan sahab starts with his original work. A paragraph of usual Masood Hasan writing, creating humour out of nowhere and making us see the hypocrisy of our actions. Original work continues for another paragraph and then after the opening sentence of the third para, word-by-word copy paste starts. There are pockets of his own writing in between but largely it’s a copy-paste with a small facelift (I had a stricter word limit it seems). I’m listing the copied work below.

In the third paragraph, Masood Hasan sahab writes:-

In 1979, the proverbial spanner got entangled in the works. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the world’s highest award in physics would be awarded to three scientists “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.” One of these was Dr Abdus Salam. He would go on to become one of the most important theoretical physicists of his day, contribute to a landmark and crucial theory in physics, the Grand Unified Theory, and be celebrated around the world as a great scientist and human being. Except, of course, in his motherland, Pakistan.

Now compare this to my op-ed:-

On October 15, 1979, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the world’s highest award in Physics would be awarded to three scientists “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles”. One of them was named Abdus Salam and he was born in Jhang in 1926 to a proud working class Punjabi family. He would go on to become one of the most important theoretical physicists of his day, contribute to one of the most important theories in Physics, the Grand Unified Theory and die a proud Pakistani on November 21, 1996 in Oxford after living a life where he was celebrated as one of the greatest minds of the century. His country however would not celebrate him as a hero and his name remain unknown to a large percentage. The tragedy of his treatment at the hands of his countrymen is unparalleled and there is still visible uneasiness and perhaps even fear in accepting him as a national hero.

I had used the Nobel citation (which is in quotes) in order to keep things as readable as possible (any further explanation of the work is beyond my comprehension and certainly beyond most of the readers’). Next para of Masood Hasan’s op-ed reads:-

When the Nobel Prize was announced, the government of India was the first to “claim him” and invited him to India with all protocol. Pakistan only reacted when our high commissioner in London intimated Islamabad of the Delhi invitation.

My op-ed reads:-

When the Nobel Prize was announced, the government of India was the first to invite him and the government of Pakistan only reacted when the High Commissioner in London intimated Islamabad of the Delhi invitation.

Masood Hasan sahab continues to write:-

We couldn’t quite claim him, and we couldn’t quite give up on him. Dr Salam had received at least 42 honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by universities across the globe. Five from India alone. Here, somehow the Quaid-e-Azam University and the Punjab University finally decided to award him honorary doctorates, but there was so much noise made by moderates like the Jamaat-e-Islami that the functions were hastily shifted to other venues and quickly dispensed with. To its eternal shame, Lahore’s Government College University (GCU), Salam’s own, did not even invite him!

Whereas nation after nation fussed over Dr Salam and leaders like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi literally sat at his feet, here he was treated with contempt and indifference. He was welcomed as a state guest and received by heads of states at airports. In Pakistan this “honour” was left to faceless secretaries and other file-pushers. The “leaders” were too scared to be seen welcoming him.

My work reads:-

Out of the 42 honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by universities across the globe, five were from Indian universities. Later, he delivered the convocation address at the Guru Dev Nanak University, Amritsar, in theth (pure) Punjabi and the university had on his request invited four of his primary school teachers as well. The prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, invited him to tea at her residence, made tea for him with her own hands and sat down at his feet saying this was her traditional way of honouring great people. Country after country, he was welcomed as a state guest, often welcomed by heads of states at airports. In contrast to all this, on his arrival back in his homeland in December 1979 he was received at Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad by the military secretaries to the governors and the president. The Quaid-e-Azam University had to shift the function of the award of an honorary doctorate to the National Assembly Hall because students of the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami) had protested and disrupted the event. The event in Lahore had to be shifted to the Senate Hall because of similar protests at the University of Punjab. The protesters threatened to murder him. His alma mater, Government College, did not even invite him.

The plagiarism continues:-

Salam had earlier left Pakistan because his research work was not appreciated. It was actually frowned upon by the administrators at Government College. At the age of 31, he was already a professor at Imperial College London, and while he remained the chief scientific adviser to the president of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974 and somehow managed to set up PINSTECH and SUPARCO, his considerable plans faced innumerable hurdles and he was thwarted wherever possible. It was with the IAEA’s support and Italy’s generous help that Dr Salam established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste where countless Pakistani scientists received personal guidance from him.

Compare this to a part of my op-ed:-

Salam left this country once his research work was not appreciated and even frowned upon by the administrators at GC. He had already established himself as a leading theoretical physicist of the day with his doctoral thesis and was given a professorship at Imperial College, aged just 31. He served as the Scientific Secretary of the United Nations Atoms for Peace Conference and remained the Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974. He was instrumental in setting up PINSTECH and SUPARCO and remained a board member of PAEC for quite a long time as well. With the IAEA’s support, Salam established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste in Italy since the Italian government made the most generous offer for the establishment of the centre.

Plagiarism continues even further:-

Today, the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory, CERN, conducts the largest experiment in the history of mankind at the Large Hadron Collider in search of fundamental answers to the creation of the universe. The Higgs Boson, predicted and worked on by Dr Salam, is at the centre of this research and deeply rooted in his unflinching faith in the miracle of the Holy Quran.

What was this country able to give to this great man? A solitary Nishan-e-Imtiaz? Abdul Qadeer Khan has two. and perhaps a few others! Even the notorious fixer, Sharifuddin Pirzada, has one – maybe more. And yes – the media accused Dr Salam of selling our nuclear secrets!. We issued a solitary stamp in Dr Salam’s “honour,” but so did the African country of Benin. The ICTP in Trieste is named in his memory. Not so the National Centre of Physics in Islamabad. In fact, except for the Department of Mathematics at GCU, there is no landmark, no institute, no building, no department or university in this country named after the greatest scientist this country has ever produced.

I had written it this way:-

Today, the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory, CERN, is conducting the largest experiment in the history of mankind at the Large Hadron Collider in search of fundamental answers to the creation of the universe. The Higgs Boson, predicted and worked on by Salam, is at the centre of this research and CERN proudly boasts a street named in his honour. What was this country able to give to this great man? A solitary Nishan-i-Imtiaz? Abdul Qadeer Khan has two of those and the notorious Sharifuddin Pirzada has one as well. The fact that a leading Urdu magazine, Takbeer, accused Salam of selling our nuclear secrets is just a reminder of how his countrymen treated him. We issued a solitary stamp in his honour, but so did the African country of Benin. The ICTP today is named in his honour in contrast to the National Centre of Physics in Islamabad. In fact, except the Department of Mathematics at GCU, there is no landmark, no institute, no building, no department or university in this country named after the greatest scientist this country has ever produced.

Concluding para of Masood Hasan sahab’s op-ed:-

It has been 31 years since he became our first and only Nobel laureate, and nearly 14 years since his death. The doctrinal differences over faith seem to have far more importance to this country than anything else. We will name no airport, or a road, or build a monument, an institution, initiate a scholarship – no, we will barely tolerate who he was. We are blinded by our bigotry and hatred. Will we seek forgiveness for how we treated one of the great, if not the greatest, sons of Pakistan? No, we won’t. Many Pakistanis will continue to deny this unique man, and therein lies our shame, except we have none. We lost it many years ago.

The last paragraphs of My feeble effort at eulogizing Dr Abdus Salam and remembering his legacy was something like this:-

He was eventually buried in Rabwah (renamed Chenab Nagar in pursuance of the persecution and harassment of the Ahmedis) but the local magistrate had the tombstone defaced and got the word “Muslim” erased from it. Even in his death, his faith was to be the basis of maltreatment and the people of his community live as second grade citizens. Something the government of Pakistan can do today is perhaps name the new Islamabad airport after him. Name an institute or two after him, or maybe even financially and administratively help the documentary being made on his life by Sabiha Sumar and Zakir Thaver (a letter in this regard received no response from any government quarter).

It has been 31 years since he became our first and only Nobel laureate, nearly 14 years since his death. The doctrinal differences over faith seem to have far more importance to this country than anything else. Can we forgive ourselves for how we treated one of the greatest — if not the greatest — citizens of Pakistan? Is there any redemption for the people of Pakistan? It should be a moment of deep reflection for us all.

(I won’t claim Rabwah/Chenabnagar burial and tombstone defacing as copy-pasting since that’s something everybody mentions while talking about Abdus Salam).

I guess by now it would have become clear that this is shameless copy-pasting. I don’t need to highlight any similarities since the plagiarism is outrageously visible.

Now I don’t want an apology or anything. To be quoted by a seasoned columnist would be an honour, but that would require that I be quoted or if I had given permission for my work to be used sans giving me credit. I would have permitted my work to be used verbatim if I had been merely asked. The paper I wrote for (Daily Times) might have had some problem with using content published exclusively for them, but I would have no problem in allowing a widely read columnist to use my work, seeing how I’m a just lowly student sharing his two cents and how he is enthusiastically read columnist. The message would read a wider audience since The News has a larger reader base and a Sunday column is a damn fine place to have your work published. But none of that happened. My work has copied verbatim and nearly 70% of the op-ed is my original work. The facts in my op-ed have themselves been taken from various accounts, including Dr Hoodbhoy and Dr Munir Ahmed Khan’s op-eds published over the years and I quoted K K Aziz’s book for some specific events too.

Plagiarism in Pakistan’s print media is not a new thing. International stories and reports are often copied from big newspapers without any credit. Ahsan has documented Daily Times’ unethical republication policy quite a few times and Cafe Pyala have taken down plagiarism once or twice too, but every rational reader knows that the problems is bigger than these few examples. Plagiarizing somebody else’s work and publishing it as your own has crippled the HEC’s local-Phd’s-on-hyperdrive scheme (see these shining examples) but I believe it’s more of a societal problem where there is little appreciation of the worth of original academic, or in this and many other cases, non-academic work. I have little to add in the debate over the reasons why plagiarism and intellectual dishonesty is common in our country and I’m no-one to pontificate on these issues (at least for now) but the ethics of such outright cheating are just mind-boggling. Taking some facts and figures or theories about events from somebody else’s work without giving him due credit is one thing but lifting an entire piece of work without on iota of reference and publishing it as your own original work is an altogether different thing. It seems that I have become a victim of intellectual dishonesty and outright plagiarism within the very first months of my foray into mainstream writing and media.

I do not feel that I need an apology personally, but the paper should apologize for being lazy and weak in it’s editorial policy and not even using a basic five-second free online plagiarism checker. It would have landed them directly at the Daily Times website and shown that the writer was being dishonest. I merely amused by the level of copy-pasting one can do so boldly. Masood Hasan sahab, I am disappointed in  you but I won’t stop following your (mostly) great columns.

Update: Both the author of the column, Masood Hasan and Editor of The News, Talat Aslam contacted me in this regard and the matter has been settled amicably. The following clarification was printed in The News on November 16, 2010 on behalf of Masood Hasan. Notwithstanding the small error (I’m in the US, not the UK) that has no value here, I think, the issue has been settled, the record set straight and completely resolved.

Please refer to my column Over The Top ‘Who’s afraid of Dr Salam?’ that appeared in your newspaper on Sunday November 14, 2010 under my name. I had quoted at length from an email that I had received and based my column largely on what was written in that email. I acknowledge that the proper course in such matters is to either acknowledge the source or to place the quoted text within commas so that it is clear that the text is being quoted. Regretfully I omitted to doing either and thus caused great anguish to Shahid Saeed, a student, residing and working in the UK, who had originally written the article. This was an oversight and absolutely without any intention of plagiarising Mr Shahid’s excellent work which ironically almost said what I also wished to say on this subject.

Since then I have been in touch with Mr Shahid and your team in Karachi and have no hesitation in setting the record right by first apologising to Mr. Shahid and secondly to affirm that parts of the article were indeed taken from his work but without any malafide intention. As I have written to Mr Saeed I am sure I have committed many mistakes but plagiarism is not one of those sins. I am also aware that I cannot undo the anguish it must have caused Mr Saeed but once more have no hesitation in owning up to my mistake and hope that we all can put this matter behind us. If you at The News can please carry this at a suitable place, it would be a good gesture and one that Mr Saeed, I hope, would accept. Perhaps The News should have been more careful – it usually is and I have almost 15 years of writing for it to know, but all said and done, the fault is still mine.
With regards
Masood Hasan

Posted in: Cross posted, Media