Lethal Lessons Indeed


by Yusuf Martin

You shout at that idiot, who blatantly continues to use his mobile phone while the cinema film is coming on.  You tell the couple, in the row behind, that you really do not want to hear all about the intimacies of their family life, but would much rather listen to the film.  Finally, after you have picked up the dropped box of popcorn, you are faced with the extremely loud advert produced by the Motion Picture Association of America, placed poignantly before the main film.  The advert states:-

You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a mobile phone. You wouldn’t steal a DVD. Downloading pirated films is stealing………..” 

Downloading pirated films may be stealing and it may be, of course, necessary to remind people of that while about to watch a film. Unfortunately, books do not have a similar advert placed inside their front covers.  However, judging by the increasing number of unscrupulous, or simply misled, people there are around, perhaps books should have an anti-plagiarism warning, read on… 

Recently, a local young author has had to withdraw a collection of her short stories from sale, due to the plagiarising of at least one story in her book ‘Lethal Lessons and other stories’. Adeline Lee Zhia Ern, has apologised, through her publisher – Silverfish Books, claiming;

 “I now realize that I have made a mistake for not informing my publisher about the inclusion of the story in my book.  I did not in any way intend to deceive my readers, as at that point in time I liked the story so much that I thought that I would like to share it with my readers.”

It is curious, then, that the story – ‘Define Happiness’, purportedly by Ms Ern, has some small alterations in the text, ‘butterfly’ changed to ‘moth’ etc.; not enough to mask that it has been plagiarised from ‘Happiness’ written by Sarah Provencal, for Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV, by Jack Canfield et. al., published in 2004.  However, it is enough to indicate a sense of purposefulness, a deceit, about the whole endeavour.

Plagiarism is theft. It is theft of ideas, theft of the written material created by other people. Sadly, with the advent of the new digital media, a cut and paste culture has developed in places once praised for their learning.  This new post-modern, mix and match, digital culture, is a culture in which people tend to see other people’s words, sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes even whole stories as fair game.  Students, though endlessly warned that plagiarism is, in fact, theft, will cut, sometimes-whole sentences from the work of several others, jumble them together, paste them into their own work and appear erudite in their studies.

Unfortunately, having gotten away with such behaviour at an earlier age, this modus operandi often continues into tertiary education, and beyond.

In academia, plagiarism is treated very seriously, so seriously that people found plagiarising often find themselves losing scholarships, or even tenures.  Sadly, many young academics in Malaysian institutions are under tremendous pressure to ‘publish’, and to publish on a regular basis.  The pressure of coming up with original work, the easy access of the internet, and the thought that no one will know, may lead a stressed lecturer, or PhD student, to ‘borrow’ work from another, or several others.

In the recent past, careless Malaysian students from the Wira Institut in Kuala Lumpur, were embroiled in a plagiarism scandal, and, more recently, slipshod lecturers at the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) were involved in the use of other people’s material for a guide book, on writing effective resumes. 

Nevertheless, plagiarism in Malaysia is not just confined to learning institutions. An editor, of the previous illustrious, New Straits Times – Brendan Pereira, had to step out of his post due to the plagiarising of work by an American journalist – Mitch Albom.  Just as in the Adeline Lee Zhia Ern case, Pereira and Albom’s works were considered side by side, comparisons made, and no doubt left that the one work was taken from the other.

It is a hard lesson to learn.  Nevertheless, stealing other people’s written work is no less a crime than stealing their mobile phone, car or any other materialistic appendage you care to name. The more serious crime, I believe, is the ethical crime involved with plagiarising; the lack of thought that taking another person’s creative endeavour, publishing it as one’s own, gaining plaudits for it, might be wrong.

Moral standards seem to be slipping everywhere. There is a lack of respect for other people, their property and now their creative (written) endeavours.  It must be emphasised that stealing, in any shape, sense, or form, is wrong and should be punished – that includes another’s written work.

Ipoh Echo interviewed Adeline in Issue 80.