A cautionary tale

Plagiarism. In recent memory, at least one US presidential candidate and a famous scientist have been accused of passing off other people’s words as their own. The candidate dropped out of the race. The scientist’s name, once revered, is mud.

To anyone who lives in a society where plagiarism is viewed as a serious offense that can lead to immediate expulsion from school or vilification in journalism or politics, it may come as a surprise that in some countries, it is a minor pecadillo. An embarrassment better swept under the rug.

One of those countries, sad to say, is Brazil.

I came across a recent and extreme case through an American friend, a respected scholar in her field whose PhD dissertation was published in Brazilian Portuguese by a university press. While routinely Googling her name for citations, she found a scholarly article published in an online journal – which also has a print edition – that plagiarized several pages from her book, word for word, and then went on seamlessly to do the same with an article by a famous anthropologist who passed away in 2010.

Going through the article line by line, my friend was shocked to find that the supposed author had only written two or three original lines. Ninety-nine percent of the paper was plagiarized.

My friend immediately contacted the journal’s publishers and got no reply. It took several increasingly irate emails to elicit a grudging response, and weeks before the offending article was removed from the web.

The plagiarist is a doctoral candidate. She may lose her scholarship. She may be sued by the publishers of the authors whose works she copied and pasted. There is no guarantee at all that she will be expelled – even though more examples of plagiarism have turned up in other papers she published. Even her MA thesis.

After all, people who live in glass houses don’t throw stones.

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