More Than Words

Plagiarism isn’t always a black and white issue … but could it be a brown one?

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When the Wall Street Journal retracted one of its online stories earlier this month because it was “plagiarized from several publications,” journalism geeks and bloggers clamored furiously about ethics and accuracy, the future of newspapers and, of course, WSJ owner Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. 

Admittedly, we were part of the fury. It turns out that the Wall Street Journal piece in question, “Homeward Bound” by Mona Sarika, was largely plagiarized from an article we had written for Little India magazine in June 2009.When we joined the fray, we were prepared to talk ethics and responsibility. But we weren’t prepared for one especially provocative notion that arose: Was there something about Sarika’s Indian-ness that made her more prone to plagiarize?

It seemed like an absurd question not even worth dignifying with a response … until the umpteenth time someone asked, “Don’t Indians have a different cultural understanding of plagiarism?” What started as an effort to research the roots of this question turned into the discovery that across the blogosphere, Sarika has become a poster child for prejudices against immigration and minority advancement in the United States. 

While the story of Sarika’s plagiarism is no longer big news, conversations around journalistic integrity wage on with one noticeably absent voice. Mona Sarika remains a mystery; no one can reach her for comment, and all we know about her is that she’s a graduate student from India. With no other information to go on, Sarika’s nationality has become the default scapegoat for her behavior.

But let’s back up for a second. Could it be that Sarika didn’t know she was plagiarizing? After all, universities say that international students often have a different cultural understanding of plagiarism. Maybe she’s just the product of the Indian educational system, which supposedly values rote memorization over creative thinking, right?