Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the April 26, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

We have to thank Manny Pangilinan and the Ateneo de Manila University for bringing back to the fore an often neglected controversy—the malaise of plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a common occurrence. Well-known, academics, journalists, literary writers, musicians, and other professionals have been caught for acts of plagiarism. Manny Pangilinan belongs to a distinguished party.

To quote, Richard A Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism (2007): “One doubts that plagiarism is actually more common at Harvard than elsewhere. It is simply more conspicuous. Scandal at the nation’s most famous university gratifies the natural human delight at discovering that giants, including giant institutions, have feet of clay.”

Judge Posner’s statement captures the spirit of the controversy behind Pangilinan’s plagiarized commencement address at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Pangilinan delivered a graduation speech that turned out to contain plagiarized passages, drawn from works of international celebrities. Upon discovery of plagiarism, actually committed by his ghostwriters, he assumed full accountability for the act and immediately tended his resignation as chair of the Ateneo’s board of trustees. Father Bienvenido Nebres, the university president, and the University’s Board of Trustees, did not accept his resignation. Pangilinan said that his resignation was irrevocable. End of story, and it ends well.

Pangilinan’s decision was a class act, which even spared the Ateneo from further embarrassment.

Certainly, plagiarism especially in an academic environment is a very serious matter. To quote Posner again, “plagiarism is considered…to be the capital intellectual crime.” It “is a species of intellectual fraud.”

Ateneo faculty members who signed a statement that was critical of the Board of Trustees response to Pangilinan’s commencement speech were concerned about the application of standards in dealing with plagiarism. In the case of Mr. Pangilinan, the stance of the Board of Trustees was accommodating. But the only standard for acts of plagiarism is much stricter, more severe. Responsibility for wrong actions includes accountability, beyond saying sorry. (That’s why Gloria Arroyo’s “I’m sorry “ is unacceptable.)

Undergraduate students have been severely punished for committing plagiarism or other acts of cheating. Yet, there is an argument that authorities be more understanding and sensitive in dealing with young students who committed plagiarism.

Take the case of a group of applied physics students at the University of the Philippines. They submitted a technical paper as part of the course requirement titled “Observation of biometric properties of leg movement and gait analysis using a geniometer.” Unknown to all members of the group, two of their group mates contributed sections of the report that were plagiarized. The plagiarism was eventually detected, and the group immediately withdrew the paper and submitted a new one, which expurgated the plagiarized parts.

The students faced the terrible consequences; an “extraordinary penalty arrangement” was applied to them. Everyone was automatically given an incomplete and later a dishonorable grade. Such penalty was given without due process and without regard for individual responsibilities. (There was evidence to distinguish between the two students who committed plagiarism and the rest who were innocent.)

And what a terrible price they had to pay. The student who committed plagiarism suddenly dropped out of school and was nowhere to be found, to save himself from the embarrassment and the reprisal. I can only sympathize with this student, whose future might have been damaged because of this incident.

The group leader, Miguel P. Sison, was likewise severely punished, even though he was not guilty of doing the plagiarized section; even though he notified his classmates and the professor about the tainted report, which they withdrew. He was first given an incomplete grade (though the group was able to submit a new report), which was later translated into a “dishonorable grade.” Because of the grade of incomplete, Miguel was stripped of his Oblation scholarship award, the highest scholarship award given by the University of the Philippines to the top 50 entrants.

The incident scarred Miguel. He nevertheless graduated from the University, majoring in applied physics. He graduated magna cum laude. His future is bright, unlike his classmate who dropped out because of the plagiarism case. Despite this, Miguel continues his search for due process and justice.

This is not to say that the standard against plagiarism must be relaxed. Rather, the authorities in particular must design rules that will help students understand what plagiarism is all about and why plagiarism cannot be tolerated. Plagiarism is not easy to define, as Jude Posner acknowledges. Rules must be geared towards prevention of plagiarism rather than penalties after the fact. And rules must not violate due process.

The plagiarism controversy that rocked the Ateneo campus and the debate that spilled over to the national arena is thus an opportunity to address the rising incidence and conspicuousness of plagiarism as well as review the rules that uphold the strictest standard but without unjustly punishing the innocent and the less guilty.