Journalism considers plagiarism, or the theft of intellectual property, a mortal sin


Anatole France, a French writer, says: “When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.” The reader who wrote the leading Talking Point article published on page 14 of the Daily Nation of November 4 seems to have taken the advice too literally.

He cut and pasted in his own article several paragraphs from the “Politically Correct” columnist Kwamchetsi Makokha’s article published on page 13 of the Saturday Nation of October 24.

Charles Indongole called from Kakamega to complain about the shameless cut-and-paste job.

He was short-changed, he said, as he paid for his newspaper and did not expect to read the same material twice.

Although he did not use the term “plagiarism”, that is what he was really complaining about.

Plagiarism is literary thievery. It is presenting someone else’s work as your own.

Plagiarism is common in journalism but editors consider it a sin, even an unforgivable one.

Besides being unethical, it can also have legal consequences as it is theft of intellectual property.

Copyright laws protect literary and creative work against unauthorised and unfair use.

Nation Media Group (NMG) has zero tolerance for plagiarism. “Using someone else’s work without attribution — whether deliberately or thoughtlessly — is a serious ethical breach,” says its editorial policy.


In May this year, it banned a university lecturer from writing for its publications when it was found out that a commentary he had written heavily used someone else’s material without acknowledgement.

On October 23, 2014, the Daily Nation apologised to its readers for publishing an image of two lambs suckling a cow.

The picture was said to have been taken the previous day at a farm in Chepkeche, Uasin Gishu, but the picture had actually been taken in New Zealand and was downloaded from the internet.

“Appropriate administrative action” was taken against those involved.

The NMG is not the only local news organisation that falls victim to plagiarists.

Others, however, seem to prefer not to see or hear of their plagiarism cases.

Tom Lehrer, an American comedian, seems to summarise their credo when he says: “Plagiarise! Plagiarise! Let no one else’s work evade your eyes! Remember why the good Lord made your eyes! So don’t shade your eyes, but plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise. Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.”



On Wednesday last week, Samuel Mwangi emailed from the United States to complain about what he sees as an ineffective public editor.

“You recently promised in one of your columns that there would be fairness in the selection of content for the editorial page so that one person does not dominate unfairly,” he said.

“You quoted a reader who had audited the number of times that certain people such as X.N. Iraki appear in the Cutting Edge Column and you promised to correct what seems like favouritism. And still you keep publishing his contributions in Cutting Edge more often than anyone else. Do you think the Nation has the moral authority to fight favouritism in other institutions when it seems to practise the same?”

Dear Mr Mwangi, I’m not a Mr Fixit. I never promise; I only recommend. Call me a preacher, yelling at a street corner, if you like.

I am not an enforcer. I have no paper to edit. Managing editors remain responsible for the papers they edit.

The good news is that as the public editor, as an internal critic and readers’ representative, I operate independently and can advocate in this column things managing editors do not agree with.

Essentially, my job is to encourage transparency and accountability in journalism.

While I am not sure Dr X.N. Iraki is being favoured (or he is a superior writer), I agree with you that NMG does not have the moral authority to criticise others for doing what it practises.

Journalists should always remember the teaching in Matthew 7:3: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”