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To Cut, Copy and Paste: A Defense and Clarification (Part 1)

When I first started to do research, there were no computers and Internet yet in the country. It was in the early 80s and I was a Research Associate in the Institute of Philippine Culture, the research institution founded by Fr. Frank Lynch, SJ., in Ateneo de Manila University. The same Lynch, the anthropologist, behind the concept of “darakulang tawo” and “saradit na tawo,” which still defines structured inequalities all over the country.

That was the time I learned and sort of mastered the art of cutting and pasting, a process even a grade schooler with a laptop can do easily now.

Cut-and-paste as a process was extremely physical and tedious then. First, you needed to write a report. After you had done a 70-100 page report, you started laying down on the floor several sheet of Manila paper, on which were pasted your report page by page. You confronted then this massive mosaic in white and black on the floor. You did not yet paste the sheet of paper. Loose, the report on sequential pages could easily be moved like cards. Usually, you worked with another Research Associate. Or, god forbid! the Research Director, the one who managed the entire research enterprise.

At the preliminary inspection of the report, it could happen that your Chapter 1 became your Chapter 2 and so on. When the team had finally decided on the major sequencing of the chapter, the next process was more complex and demanded that you went on all fours.

With you on bended knees (as one of the two tramps in Waiting for Godot insisted once Godot arrived), you began the detailed checking of paragraphs after paragraphs. At that stage, the first paragraph of Chapter 1 may be placed on the second page, as the third paragraph. You did these with the help of a huge scissor – one that was long enough to cover the length of a paper. These actions went on and on. When everybody was satisfied with the logic, clarity, and conciseness of the report as written and rearranged, the new pages were photocopied. A final encoding was then accomplished. This was the origin of the cut-and-paste process in writing.

Somewhere in the arranging and re-arranging, citations – footnotes and endnotes – and bibliographic entries were checked and re-checked.

Not written in the process I described briefly was the practice of citation, or acknowledging the sources of some of our data.

We were writing research reports. Marvel at the word, research. Parse it: re-search.

We were doing a study that was already done before. As my research professor would usually say: nothing is original; the Greeks have done it.

We needed to use other words, other concepts so that our report would sound intelligent. In research, we are the humble servants of knowledge. The best position is the position of humility – which is to accept that other people by far wiser and more intelligent had done already what you were looking into. Before you could talk about superstructure in economics, there was Marx. And if you happened to quote Paul Baran, then you needed to cite Karl Marx because he was there before the Frankfurt school, neo-Marxists, the French Marxists, the feminist Marxists, etc.

Here is the fun part of citation – the fact that you know at least that they had similarities with Karl Marx, then that is knowledge enough. The magic of citation happens when you are able to choose the right quotation from these thinkers and you understand what they mean, that research begins. You may not be able to explain by yourself Marx but you can use other people’s minds (in books or papers) to defend yourself. Call on Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, and other thinkers. Their thoughts will help you expand your discussion. Their memories will keep you humble.

Citation is the courtesy of one scholar to another. You sort of bow to another thinker and since he may be deceased already by the time you use his name, the listing of his name will be like a virtual flower on his grave. You can sleep the sleep of the just because you did not steal what is not yours.

You did not, in other words, plagiarize. Hmm, what is that dirty word again, Plagiarism?

Research by the very act itself of looking again and reading again helps us to be conscious about copying. The tradition of research protects us from being second-rate copycats who may deserve a splash of cheap wine on our face if we only follow the rules of citation.

Do I fear plagiarism from students? Not at all, so long as I am able to tell them they have copied from somewhere and I can prove that. This means that I know my field and I read.

If that is the case, be ready to forgive the first time. Learning by mistake is the best path to great ideas.

What do I propose then? Teach students how to read, how to cite, and how to write.

I will talk more about citation next time.

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