Indian blogger ostracized in the US media

BY Suneetha B| IN Media Practice | 24/12/2009
An Indian freelance blogger is found guilty of repeated instances of plagiarism and misattribution.
SUNEETHA B describes how easy it is to steal words off the web these days.

Mona Sarika is at the centre of a huge plagiarism storm that broke on the web in the first week of December. This freelance blogger is the latest example of the breach of copyright in journalism, after Jayson Blair. The web has been plastered with notices against her, all of which say that they are removing content by her on the site due to ?repeated instances of plagiarism and misattribution.?

 

The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy are among the journals that have taken public action against Mona Sarika, and made their displeasure known.  Virginia M. Moncrieff -- an international correspondent with The Huffington Post where it all began -- has devoted a whole page to Mona Sarika with the title ?Plagiarism: Mona Sarika?s Disgraceful Career,? and twittered extensively about Mona?s crime. As another twitterer has said, ?The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and The Huffington Post have one giant Blair moment with this.? Even our The Hindustan Times has given Mona Sarika a sharp rap on the knuckles.

 

Who is Mona Sarika, and what has this young woman done?

 

The blogger profile she once had on The Huffington Post says she is ?a graduate student and freelance writer who hails from India and currently lives in New York City.

 

She had an online column titled ?New World Indian? in The Wall Street Journal, and had put up a post ?Homeward Bound? on 10 November which was about H1B visa holders returning to India. On 3 Dec, The Wall Street Journal removed the column and instead put up the following ?notice to readers:

 

?A Nov 10 ?New Global Indian? online column by New York city freelance writer Mona Sarika has been found to contain information that was plagiarized from several publications, including The Washington Post, Little India, India Today, and San Francisco Magazine. In the column, ?Homeward Bound? about H-1B visa holders returning to India, Ms. Sarika also re-used direct quotes from other publications, without attribution, and changed the original speakers? names to individuals who appear to be fabricated. The column is the only work by Ms. Sarika to be published by the Journal, and it has been removed from the Journal?s web sites.?

 

Sarika has seven bylines dating from 1 June 2009 to 31 July 2009 on The Huffington Post. Admittedly, this frequency is not bad at all for a freelance journalist; however, none of these are visible now. Instead, is another notice to the readers:

 

?Due to repeated instances of plagiarism and misattribution, both on The Huffington Post and elsewhere, Mona Sarika?s work has been removed and will no longer appear on The Huffington Post.?

 

Foreign Policy promptly followed suit by removing Mona Sarika?s article on its 30 October edition, and posted the following: ?In her 30 Oct 2009 article for ForeignPolicy.com, ?Pakistan?s Coming Horror,? freelance writer Mona Sarika plagiarized and misattributed quotes from these sources (1, 2) on the BBC?s Web site and, we believe, may have fabricated her interview subjects. We have pulled the article and will not run work by Ms. Sarika again. We apologize to our readers.?

 

The Huffington Post says more about it here. It seems that Sarika picked up a quote from a BBC article and actually attributed the quote in full to another fictitious person, not changing a word. And, according to the article, it was The Huffington Post that actually alerted Foreign Policy about this act.

 

This is not all: another Huffington Post article by Sarika in June 2009 -- on the Sri Lankan situation -- is being accused of bad journalism by Indi Samarajiva, the very person whose quote has been used there. In his web post http://indi.ca/2009/06/bad-journalism-in-huffington-post/ Samarajiva says how he was cited as a Sri Lankan Tamil when he is actually a Sinhalese. It seems that, when Sarika did not get a quote from any of the Tamils she contacted, she simply made up one and attributed it to Samarajiva, whom she had written to for comments. The gentleman sums it up this way: ?Either she can?t read or she?s incredibly stupid.?  He goes on to state that what he found distasteful was ?plagiarism, misidentifying races in a story about race, and manufacturing quotes based on written interviews. This is terrible journalism and I hope the Huffington Post does something about it.? The Huffington Post did exactly that. However,  this was done quite some time after the date of the first comment on Samarajiva?s post, which was 25 June 2009.

 

The Hindustan Times report on Sarika shows how Vivek Wadhwa -- a successful Indian-born tech entrepreneur turned Duke University professor -- has been quoted in Sarika?s Wall Street Journal article as saying ?what America is basically saying is ?we?ve educated you, we?ve trained you, we?ve taught you all about our markets, now you have to get the hell out of here.?? When contacted via telephone, Vivek Wadhwa is reported to have denied the statement, and expressed surprise since he had never given any such interview.

 

While scouring the web for more anti-Mona news, I found this post. Amy Bhatt and Shiwani Srivastava -- both academics and journalists -- wrote on The Huffington Post complaining about how their words in Little India and The Washington Post had been ?lifted,? to make about two-fifths of Sarika?s article.  Srivastava goes on to condemn ?the brazen use of [their] research and writing,? and says that her own credibility as a writer and academic would have been blown to smithereens had the plagiarism not been found out.

 

Bhatt and Srivastava raise other pertinent points about how the Mona Sarika episode continuing to have ?lingering issues about ethics, accuracy, and the role of journalism in the digital age.? Like The Huffington Post blog, The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy posts also ran for several weeks without readers being aware that they included ?lifted? comments which were not authorized. And, until The Huffington Post ?alerted? the other papers, the plagiarisms went unnoticed.

 

Bhatt and Srivastava think that the writers? credibility was in question there. It was only after the plagiarism scam broke that the writers were able to explain to people why it happened. The other issue that arose was the removal of  the Sarika pieces without removing the link back to the original posts, which again gave the plagiarist the benefit of doubt.  Lastly, although the magazines mentioned here have removed the post, it still continues to be read at other sites.

 

The question that arises is have these journals not heard of plagiarism check software? Why did they not check the work of a writer who is not really established?  As is evident from the comments on the various blogs of journalists, The Huffington Post does not seem to be as popular among scribes. However, it is also true that it is not so easy to get a byline on The Wall Street Journal or Foreign Policy? Expertise and authority is called for here.

 

Moreover, how is it that the stories ran for several weeks without comment or question before breaking out in frenzied plagiarism notices? And what of the trust factor that the public places on journals of such repute? Readers expect that what they read in these journals is authentic BEFORE someone points out ?hey that is me or that isn?t me.?

 

Questions like these don?t have immediate answers. Mona Sarika has not made a small mistake. Predictably, she has disappeared completely. I sifted the web and came up with a mail id which, to all appearances, is that of Mona Sarika,at this link. Here she has written in as ?Anonymous? on 3 June 2009, 11:08 PM. She says she is will be writing another article on the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan for The Huffington Post and has a few questions: ?Can you please email me at sarikamona1@gmail.com??

 

I tried to email to this id, but the mails were never delivered. Thus,  Mona Sarika?s side of the story remains unverified. Perhaps she will come forward and give her version if she reads this.

 

Anyway, all these incidents underline a shocking truth: it is so easy to steal words these days. And to fool even weighty publications.

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