by Abebe Gellaw
A note to readers: In a lengthy diatribe full of contradictions and dishonest assertions, former ambassador Tesfaye Habisso tried to defend and justify the art of plagiarism. His astounding thesis, “Plagiarism is not such a big moral deal: a belated rebuttal to Abebe Gellaw’s allegations” (Tigrai Online, January 29), contends that it is okay to plagiarize willfully and recklessly. Instead of making a few humble confessions and apologies, he accused me of deliberately defaming him regardless of the fact that I only reported the truth like any journalist is supposed to do.
He seems to be very unhappy with any media reference to the scandal of the serial plagiarism involving him, which only came to light when he took complete ownership of Dr. Colin Darch’s 35 year-old academic paper on the Ethiopian student movement and published it as his own without contributing a single sentence.
As I had reminded Mr. Habisso over three years ago, what I reported was actually the tip of the iceberg. His email in response to the reminder was quite direct. “Let us bury it there!” I still have the emails!
Unfortunately, the former ambassador’s new denial contains one important sentence which has resurrect the issue: “I did not plagiarize Colin Darch’s paper wholly or partially. Full stop!” He even expressed remorse that he did not issue his denial soon enough.
According to Ambassador Habisso, who was once a prolific writer on Aigaforum and Tigrai Online, there was something sinister I copied from Joseph Goebbels. “His strategy copied from his role model Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister for Hitler and the Nazi Party, is quite evident: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it…,” the ambassador wrote.
As far as I am concerned, I prefer to echo what Dr. Darch advised Mr. Habisso: “When you are in a hole, better to stop digging.” In any case, I wish the good ambassador all the best and would rather concentrate on more important projects that call for my attention.
Instead of responding to Mr. Habisso’s denials and accusations, I invited Dr. Darch, whose intellectual property was stolen in broad daylight, to revisit the serious issues at stake.
It is said that facts are always irrefutable despite anyone’s best efforts. Here is Dr. Darch’s response that he delivered within a few hours after I sent my humble request to respond to the former ambassador, who seems to have forgotten the abc of diplomacy. “In the world of diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid,” as Lincoln Chafee once said.
Thank you so much Dr. Colin Darch! (Abebe Gellaw)
Dear Abebe Gellaw,
Thank you for your e-mail drawing my attention to Ambassador Tesfaye Habisso’s latest article “Plagiarism is not such a big moral deal: a belated rebuttal to Abebe Gellaw’s allegations”, published on the Tigrai Online website on 29 January. I should say from the start that I have never met Ambassador Tesfaye, I have no particular opinion about him as a person other than in connection with this issue, and I do not wish him harm. I had also assumed that this matter was closed several years ago.
There are two interwoven themes in his new article, politics and plagiarism. Having been brusquely dismissed right from the start as merely “some foreigner”, I refrain from comment on Ambassador Tesfaye’s remarks about Ethiopian domestic politics, or on his analysis of the motivation of those who have criticised him. Rather, I restrict myself to the question of his already freely admitted plagiarism of my 1976 conference paper “The Ethiopian student movement in the struggle against imperialism, 1960-1974”. Ambassador Tesfaye apparently regards this as only a “silly allegation” and defends himself by claiming that he distributed an “abridged version” of my paper which was subsequently posted by persons unknown under his name and with an altered title on the EPRDF-Supporters Forum website. One problem with this claim is that the paper as posted was not abridged or edited in any way, other than changing the title and attribution. It was the full text, including uncorrected typos. Regardless of how it happened, the fact remains that it appeared under his name and not mine.
In his article, Ambassador Tesfaye mentions peripheral questions of work-for-hire and intellectual property. First of all, plagiarism is not an issue of intellectual property rights as commonly understood – it’s perfectly possible to plagiarise from the public domain. It’s rather to do with the so-called “moral rights” of textual integrity and assertion of authorship, and the universally accepted conventions of scholarly communication.
Be that as it may: ghostwriters, for example, or speech writers, knowingly surrender their work-for-hire as part of a contract; no such agreement existed between me and the Ambassador when he appropriated my work – or perhaps I should say, when my work was anonymously appropriated under his name. He also mentions the idea that India, for example, has developed economically through “plagiarism”, but what he is really referring to is the violation of patent rights, and this is widely known about as a development strategy. As it happens, I have published on this topic myself, so I know what I’m talking about. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see its relevance to the question under discussion: if the taking of my modest text has contributed in some way to Ethiopian development I should be pleased but astonished beyond words.
Ambassador Tesfaye quotes Stanley Fish to the effect that politicians are not bound by the academic and journalistic conventions regarding plagiarism. But Fish concludes his article (in the New York Times) – the same text that the Ambassador quotes from – by writing, about two academics who had appropriated some pages from his work: “they took something from me without asking and without acknowledgment, and they profited — if only in the currency of academic reputation — from work that I had done and signed. That’s the bottom line and no fancy philosophical argument can erase it” (emphasis added).
Ambassador Tesfaye is fond of “fancy philosophical argument” and he also likes to quote Ethiopian proverbs. Allow me to quote one back, this time not Ethiopian but in English: “when you are in a hole, better to stop digging”.
Dr. Colin Darch is Honorary Research Associate at University of Cape Town, South Africa. Between 1971-1975, he served as Head of Readers’ Services Division at Addis Ababa University Library, according to his Linkedin profile.
by Abebe Gellaw