Flattery

The sincerest form is imitation, it is said [1]. But even that sincerity has its limits, particularly when it comes to academic matters, when inspiration can quickly become plagiarism. Our University does not yet have an official policy on plagiarism, but we soon shall, I hope. And one that is designed for us, not just something copied from some other place…

Yesterday I took part in a meeting at the UGC on plagiarism in the university system and how to address it. In preparation for the discussion, I had been reading up on the guidelines issued by a number of institutions, mainly in the US, as well as some discussion on the matter in scholarly articles. It is clearly something that is problematic, especially since the legal issues can be unclear.

The basic point is simple enough to state. Plagiarism, as various dictionaries will tell you, is essentially the wrongful appropriation of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one’s own original work. What is complex arises from the difficulty of making a 0/1 test for most of the concepts contained in that definition.

Part of the difficulties we have with plagiarism is that the action is unethical, immoral, wrongful, but as of now, not illegal (in the strict sense of the word) as, for example, stealing some material goods might be. Trash or not, who steals my purse may be punished by law, but who steals my words and thoughts may suffer our collective displeasure, but most often not much more than that. The loss of reputation is one thing, but the loss of revenue is quite another- and there are instances in the recent past of plagiarists who have had to suffer one or both as a consequence of being detected.

In a University context, there are a couple of issues that need to be discussed and clarified. We are, as an institution, committed to the creation of knowledge. This knowledge often comes from standing on the shoulders of giants [2], by incremental growth. And also by recognizing what is the intellectual legacy we inherit, and the debt we owe to our intellectual forebears. This debt comes to the front in three principal arenas:

  • Research papers and monographs,
  • Dissertations and theses, and
  • Term papers and assignments.
Plagiarism is extant in all these areas, and our University is not immune to the disease. To what extent can be debated, and what we should do about it is clear in principle, but less clear in practice. The lack of a policy on plagiarism- or indeed on other ethical issues that are relevant in the University context- is an impediment, but that alone should not be taken as licence for incorrect action…

Nevertheless, there are some general issues that we need to discuss, among which are

  • The distinction between copyright infringement and plagiarism
  • What is “common knowledge” and how to cite/not cite that
  • What constitutes self-plagiarism
  • What is the role of the institution in educating its constituents: students as well as teachers.

A zero-tolerance policy has its drawbacks: after all, not every piece of writing should be viewed as a potential case of plagiarism, and one should reserve punitive actions for demonstrable violations of an implicit honour code. So the onus, in some sense, is on us. In giving or reserving attribution, we first need to clearly enunciate what is acceptable and what is not. And then help the University community to uphold these values.

To briefly touch upon the points of discussion, copyright infringement- say the commercial showing of a movie without obtaining permission or paying a licence fee- is punishable by law. Plagiarism attempts to pass off another’s work as ones own: not quite the same thing… Common knowledge is just that- one need not throw in citations to well-known notions or ideas so long as one is not passing off something as one’s own when it is not- it can become tediously gratuitous to cite every concept contained in a text. To whit the examples at the top of the post… Plagiarising oneself is a fairly common failing, and many academics do find themselves repeating ideas, and sometimes whole sentences, especially the better crafted ones. But repeating whole paragraphs or sections is a no-no, as is dual publication, the publishing of a given paper in more than one place. And even if one does not repeat entire sentences or paragraphs, this type of duplication of work, publishing similar papers with small tweaks is common enough.

On the matter of University responsibility, the potential for moral instruction is there of course, but given the fact of our being a largely graduate University, the opportunities are not many. Making a thorough discussion of the major issues a mandatory part of the research methodology course is one option, but I believe that informal discussions starting early- when new students arrive in the University for instance- would also not be out of place. Given the emphasis on rote learning that we are led to believe is the “proper” way of learning at the school level, one has this step of the process to unlearn in a graduate environment.

Term papers that are a “cut and paste” job are unacceptable, of course. Dissertations or theses that have substantial bits of copying or plagiarism are routinely rejected, but here detection is the key. If the INFLIBNET Shodh Ganga project or VIDYANIDHI take off and it becomes mandatory for all M Phil and Ph D theses to be posted on the net, such detection will become easier- and will deter any potential plagiarist. And on the matter of research papers, while the penalties are quite severe- ranging from a blacklisting of the authors to a withdrawal of the paper, the issues of culpability are more blurred. Today’s research papers often result from collaborations that can be large- it is not uncommon to have over a hundred authors on some papers in experimental physics, while four or five is quite common in experimental biology- some problems can be attacked only with a diverse combination of talents and skills. In such circumstances, when only a few of the collaborators will actually write the paper in question, the equal culpability of all those listed in the authorship is difficult to sustain. Some journals go to the extent of specifying author contributions, but even this has its limitations.

In the end, a Mosaic law may be the simplest to enunciate, as yet another commandment… Thou shalt not copy another person’s work and pass it off as your own!

And then leave it to individual conscience to uphold … or break. With the assurance that the affected institutions will also step in to uphold what they believe to be the necessary norms.

___________________

[1] Charles Caleb Colton, in “Lacon. Or, Many things in few words” (1820).

[2] Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke, 1676.

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15 thoughts on “Flattery

  1. Sir, a fantastic way of presenting the problem. It is high time to curb this practice before it mixes in with our blood.

  2. This was long overdue. Good to see the UGC finally giving this a serious thought. Within the University, it is important that students be made to quote sources with appropriate footnotes. So many term papers are nothing but a ‘cut and paste’ job – so blatant that the portion could have been photocopied from the text/journal and pasted on the term paper. Saves typing work! A stringent penalty (the mechanism needs to worked out) is the best way of rooting out plagiarism. Kudos to your initiative of spreading awareness about this issue.

  3. I suppose your comments in their present form are intended for readers who already recognize that for an author to reproduce earlier written words (that are not in proverblike common circulation) without explicit acknowledgement is consistently inappropriate in all contexts. I am writing to report that I have come across persons who do not recognize this and who find it difficult to understand the concept. They experience a difficulty analogous to the problem faced by others who do not see why nepotism should be regarded as an evil rather than as a duty. These difficulties reflect deep-seated cultural issues that need to be identified and faced with the patience and ingenuity that such matters call for.
    Specifically, it turned out that some students, when asked to draft a dissertation chapter, assumed that the task was analogous to an open book master’s level examination. They ‘worked hard’ to copy extensive passages from published work and submitted this material without any embarrassment. When told that this was plagiarism and therefore unacceptable, they were extremely puzzled. I went blue in the face explaining what was at stake, but they never did get the point, they simply did what I was telling them to do in order to humour me. At earlier stages of education they had been encouraged to rote-learn entire passages. Those who were memorizing champions scored the highest marks. After such training, it seems natural to continue to repeat the authoritative and obviously perfect words penned by the acknowledged masters of the field. On such a view, naming those masters would surely be impolite, verging on sacrilege.
    Better communicators than I will, I’m sure, find a strategy and help such persons to make the cultural transition we all have to make. The task is not easy. And it is not my purpose to deride the victims of our age-old teaching practices.
    Sincerely

    Probal

  4. I agree with PD. I heard a good story from an editor-publisher where a Faculty member (designation, affiliation, discipline concealed for reasons of good taste!), having “written” their stuff had it pointed out that the material was a cut-copy-paste (the series editor put it as “having significant overlaps with” in what is surely masterly English prose) from (inferior) websites to which – and this is the clincher – the Faculty in question responded with “is it okay if I just cite the URLs?” There is a culture of propriety and property (intellectual property) that drives plagiarism debates in the west, and which, as PD points is very different from “our” culture here. As to how we will address it, TurnItIn is one (limited) answer, but we do need something more…

  5. Sir,

    Thanks for this very important initiative and discussion. In context of textual criticism, ancient Indians use to sincerely cite earlier authors and declare what is their only ‘contribution’ in their authored work. Majority people who plagiarize, may think that ‘copying someone’s ideas is my birth right’! While concurring with intellectual responses over your article, I believe, for the sake of all, our University can organize a workshop (not a conference) to enlighten what is ‘not’ plagiarism.

    Sincerely,
    Prasad

  6. Even though I am aware of the problem of plagarism, but I still dont really understand to what extent is a problem. Till how much can one take up from another souce; is rephrasing a article enough to be called not plagarized?!
    These are the questions I have had for quite sometime, but noone to seek answers from. I think a proper program organized to educate people and give people a better idea about Plagarism will be a great step.

  7. Till yesterday (MSc final exam) you said I must write exactly what’s in the textbook if I wish to get good marks and it worked. Today (during my PhD) you say ” don’t copy” !!!
    Till the UGC reforms our exam system drastically, it will take all the four or five years of PhD to train your student not to plagiarise.
    Secondly, any fine tuning of sensibility like that which is required to define the thin line between plagiarism and inspiration from someone’s work, comes after years of making such judgement calls. This means, before a student is let loose in a PhD program, he should have done scores of term papers etc where these issues come up and corrections are made.
    Our universities encourage exactly the opposite. The best marks in a BSc exam is obtained by one who has reproduced EVERY sentence (points), equation and diagram that is in the textbook. Complete plagiarism is the ideal sought by every student till he has finished his MA/MSc examination. Next day suddenly, he must become aware of plagiarism!

    • You can not contribute new knowledge until unless you have studied thoroughly the extant knowledge in the domain, say, in the form of text books. When you refer to text books, it means that you are referring to a systematic knowledge. To inspire and inculcate new ideas in student community, scientific inventions, discoveries, theorems etc., developed over the course of time are incorporated in text books as chapters. Text books guide you for a systematic learning and understanding. Let’s don’t forget that this accumulated knowledge is not speculative in nature.

      After your M.A./M.Sc. degree, perhaps, you may opt for a PhD degree, that is where contributions are demanded in terms of innovative thinking, based on previous learning. Research contributions are immediately useful to you and to the society too. Studying for a PG degree and doing research (either to publish papers or to obtain a PhD) are different perspectives. When you reproduce contents from a text book, that means you are referring to a systematized knowledge but not plagiarizing. I believe, you may sincerely acknowledge someone’s work, when you are really inspired of.

  8. @ayuryoga: Yes, one must learn from the body of work done before us. A text book must be studied, and its contents learnt. Memorising chapters from a textbook comma, fullstop, and all, is not learning. And that is what students do all the time. Nowadays, it is not even textbooks…it is “all in one guide” that they memorise and reproduce in the exams. There is an “all in one MBA” , “all in one EEE” etc.
    These guides and many “textbooks” are totally plagiarised. Often sentences in one of these “textbook of Chemistry” will ring a bell and if you open Morrison and Boyd’s (that’s a classic textbook in Org Chem) there it is!

  9. I fully agree with Mr.L. At UOH, we never get the complete syllabus of a subject along with the references, including Web Material, Open Course Ware and the lecture plan (similar to that in Universities abroad) in the beginning of each semester. For many subjects, we don’t even know what comes next! That gives very little time to the student and one of the reasons for rote learning.

    The present day education system along with the evaluation mechanisms encourage rote learning and they are in need of a radical reform. This includes our own UOH too. The test or exam is no yardstick and is inadequate to judge the student’s grasp of the basics of the subject. The system must emphasis on learning by understanding. I agree that standard text books contain a body of systematized and well organised material, but we have to understand what it all means and explain it in our own words. In case there is a difficulty we consult our teachers, browse the net or rack our brains till the concept is clear. Though I have been adopting this method it has been anything but rewarding. It has been my experience too, like Mr L. … the rote learners wait upto the eleventh hour and yet “take it all” and those who strive through out the semester to understand the concepts and express it in their own words never cross B grade. The evaluation scheme can not distinguish between a horse and a donkey.

    When the mind is not trained to learn for 22 or so years(up-to PG level), the act of committing to memory with little or no comprehension gets extrapolated…may be exponentially –leading to Plagiarism. For this evil to be cut at the root, in our University, changes in the teaching and evaluation mechanism are the need of the hour.

  10. I’m sure you read the news reports on the plagiarism charges against Professor CNR Rao. The Hindu (March 9) has detailed report (p.11) and an op-ed (p.8), that raise very worrying questions about how far the rot has spread. What is worrying is that Prof. Rao, despite senior authorship, refuses to take responsibility for the problem.

  11. I have been following the Rao / Krupanidhi cases (5 papers with some plagiarism) and the following points occur to me:
    1. It may be a normal defence mechanism but senior scientists give entirely the wrong message when they try to trivialise the offence. Rahul Siddharthan’s op-ed in The Hindu indicates that there was some plagiarism of ideas as well.
    2. In academia as in industry the “policing” aspect is unavoidable (the use of plagiarism software or compliance audits for example), but such policing only detects “crimes” already committed.
    3. In industry I always argued (not always unsuccessfully) for an “ethics coach” in addition to compliance officers on the grounds that sound ethics would make compliance a non-issue. In the academic world too plagiarism detection alone is insufficient. And it can only be the senior authors or the Professors who can act as the ethics coaches – and not least by their own example.

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