The sincerest form is imitation, it is said . 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 , 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.
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.
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.
 Charles Caleb Colton, in “Lacon. Or, Many things in few words” (1820).
 Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke, 1676.