Plagiarism is to academia what is treason to the military. The ultimate sin to be shunned and trained against. Human fragilities are strong or as the scripture says, The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So, it is widespread and pervasive.
It was in the 1980s, the pre-computer era when one has to rely on typists to get theses done. A few were ‘smarter’; their typists’ speed determined their efficiency. They would just mark specific paragraphs in books and articles; identified them in a sequence; and their typists would type verbatim. Yes, without any intellectual intervention. Earlier form of copy-and-paste. This way some ‘chapters’ were done over weekends. Did not hear the P word then but know something was wrong and immoral. As years went by, plagiarism was also keeping pace. People with access to research works, especially those who were the custodians, began producing books at a rapid speed. Students slog for degrees; these ones deliver them to publishers in Daryaganj.
One thing is certain. Plagiarism never happens without active human intervention. It is not an accident but a deliberate and conscious action. Those who plagiarise know it better than even the most modern technologies. It reflects our banal understanding of intellectual creativity. Copyright has assumed a simple, powerful and perverted meaning in our country: the right to copy.
Plagiarism is partly emboldened by our education system that rests on root-learning that rarely promotes independent thinking. Respecting the elders has been reduced to be being intellectual slavery. It is possible and necessary to differentiate respect from subservience; but obedience in the bad sense of the word has come to symbolise the learning process. From our childhood, we are trained not to question or challenge. Curiosity and questioning are signs of eccentricity and hence, should be avoided. Leaders of all hues—religious, political or social—rarely tolerate them being questioned; even progressive ones are no better. Question the leader—big or small—you will be shown the door.
The system has contributed to an anti-intellectual trend that rests on memorising rather than thinking. The civil service section processes epitomise the root-learning and off late independent thinking is becoming less relevant for university admissions.
No society can promote education without fighting plagiarism. It is an intellectual disease that many of us are afraid to admit and confront. It involves stealing and pretending; stealing others’ works and pretending them to be our own. We need to accept it as a problem and recognise the damage it causes to the reputation of individuals, institutions and societies.
Who will bell the cat? The governments are the last candidates. The desire to control the mind is ideology-neutral. Rulers of all shades have an insatiable desire for Indoctrination. The intoxicating disease engulfs the ruling classes all over. For the elite—of all shades and shapes—political correctness is more important than plagiarism. They want obedient followers not intellectual challengers. All political parties have a glass ceiling that no one can touch let alone breach and their common enemy is the thinking person.
Statutory bodies are busy becoming weathercock that changes with the wind. It is not difficult to recognise their compulsions. Pleasing today’s dispensation is more important than the welfare of future generations. The educational system in the country is a contributing factor and cannot fix the problem. The issue is not coming with new guidelines, policies or statements but the political will to act in a professional and non-partisan manner. The system cannot declare plagiarism to be a crime without exhibiting its willingness to punish. As Sun Tzu reminds, if you want discipline, behead your favourite concubines. Which statutory body in the country would sacrifice its loyalists for the sake of principles?
The is true for educational institutions. Ideally, every educational institution must conduct a periodic academic audit; both to evaluate the academic progress and identify the pitfalls. Annual report must be more than an assembly of publications. It is no accident that premier Indian institutions do not figure prominently in global academic rankings. Not many see it as an institutional failure. Our system does not prepare thinking minds; most are comfortable in being coaching centres. Academics are happy that their former students have claimed the bureaucratic ladders and are holding plum positions; facilitating the UPSC examination is far simpler (and useful) than sharpening the young mind. Indeed, some of the successful academics in the country are failed civil servants and vice-versa.
Over time, some of the esteemed institutions are pre-occupied with political divide and ideological debates rather than academic excellence. They developed an interesting binary; my plagiarists are better teachers than yours. Hence, the accusations of plagiarism have become an academic garb to run down the other.
How often we hear about heads of institutions coming under clout over their academic qualifications? Helped by the lack of sensitisation of the problem and their political connections, plagiarised educationists often stay on; when a plagiariser heads an institution, the person sets a wrong model for the students: it is kosher to copy and paste. All that matters is connections not academic credentials. When heads are often appointed on the basis of their political ‘leanings’ and ‘usefulness’ rather than professionalism, acting against plagiarisers would paint the appointees badly. So, the unethical ‘educationalists’ continue and flourish.
Plagiarism never happens without the knowledge of the plagiariser; more than even technology, the plagiariser knows what and from where ideas, words and phrases were lifted without attribution. Hence, it has to be recognised and treated as an academic crime. A plagiarist can never be a good teacher; students will follow the living example of their teachers and not their pontifications or principled rhetoric.
How to fight plagiarism? One can think of a host of punitive measures to stem the tide. These would include official warnings, financial punishments, demotions and even dismissals from service. Formal downgrading and dismissals would send a powerful message to the academic fraternity. Harsher measures are needed even for entry-level positions; their entry was based on false premise and the future of the next generation of students is more important than the future of the plagiariser. Let’s not live in utopia. How many vice-chancellors will be able to act against plagiarism and still hope to stay in office?
How about the unions of teachers or students? Given their inherently partisan nature, unions can never go beyond identifying the plagiarists of the rival bloc, group or ideologue without any inward refection. Academic often marvel at uncritical adulation of the self. Plagiarism will become yet another partisan agenda to settle scores; for a few brownie points rather than for larger academic ethics. If heads of institutions lack the political will, associations operate on trade union principles. My guy, right or wrong. Hence, as things stand today, one should never expect the government, statutory bodies, institutions or unions to make plagiarism a primary academic agenda; all will parrot plagiarism is wrong, but …
Fighting plagiarism is not an ideological battle between right and left but it is struggle between Right and Wrong. It is not a battle to settle scores. Identifying one section of scholars by the plagiarism brush will be self-congratulatory but will not fix the problem. Plagiarism is a virus and needs to be fought in a professional, non-partisan, credible and sustainable manner.
Thinking mind is central to higher education. The methodology is not the only reason for the dismal ranking of Indian universities. The depressing number of Indian patents cannot be attributed merely to western prejudices. Universities have become production factories and a large number of academic works are neither innovative nor original. People are appointed, promoted, pampered and elevated on the basis of their questionable academic record and plagiarism is a silent killer of the educational system.
What can be done? One is left with three choices, all bleak. Like so many other problems, lets us learn to live with it. Over centuries we—individually and collectively—endured so many injustices, miseries and hardship. In the same manner let the academics, present and the future ones, learn to live with plagiarism. We become mute spectator to the academic carnage which is destroying our institutions and academic tradition. Not difficult, we have been indifferent and numb to so many social injustices for centuries and plagiarism can be one more disease.
Second is anarchists. We can become academic Khap Panchayats and bully the plagiarisers. There are sufficient technologies to establish the degree of plagiarism or ‘similarity index’ as it is called in technical parlance. We could pick up our adversaries and demonstrate and, in the process, demonise, the plagiarists. We can have our fifteen minutes of ‘fame’ and satisfaction of being an academic crusader. Each can make a favourite list and go after them. Given the deep divisions in many institutions, there would be warriors on all sides, and we can wash scores of dirty lines in public, destroy scores of careers and reputations of many institutions. All academics want to be known by specialisations, books or honours. None would like to be known by the similarity indexes; vigilantism is powerful. What would be more shameful for an academic than being identified as There goes the 61 percent!
Tempting as they are, avenging never reforms. It is also ethnically wrong. The enemy is plagiarism not the plagiariser.
Can we find a middle ground between apathy and vigilantism? Often plagiarism emanates out of ignorance. Most do not consider or trained to see plagiarism as unethical and unacceptable. If one can get second-hand books, cars etc, why not second-hand ideas? How often we find policies, movies and publications containing unattributed quotes, pictures and taglines? Don’t we notice photoshopping even in official publications and publicity materials? We need to change the mindset.
Ignorance is the prime culprit. Our focus is the crime not the criminal. The fight is not an ideological battle between right and left to settle political scores but an ethical struggle between Right and Wrong. Let’s not reduce plagiarism as another avenue of our wicked agenda. It has to be a battle for the future generation. A teacher must live by example. When it comes to plagiarism institution must set aside political correctness. Unions must go beyond politics. For too long, if the wise are weak, the strong ones are unscrupulous. Like a surgery, the crusade against plagiarism needs stable hands, wise minds and non-partisan hearts.
Remorse, contrition and regret are more important than exposure, punishments or shaming. The person who plagiarised must be made to realise the blunder and its adverse effect upon institutions and society. Our challenge is tomorrow not yesterday. Naming and shaming will not solve the problem but will make plagiarism into yet another petty political fight and the plagiariser will get defensive and apologetic.
The past is important but it can never be changed, amended or purified. Our fight is for a better tomorrow. Let young, noble and credible minds identify those who plagiarise within their immediate circles and institutions. Immaterial if they are friends or foes! Ideological divide is inconsequential.
As Bruce Lee reminded, destroy the image, you will destroy the enemy. Academic reputation and plagiarism are oxymorons and one of them had to go. Without prejudice, ideological blinkers, selfishness or selective amnesia but with intellectual honesty. The fight for establishing norms and standards in higher education must begin with a small step: let the youth recognize plagiarism is an academic crime, even if it is committed by their own teachers, friends and contemporaries. Satyameva Jayate.
By P R Kumaraswamy
(The author is a professor at JNU)