Plagiarism can be controlled through regulation and punitive measures

Plagiarism has been an embarrassing part of academic research in India. Sanchayan Bhattacharjee looks at the causes, implications and solutions of this phenomenon.

Recently, the Pondicherry University Teacher’s Association demanded the removal of the Vice Chancellor as she was alleged to have plagiarised major sections of her book. This was followed with reports of former Delhi University Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental being jailed (and released later) as a result of alleged plagiarism charges. These two high profile cases brought to light a problem that has been plaguing Indian academia at almost every level. “We often need to write book or movie reviews as part of assignments. Most of us copy- paste content from different reviews online and paraphrase them to make our assignment look original,” says a Master of Business student from one of the top colleges in Mumbai.

A number of sources in the public domain define plagiarism as the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit. In simple terms, it is passing off somebody else’s work as your own. “Whenever you publish a paper, it exists in print. It can be dug up anytime and if found to be fraudulent can cause irreparable loss of reputation,” says Ravindra Kumar, professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. However, the problem in India which abets plagiarism and other research frauds is lack of a structured framework to combat it. A high level University Grants Commission Committee (UGC) under the leadership of Sanjay Dhande, former director, IIT-Kanpur is currently in the process of drafting a structure of what constitutes plagiarism and suggest different punishments.

While Indian institutions still wait and hope for a law, most Universities abroad treat plagiarism as a serious disciplinary issue. “If it is established that cheating has been committed, then the action taken by the University shall depend on the extent and nature of the plagiarism, ranging from termination in the severest cases to disregarding all parts of the student’s work that are identified as containing plagiarized material,” says Donna Haynes, regional director –international office, University of Southampton.

In addition to lack of regulation and punitive measures, the pressure on faculty members of educational institutions also contributes to sustenance of plagiarism. According to Pushkar, professor, Birla Institute of Technology & Science, Pilani – Goa, while foreign universities have a more favourable distribution of responsibility between faculty members who teach as against the ones who publish papers, most Indian institutions have mixed it up. “Not everyone has to be a researcher. If a teacher teaches four –five courses in a year; he/she should be rated on the basis of just their teaching. But in our system, getting published earns you points. This leads to a lot of pressure,” he says.

Mumbai University recently announced that theses and dissertations from students and faculty members would be checked using anti-plagiarism software. Such softwares check for a certain number of continuous strings in the research paper and cross reference it with already published research databases to check if content has been lifted. However, as a paper published in Nature magazine by Praveen Chaddah, former director, University Grants Commission – Department of Atomic Energy Consortium for Scientific Research argues, plagiarism can be of different kinds like idea or results plagiarism. “An idea could be a hypothesis to explain observations, or an experiment designed to test a hypothesis. Such plagiarism is difficult to uncover,” he says. He explains results plagiarism as a scenario where a researcher repeats an experiment; obtains valid data but fails to mention the original work. It is almost impossible for computer software to detect these malpractices. Moreover, it is not unthinkable for a researcher with good command of language to paraphrase intelligently and get around these checks.

So how must education institutions deal with this problem? One solution that Chaddah suggests is setting up plagiarism cells in universities. According to him, clearance from these cells consisting of different subject committees could be made mandatory for PhD and faculty research papers. The cell would perform different functions including validation of the papers, guidance to students in case plagiarism is detected as well as help in increasing visibility of the research work once it’s published. However, as Pushkar mentions, the purpose of creating such cells will be defeated unless they are autonomous. “You’ll have people from Universities protecting their colleagues. Inversely, people might be targeted as a result of internal politics,” he says.

Most experts agree that a law is needed to weed out the problem of plagiarism, both at the student and faculty level. However there is also general agreement that sensitisation courses at universities which explains to students the implications and repercussions of producing copied work unfairly is the long term solution. Ultimately, despite laws, cells and the like, the prerogative to not cheat lies with the individual. “The highest price must be attached to the loss of reputation. Once lost, it is impossible to earn back,” signs off Kumar.