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Plagiarise or perish

In the concluding part of his article, P. RADHAKRISHNAN continues his analysis of a case of plagiarism by a U.K. based academic.

ON August 8, 1998, Dr. Kurien sent the following letter to Mr. Tejeshwar Singh, with a copy to me:

Thank you for your letter dated 29 July 1998 enclosing the letter from Dr. John Shotton.

I have discussed the matter with Dr. Radhakrishnan. We note that Dr. Shotton admits that what happened should not have happened, owns full responsibility, and expresses unconditional apology and the willingness to make his apology public. These are welcome as far as they go. But we do not believe they go far enough to deal with the basic problem.

That problem, according to us, is a kind of international scholarship emanating from highly visible scholars located in prestigious academic centres. Let me use the information that Shotton has provided to spell out the nature of the problem. A highly placed scholar from UK meets an equally highly placed scholar from USA at an international conference in Europe to discuss educational problems of the poor people of the world. The scholar from USA makes use of material that is impressive without revealing the source. When questioned he gives vague and misleading information, possibly because he got the material from some other distinguished scholar. The scholar from UK asks his research assistant to trace the source. She comes across an article in an Indian periodical which, according to her, also makes use of the same material. The Professor gets the research assistant to produce an abstract of that article. She more or less copies the whole piece, thus providing more than what she was required to do. The Professor makes the inadvertent slip of not comparing the abstract with the original. He has no time to do it because he has a deadline to beat for the completion of his opus. Anyway, he has paid some one to produce the material. So he uses it uninhibitedly as the opening chapter of his study on Learning and Freedom! He adds to his list of publications and comes to be known as an expert on the subject through a work untouched by his hand or mind. The show goes on till, in a rare case, the international expert gets caught. He is probably aware that some day this may happen, but believes that should such a contingency arise "a thousand apologies" would settle the problem.

We believe this kind of vicarious, exploitative, unethical "scholarship" is becoming a part of the rapidly globalising academic environment and we would like to make use of this instance to expose it. I am sure you will agree that if Shotton had used material of a U.S. author, the way he used the Radhakrishnan-Akila piece, he would have a court case against him and when convicted would have to pay a large sum to the author. We do not propose to follow that line because then our own motivation will be seen to be commercial. However, we believe that what has happened should be exposed and brought to the notice of the academic community.

To this end, I propose to carry a Note in Review of Development and Change. (Draft enclosed).

We suggest that as publishers of the work you... make an announcement in the EPW that you are withdrawing the book from circulation. We realise that you may be incurring some loss by taking this action. If so, you will be well within your right to recover it from the author. Dr. Shotton can independently publish his apology as he has indicated.

I am not responding immediately to Dr. Shotton, I shall wait for your response. In the meanwhile, if you so desire, you are welcome to share this letter with him.

Dr. Kurien published the following write-up in Review of Development and Change, Vol. III, No. 2, July-December 1998 (p.382):


Sometime ago we received a book with the title Learning and Freedom: Policy, Pedagogy and Paradigm and Indian Education and Schooling by John Robert Shotton published by Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1998. The author of the book is Deputy Director at the Centre for Overseas and Developing Education at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, U.K. About the book the cover page indicated, among other things: "Using the most recent data on educational access, achievement, quality and equity, the author examines crucial issues such as the unequal structure of opportunity and the nature of the existing learning system which discourages the development of collective and personal freedom. Based on this analysis, he outlines the philosophical and practical underpinnings of a possible new paradigm, which he conceives of as a learner-centred pedagogy guided by a more community-based and sociable approach. The aim is to focus on how people learn best and on the relationship between that learning and the potential of education to achieve social justice."

The book was sent to a scholar for review. He returned it pointing out that of the four chapters of the book, the first one was only a slight modification of a paper "India's Educational Efforts, Rhetoric and Reality" by P. Radhakrishnan and R. Akila that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly of November 27, 1993. We immediately compared the first chapter of the book with the EPW article mentioned above and found that the observation made about the book was indeed correct. We took up the matter with the publishers. They in turn made their own comparison and were convinced that the allegation was correct. They expressed apologies for what had happened and immediately brought the matter to the notice of the author.

In a letter the author expressed his profound apology for some serious oversights on his part. He explained that he first came across only the tables presented in the EPW article which were used by a scholar from the Untied States at an international conference in Denmark on baseline educational information in southern hemisphere countries. The U.S. scholar during his presentation of the tables had indicated that the source of the information was the Government of India's Literacy Digest of 1991although he added that apparently these had been quoted in a paper in an Indian journal. Dr. Shotton asked a research assistant to search out that paper and to produce a synopsis of it. The research assistant more or less copied the whole piece and passed it on to Dr. Shotton who used it for his book. In the letter he stated: "My mistake at this point was not to consult the original EPW article and, if I am honest, this was a lazy oversight... Had I known that whole sections of the original EPW article had been included in the synopsis, I would have either altered the language or more likely used them as quotation." He has indicated some steps to rectify the situation including a public apology.

Our own concern is not how the problem between the author of the book and the authors of the original paper will be finally settled. Even granting that what happened may have been an inadvertent error; it is a gross violation of academic ethical standards. Hence we have decided not to review the book in this journal.


On October 5, 1998, I sent the following letter to Professor Sir Alec N. Broers, Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge:

Please find enclosed a copy of the latest issue of the MIDS journal, Review of Development and Change. Page 382 of it contains the editor's note on "plagiarism" by Dr. John Robert Shotton, who, according to the Note on the author in the book, is a Professor in the University of Cambridge, I am also enclosing copies of the article in the Economic and Political Weekly, chapter in Dr. Shotton's book, and our correspondence with Sage, and replies from Sage, and Dr. Shotton.

The issues involved are what the editor of the MIDS journal has characterised in his letter to Sage as "vicarious, exploitative, unethical `scholarship'", and flagrant violation of intellectual property rights about which there has been so much talk. Though Dr. Shotton does not own much of the material used in his book (the book has only four chapters, of which chapter 1 itself is lifted from Economic and Political Weekly), he has the copyright of the whole book!

I do hope that as a concerned intellectual and professional you will do whatever you can to discourage unethical scholarship and protect intellectual property rights at least in the specific context, which is brought to your attention now.

Professor Broers sent the following reply on October 16, 1998.

I write to acknowledge your letter of 5 October about Mr. J.R. Shotton, who is not a Professor, or indeed, I believe, even an employee of the University. In the circumstances I cannot help you directly, but I will do what I can to draw the situation to the attention of those concerned.

What happened after the above reply is not known.

Though Mr. Tejeshwar Singh sought Dr. Kurien's advice as mentioned earlier and Dr. Kurien suggested that as publisher of the work Mr. Singh should make an announcement in the EPW that he is withdrawing the book from circulation, that did not happen. Though Shotton offered a number of measures to contain "the damage", nothing was heard from him after his letter reproduced above.

Though the Shotton episode might have been forgotten by now by those who read Dr. Kurien's Note, it raises a number of issues of which at least four are relevant to note here.

One, despite his apologies to me, and to Dr. C.T. Kurien, despite seeking Dr. Kurien's advice on what could be done and despite Dr. Kurien's suggestion that publishers of the work Sage Publications, New Delhi, should make an announcement in the EPW withdrawing the book from circulation, by not making the suggested announcement Sage proved that what matters to it is not so much its integrity and international reputation, but the loss it was likely to incur by withdrawing from sale a spurious publication.

Two, though in a letter to the authors of the EPW article (and also Dr. Kurien) Shotton indicated some steps to rectify the situation including a public apology, he did not honour any of them.

Three, though the book mentioned Shotton as Deputy Director at the Centre for Overseas and Developing Education at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, thereby giving the impression that he is a staff of the University of Cambridge, the letter from the Vice-Chancellor of this University casts even more doubts on Shotton's academic credentials and integrity.

Four, as he Shotton syndrome has larger implications for the on-going knowledge revolution and the related knowledge systems, it cannot be wished away by the academic community if they believe in scholarly objectivity, and healthy academic and intellectual growth. In that sense Shotton's "contribution" calls for wider international debate.

The first part of this article was published in The Literary Review dated July 7.


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