Word thieves

Rampant plagiarism is nothing new. But do students and teachers realise that it is a problem, to begin with?

December 03, 2017 05:00 pm | Updated 05:00 pm IST

A few years ago, during my visit to a university, a friend heading their English department gave me a copy of a book containing select papers presented by teachers at a national conference the institute had organised. The word ‘commutainment’ in the title of one of the articles made me take a second look at the paper. I had used the term ‘commutainment’ (my own coinage) — a portmanteau which means communication through entertainment activities — in my research papers and weekly columns. The source of the article in the book was my paper that was published almost eight years ago. The authors had lifted almost the whole article from my paper but had failed to acknowledge the source. Later, when I contacted the authors and sought their explanation for their academic dishonesty, they wrote to me admitting that they had plagiarised and assured me that they would not update the paper’s publication anywhere in their profile.

Lack of credit

The Oxford University website defines plagiarism as “presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition.”

The practice of academic dishonesty is on the rise among students, researchers and academics in India but, unfortunately, it is not considered a serious issue by most educational institutions. Many students as well as teachers are not aware of what plagiarism is and they think that it is okay to use the ideas or words of others as their own; they do not think it is necessary to cite the sources they have used in their assignments, reports, or papers.

Does the Indian education system promote plagiarism? How do foreign universities view plagiarism? How do Indian students who studied/are studying abroad view plagiarism?

When asked whether the Indian education system indirectly promotes plagiarism, Sanchna Natarajan, a master’s student at the University of Texas in Dallas, says, “The answer is ‘yes’. I studied in India for 18 years but I was never taught the need for citing sources. Whenever we wrote an article or made a presentation, we would just go to Google, find a relevant web page, and then copy what we wanted.”

She adds, “Nobody checks or cares. It is not that students do it intentionally. It is just that we are not aware of plagiarism.” Adlin Arulanandu, who completed a master’s degree at The University of Auckland, New Zealand, says, “The Indian education system does promote plagiarism. It is mostly because of the nature of the assignments as well as the fact that assignments are never checked after being submitted.”

To the question whether plagiarism should be treated as a crime, Sanchna says, “I will definitely say it is a crime. If stealing something from someone is a crime, then stealing someone’s idea is also a crime.” Adlin says that she wouldn’t term it as a crime but adds that if some disciplinary actions were taken against plagiarists it would improve the quality of education.

Praveen Kumar, a Ph.D. student at the University of Canberra, says plagiarism is not a crime but disrespectful to the original author as they use their valuable time to create an idea or concept and explain it in their own terms. Ferdin Joe, who obtained his Ph.D. from the National Institute of Development Administration, Bangkok, strongly condemns it: “It is theft, so it is a crime. Moreover, it could make incorrectly reused information available to prospective researchers.”

Why do Indian students think that it is okay to plagiarise? Sanchna says, “I wouldn’t blame the students. It is just our education system which is not very strict about plagiarism. In the U.S. if students, are found to have plagiarised, they fail the course. The Indian students who come here for higher studies do not try to plagiarise. So, who do you blame? The students or the system?”

Praveen says, “I don’t think all Indian students think plagiarising is fine. I think they don’t know how to properly credit the original source.” Ferdin cites lack of guidance and lack of ‘quality’ teachers as a couple of the many reasons students in India indulge in plagiarism.

What steps must be taken to dissuade students from plagiarising? Sanchna highlights the importance of creating higher awareness among students about the practice. “The paper/presentation should be awarded a zero or marks should be reduced if the same mistake is repeated,” she says.

Adlin suggests “The nature of the assignments could be changed. It could be a simple assignment where the individuality of the person would be a necessary component.” Praveen says that teachers must emphasise the importance of citing the sources. “During personal meetings between me and my professor, he would insist on citing every picture and sentence, if they are not my own, in my reports and presentations. Initially, it was annoying but it had a significant impact on me.” Ferdin suggests that government could sponsor the licence fees of software like Turnitin to aid the teachers.

Role of educators

Teachers should discuss the importance of being original and encourage students to attempt to write out their own thoughts. They should teach academic ethics to students and tell them that using others’ work, words or ideas, when required, is not unethical but failing to acknowledge the sources is unethical. They should motivate students to think creatively and critically and reward those who demonstrate intellectual originality and academic honesty. A teacher who values originality can produce original thinkers. The society needs more original thinkers than parroting tinkers.

The author is an academic, columnist and freelance writer. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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