Plagiarise and be damned — a brain perspective

Just copying and not thinking out-of-the-box may hamper some of the creative brain functions

Published - February 16, 2016 12:20 am IST

Japanese medical articles are some of the best in terms of research worth, but when it comes to English grammar use, they could be dicey. And that’s precisely what helped me pin down the culprit. An article written by an Indian author, sent to me by the journal editor for review, reminded me of the odd grammar I had seen before. The local author had not even taken the trouble to correct the grammar. Most of the article was copied; it was a clear case of plagiarism by any reckoning.

My son was sitting on the other side of the table doing his homework, my wife trying to convince him something. His high-pitched voice in defence caught my attention: “Teacher told us to copy exactly what she taught; otherwise, she won’t give full marks.” On one side of the table, copying is being penalised, while on the other, it is being actively promoted!

Plagiarism is not a new phenomenon. In 1934, the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary cited a new word “Dord”, meaning density. By the turn of the year, the chemistry editor informed the printer that such a word did not exist. The actual entry suggested was ‘D’ or ‘d’ for density, but because of a printing error, the new “ghost” word “Dord” came up. Surprisingly, the entry was not changed till 1947 — one probable reason cited was to prevent plagiarism. Any printer trying to copy the dictionary would inadvertently copy the “ghost” word and leave a clue to his crime. Map-makers used this technique even earlier, inserting a non-existent “paper-town” in the map to catch the unlawful copier.

Today, we have software that can pick up more than a 10-word or a three-sentence match of any published material to catch a plagiarist red-handed.

But isn’t copying a survival instinct in nature? Take the case of Tian Tian, a celebrity at Edinburgh. Her marriage never made the headlines, but in October 2014, her pregnancy, and the subsequent loss of it, did. Given the fact that the time-window “season” when a female giant panda can become pregnant is just 36 hours in an entire year, pregnancy is a big event even for the giant panda in the wild, but in captivity, it is distinctly rare. Her keepers at the Edinburgh zoo were in mourning.

An E. coli bacterium, in contrast, measures 2 micron in length and 0.5 in breadth. Tweeze out one under a 100X microscope, put it in a sterile culture medium and wait for just 24 hours. The culture media would be teeming with millions of them. No romance, no dating, no candlelight, mere multiplication for the sake of survival. Copying to survive. An organism that copies better, survives. That’s why there are 20 billion E. coli in the normal human gut, while the number of giant pandas is just 1,864 at last count.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) is a revolutionary imaging technique that detects brain neuronal activity and blood flow simultaneously and in real time. These help scientists see which areas of the brain are active during specific brain activity. The enjoyable, limitless mystery of the human mind suddenly seemed to be mapped, fenced and notified.

Martn Lotze of Greifswald University, Germany, did some out-of-the-box experiments with writers. One group was simply asked to copy a text; in that group, the f-MRI showed minimal brain activity. The area of the cerebral cortex, which handles linguistic and writing skills, lit up as expected. The other group was asked to churn out a story of their own. They showed lighting up of larger areas of brain, which by itself is not unexpected given that creating a story needs more brain work. Surprisingly, in the creative group, a seahorse-shaped structure called hippocampus, which controls memory, and the visual cortex also showed increased activity. This did not happen in the copying (plagiarising) group. This means that during the creation of a plot they seemed to be observing the storyline as a movie in the inner amphitheatre of their mind, regulated by what they have learnt before. It is hypothesised that students who are strictly taught to copy and not think out-of-the-box might have a lesser-enabled hippocampus-visual concordance. They may be better copyists, but poor creators.

Next time an editor sees a plagiarised article, while sending the usual harsh letter to the author, maybe even black-listing him or her, a copy ought to be sent to the plagiarist’s schoolteacher as well. She may well be our long-term hope for reducing plagiarism.

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