It’s good to see non-academics taking note of an academic mantra: plagiarism. The dictionary denotes it as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” Plagiarism is an absolute taboo in the academic world. It is tantamount to academic dishonesty, one of the few grounds in which a faculty member can lose his or her job. Media, on the other hand, has a liberal attitude towards citing sources. Often in the name of making writing palatable and reader-friendly, academic accessories such as footnotes and parenthetical information are removed in print media. In the process, often original sources of an idea or expressions remain unmentioned. Words and ideas are thereby neutered of their authorial tags and packaged by some cut-piece writers.
Two Dhaka University faculty members, who are also linked with the media industry, have been accused of plagiarising. They probably would have gone away with such a stealth operation in a talk show or even in an op-ed, but writing for an academic journal is a different ball game. According to press reports, the University of Chicago Press has written to the DU authority pointing out that they noticed long excerpts of Michel Foucault being cited without due credits to their publication. I don’t know whether DU Social Science Journal has any online edition or not, but the surveillance of Chicago UP is remarkable. Their radar has found two academics posing as the French intellectual Foucault. In a changed political air, DU Syndicate is all set to “discipline and punish” the writers with identity crises.
There are academic criminals and fraudsters all around us. But should we hate the criminals? Or should we hate the crime and the culture in which such criminals are produced? Foucault would have suggested the latter. In grade 5, my daughter was humiliated at school because she wrote, “The earth spins around the sun” instead of “rotates”. The teacher at a reputed school that has international franchise made my daughter stand on the desk for failing to memorise the lines from the text. She was discredited for using her own language. Bangla medium schools are even worse. We were never encouraged to think on our own. We even had to memorise that the cow was a domestic animal, and the ultimate body donor. All our essays, memorised at school, ended with a common idea: we should all take care of the cow/air pollution/rainy day/journey by bus… you get the picture! And memorisation is perhaps the only prescribed method in madrasas. Sadly, we live in an academic milieu that does not encourage creativity. We force our students to memorise number tables even though the calculators have become handy for about half a century. We live in a culture that boasts an adage: “Stealing is an art as long as you are not caught”.
I can cite hundreds of examples where my colleagues, both senior and junior, have been accused of stealing or known to have lifted pieces of other people’s works and posing them as their own. Some have been caught, chastised, or punished—depending on the political cloud of the given moment. Many have gotten away with it. Some of them are even holding positions as high as Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors, deans and serving in bodies responsible for punishing academic thieves. There are some celebrated writers in Bangla guilty of transcreating or translating overseas works. I came across a novel adapted from a famous Latin American writer by one of our top-notch fiction writers. I accosted this literary don, and he told me that he had not heard of the novel to which I was referring. The resemblances between the original and the proxy could not have been any coincidence. The local author has just changed the setting and the thematic action from walking to swimming in a Bangladeshi context.
There are now online services where anonymous ghost writers write academic papers for students and academics. Mail order PhD is a menace that has infected many of our wannabe fashionable doctorates. I once had a student submitting her term papers using “cheatmyprofessor.com” as her source. Recently, I identified a plagiarised essay submitted for a national award. I caught another student of a top-tier private university during the defence of her thesis. She outwitted her supervisor by attending weekly supervisory sessions with different parts of a student paper she nicked from a Belgian university server. The supervisor told me how hard she worked over the semester, whereas she simply chunked the long essay and kept on receiving feedback on somebody else’s published work. I just had to google certain phrases to expose her dishonesty.
Thankfully, there are plagiarism checkers such as Turnitins which are becoming very useful. A colleague of mine submitted a paper to a local journal and it was detected with 67 percent plagiarism by the software. The editor called me up and said, “What would you do, if you get caught stealing?” “I will probably keep quiet about it.” “Well your colleague charged me for not mentioning the fact in our call for papers that all submissions are put through turn-it-ins.” Guess, the loud mouth was trying to cover up his crime.
Having gone through rigorous training on research on both sides of the Atlantic, I often feel like the proverbial barber who fails to conduct surgery after being introduced to physiology. In other words, I find it difficult to write without the right recourse to research materials and environment. I get amazed how many of my colleagues present papers on the most updated ideas sitting even in the distant corners of Bangladesh. And our collective ignorance is allowing these posers to flourish in reputation. The recent case of stolen Foucault shows the inadequacy of the reviewers and the journal editors who have failed to stop it from going in print. Everybody is in a hurry. Everybody is after cheap fame.
There is this growing trend of getting higher research degrees by non-academics. Civil servants, military officers are getting PhDs in bulk allowing a cottage industry of PhD to grow. When I was the chair of a department of a public university, I had students coming to me complaining about a supervisor who was essentially asking for money. He offered a package deal where his research team would do the field work, data collection and analysis for the candidate. So I am not surprised when I hear that so-and-so-university is offering dodgy degrees. It is often worse in science where faculty members claim publication credits for sharing their labs with students.
It is about time we changed the culture that encourages academic fraudulence. We need a system in which students learn to express in their own words. While the content of the research is knowledge-based, research skills such as summarising, paraphrasing, synthesising and analysing ideas as well as of referencing need to be introduced at the higher secondary level. Once students have the orientation of academic writing, they can easily adapt to research methodology if they ultimately decide to pursue their higher studies. Borrowing other people’s thoughts or expressions is accepted as long as a writer acknowledges the original source. Students need to learn that academic integrity is more than just not copying or cheating at school. It is about time we instilled a sense of academic honesty through our curriculum, our textbooks and question patterns. Naming and shaming a criminal will not change a thing unless we learn to hate the crime.
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English at the University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is the Head of the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB.