With the ongoing controversy over Rajiv Malhotra’s alleged plagiarism in his books, which he has strongly contested, several analyses have been dished out on the nature of plagiarism in India and how we respond to it. This has opened up the Pandora’s Box, with ideological inclinations encouraging each side to dig out instances of plagiarism against each other. But is the problem limited to the ilk of authors or do we need look deep within ourselves and the way we have interacted with the written word while growing up? Since the accusations against Malhotra and his vehement denials, cries of ‘copy-cat’ were probably ringing in the ears of N Veeramanikandan and Chandra Krishnamurthy. Veeramanikandan was accused of picking up portions of his thesis from a US-based-scholar’s work and Krishnamurthy of picking up portions which were included in her book titled “Legal Education in India”. Being the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Kerala University and Vice-Chancellor of Pondicherry University respectively, you would think the duo would have known better than to ‘copy’ someone else’s work. But academics say that the problems, are deeper, and start during our schooling. “As children, we are rewarded for writing precisely what the teacher told us. Did we ever ask where they got it from?” asks Ruchi Jaggi, who heads the Department of Journalism at SIMC Pune. Jaggi mentions that the problem is systemic and stems from a culture that needs to change. “Basically, taking us as a society and culture, even in school, nobody told us who wrote the nursery rhymes,” she says. The predicament may jingle-bells for those habituated with picking up lines or quoting sources verbatim without fear and folly. “I think as a culture, we have trouble citing our sources,” says Jaggi, adding that “we think everything in the public domain is re-usable.” But is the problem really that well-ingrained in us? KP Mohanan, a professor at IISER in Pune, seems to suggest so. Mohanan mentions his stints at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University in the US and the National Institute of Education in Singapore and the subsequent “culture-shock” he encountered after coming to India close to five years ago. “Students here (in India) re-write and re-hash and never construct sentences by themselves,” says Mohanan. He says that after some of their assignments are rejected, their argument is on the lines of ‘but that is what we were taught to do’. “In most cases they do not even realise that they are indulging in plagiarism,” he says. Mohanan mentions that while the rules are more stringent in the West, they also have an ‘honour code’ against plagiarism. “If you have a discussion with someone and you pick up his idea over a cup of coffee, that is okay,” he says, “maybe not moral, but okay. But the problem is that we not only pick up ideas, but quote verbatim.” There are plagiarism-checkers available online for free which will scour documents for matching text and many universities in the West have them in place too. “You can approach the problem as being one of checks and balances,” Mohanan says, referring to word-checking-software, “but it is more about developing an academic culture,” he adds. The problem of thinking in hordes could also be attributed to our penchant for peeping into the next student’s answer sheet. Mohanan agrees that nuance is lost when people pick up other people’s work without thought and people would then just think alike. “Most people do not even know why they quote sometimes,” he says, alluding to the problem of fine distinctions being missed and a herd mentality where everyone thinks the same. Jaggi, an academic herself who is currently pursuing her PhD, mentions that in some places in the West, people are not even allowed to quote their own work from the past as a source. The argument was referred to by Newslaundry editor Madhu Trehan in a podcast recently. Citing the cries of plagiarism against her after she had quoted a passage from her book in an article, she mentioned how the argument perplexed her. Jaggi mentions that one of her earlier students, now at Oxford in the UK, faced the same problem after he quoted an earlier, original piece of work by himself. The point she tries to make is that every piece of work that enters the public domain is expected to be completely “new” in certain parts of the world. She mentions though that the malaise is less pervasive in academic circles in the country currently. Credit must be given to the UGC for coming up with the platform Shodhganga, where theses can be uploaded and an internet-check made easier. But as rules become stringent for academics and the like, what about students still stuck with the way of rote learning. And also with the little voice in their head, which says ‘this paragraph I memorise, five marks I get’.
The News Minute newsletter