Of the several cases that he has found of students plagiarising their work, Kalyan Arun, a professor of New Media in Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) in Chennai, remembers one in particular.
The giveaway in that case? There were 23 punctuation marks put at the exact same places as in the original report.
Another student, Kalyan recalls, tried to argue that a substantial part of his assignment being the same as another report was a “cruel coincidence”.
Talk to most professors in higher education in India, and you’ll find that plagiarism is a serious problem in the country. And it isn’t only a problem with students.
Take for instance, the case of BS Rajput, who was the Vice-Chancellor of Kumaun University in Uttarakhand. In 2002, seven Stanford University physicists made multiple allegations of plagiarism against Rajput in a letter to then President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. This involved one instance of him allegedly copying an entire paper written by Renata Kallosh, one of the signatories to the letter. Rajput resigned the next year.
More recently, in 2014, Puducherry University Vice Chancellor Chandra Krishnamurthy was accused of falsely claiming to have written a number of journal articles and plagiarising a book. She was reportedly sacked over these allegations in 2016.
Getting tough on plagiarism?
The All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) recently directed technical universities to mandatorily install anti-plagiarism software for all academic as well as research and development projects. The move is a step towards a zero-tolerance approach towards plagiarism.
At the surface level at least, educational institutes today seem to be a stricter approach to plagiarism. However, the system as it currently exists is still not ideal.
In ACJ for instance, an assignment is put through the check only if a faculty suspects the work to be copied, says Kalyan. Students faulting on assignments are failed in the particular module, though they can make up by scoring more in others.
If a student is found to have plagiarised over the permissible limit in special projects and dissertation (where 60% of unique content is a must), the student is failed for the semester, and has to clear the backlog next year.
Andrew, a Professor who teaches Masters’ students in the Social Work department at Loyola College in Chennai, reveals that they do not put day-to-day assignments through plagiarism checks, either. However, research papers and dissertations are mandatorily put through a plagiarism checker.
Kalyan says that more often than not, it is not very difficult to tell if a student’s work is not their own. “There are tell-tale signs like changes in writing style and quality,” he says. Other times, multiple students copying from similar online sources is also a giveaway.
However, other professors say that’s not always the case. TS Gopi Rethinaraj, Associate Professor at the Department of Natural Science and Engineering at NIAS, Bengaluru, for instance, says that there are cases of plagiarism that can pass undetected. “If a student has copied from vernacular sources or cleverly paraphrased something, it may fall through the cracks,” Gopi notes.
Why is plagiarism so pervasive?
Triveni Mathur, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication, Bengaluru, points out that with the advent of the internet and easier access to information, the temptation to copy has also increased.
“The ability to write original content is extremely important. But it seems to be getting harder, simply because consuming material online does not directly translate to you gaining knowledge. You need to really absorb what you’re consuming to be able to understand it,” she says.
Gopi notes that particularly in lower tier institutes, plagiarism may not even be seen as the serious offence that it is. This often leads to students not even realising that they are committing an offence by plagiarising.
“Imagine if this student goes into a Masters course not knowing that simply paraphrasing what someone is saying without citation is plagiarism. They stand to be seriously mortified or even penalised during their Masters,” says Gopi.
He also points out that in most institutes, plagiarism in daily assignments and course work is not taken as seriously as that in final term papers or dissertation. This results in students not internalising the process and importance of writing original content.
What needs to be done
AK Mishra, Dean, Academic Research at IIT Madras, warns however that plagiarism is not a black and white issue. A plagiarism software may sometimes throw up a mechanical result where, in a particular chapter, the percentage of unoriginal content is high. However, in a section like literature review, not having a lot of unique content may be deemed permissible.
“Only an expert can tell the difference,” Mishra says, “However, the chapter where the student has to write their own arguments and research, we insist that original content is close to 100%,” he says.
Mishra says that they follow a system in IIT to ensure that a student’s thesis is scrutinized properly. "We ask the guide to give a chapter wise analysis of the 'similarity index'," Mishra says. He explains that by doing so, the guide has seen the existing research quoted or cited in that chapter and has deemed it necessary there.
Gopi says that what is missing is a uniform system that ensures maximum compliance from across the cross-section of educational institutes. “The state and bodies like UGC issue strict guidelines on research misconduct. Institutes which can’t afford or access proper plagiarism checking software should not only be assisted, but also mandated to use the software on a regular basis,” Gopi asserts.
Gopi also feels that writing workshops and guidelines about correct citation and writing unique content should start from high school. In tertiary education, it should be taken up much more seriously. Strict action against defaulters, particularly among faculty, is also necessary, he adds.
“When it comes to faculty, usually a person’s record of being published in reputed journals is a good indicator of authenticity of their work. However, if a faculty is found guilty of plagiarising, the individual institutions should take strong action regardless of the position the person holds,” he says.