Logic is Variable

an argument starts here

Plagiarism, Prove it!

This article appeared in daily the Nation

"If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism - if you steal from two, it's research," writes American screen writer Wilson Mizner

Broadly speaking, plagiarism as per the popular literature on the subject refers to use of another's work without giving credit. This dangerous trend is not new but advent of the Internet has facilitated the speed and methods used.

It is a chronic problem that has been greatly facilitated by the resources rich Internet. Students (mostly those who are not Internet savvy), who plagiarize, do it old fashion way here -- finding some relevant article printed somewhere and getting it typed. In case one article does not cover all dimensions of the topic, a wary student may get some old book on the subject (perceiving that the teacher might not have read it), mark apparently relevant paragraphs and give it to the typist to prepare the assignment. The source material is commonly known among students' fraternity as chappa or nuskha. Some may proof read the typed paper, correct mistakes and clear irrelevant references in the text while some other may not take the trouble of reading "their work".

Clearly, plagiarism is far easier for those who are familiar with the Internet and spend some time online. While plagiary attempts like brazenly copying whole article verbatim from the Internet and giving it to the teachers as one's own work is easy for students but it is out rightly insulting to the capabilities and sense of responsibility of teachers, and rude. So cautious students take two or three relevant articles from the Internet and syntheses them in a way that it looks, at least apparently, like a different work altogether, even though they do not add any thing new in it. But what some students are found doing is this: "searching an article written on the subject and using it as a "template" and working on it, changing the words using thesaurus, paraphrasing, removing advances and unfamiliar adjectives and jargons, adding local context and flavour in the process," says Mohsin Aziz, a management teacher at Allama Iqbal Open University Centre who has to assess lot of written work because most of the students' course work in open university is in the form of written reports, "It is time consuming but fairly secure." That is what makes it hard for technology to detect.

Depending upon how much efforts any one has put in to camouflage the purloined work, a few clicks should yield result. Tracking simple plagiarism on the Internet does not require any special skill. Any one who can log on and use one of those efficient search engines can find out if the text has been taken straight from the Internet. Put some keywords and unique phrases, in quotes preferably, and hit Go. A clever quote may even lead to the whole article.

The very technologies that make such plagiarism so simple, tempting, and seductive can also be used to nail the perpetrators. A quick search reveals that there are a lot of plagiarism detection sites and software solutions claiming to help teachers to detect; go to Google directory for a comprehensive list. (Search also exposes sources that pride in selling written papers or writing as per the specific requirement.) The effectiveness of any detection service or software depends on their being able to identify the text from the indexed material like most search engines. Even if the material has been copied from the Internet source and the detection sites have not indexed that, it will not be traced.

So what teachers can and should do while assessing the class assignments and research papers? Let us enumerate some factors before attempting to answer this question: first, adequate local contents on any subject are not yet available on the Internet, though a lot is available in print form. Second, the educational institutions are not taking this trend seriously; they leave it to the teachers to handle. Where as no teachers, who were contacted for this piece, denied plagiarism practice among students, but no one confirmed the presence of any official institutional policy on the chronic issue or the use of any detection service or software in Pakistan. Surprisingly some senior teachers even hesitated while giving their views on the subject. Third, students have more computers and the Internet know-how as compared to the teachers and not many teachers encourage their students to deposit the written work on diskettes or via email. Most prefer a hard copy, for record sack if nothing else.

I am reminded of what my teacher Ghulam Muhammad used to say, "No body can stop students from doing what they want to do. Teaches (and parents) can only make them understand the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. (This axiom also holds good for ongoing governments' efforts to ban porno sites). First and foremost thing to fight this plagiarism is to let students know about the moral, ethical and intellectual as well as legal aspects of plagiarism and its impact on their life and studies in the long run. Presently, one finds that this subject is not talked about unless.

The other important thing teachers can do is to give specific and contextual topics for written exercises and monitor the progress stepwise as the students write. Dr. Yahya Bakhtiar, Sociologist, says, "I stress upon the process rather than the product. I discuss the topic of their own choice and interest with students, ask for detailed synopses, and lead them to write a report that they should be ready to present in the class and defend if required. Knowing my students, their language skills and vocabulary, I can precisely make out if any of my students use outside help. Any teacher can make out. And for that it is not necessary that teacher may have had come across the stuff earlier." Another teacher says, "We in our department ask students to produce hand written reports." Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea of getting hand written reports and denying the students facilities of efficient word processing. The argument that "They (students) lean something while writing in their own hand even if they copy from somewhere" does not hold ground.

Plagiarism in the first place defeats the fundamental objective of the exercise of the written assignment. "Spending time and efforts in such unhealthy pursuit is unproductive and wear down educational standards in educational institutions. The practice impairs the plagiarists to think logically, construct own arguments, and draw inferences " says Muhammad Wasif, "They can produce better results if they spend the same time and energies creatively and let their own analytical faculties work. They should learn to use others' work to substantiate own points of view giving them due credit."

The unproductive tug of war can go on and on. Unless, perhaps, both teachers and students arrive at a point where teachers can trust students and students guard the trust, but students have to earn the trust first. [This article also appeared in GCU Magazine Ravi]

Related: Plagiarism Checkers, Blog confidential: Parasitical patriarch

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ 10:30 AM,


At 5:34:00 AM, Blogger jalalHB said...

I agree with the writer. There are many a blogger guilty of plagiarism - doing only cut and paste thing. In our educational institutions, the sorry state arise because of lack of qualified faculty who fail to press home the need to do research work in its true essance. These days students seldom go to libraries, research and then write. All they do is sit on internet, surf a few sites, cut material and write their own version.
But all is not that bleak either. There are more original writers today than yesterday. Students are standing out in the world (one of the blog by you shows this). So let us not lose hope.


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