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Friday, 1 April 2011

Why do they plagiarise?

By Muhammad Ilyas Khan

Editorials and reports in the recent past in newspapers bewail the problem of plagiarism in some Pakistani universities. Reportedly a number of faculty members ranging from the rank of a lecturer to that of the professor were allegedly involved in the ‘highest intellectual crime (plagiarism) that an academic could be accused of’. Keeping in view the level of the ‘crime’ and the ‘depth’ of the malaise of ‘immorality’ rooted in our education system; it was argued for in the editorials and reports that stern action be taken against those academicians who are found guilty of plagiarism. The Higher Education Commission has been commended for its efforts to put a stop to this menace of intellectual deceit. One can only appreciate the HEC for its stand against this ‘crime’ and the editors and reporters of newspapers for supporting this cause and for highlighting the curse of plagiarism. One is also conscious of the fact that prescription and implementation of penalties to check plagiarism will definitely help in reducing the strength of this curse. However limiting the scope of efforts against plagiarism to devising and imposing penalties only would be tantamount to killing the shadow instead of uprooting the real problem. That means there is no problem in prescribing and implementing penalties to discourage plagiarism at the tactical level, but to strategically deal with the problem, long term and strategic efforts should be devised. Unless that is done, imposition of penalties may prove to be superficial and short term solutions.
Keeping in view the above argument, we need to ask a question: How can plagiarism be eradicated (and not just stopped at some level)? To answer this question let me ask another question: Why do the teachers (and the students) plagiarise? Personally I think finding an answer to this and not to the first question, is of fundamental importance. I say this because one cannot cure a disease before diagnosing its causes. But to answer this second question, one need to ask a third question: What does the act of plagiarism on the part of a university teacher tell the conscious mind? There could be two possible answers to this question. One possibility is that the one who involves in plagiarism is oblivious about the very notion of plagiarism being an immoral and illegal act. Plagiarism in such a situation may be called inadvertent. This situation, is, however, very unlikely as one should not expect such an ignorance from a university teacher. The second possibility is that the perpetrator knows about the act of plagiarism as immoral and illegal and still resorts to it, in which case it may be called deliberate plagiarism.
A deliberation on the education system in Pakistan may reveal a number of flaws which may lead to either the first or the second type of plagiarism. One can think of a number of factors leading to such a situation. But it is for sure that the roots are there in the poor quality of lower level (school) education, which does not promote concepts such as originality of thought, creativity and critical thinking. As a matter of fact blind follow, copying and reproduction of facts and rote learning are the most dominant features of our education system. Children in our educational institutions are treated as empty vessels that are sent to the educational institutions to be filled with facts and figures, where teachers serve the purpose of this filling. Teachers being oblivious to the concept themselves seldom make an effort to create awareness among the students about the real aims of the subject(s) that they ‘teach’. There seems to be a state of purposelessness as far as teaching and learning is concerned at the lower level of our education system. Such students after graduation from these schools enter our seats of higher studies with little or no understanding of the purpose of education, which are critical thinking, research and inquiry and creativity. In fact they have never been trained during their long schooling days for independent thinking and research. Consequently it appears no crime to them to copy the thoughts of others in the words of others and present them as their own even when they enter the seats of higher learning as student and even as teachers, as this is the only thing that they have been doing throughout their educational career.
That means that if we really want to get rid of the curse of plagiarism (and academic cheating) at the university level, we need to make a start of the remedial work at the school level. This calls for a comprehensive programme of reform at the school level: Reform of the curricula, the school infrastructure, the teaching-learning processes, the teacher training programmes, the teacher’s socio-economic conditions and the most important of them all, the evaluation system. I identify the evaluation system as the most important one because as far as education process in our public schools is concerned, it predominantly revolves around our examination system. Throughout the academic year the teacher remains busy in preparing the student to get through the exams. A reform in the examination system would definitely lead to a reform in the teaching-learning process and the teacher’s attitude towards teaching. One is of the view as is also revealed by a number of research studies that the present exam system is mostly focused on testing the memorisation capabilities of students and does not test their real understanding and analytical skills. Secondly evaluation should be a continuous process and not a once-a-year or even once-a-life phenomenon, as only then can they be a real reflection of the genuine learning of concepts and an assessment of the overall personality development of the student.
As far as deliberate plagiarism is concerned, it is simply an act of dishonesty and cheating. Why would someone who is a teacher in the highest seat of learning i.e. a university, a position that should ideally carry the highest level of prestige and integrity indulge in this very lowly act of cheating? Once again this is a reflection of a very sad state of affairs. Some of the possible explanations are in order. A university teacher may indulge in plagiarism because he/she lacks the skills to conduct original research, otherwise an essential requirement to move ahead professionally. However he/she may not find it easy to produce original research due a deficiency either in analytical skills or in language skills or in both of them. Both of these deficiencies can easily be traced back to the poor standards of education at the school and college level. These deficiencies may surely hamper his path towards professional development and as a result he may feel constrained to indulge in the otherwise highly condemnable act of plagiarism.
Secondly when I term plagiarism as cheating, I mean something which is morally wrong. In other words when someone indulges in the act of plagiarism, he is displaying an attitude, which shows a lack of morality on the part of the one who indulges in this act. Why would someone who is at the highest level of academic achievement, being a teacher at the university level, resort to an act of cheating? The answer once again seems to lie in the education system at the lower level i.e. at the school and college level. After all one of the definitions of education tell us that education is a process aimed at the overall development of personality of a person. By ‘overall development’ here is meant development of the three domains of personality i.e. The cognitive, The affective and The psychomotor domain. The second domain i.e. The Affective domain (in educational setting) deals predominantly with the development of personality in terms of morality and inculcation of values such as moral integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and a sense of responsibility. A cursory look at the system of education would reveal that no formal mechanism for developing the affective domain or in other words for the inculcation of values such as those mentioned above exists in the present education system. This seems to be one explanation for the lack of regard for moral values and academic integrity on the part of the teacher. A solution therefore once again goes beyond the pail of mere penalties for plagiarism or other cases of academic cheating on the university level.
The solution in this case too lies in dealing with the problem in strategic terms. Besides looking strategically into the various factors mentioned above, the process of teacher intake at all levels and in this case especially at the university level must be rectified in order to recruit teachers of high moral integrity besides being skilled and resourceful. This means a mere adding up of the marks and grades obtained in educational certificates and degrees (or, worse still, nepotism, favouritism and sifarsih) should not be the sole criteria for teacher recruitment. This process should be more comprehensive and meticulous than the one in vogue. One fears as long as this is not done, the plague of academic dishonesty, cheating and plagiarism will continue to mar our education system.

The writer, a Lecturer in Education at Hazara University, Mansehra, is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Leicester, UK.
Email: ilyasjans@yahoo.com

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