Stop this plagiarism plague

The academic spectrum across several Pakistani universities has become infected with the deadly plague of plagiarism. Academic integrity seems to have melted in the heat of churning out research papers to receive more grants, promotions and other benefits. Nothing is sacrosanct in this greed for money and status, no matter what illegal or unethical measures are adopted.

Recent public records show many major universities being hit by massive episodes of plagiarism. For instance, two months ago, the Higher Education Commission announced the disqualification of 45 faculty members from a dozen universities over plagiarism charges.

This huge academic theft was allegedly committed by the members while they were affiliated with Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Medical University, the University of Karachi, Peoples University of Medical and Health Sciences for Women and Sindh Agriculture University, among others.

Last year, a faculty member at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology added a cunning twist to fraudulent publishing. Knowing well the value of peer review in editorial decision-making, he allegedly produced fake peer reviews by providing false information about the reviewers. Elsevier, the Dutch journal publishing giant, was compelled to retract 16 research articles from their three journals “authored” by him.

If fake peer reviews are considered diabolical, wait for academic cannabalism. The victim, a female student from the University of Karachi, allegedly lost her entire PhD thesis to the rapacity of her supervisor who published it in her own name in a bid to win a US$7,000 research grant from the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Academic kidnapping

While the University of Karachi scholar stands little chance of redeeming her own research work, some other victims are not so unfortunate. They are chasing the thieves and making them pay for their heinous intellectual crime.

Enter Bruce Schneier, a fellow of Harvard University’s Berkman Center. Recounting a personal experience of academic kidnapping (plagiarism has the Latin root plagiarius, meaning kidnapping and theft), he exposes the dirty tactics of three plagiarist professors from the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

One of his 1997 co-authored papers on encryption was plagiarised by them in 2004 for which they made a public apology. As if this was not enough, the same culprits struck again and plagiarised papers by the French cryptographer Serge Vaudenay and others.

An apology becomes redundant if legal and other loopholes are resorted to for exonerating oneself from the intellectual felony. Take, for instance, the alleged plagiarism involving the vice-chancellor of the University of Peshawar which was brought to the attention of the Higher Education Commission in 2011. In an act of obstinacy, a legal restraint was sought against the Higher Education Commission policy on plagiarism.

Similarly, the vice-chancellor of Quaid-i-Azam University in 2012 was reported to have defended a suspect thesis in the pseudoscience chromotherapy even after it was designated as “nonsense” by two Nobel laureates.

According to two reliable insiders, recently at a small private university in Lahore, deliberate condoning of blatant, mass plagiarism and subsequent administrative action in support of more than a dozen plagiarists submitting their 1,000-word outlines for English teaching courses highlighted a total loss of ethical academic conduct.

The unintelligent copy-paste frenzy that swept through the group was admitted by each individual. At the next sunrise, under political pressure and in an act of appeasement to counter the fear of administrative reprisals, they turned their own admissions of guilt into personal slurs against their two supervisors.

The funniest part was that most of these plagiarist teachers faithfully reproduced the original anti-plagiarism notices from the websites from which they themselves had stolen. What a grand hypocrisy in telling their students not to steal!

A familiar statement about the motivation to steal intellectual property is that our teachers and students face language problems. It is claimed that they fail to compose their thoughts in a foreign language. You must be kidding. What about that herd of English-language lecturers who feasted on the English language material available on websites and were unscrupulous in putting their own name on the stolen property? How did these plagiarising lecturers become teachers of English in the first place – by having a free ride on the Plunder Express?

At least one academic sage, Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, is reported to have made the observation that “theft of intellectual property should not be overlooked and the student or teacher involved in plagiarism should be sentenced with imprisonment”.

Technology is no answer

Thieves have a way of outsmarting technology. Plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin, can hardly catch any aggressively re-phrased text. That is how smart thieves are getting away with impunity. No change in software algorithm will deter these academic criminals.

Beyond the Googlised copy-paste world, there are other factors that impact upon this practice of thievery. There is, for instance, the unethical behaviour of teachers who coerce students to transfer their research work in their name; nepotism; political arm-twisting; fake data; data tampering; legal acrobatics; the addition of unrelated authors; and an alarming lack of awareness and concern about safeguarding intellectual property rights.

Plagiarism is not a software issue. It is at once a moral and ethical issue. It is a matter of academic integrity. It is a question of values. We should wake up to the reality that a growing number of disingenuous individuals in our academia are not only stealing our written word, they are stealing our values. They must be stopped.

Dr Munawar A Anees is an internationally accomplished writer and social critic. He is the founding editor of Periodica Islamica and the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies, among many others. He is one of the founding members and a former trustee of the International Society for Science and Religion, Cambridge University, England. E-mail: Maryam Iraj is a Fulbright scholar with a focus on English literary studies and transnational higher education. She was the founder of the Institute of Communication and Cultural Studies as a forum for trans-disciplinary discourse. She holds vast pedagogical experience at major universities in Pakistan and at the University of California, Davis, USA.