New anti-plagiarism laws not tough enough – Academics

India’s tough new anti-plagiarism law drawn up by the higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission or UGC, which sets out graded punishments depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour, has been widely welcomed by academics – but many said there needs to be even stronger deterrence to curb copycat tendencies among students and lecturers.

The UGC announced the Promotion of Academic Integrity and Prevention of Plagiarism in Higher Education Institutions Regulations 2018 late last month. The regulation is currently being approved by the Human Resource Development Ministry before it comes into force.

Plagiarism is defined by the UGC as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them [off] as one’s own”.

Punishments for plagiarism

According to the regulation, students and academics who plagiarise could lose their positions at a university in the worst cases.

The regulations prescribe penalties according to the extent of plagiarism. Thus, if a research paper has 10% to 40% of ‘similarities’ to the work of others, the student who submitted it may only be asked to resubmit the paper.

It is only when plagiarised matter exceeds 40% that the penalties become stringent, with the student disbarred from resubmission for a whole year. Over 60% plagiarism in a submitted paper could result in the student being deregistered from the programme.

The rules are more strict for academics whose research papers are found to have been plagiarised. They will have to withdraw the manuscript if the plagiarism is between 10% and 40%.

Academics will be barred from supervising masters or PhD students for two years and will be denied an annual increment if plagiarism has been found to be 40% to 60%. Plagiarism at levels of over 60% is grounds for dismissal.

Long-awaited step

According to the UGC, all higher education institutions will have to develop a plagiarism policy that must be approved by the relevant statutory bodies and displayed on their websites.

“This is a long-awaited step for UGC to take,” says M Rajiv Lochan, director of the internal quality assurance cell and professor of history at Panjab University in Chandigarh.

“In the absence of formally stated rules it has been quite difficult to take action against those who indulge in plagiarism.”

Rajiv Lochan cited the case of a former editor of the Sociological Bulletin, the official journal of the Indian Sociological Society, who after being caught lifting material from a paper submitted for publication in the journal had no difficulty going on to become a dean at Panjab University.

Brazen plagiarism

Other well-respected academics tell similar tales of brazen plagiarism.

“After I found my work plagiarised, I consulted a friend in publishing who informed me that nothing could be done – at best you will get an apology but then you will also make a few more enemies,” says Professor Ajay K Mehra, director of the Centre for Public Affairs in New Delhi.

Mehra believes the new regulations should be more stringent, given the scale of the problem and the sense of impunity that prevails.

“In the end, the UGC is only a secondary forum because the laws that safeguard intellectual property rights [IPR] and copyright are more relevant,” says Mehra. “The existing IPR and copyright laws could be given more teeth to effectively deal with plagiarism.”

The real issue, Mehra argues, is that there is what he calls a “professorial mafia” in India that has nurtured a parallel system that has become entrenched.

“Under this system, cases of plagiarism are left to committees which are vulnerable to influence and the perpetrator invariably escapes unscathed.”

Mehra believes that the tiered system is fraught. “A multi-level system,” he says, “can provide yet another opportunity for perpetrators to play the system. Only with real laws – rather than UGC regulations – will plagiarism be taken more seriously.

“It will allow the victims to take legal action and also compel institutions to act against those who plagiarise. As things are, the regulations can be expected to remain partial, partisan and ineffective.”

Several universities said they would use plagiarism-detecting software to check papers.

But others say there needs to be more concentration on creating a culture in which students and academics do not copy, including inculcating higher standards of research early on in students’ careers.