Will anti-plagiarism rules improve research credibility?

New rules, binding on all universities, were brought into force last month by India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission (UGC), to prevent plagiarism and academic misconduct by students, researchers and faculty in higher education institutions. But experts are sceptical about whether they are enough to end rampant plagiarism.

The UGC regulations require every institution to establish a mechanism to enhance awareness about responsible conduct of research and academic activities, promotion of academic integrity and deterrence from plagiarism.

The UGC has also said universities must make greater use of anti-plagiarism software which will be provided free to all institutions by the ministry of human resource development in New Delhi, Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar told a meeting of vice-chancellors in early August.

In July, the ministry approved the UGC’s anti-plagiarism guidelines, first set out in April, to improve the credibility of Indian research at a time when all academics in publicly-funded institutions are required to publish papers to advance their academic careers, according to the Academic Performance Indicator which was introduced in 2010.

Many faculty members – who previously did not have to do research alongside their teaching obligations – resorted to copying and fabrication or publishing in fake or sub-standard journals for the sake of their career, leading to widespread malpractice.

Academic integrity panels

According to the new regulations, if any member of the academic community suspects, with appropriate proof, that a case of plagiarism has occurred in any document, it shall be reported to a Departmental Academic Integrity Panel (DAIP) at the institution to investigate, which in turn shall refer its findings to a higher level Institutional Academic Integrity Panel (IAIP) at the institution.

The DAIP will be chaired by the head of the department and shall have two other persons as its members: one a person well-versed with anti-plagiarism tools and the other a senior academic from outside the department.

According to UGC regulations, the IAIP shall consist of four members – senior academics with good publication records, with at least one member nominated by the institution’s head from outside the institution – and be chaired by a senior academic from the institution. The third member shall be a reputed academic from the discipline in which the plagiarism is alleged. The fourth member shall be an expert well-versed with anti-plagiarism tools.

However, some say that to address the problem of plagiarism, the UGC’s rules are not enough. The success of these measures will depend largely on how well university management, including an institution’s director, principal, vice-chancellor, heads of departments and faculty members implement the rules.

Although the DAIP will include a member from outside the department, it would chaired by the department head who might not be keen to take action against a colleague, according to Anil Sharma, a senior professor at Pune University. “The [department] heads usually enjoy cordial relations with other teachers of his or her department. How can we then expect a department head to act against his or her colleague in the same department?” he said.

And there could be problems of conflict of interest. Kasturi Lal Chopra, president of the Society for Scientific Values, which acts as a watchdog for unethical practices, particularly by senior academics, told University World News: “If the case involves the head of the institution, which is not uncommon today, the inquiry should be conducted by a committee of experts selected by UGC."

Inadequacies of anti-plagiarism software

Chopra, a former professor and dean at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi) and former director of IIT Kharagpur, also criticised overreliance on anti-plagiarism software to root out malpractice. “Plagiarism is not just about text similarity, which is all that any software tool can catch as of today, but also recycling of copied figures, tables, photographs and other such related information," he said.

He pointed out that similarity-detection is only possible if the original material is available online. Much old scientific literature, such as that from regions such as East Europe, is not available online – many plagiarised papers in India in several fields are being traced to such publications, he added.

The new rules take a tiered approached to punish plagiarism, which has become widespread. According to the UGC, small amounts of plagiarism – up to 10% of a thesis, article, book or research paper – will not be subject to penalties, but more than that will result in increasingly severe punishments.

Chopra also expressed fear that the rule regarding the mechanical identification of levels of plagiarism by percentages of words could be misused by some to harass honest academics “on trivial grounds”.

According to the new UGC rules, if 10% to 40% of a document is found to plagiarised, students would have to submit a revised manuscript and faculty members will have to withdraw the plagiarised paper. If 40% to 60% of a document is found to be plagiarised, the student would be suspended for a year while a faculty member would forfeit an annual pay raise and be prohibited from supervising students for two years.

Students who plagiarise more than 60% of their thesis would be expelled from the course, while faculty members – who often have tenure – would lose two years of pay increases and face a three-year ban on supervising masters or PhD students.

Mohammad Arshad, who completed an engineering degree from Lucknow University, said plagiarism in research is rampant in education institutions across the country. But the government did not take any concrete measures to stop this. “The UGC has now recognised the need to deal with this issue,” Arshad added.