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Plagiarism in Indian education: is it permitted misconduct or ignorance?

Hema Ramachandran, Divya Sinha & Medha Rajadhyaksha

If a student is caught cheating during an examination, there are clear instructions to the teacher and the student about punishment to be given. On the other hand, no well-defined rules are available to penalise the offender who has submitted an assignment plagiarised to various extent. 

Sharing survey findings at Asian Association Biology Educators conference in Goa, study author Hema Ramachandran
Sharing survey findings at Asian Association Biology Educators conference in Goa, study author Hema Ramachandran   (Photo: Reeteka Sud)


Simply put, plagiarism is to take the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another person without crediting them; instead passing these off as one’s own. You need only a cursory glance through Practical records of students and project reports they submit, to see how rampant it is in our education system. Clearly this is a cause of social concern, especially to educators as most academic misconducts have roots in classrooms. 

Information today, is available at the click of a button. This is expected to be the academic resource the students will access. However, what is not expected is the reproduction of information verbatim, without quoting the source. The activities (posters, literature surveys and case studies, etc.) that are meant to encourage critical thinking, creativity, enhance writing skills and expression, degenerate into a hash that leaves the student cold and the tutor frustrated as mandatory grading these activities is a futile exercise. All this work if done with spirit of learning and with ethical responsibility is in reality excellent training for a good professional. Why do students fail to appreciate this fact and continue to plagiarise? We addressed this question by surveying 24 faculty members and 284 students (12th standard, B.Sc. and M.Sc. levels). 

Class XII students we surveyed conveyed they possess an instinctive idea about plagiarism — they know what is right and wrong; but there are wide grey areas. They have not been taught to write footnotes or references. They have another huge problem: it is drilled into them that reproducing text from books without a single change in word or phrase is the only way of getting good marks. Plagiarism is a non-issue at this stage. All originality is put on a subconscious back burner, to be expressed, if at all, outside the classroom. 

At the UG level, teachers do give repeated instructions encouraging students to avoid copy-pasting. The instructions are often not heeded. To make matters worse, there is no system in place to catch the offenders nor is there a defined code of conduct communicated to the students. If a student is caught cheating during an examination, there are clear instructions to the teacher and the student about punishment to be given. On the other hand, no well-defined rules are available to penalise an offender who has submitted an assignment plagiarised to various extent. It is easier to let go of the offender with a verbal warning and opportunity to re write the document. 

Another glaring finding from our survey was as many as 50% of students surveyed were not even aware of referencing. Often in student assignments, we (and our peers) find Bibliography is either poorly written or entirely absent. Posters that students present, when they include images that are not original, are not credited to their original source. Through this survey, we found that teachers did give instructions about correct referencing; however, it seemed to have missed its mark. Or have the students perceived that this as an academic soft crime that is permitted? Interestingly, teachers too do not find it necessary to acknowledge the source in the Powerpoint presentations they use for classroom teaching.

Postgraduate students, we found, appear to be aware of plagiarism and in general comply with the instructions given. They were, however, not aware of self-plagiarism. They were also unaware that text picked up without any change in words needs to be mentioned in quotes. While using images and diagrams from published literature, the issue of copyright it seems, does not cross their mind. It is often argued that, in reality, all information or ideas available to students to date are generated by others and it is practically impossible to acknowledge everybody involved. Likewise, there are technical details that can be expressed using only specific phrases. These are grey areas where students can greatly benefit from discussion with mentors. Unfortunately, very often the issues goes unaddressed and as long as there is no major, glaring default, the students move on to professional lives. It is not surprising then that there are several instances of academics failing the litmus test of plagiarism. 

We suggest a few simple changes to our peers to address the problem of plagiarism in classrooms: 

1. Encourage writing skills in students: All journal work should be a true record of what happened in the laboratory that day. No printed or part-printed journal should be provided. Manual for experimental procedure with appropriate references would suffice to provide technical details. Another way of improving writing skills is to push students to do assignments on proximal issues, for which they will not find readymade material. For instance, describing events on the campus- a demonstration experiment done by a senior, a review of a movie clip shown in class, comments on a news item read in local newspaper- several such exercises can be planned. Original expression puts you on a high that the students must taste…when they can write themselves, students are unlikely to copy.

2. Talk to your students about plagiarism, through informal interactions in class or organised workshops. Peer group interactions, with seniors explaining to juniors the rules of writing might go a long way in effective communication. Handouts can be provided, with examples about how references need to be written so that the students have explicit information. 

3. Evolve a strong local code of conduct which should be repeatedly communicated. Plagiarism should be declared a serious ethical offence, as wrong as cheating in a formal examination. Many universities do have detailed code of conduct on plagiarism which needs to be implemented.

This write up is based on a paper presented at the meeting of Asian Association Biology Education held in Goa, October 2016. The findings are submitted to the Indian Journal of Education, NCERT.

We would be happy to share the questions with teachers/​administrators interested in conducting similar survey in their departments.