Plagiarism? What?

Most students and many teachers, from high school to university, honestly believe that research essentially means bringing together relevant data and paragraphs from a wide array of published sources to, quite literally, assemble a coherent essay or thesis.

by Razi Azmi

(Published in the Daily Times, Lahore, 9 May 12)

The political career of German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, who was regarded as a potential future Chancellor, is in tatters. He felt compelled to resign “from all political offices” after it was established that he had plagiarised his Ph.D thesis. As for any academic future, Guttenberg has been served a death sentence, after the University of Bayreuth decided to strip him of his Ph.D degree.

The Vice-Chancellor of Peshawar University has reportedly resigned while the Higher Education Commission (HEC) investigates allegations of plagiarism against him. In a book published a few years ago, he is said to have copied large sections from another book, passing them off as his own.

It is common knowledge that, besides fake degrees (all the way to Ph.D), plagiarism is widespread in Pakistan, no less than cheating in exams. In fact, most students and many teachers, from high school to university, honestly believe that research essentially means bringing together relevant data and paragraphs from a wide array of published sources to, quite literally, assemble a coherent essay or thesis. 

Then there are the cases of outright academic robbery, where a teacher totally or substantially expropriates the results of a student’s research and publishes them under his/her own name. A Ph.D student of Botany in Karachi University has gone to court accusing her supervisor of precisely that.  The student alleges that the supervisor published her entire thesis under her (supervisor’s) own name to win a Rs. 700,000 “research productivity allowance”.   

Since the introduction of a system of financial incentives from HEC to promote research and encourage doctoral studies, plagiarism has spread like a disease with the same force as AIDS has in some African countries. While AIDS has cut lives short, plagiarism has stunted the intellectual growth and research abilities of most Pakistani graduates. We now have reached a point where a majority of university teachers are unable to teach to the level expected and the best they can do in terms of research is to steal from other sources or rob from the students they supervise.

One indication of the depths to which we have fallen in regard to academic standards (and also the moral level of politicians) is to hear the Balochistan chief minister, Aslam Raisani, say in response to a question about reports that several members of parliament hold fake Bachelor’s degrees: “It doesn’t matter whether they possess fake degrees; a degree is a degree”.

Writing a book review for me at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) about 20 years ago, one M.Phil student had reproduced paragraph after paragraph from the book itself, as if they were his own.  He did not change so much as a word.  His own contribution was just one sentence, where he commented about the low price of the book.

Another instance of plagiarism which I remember from those days was far more serious. A Ph.D candidate, with a first class Master’s degree in International Relations from QAU (Pakistan’s best public university), submitted a “research” paper on Pakistan-US relations which, long after its publication in a journal, was found to have been entirely lifted from a doctoral dissertation written by a Bangladeshi at an American University in the 1960s.

On the sidelines of an academic conference in the US, an American professor complained to me that he found it very difficult to continue as an external examiner for doctoral dissertations for Karachi University. Soon after the dissertation to be evaluated would reach him, he would receive a phone call from the concerned head of department or professor requesting him, for one reason or another (personal, political, etc), to be lenient and make a favourable assessment. 

To the credit of Karachi University, however, it is one of few public universities in Pakistan (QAU being another) which requires doctoral dissertations to be evaluated by at least one examiner from a foreign university. Most Pakistani universities utilize examiners from within the country. Surely it is easier to ask for and expect favours from local examiners than it is from foreign ones.

When the Area Studies Centre in QAU organized a Workshop in American Studies, as head of the Centre I sent out a letter to all relevant departments of Pakistani universities requesting a full list of their academic staff along with their fields of specialization. My intention in so doing was to get the right people to attend, rather than the Chairmen or their cohorts. Using that list, I invited those who were directly or indirectly connected with American Studies or interested to pursue it as a subject of specialization. 

During the workshop, two junior female lecturers from one university sought me out to personally thank me for inviting them while wanting to know how it came about that they got invited when, as far as they knew, the rule was for the Chairman himself to attend all conferences and seminars. A few weeks later, I got an angry letter from their Chairman asking me to explain what criteria I had used for selecting participants and how he, a “senior academic” (or words to that effect), was left out.

Speaking of plagiarism, it is not the only pestilence that plagues Pakistan. One recalls the massive fraud in the Haj Department a year or two ago.  Col Abdul Qayyum (retd), whom President Ziaul Haq held in high regard because he was a powerful writer in the service of Islam, shared with me a personal anecdote many years ago. When he went for the pilgrimage to Mecca, Col Qayyum was so disgusted with the mismanagement and corruption in Pakistan’s Haj bureaucracy that he wrote to Zia: “General, your kingdom stinks from Karachi to Ka’aba,” meaning that the trail of incompetence and corruption stretched all the way, from beginning to end.

Barring a small patch of attainment here and an oasis of brightness there, it is the same bleak landscape all over the land. In an environment of pervasive dishonesty and corruption at every level, it is hard to determine who drives whom, nearly impossible to tell which is the cause and which the effect.

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4 Responses to Plagiarism? What?

  1. Abbas Zaidi says:

    Dear Razi Sahib
    I have just finished reading you article on plagiarism. I do not know what portion of your article to single out for praise. Every sentence stands out. The issue is very close to my heart. I have written about bogus PhDs in Pakistan (Daily Times).

    You have rightly said that plagiarism is our AIDS.

  2. Ishtiaq Ahmed says:

    Dear Razi,
    Thanks for this article on plagiarism. There are many sinister form of it. I once met a man who had obviously plagiarised a lot from my book on the Concept of an Islamic State but had been clever enough to name me in the literature review so that I could not technically accuse him of plagiarism. What happens in Pakistan is of course a standard in itself.

  3. Kamath says:

    You are blunt but absolutely right. It is very depressing, may I suggest something here. There must be something humorous, pleasant, kind, humane, honourable and wonderful qualities in Pak society, for even in a tribal places goodness it exists. So why not read mor about these things in your next column?
    See you next week.

  4. Hamrinder says:

    Well said, This is a very common. I think this goes on to show dishonesty and corruption in our culture. Only few cases plagiarism are reported and this is only a tip of iceberg.

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