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Copy that: UGC sets down rules to curb academic plagiarism

Drafted in September, the rules make it necessary for higher education institutions to set up an Academic Misconduct Panel that will monitor assignments for instances of copying.

education Updated: Oct 16, 2017 17:51 IST
Lavina Mulchandani
Lavina Mulchandani
Hindustan Times
For a disturbingly large number of Indian students, plagiarism is normal.

It starts with copying homework from a classmate at school because you were too lazy to do yours. Then you begin copying a few lines from Wikipedia to pad up an assignment.

For a disturbingly large number of Indian students, plagiarism – the practice of taking someone else’s idea or work and pass it as your own – is part of academic life. It’s ignored by school and college until almost the post-graduate level, where regulations are stricter.

Now, the University Grants Commission is taking active steps to promote academic integrity and prevent plagiarism in academics. A set of rules drafted last month make it necessary for higher education institutes across the country to set up an Academic Misconduct Panel to investigate assignments and projects submitted, for plagiarism.

The panel will comprise faculty, MPhil (master of philosophy) and PhD (doctor of philosophy) students. “Every student submitting a thesis, dissertation, term papers, reports or any other such documents to the higher education institution shall submit an undertaking, indicating that the document has been prepared by him or her and that the document is his/her original work and free of any plagiarism,” reads the draft.

The draft also recommends that institutes conduct awareness programmes each semester to teach students and staff the importance of proper attribution of information, seeking permission of the author where necessary, acknowledgement of source compatible with the needs and specificities of disciplines.

Teaching staff welcome the move. “The education system gives Indian students very little time to research,” believes Kanchana Mahadevan, head of the department of philosophy at Mumbai University. Students end up not realising that they need to use the right sources and credit it when using material from the web and another person’s work. As Uday Salunkhe, group director of WeSchool, Matunga puts it, “Most students have no idea of the seriousness of the consequences. It has become the new normal.”

Whose line is it anyway?

When Raj*, 23, was writing an essay to get admission in a humanities course in the UK, he took a couple of paragraphs from an essay online to impress the university with his language skills. “I figured that universities abroad get thousands of applications and won’t have no time to check mine for plagiarism,” he says. “I was terribly wrong. I got caught and was blacklisted from the university and lost a year. I learnt my lesson the hard way.”

Mahadevan of Mumbai University has encountered student plagiarism on a few occasions. “The students in these cases were looking for short-cuts [since they had not attended class regularly] and instant appreciation,” she says. “They didn’t even realise that plagiarism is ethically unacceptable.” It was only during classroom presentation of the assignments, when their peers presented creative and original work, that they realised what they had done.

It is a major problem, especially in medical colleges, says Dr TP Lahane, dean of Grant Medical College, Byculla. “Several students just copy the entire research paper at post-graduate level and submit it,” he says. “When found, they are punished. In most cases though, it’s difficult to know because they are just too many open sources of research both online and offline.”

Though the menace will now be punishable under the UGC guidelines, it is not a legal offence, says Mahesh Bhagnari, managing director at Bhagnari and Co, patent and trademark law firm in Fort. “For somebody to file a suit against you for plagiarism, you should have used the copy for commercial use and earned a profit, which students don’t do. Also, the laws are enforced on citizens above 18 years of age and undergraduates are often younger.”

It means that colleges and universities have the bulk of the responsibility to take action against plagiarism.

Small steps

Appropriating another person’s work was never very difficult, says Matthew Raggett, headmaster of The Doon School in Dehradun. “I attribute it to the curriculum that focuses on content and does not teach you to ask questions and find answers to them on your own,” he says. His solution: Start early. “It is important that academic honesty is enforced upon students in secondary schools saving them from resorting to plagiarism in high school and college.”

Delhi University does not receive many complaints against copied theses and assignments. But it uses software that students and staff can use to check plagiarism, says Deepika Bhaskar, deputy dean of research at the university. Each department has password-protected access to it and it scans all submitted assignments before they are sent for correction. All the papers at post-graduate level come with a certificate stating what percentage of matter is similar to what is already available in the public domain.

“Hence to create awareness about the menace, we have made announcements in all the departments to check all the assignments for plagiarism,” says Bhaskar.

Dr Lahana is optimistic about the UGC guidelines. “They will encourage institutes to ensure that a thesis, dissertation, term paper, report, publication or any other documents is free of plagiarism,” he says.

Around the world, schools and colleges have been relying on Turnitin, a programme that crosschecks academic material for plagiarism. Scanned documents show how much of the text, images or research has already appeared elsewhere. At India International School in Bengaluru, Selina Krishnan, director of academics goes a step ahead. “We guide students on how to acknowledge and cite what has been taken from a source they have researched,” she says. “With proper guidelines in place, plagiarism can be avoided.”

First Published: Oct 16, 2017 17:51 IST