Pirates, Plagiarisers, Publishers
This article attempts to rescue not by denying the charges of plagiarism, but by charting an alternative trajectory of plagiarism so that each successive instance does not amplify our sense of embarrassment and crisis in the academy. The article by Prashant Iyengar was published in the Economic & Political Weekly, February 26, 2011, Vol XLVI No 9.
"Copying one book is plagiarism; copying several is research." Unknown 1
Someone must have slandered Indian academia, for, without having done anything new or different, allegations of plagiarism have suddenly been tumbling out of India’s ‘top’ universities in these past few years.
In October 2002, a group of physicists from Stanford University, including three Nobel laureates, addressed a letter to the (then) President Abdul Kalam complaining of plagiarism by the Vice Chancellor of Kumaon University.2 In January 2006, a professor from IIM Bangalore was dismissed for plagiarism.3 In February 2008, a professor from the Sri Venkateswara University in Tirupathi was accused of having plagiarized up to 70 papers between 2004 and 2007.4 In October 2010, IIT Kharagpur was forced to set up a committee to investigate allegations of plagiarism by one of its professors and three doctoral candidates.5
And so on. It seems Benjamin Franklin’s adage about originality being “the art of concealing your sources” thrives today in Indian academia. Something is rotten in the State of academic research. Evidently, we even know exactly what it is: Some years ago, the Association of Indian Universities invited students to a research contest. The pamphlet advertising the contest contained a remarkably prolix account of the causes of the general decline in academic research:
Of late, research has become a subservient component in the university functioning. It is not considered a lucrative career option. Apart from this, resource constraints, lack of commitment, lack of proper encouragement, etc., are the impediments that are affecting the quality of research in our institutions of higher education. Another important factor for the deterioration of the quality of research is the absence of adequate training and other capacity building endeavour in our system, which has restricted students’ creativity only to rote memory. 6 (emphasis mine)
Similarly, we are periodically reminded, as in this instance, by the chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation that “India lacks quality academic organisations and research and development institutions that breed inventions in technology. This is the major reason behind India's failure in breaking new ground in inventions and innovations.”7 Other news reports bemoan the fact that “Indian patent filings lag behind global average" with the total “number of filings by residents being just three per million people in its population, compared with the world average of 250”8
Accounts such as these, which abound in the press and journals, typically trace a “decline” hypothesis according to which the quality of academic research in India, once rigorous and upright, has fallen precipitously in recent times. Poor quality of academic research is then portrayed as a function of the impoverishment of the academy itself. Concealed within this auto-critique is an envy of putatively ideal systems in other countries which exhibit values that are an inversion of those identified as ours: i.e. they privilege research, are well-resourced, file the statistically approved average number of patents, allow students’ creativity free rein, and do not restrict their creativity only to rote memory. Lurking underneath these criticisms is also the anxiety that the arrival of the internet has, far from invigorating indigenous research in India, facilitated plagiarism on a wider scale than previously imaginable. What do we make of all this self-slander?
In this essay I will attempt to rescue Indian academic research, not by denying the charges of plagiarism, but by charting an alternative trajectory of plagiarism so that each successive instance does not amplify our sense of embarrassment and crisis in the academy.
I begin by drawing on my own prior study on student research in law universities in India9 to provide a rough account of how law students approach research. However inappropriate, I use some of my observations in the course of that study as a microcosmic model for how research is conducted by students across the country today.
Next, I will attempt to show how the charge of plagiarism only acquires its pungency after the installation of a particularly western ‘Romantic’ conception of creativity that is hinged on the ‘genius’ figure. My point here is not one of cultural difference – we may or may not have conflicting traditions of (literary) creativity in India - but of heterogeneity of possible standpoints from which creativity can be judged, which have been deprecated or forgotten since this modern conception took root. While this idea is itself not ‘original’, having been made by numerous authors on whose work I draw upon here10 , I am interested here in how it can inform our reaction to quotidian reports of plagiarism in the contemporary. Specifically, I think our understanding of 'originality-as-genius’ is a relatively recent historical product, and is definitely not the 'natural' or universal parameter by which literature and arts have been judged. I would assert that contemporary practices on the Internet restore us to (or renew the salience of) some of these pre-modern practices of authorship where originality in its Cartesian sense may not necessarily be determinative of value.
I would however hasten to add that this does not lead us inexorably to the conclusion that our traditional understanding of plagiarism has to abandoned. In the case of academic writing, 'Romantic' standards of originality have been rigorously upheld and policed by the spectral might of the University. Here, the ritual demonstration of cartesian orginality is not only a condition of success, but a minimum qualification for survival and advancement in this domain. With the stakes being so high, the temptation to pass off others' works as one's own is great, in contrast to the risks of being caught. This does not mean that everyone resorts to it, only that there are structural factors in the academy that make practices of plagiarism more 'rational' than, perhaps, in other domains11 .
To begin, then with my conclusions, I think that dulling the keenness of ‘cartesian originality’ in the University could be an important component in the serious task of educational reform. Equally, I aim, in this article to rehabilitate the term plagiarism so as to diminish the sense of embarrassment that seems to come naturally to us when we speak of Indian research.
Student ‘research’ in Law Schools in India
The content and observations in this section draw from a study that I had conducted in 2006 on student research in national law universities in India. During the study I had interviewed 40 students and eleven faculty members across three National Law Universities. 12 I will focus here on the themes from those surveys that directly address the issue of research and plagiarism.
By way of background, in a typical national law university following a semester model, a student must submit up to 5 research papers (of lengths varying from 20 to 50 pages) a semester – or ten papers a year. In the duration of her five year legal education, a student from a national law university in India would have submitted anywhere between 48 (NALSAR) to 70 (NLIU Jodhpur) research papers of varying lengths. Given an average class-size of 80, and 5 batches in every university, a guesstimate indicates an average output of about 4000 papers of varying quality from every national law university annually. The table below contains a rough back-of-envelope enumeration of the research output of five national law universities in India, drawn from respective university prospectuses and websites.
|Number of research papers
per student through the
duration of the 5 year course
|Max number of research
papers per semester / trisemester
|Number of student
research papers per year
By any estimate, this volume of research is staggering and should ordinarily be a cause for pride. However law universities are also beset with the same anxieties of poor research ‘quality’ and plagiarism that characterize the broader academy. While my previous study contains a fuller discussion on the causes of poor legal research at these universities, I would like, here, to only reproduce some of my survey conclusions from that study that would feed the discussion for the later sections of this paper.
- From my surveys it appeared that both students and faculty shared a sense that the research burden on students in these universities was excessive and too onerous to facilitate high quality research.
- Students respond to the high research load by budgeting their efforts – working more intensely on some research assignments while neglecting others. This accorded with the responses from faculty members who reported an extremely low number of high quality research papers turned in. Responses from faculty indicate that a high percentage of papers received fall under a median category between ‘high quality’ and ‘abjectly low quality’ – i.e. there are a large number of papers which, while offering a cogent account of the topic do not add any insight of their own.
- Both students and faculty reported generally, the existence of a high degree of plagiarism (defined as the inclusion of extrinsic material without attributing sources) sourced both from amongst their peers as well as from extrinsic sources. Although most students (78%) claimed never to have directly copied from other students’ papers, many (67%) admitted to having shared their papers with other students either for ‘reference’, or more commonly, for adaptation/reuse in their assignments. The responses to whether they had any reservations against the practice were diverse with more students in favour of the practice of plagiarism (47%) than against (30%). Without admitting to participating it in themselves, 60% of respondents characterised the prevalence of ‘copy/paste’ plagiarism in research on their campus as ‘Rampant’ or ‘High’. Many reasons were forthcoming for the prevalence of this practice among which the more frequently stated included: ‘High work pressure’, ‘lack of time’ ‘lack of incentive to do high quality research’, ‘lack of emphasis by evaluators on high quality academic work’, ‘pointlessness of repeating identical research from scratch’. Other less common reasons offered were ‘emphasis on sheer volume to the neglect of quality of analysis’ and ‘disingenuousness of topics’ and ‘Laziness’.
- Over half the students surveyed had never published their research in journals. This despite the fact that 75% of respondents reported that at least 1 of their research papers was either publishable immediately or with modifications. More than half the respondents reported upwards of three papers that they themselves regarded as ‘publishable’.
- One of the common reasons that the faculty identified for the incidence of plagiarism was that students had begun to stereotype teachers who were unlikely to check or be able to check for plagiarism and would submit entirely plagiarised papers to them. Other reasons included the difficulty of checking the huge number of papers they received individually for plagiarism and also the fact that students had an unreasonably high workload coupled with the lack of enough incentive to do thorough research.
“Intuition” and “checking the number of sources” was still the common mode of detecting plagiarism although some faculty made creative use of the internet – particularly Google.
- Faculty was asked if a paper that appeared plagiarized to a high degree, but also indicated that the student had put in an intelligent compilation of materials, would be acceptable by them. The response to this was largely affirmative with some faculty members saying that most papers would correspond to that category and this standard was imperative for a majority of students to pass! Most faculty required that the source material at least be acknowledged.
- With regard to their research sources, there was a clear bias in favour of online sources almost to the exclusion of other sources. One respondent even rated online sources as being “more important than libraries”, and even claimed that she always began her legal research on the internet.
It is evident then from the foregoing account that the law universities are poor representatives of ‘original’ scholarship. The career of students through the law school seems to be marked by a blithe collaboration with faculty in which a Nelson’s eye is turned to their less-obvious plagiarisms. Although it is possible to adopt a high moralistic tone and condemn these practices, in the remainder of this paper I would like to marshal resources that would lend some dignity to them. In the section that follows, I will argue firstly, that there are rival conceptions of originality which privilege the recombination of existing information, rather than being fixated on ivory-towered ex nihilo originality.
Under this conception, even the pastiche works by lazy law students emerge as eminently ‘original’. Secondly, I argue that slavish imitation is never always only that, and have long been recognized as an integral aspect of the creative process itself.
‘Originality’ is only a special effect of reception
In his fascinating book Original Copy, Robert Macfarlane draws on George Steiner’s vocabulary to contrast two different narratives of literary creation – The first, creatio, espouses “a hallowed vision of creation as generation” which “connotes some brief, noumenal moment of afflatus or inspiration’ during which the author composes her work.
..the creative urge is dramatized as pulsing deep within the fastness of the individual self, and the solitary writer is seen to conjure ideas into the influence proofed chamber of his or her imagination. 13
By contrast, the second conception of literary creativity, inventio, which is commonly found both in literary postmodernism and Augustan aesthetics, conceives of “creation as rearrangement” and “refuse[s] to believe in the possibility of creation out of nothing, or in the uninfluenced literary work”.14 Instead this view “privileges the act of making out of extant material”. According to these “recombinative theories”, the creating mind is conceived
“as a lumber-room in which are stored innumerable verbal odds and ends. The supposedly ‘original’ writer in fact works with ‘inherited lexical, grammatical, and semantic counters, combining and recombining them into expressive executive sequences’. 15
As an instance of this latter view, Macfarlane cites the example of Derrida who coined the term itérabilité to describe “the semantic drift which inevitably occurs between consecutive uses of the same text”. Derived from a combination of the Latin verb iterare (meaning ‘to repeat’) and the Sanskrit word itara (meaning ‘other’), the word “valuably emphasizes ‘the logic which links repetition to alterity’. For Derrida, the repetition of a text inescapably involves its alteration: you can never step twice in the same poem, paragraph, or word.”
I find this latter conception, especially Derrida’s concept of itérabilité to be a valuable tool with which to think through the practices of the law students I interviewed. While being derived from a plurality of (frequently unacknowledged sources), their papers were never mere ‘slavish’ repetitions, but always contained an element of alterity.
Paradoxically, the networked information age that we inhabit both facilitates and preempts the flourishing of ‘recombinative creativity’. On the one hand, the abundance of informational resources that the internet puts at a researcher’s disposal, as well as the ease of word-processing makes it easy to rapidly refashion materials into a pastiche of one’s own. On the other hand, the illusion of novelty that such work may produce is capable of being dispelled equally swiftly, and more efficiently than ever before through the use of special applications designed to detect plagiarism. If, as MacFarlane suggests, originality is not “an indwelling quality of writerly production, but instead a function of readerly perception, or more precisely readerly ignorance (the failure to discern a writer’s sources)”, then the emergence of the internet has nearly made this form of originality impossible, by making this reader ignorance extremely evanescent (lasting only until the reader’s next Google search). The ability of students to pass off plagiarised material as their own will hinge increasingly on their ability to alter it unrecognizably, at which point the output is no longer a mere slavish imitation, but something new altogether – ‘quality research’.
In an essay on pre-print culture16 , Lawrence Liang demonstrates that the notion that prior to print technology, the task of writing was reduced to that of slavish copying by scribes is false. As Liang notes, the real story is slightly more complicated.
Acting as annotators, compilers, and correctors, medieval bookowners and scribes actively shaped the texts they read. For instance, they might choose to leave out some of the Canterbury Tales, or contribute one of their own. They might correct Chaucer’s versification every now and then. They might produce whole new drafts of Chaucer by combining one or more of his published versions with others.17
With the arrival of print technology, however, a fundamental transformation occurs in the way the activities of writing and reading. Liang quotes an extended passage from Rebecca Lynn’s study of reading and writing practices in medieval England18 that captures this change:
the benefits readers derived from the press, in terms of better access to authorized texts, were countered by a profound loss of opportunity for inventive forms of reception. They were free to take with the texts they recopied. Manuscript culture encouraged readers to edit or adapt freely any text they wrote out, or to re-shape the texts they read with annotations that would take the same form as the scribe's initial work on the manuscript. The assumption that texts are mutable and available for adaptation by anyone is the basis, not only for this quotidian functioning of the average reader, but also for the composition of the great canonical works of the period.19
Is it possible, in the light of this insight about the creative element of copying in pre-print days, to revise our pathological accounts of contemporary plagiarism? 20 Can we view plagiarism not as an offence against the ‘author’ity of knowledge, but in a sense as a reversion to a more primordial tradition in which the availability of a text presumes and is premised upon its availability for adaptation. As described previously, responses from interviews with faculty indicates a grudging tolerance of plagiarism in student research.
This tolerance, stemming from an acknowledgement that even acts of compilation are not wholly without a creative element, seems to restore us to such an understanding of ‘creative’ reading akin to what has been described above.
Few years ago, a famous author of textbooks on Intellectual Property law in India was discovered to have plagiarised close to two hundred pages of his new book on the Right to Information. The pages had been lifted verbatim from the manuscript sent by a famous law professor to the same publisher. When the matter came to light, the first author pleaded ignorance. After an ugly out-of-court tussle between the professor and the publisher (who happen to be one of India’s more powerful legal-publishing houses), a compromise was reached wherein the professor’s book would be published with a note inserted stating that 200 of his pages had been included in the other ‘author’s’ book.
I conclude this essay with this piece of copyright ‘gossip’ in order to highlight a couple of ironies that it animates. The first is, of course, the delicious irony that a famous author, of IP books no less, would stoop to such lows. (Could academic writing in any discipline be above suspicion now that academic writing in IP, that guardian discipline of genius ‘originality’, has proven susceptible to plagiarism?) The second irony is that this person’s reputation as the ‘author’ of a book, and of a genre of books survives despite the fact that he may not have penned even a single word of his book – which prompts us to ponder what function the author truly serves here. Lastly, I find the fact curious that both books continue to be displayed – and sold - in various legal bookstores, frequently side-by- side. The ‘fact’ of the plagiarism seems not to have significantly impacted sales of either author’s tome.
Tempting as it may be, one must resist treating this example as either exceptional or paradigmatic. Publishers in India in many cases do lead authors by their nose, and this is particularly so in the case of text-book publishing. However, this does not mean that original – in the Cartesian sense - academic writing does not continue to be produced in India. I feel this instance points us to the limits of the argument I have made in the preceding section. As well as it may be to celebrate ‘recombinative’ accounts of creativity in students, wholesale plagiarism with impunity by big name authors backed by large publishing houses cannot be easy to endure. In our acceptance of a combinatorial ‘inventio’ theory of creativity, it would be unwise too hastily to jettison the more austere creatio theory. As Macfarlane points out, popular attitudes to originality and plagiarism have moved between the two narratives of originality in a dialectical fashion so that they can best be thought of as “enmeshed .., or existing in a kind of helical wrap: each requiring the other for its support, counter-definition, and continued existence. Neither ever obliterates the other.”21
However they may have been produced, we regard our ‘works’ not merely as our property but also relationally through ethics of propriety. In other words, what we write is our “own” not in the way that our shoe is our own, but in the sense that our friends are our own. Plagiarism in this context most closely approaches its original Latin roots – plaga: to convert a freeman into a slave22. – as the unjust enslavement or capture of our work by someone else.
What role has the internet played in this crisis of plagiarism? Despite the inherent promiscuity of the medium, I think that the arrival of the internet has not actually changed our practices in relation to plagiarism. So the fact that I may blithely pirate movies and music on the internet does not mean, automatically, that I adopt 'piracy' as my research methodology for academic writing. Our choices remain as they were – to acknowledge or not, with the latter being increasingly more risky in an age when exposure is only a google search away.
Finally, how does all of this relate to the question I posed at the start viz: what do we make of this self-slander? I think it will not do to simply declare ourselves innocent of the charge of plagiarism. (As Josef K’s prison chaplain says, that is what the guilty usually do.) But equally we must be careful, to continue with a Kafkaesque metaphor, not to see the gallows being constructed in the distance and hang ourselves on the presumption they are being erected solely for us. Kafka alone, of course, does not supply good grist for policy decisions. A possible way forward would be to import the cinematic notion of plagiarism into academic writing: Not all that is unacknowledged is unoriginal (as my
example from student research at law universities shows), but this does not extend to a license to appropriate all as one's own (the example of the famous IP author who plagiarised 200 pages from a professor). The former is a function of the dominant, awkward alien aesthetic imposed by the University, which requires academic writing to be dully impersonal and abstract. Finding it too taxing, most students resort to a clumsy pastiche rather than, for instance, shifting to a more narrative style which they may be more comfortable with. The internet allows their pastiche to be more colorful than before.
The latter is plainly an ethical failing by someone who believes they can get away with impunity. The internet does not impact them in any way except that their 'crime' once discovered circulates endlessly on the internet (As this IP author discovered to his dismay).
In deciding what is to be done, however, I would advise our policy makers to make haste, only slowly.
Chu, S. et al., 2002. Letter from the group of Professors of Physics of Stanford University to the President of India. Available at: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/physics/publications/PDFfiles/india.pdf [Accessed December 22, 2010].
Seethalakshmi, S., 2006. IIM-B prof held violating copyright. The Times of India. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bangalore/IIM-B-prof-held-violatingcopyright/ articleshow/1359149.cms?curpg=2 [Accessed December 21, 2010].
Singh, K., 2010. IIT-K sets up panel to probe plagiarism charges. Indian Express. Available at: http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/iitk-sets-up-panel-to-probe-plagiarism-charges/695196/ [Accessed December 21, 2010].
Iyengar, P., 2008. Open Information Policy for Student Research in Law Universities. SSRN eLibrary.
Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1555689 [Accessed December 24, 2010].
See for instance, Rose, M., 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, Cambridge, Mass:
Harvard University Press. Woodmansee, M., 1984. The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal
Conditions of the Emergence of the 'Author'. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 17(4), 425-448.
For instance, the charge of plagiarism in the domain of cinema seems to have a significantly diluted charge. Bollywood has been accused frequently of aping Hollywood, although this does not stand in the way of it immense popularity and renown. Ramesh Sippy's Sholay is regarded as having been influenced by John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, itself being similarly 'influenced' by Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. On the modern definition of originality which requires us all to be 'perfectly uninfluenced', this qualifies as plagiarism. This definition however did not stand in the way of Sholay becoming an iconic film for Indian cinema.
Respectively The National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) and the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS).Although this sample is not sufficiently representative to make statistically kosher extrapolations – indeed, I make no such claim - I think the responses I received affirmed certain interesting observable trends about student research, that would seem commonsensical to anyone who teaches in India. To that extent, I think this data yields some interesting starting points for the theme of the current paper.
Schoff, R.L., 2004. Freedom from the Press: Reading and Writing in Late Medieval England. Harvard University. Available at: http://sunzi.lib.hku.hk/ER/detail/hkul/3516592. cited in Liang, L., 2009. A Brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th Century. In N. Rajan, ed. The Digitized Imagination. Routledge India, pp. 15-36.
For instance the ‘epidemic of plagiarism’ language typified in this BBC article Precey, Matt. “Study shows 'plagiarism epidemic'.” BBC 17 Jan 2008. 13 May 2008 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/7194850.stm>.