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Opinion

July 23, 2015

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Plagiarism is but one symptom

Part - I
Plagiarism continues to rear its head in our universities and the response is the – ‘dump on our professors’. Perhaps it is a part of our larger disdain for learning. But of that later.
Every so often there is a gleeful story about x number of professors being caught plagiarizing and getting suspended. The gossip on this lasts a few hours and then subsides.
Whether or not an investigation is properly conducted we will never know. Could it be that in academia, plagiarism charges have become what blasphemy is in the rest of the country? Could this be how rivalries for promotion are now settled? No one has looked into this and we are all content with the charge of plagiarism being used and careers ruined.
I am not suggesting that plagiarism does not exist. Of course it does. And some prominent cases have been uncovered convincingly where papers of Nobel Laureates have been blindly copied. This incident speaks well to the level of academic development in Pakistan where academics even lack the ability to plagiarise well.
Is plagiarism the only form of academic dishonesty? We hear of this software that detects plagiarism. Yet I have not heard of how well it has been tested. Like all other software, it must have some margin of error. Who is using it how? Can it be abused? Of course our media is too busy chasing political gossip and arranging mock political battles to investigate such issues. But then why should TV anchors rise above the energy and competence level of the rest of society.
Software can only detect similarities of text but not other forms of intellectual dishonesty. For example, what happens when original ideas are lifted without attribution? Is that not a crime or is it only similarity of writing? I have seen so many writings on Pakistan – both by local authors as well as foreign, including large donor agencies – where original ideas are taken without attribution. Take any donor report and look at the references and

you will see quite easily how they have missed out on ideas that have been hammered out by our thinkers. Another question worth asking then is: do our professors learn from the donors who feel they are above norms of intellectual property rights?
Similarly, what about data-manipulation, which several governments have used to show the success of their economic policy? There is an industry out there that is always making up statistics to make a biased case for funds they seek. For example, there is pressure by funding agencies to show that poverty and other social indicators are always worsening.
Should we rule out imitation?: Imitation is the way humanity learns. Let us be sure that we are not discouraging some kind of imitation. Well-known cases of authors and musicians copying each other with minor variations has created great work. Remixing in music is a delightful and creative industry. Let us not confuse creative imitation with plagiarism.
All students learn by summarising masters and finding little twists to show originality. A certain amount of imitation is necessary to learning. I hope that these plagiarism witch-hunts are not scaring away students and even professors from creative mimicry.
When I was vice -chancellor of PIDE, I had asked all students to just go to the Nobel website and review the work of all Nobel laureates in economics and write essays on ideas of each of these individuals but do so in their own words and storytelling style. The idea was to publish a cheap volume to be distributed in all our colleges and universities. To me such work is a part of pedagogy even though it may not be path breaking and creative.
While we are all focused on plagiarism, we must also ensure that it is not a witch-hunt of academics. We must all ask the question: why is it such an epidemic in our universities? Are the faculty members alone guilty? Or is it the designers of the system who are also to blame.
The HEC’s mechanical approach: Pervez Hoodbhoy was among the first to point out the faults in incentive structure set up by the HEC. The mechanical approach based on counting degrees, years in service and number of publications has focused academics on the HEC’s indicators of quantitative success taking them away from inquiry, thought and research.
Many of us (most of all Hoodbhoy) have written on how the HEC needs to rethink its paradigm but the bureaucracy of the HEC is deaf to such pleas, even if they emanate from prominent Pakistani thinkers. Donors such as the World Bank conduct HEC evaluations without listening to such opinion. Of course donors are academically honest!
The biggest failure of the HEC is that it has failed to create an academic atmosphere. The easy way has been playing the mechanical numbers game and blaming it all on lack of financing. But then, to be fair, the HEC never contended to be developing academia. They were always in a numbers game to generate thousands of universities, millions of PhDs, and billions of papers regardless of quality.
A good professor is not a mere publishing machine. In the rest of the world the quality of publication matters too. How peers perceive research and how seminal it has been is also a big consideration in determining its merit. Academics who shake a paradigm are held in high esteem no matter how many publications they have. A case in point is John Nash (‘A Beautiful Mind’). On the HEC criteria, he would never have been appointed a professor in the Pakistani university system.
A university is not just a place where students agglomerate for a brief interaction with average teachers. So far the HEC has focused on numbers without direction. The approach has been to build more and more universities, expand enrolment, and push for publications and as many degrees as possible. What was forgotten in all this is academic quest and atmosphere, which we have failed to build in all our universities.
To be continued
The writer is former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @nadeemhaque

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