Theft of a literary kind

Control + C and Control + V. These two commands are perhaps most popular among students and researchers with access to internet and assignments to submit. For the rare few still not proficient with the wonder box that is computer, people like my father, decoding, Control + C means “COPY” and Control + V means “PASTE”. Yes, these two actions, simple to perform, easy to memorize, are the two surest weapons of pilfering intellectual property, employed worldwide effectively, perhaps more than a thousand times every second.

The intention of the software developers who invented these commands was far from being ignominious. They intended to ease the work of the end-user and reduce drudgery. But as is with all good inventions, these commands started getting used for wrong reasons, the most notable of them all being plagiarism i.e. literary theft.

A large section of contemporary literature available on the internet suffers from redundancy allowing complete oversight of copy-pasted passages, sometimes even data. Reports, assignments, articles and term papers are some of the most common areas where plagiarism using the internet is gaining steady popularity. The closer the deadline looms, the stronger becomes the temptation of copying and pasting. After all, it is an open secret that term papers and assignments seldom get a whole body scan.

In his illuminating essay, Parks (2003) has made a review of the various forms and factors that paint the canvas of plagiarism, especially by students. In it, the actual act of plagiarizing has been defined carefully to mean literary theft through

  1. “Stealing material from another source and passing it off as their own, e.g. (a) buying a paper from a research service, essay bank or term paper mill (either pre-written or specially written), (b) copying a whole paper from a source text without proper acknowledgement, (c) submitting another student’s work, with or without that student’s knowledge (e.g. by copying a computer disk).
  2. Submitting a paper written by someone else (e.g. a peer or relative) and passing it off as their own.
  3. Copying sections of material from one or more source texts, supplying proper documentation (including the full reference) but leaving out quotation marks, thus giving the impression that the material has been paraphrased rather than directly quoted.
  4. Paraphrasing material from one or more source texts without supplying appropriate documentation.”  (Parks, 2003) (Ref. 1).
The review also provides information on the trends and patterns of plagiarism among students, how students perceive plagiarism and the motives behind plagiarizing. The full article is available online for free; therefore I shall not go into lengthy details exploring the very aptly and lucidly written points.  Instead, I shall restrict myself to two such points of interest which I feel have a great bearing upon the current increase in the incidence of plagiarism in higher studies in West Bengal.

While exploring the possible reasons behind the wide-spread “copying & pasting” tendency in students, especially those pursuing higher education, Parks (2003) notes that Western instructors frequently view international students as “Persistent Plagiarizers” (term used by Deckert, 1993)(Ref 2). The prime reason behind this notion seems to be the difficulty of international students to cope with education in Western countries in the language English, which is not usually their first language or mother tongue.  Other reasons have been suggested for this propensity of international students to be chronic plagiarizers including different attitudes towards academic authority and even to plagiarism, but the language problem seems to be the elemental cause behind higher rates of plagiarizing among foreign students in Western countries (notably in the U.S.A and Britain).

Given that most of the international students visiting the States and the United Kingdom come from a background where English is not a first language, the above argument is valid and the problem of the plagiarizing students is comprehensible. If a student cannot fully understand the language in which a complex topic is being taught, how is he or she expected to fathom the subject, grasp its meaning and write an assignment on the same “in his or her own words”? But the instructors would hardly be expected to show leniency on that ground. What else is the alternative for such a hapless student, who is non-proficient in English and up against a deadline for assignment submission, but to resort to the execution of the trusted Control + C and Control + V command operations? Granted it is not the most ethical or noble approach, but if it helps save face under peer pressure, it is a God-sent.

The scenario is exactly the same in my state, i.e. West Bengal. Students and researchers don’t have to go abroad to develop their skills in plagiarism, they get plenty of chances to do so in their own institutions, in their own state. As is known, the medium of instruction in higher education, viz. graduation and post-graduation in West Bengal, is English, especially for the Science subjects. Most of the books that are taught are by foreign authors, chiefly from the Western countries. In spite of the dedicated contribution of our national authors to the list of books available on a given topic, preference is always given to books by international authors of repute. These books happen to be in English, and quite refined English at that. Besides, study materials obtained from the internet are also in English. But, because English is not the first language of the majority of the populace and because of our last ruling state government’s policy of neglecting the language at school levels, the state of English education among the students trained at state government-run schools is, quite frankly, deplorable. Under these circumstances, it becomes impractical for most of the students pursuing higher education to comprehend a subject matter by reading foreign authors and then to reproduce the content in their own words. So, even though a student may actually be proficient with the topic of a subject and quite adept at it, he or she has to resort to mugging or rote learning of the sentences and phrases in English so as to reproduce the same in the term papers with as little error as possible, since a subtle change in the language can make huge differences to the meaning. This also results in the inevitable copying and pasting of essays and articles available on the internet for submission as assignments. So, what is a huge problem for education instructors in the western world becomes a problem for our domestic educators, the only difference being that the perpetrator of the crime in our case is not a foreign national and therefore the gun cannot be pointed at anybody but our own selves.

Investigations into the reasons that compel a student to resort to cheating by plagiarizing revealed to Burnett (2002), as quoted by Parks (2003), that “the classes in which [students] are more likely to cheat … are those where students believe their professor doesn’t bother to read their papers or closely review their work” (Ref. 3). Being a student educated in the state-run education facilities from kindergarten to post-graduation, I can testify to the above mentioned statement as being a very significant cause encouraging rampant plagiarism among students of higher education in West Bengal.

Since my school days, I have witnessed numerous instances where assignments, in the form of essays, letters, reports, articles and project works, have been copied in to-to from books or works of senior students, or prepared by family members, friends or complete strangers in exchange of money, and submitted for gradation. I, myself, am guilty of submitting herbarium sheets prepared by a senior student for securing a meagre five points in my graduation Botany practical examinations. Quite recently, I have witnessed submission by several research scholars, of project works prepared and previously submitted by post-graduate students, as assignments for gradation in Ph.D. coursework examinations. In all these instances, including mine, what emboldened us to perform such blatant acts of thievery? It was the secret assurance that no one was going to actually check or examine our submitted assignments, and that we were going to get a passing grade en masse.  

It sounds awful but it is true. Formulation of rules and regulations is not sufficient to prevent crimes. They need to be enforced. There might be strict instructions regarding the submission of original works in higher education, but if no one actually goes through the submitted papers and projects, the tiniest bit of anxiety and apprehension in students about being caught stealing other’s works, will cease to exist. And it is our misfortune that the past several decades have seen increasingly lax assessment of a student’s performance by the instructors, from the school levels right to the universities. Since the teachers have stopped caring (in majority of the cases), the students don’t care about foolish ethics and sloppy morals when it comes to copying and pasting, especially if it is a proven means of getting pass marks.  The result, as was pointed out by one of my revered Professors at my university, is the mass production of graduate and post-graduate degrees adorning the names of individuals belonging to, what Sir likes calling, a “Copy-Paste Generation”.

So if plagiarism has become the rule of the day, why should anybody be bothered about it at all? Especially in our country and in my state, where hardly anybody is acquainted with plagiarism detecting softwares, some available free of cost online [yes, internet plagiarism is not without disadvantages; as has been pointed out by Colon (2001) “the Internet may make it easier to copy, but it also makes it easier to expose the copier” (as cited by Parks, 2003) (Ref. 4)], the threat of being caught and exposed is virtually nil, a fact which has been instrumental in encouraging literary theft not only among the student community but also in other fields of literary writing including journalism, fiction, non-fiction etc. To not partake of this ritualistic practice seems to be the odd thing to do. Then why should anybody have opinions censuring “the act”? The reason is, simply, hampered self-interest, as I have learned very recently.

When you are submitting a paper as part of an assignment and you have literally slaved over it, knitting every bits and pieces of data into a richly woven tapestry of information that is both enjoyable to read and promises very high accolades from the academic community, you would not want your effort to be belittled because it is being submitted with works by other people, which in all probability have very little chance of passing the “plagiarism detector” if subjected to it. Simply stated, because most of the works in a stack of submitted assignments is “copy-paste”, there is a strong chance that your original work will be regarded as “copy-paste” too and you will not get the deserved assessment, but will have to be satisfied with a passing grade. The high probability of the submissions going unchecked or casually checked by the assessor does not help your problem. Since “a man is known by the company he keeps”, your original fruit of labour and love will be lost amidst the mosaic of patchwork hastily assorted by nonchalant confreres to meet the submission deadline.

It has been my personal experience. I know now it must have been the same with countless other people who thought of employing honesty and then suffered. At the risk of sounding virtuous and vainglorious, I also understand how good intent is killed and why our society is observing a steady rise in crimes and moral degradation. It is just like with my experience; honesty gets squashed under a pile of chicanery. And the commands Control + C and Control + V are the tools that keep adding to the load.

References:

  1. Park, C. (2003) ‘In Other (People’s) Words: Plagiarism by university students–literature and lessons’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28: 5, 471 — 488. DOI: 10.1080/02602930301677. URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02602930301677
  2. Deckert, G. D. (1993) ‘Perspectives on plagiarism from ESL students in Hong Kong’, Journal of Second Language Writing, 2 (2), pp. 131–148.
  3. Burnett, S. (2002) ‘Dishonor and distrust’, Community College Week, 7 August, 14 (24), pp. 6–8.
  4. Colon, A. (2001) ‘Avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism’, Writer, 114 (1), p. 8.
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