“DO you want to know the main reason people plagiarise other people’s work?” asked my friend Dilla suddenly.
It was one of those moments when after three hours, copious cups of tea and vadai, it seemed like we had actually and amazingly exhausted all topics of conversation. It had been almost a whole year since we last met and there was a lot of catching up to do. We had updated each other on the local gossip, what was new in our lives, made plans for the next 10 years, presented unsolicited and mostly unworkable fashion and diet solutions to each other and made some very helpful recommendations to the restaurant staff on how to improve their vadai.
“You mean like in stealing vadai recipes?” I asked, stirring my tea languidly while the solitary remaining vadai looked sadly out of its half-bitten dhall eye.
Dilla glowered at me. “Plagiarism. As in taking someone else’s words, essays, ideas, intellectual property and so on...and then and passing it off as your own. You know.
Copying other people’s ideas without acknowledging them, paying someone else to do that essay for you or just buying it from an essay mill , the whole web search, copy and paste thing. You want to know what the chief contributing factor towards plagiarism is?”
A few interesting and original reasons popped into my mind but Dilla had a dead-serious ‘I’m discussing weighty matters’ look on her face.
“Tell me,” I said. “Because it’s there.” There was a note of triumph in Dilla’s voice and she waited for my response.
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds quite profound, but didn’t someone else say that first - that famous mountaineer who wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory, I think it was. Ha, now you are plagiarising Mallory’s famous words.”
Dilla was not amused. “Because it’s there,” she repeated in a matter-of-fact tone. “People plagiarise other people’s work simply because it’s there, available, all the material, everything - articles, reviews, essays, term papers, ideas - sitting right in front of their eyes. It’s almost as if they have a ‘Çome plagiarise me’ label stuck on them.”
She paused, her brow furrowed and she went on. “It’s the most obvious reason, isn’t it? “If all that material wasn’t there for the taking, then people won’t or at least they can’t plagiarise so easily.”
I murmured something about academic integrity and we talked a bit more about intellectual property, plagiarism checks and plagiarism detection tools.
“The depressing part is that while there are online tools and systems to check for plagiarism, there are also so many online postings that show people how to plagiarise without being detected. There are tools to avoid plagiarism detection.” Dilla sighed. “In the end it all boils down to personal integrity, doesn’t it?
But then, isn’t that true for almost everything else in our education scene? When it’s all been said and done, after all the research is completed, the round-table talks over, innovations implemented, policies discussed and re-discussed, programmes launched, in the end, doesn’t the test of success boil down to integrity?
We have, at this present moment, quite literally at our fingertips, access to almost all the information or knowledge we may ever need in this lifetime. We have an infinite storehouse of resources for our education needs, a virtual Aladdin’s cave of treasures at our disposal. Education resources, materials, research articles, term papers, essays, model answers, debates, reviews - the list is almost endless. The opportunities they provide are amazing, for those who need to access information, to learn about things to increase skills and knowledge, to find out what already has been said about something and to say something in return. You can connect with others, participate in forums, discussions, present your own ideas, and learn from others. We have so much now, and like Dilla said, the information and resources are practically laid at our feet, or rather fingertips.
And it’s all there because people have put them there for others to read, to add on, to benefit in some way and perhaps pass on to others. But taking it and claiming it as your own without giving credit to the author is just plain literary theft.
Dilla’s words did leave me thinking. ‘Because it’s there’ she had said, and I thought back to a time when it wasn’t all there. There was a time not too long ago in our history of education when all research had to be painstakingly and laboriously done through hours of searching for the right books in the library and then poring over them. Our essays, term papers, critiques and analyses were produced after much thought, and discussion.
Some of us may remember a time when there were no online resources, no e-journals or we didn’t have access to them anyway. We thumbed through encyclopedias, heavy bound dissertations, took notes from moth-eaten classics, leafing through indexes to locate the information we needed.. We had to get the sentences right - there were no grammar correctors, no automatic spell-checks. And we also had to rely on our own thinking skills.
So were we deprived? In a way, yes. We had so much less to work with, less data, less access to information and literature, to good arguments or proposals, the works of profound thinkers. We had less to begin with. And of course, plagiarism existed even then. One major difference perhaps is that boundaries about plagiarism were clearer then than they are now. We knew what was our own work and what wasn’t.
In the past few years, I’ve heard comments at different levels along these lines; It’s ok to take someone else’s writings, thoughts or ideas and put your name to it as long as you play around with the words, paraphrase, turn it around so that it looks different from the original.
The thing is whether it is direct or paraphrased plagiarism, it is still literary theft.
While online research is definitely to be encouraged among our school students, there needs to be more awareness about giving credit, acknowledging and citing sources they have used. Apart from turning to resources that are readily available, perhaps our students need to be reminded that their own thoughts and ideas are equally if not more important. Otherwise, we may be just raising a generation of students who are experts in ‘copy and paste’ and paraphrase but unable to provide any original opinion.
We can never go back, that much is certain. We can never revert to the days before online resources. Indeed the availability and accessibility of information and knowledge will increase. And so will the number of ways to cheat without being caught.
But perhaps the real danger is whether we will one day reach a stage where we won’t even realise that it is ethically wrong to steal someone else’s work.
Will we reach a point where integrity itself will become a twisted concept, warped beyond recognition and plagiarism is accepted as a norm rather than a breach in academic ethics. The more frightening thought is perhaps we have already reached this stage.
Dr G Mallika Vasugi who currently teaches in a local university, provides insights on the teaching profession. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.