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The plagiarism plague

Fear and feudal thoughts creep in and engulf the victims like a virus

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A different kind of plague is increasingly seeping into society and rearing its ugly head in the media

This plague erodes the integrity of institutions, the dignity of the people and respect from the society we solemnly envision to build and sustain.

The media highlights it when a ‘brave’ victim comes out to share his or her depressing experience.

The most recent case cropped up when an international postgraduate student filed a police report, alleging that his thesis supervisor stole his research data, although his research was funded by the university.

Although this case is now under police investigation, the story or earlier stories of academic theft and dishonesty disappeared as fast as the speed of light without proper dialogue and reflection on what happened on the ground. 

Plagiarism is an act of stealing the written work of another without due reference, credit or recognition. It is manifested in many different forms and styles – the subtler forms and styles are hardly shared and understood.

Such demonstration of stealing other people’s writings without a tinge of remorse or guilt is reprehensible as often preached to students at the beginning of every school session.

Yet some in the institutions of learning appear to have normalised the practice as the bread and butter of their publication business. 

Why has it been normalised? Have we lost our sense of integrity and value? How is plagiarism sustained in our ‘learning’ ecosystem? 

Across cultures and religions, dishonesty is rebuked, punished, chastised and penalised. It is a cause for concern for parents, friends, schools and society.

Honesty is a fundamental value that needs to be always adhered to. That requires a lot of support, the existence of reputable institutions, human integrity and a fair justice system. In fact, the country’s justice system is replete with legal provisions when honesty, as a value, is challenged. 

Fear and feudal thinking are among the ingredients that explain why plagiarism remains unaddressed. Fear is a powerful emotion that arrests one’s rational thinking to see rightly – precisely because speaking up against academic theft and dishonesty has potential legal and social repercussions.

Feudal ideology views authorities (parents, supervisors, teachers and lecturers) as wielding dominant power in the power hierarchy. Their opinions, decisions and judgments are regarded as never to be questioned, especially by those from below. Family, school and university environments are where fear and feudal practices are embedded – and nurtured. 

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‘Sacred’ committees

But who determines if an individual has plagiarised or not? Who judges it? Are members of the ‘sacred committee’ innocent of plagiarism themselves?

To put it into context, in most cases, universities set up committees – such as an internal review board and ethics committee – to check potential violations related to research, publication or ethical standards.

Members of these committees are usually senior members of academe, given their experience and exposure to a range of academic matters.

Identifying who becomes a member of these committees can be an interesting ‘guessing’ game. The question is, are the committee members sufficiently credible in the eyes of the whole student body and faculty?

In the scheme of things, the aggrieved party, usually students, breathe resignation and acquiescence, even if they have a bone to pick against their supervisor or lecturer. For the aggrieved party, alas, there is not much hope to push the case, own it or to ensure there is closure on the horizon because they know that the likelihood of receiving due justice is a distant reality. They would rather keep the issue to themselves and pray the nightmare will soon fade away. 

Often, the credibility of the relevant committee may be challenged through the grapevine because some members may have also been involved in unethical behaviour. But investigations are rarely initiated by the authorities. The likelihood that students will not pursue the case against their supervisor or lecturer is real.

If the university is unaware of the academic members’ reputation within and beyond its portals while students are easy victims, then this committee, however you may label it, exists only on paper. Its existence is only valued as an addon to the university’s ranking criteria, in the guise of being ‘transparent’, set by the national and global education sectors. In essence, the committee or board exists only as part of the documentation apparatus. 

What this implies is that committee membership should be beyond reproach, and academics should have integrity to stand scrutiny from the community to ensure that the aggrieved party is able to push the investigation without fear of a miscarriage of justice.

Unfortunately, victims often remain on the receiving end of fear and feudal thinking (and practice) when the dust settles. 

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Dishonesty through plagiarism

Here are a few brief scenarios where dishonesty through plagiarism manifests themselves. They tell how students deal with their sad story of abuse by the system.

The first scenario is when a student’s work (assignments, final year project reports, research empirical findings) is consciously taken by the lecturer or supervisor as his or her own, without a declaration of acknowledgement or recognition of ownership.

The second scenario describes a doctoral student’s conference material initially published with four other authors, and republished in a local journal, this time with the name of the main supervisor as the sole author. From the beginning, the student expects nothing and does not want to pursue the case against the supervisor. The student even normalises the issue, saying that the supervisor also helped a lot. The student also worries about the impact the case would have in his studies if he was to report it to the authorities concerned. After almost five years of hard work, the fear of not getting the PhD degree is overwhelming.

The third scenario shows how a lecturer-supervisor published a group of students’ work, and included the lecturer’s overseas academic-friends as co-authors, although the students were listed as co-authors as well, without them knowing it.

Victims in the three scenarios have not gone beyond sharing their sad tale to sympathetic lecturers.

It is clear as light of day that students were fearful of the consequences, though they may have already left the university system. Simply put, they want to put this traumatic experience behind them.

Interestingly, sympathetic lecturers are also reluctant to push the case out of fear maybe or the potential backlash they would encounter. As academics, they are beholden to their superiors and faculty management, especially when they set their eye on promotion, countless number of meaningless awards, appointments to administrative positions and access to external research grants.

On the ground there is a formation of unwritten alliance based on who always complain – and are critical- and those who are viewed as yes men and women.  

Beyond this, when brave students resort to filing a police report rather than pursuing the case within the gates of the university, we see a different view of the issue. Could this be because of a lack of trust in the university complaints bureau? 

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A numbers game

Why do some academicians resort to unethical practices, and why is there no revulsion within the ranks of where they belong? 

For almost two decades now, universities have been transformed into a factory to produce academic papers to promote global visibility that will shore up international student enrolment and ranking.

Part of the ‘control’ system is to record every publication, according to whether it is locally or internationally published, whether in an indexed or non-indexed journal.

Higher points are given to publications in indexed journals even though certain journals may be classified as ‘predator’, meaning their history of existence is guided by money and profit, not academic scholarship.

Predator journals usually tax the authors high publication fees. To reduce the cost, more co-authors are needed to share the financial burden.

Do universities care whether journals are predator? In the quest to sustain a good ranking, this may be the least of their concerns.

Predator journals, most likely, are patronised by academics whose chief concern is getting a promotion or meeting their annual KPI (key performance indicators). It is never about contributing to academic scholarship or research or society. Hence, this is a numbers game!

There is no clear-cut guide on what makes up a plagiarised publication in many situations. The grey area is often exploited at the expense of the original researcher. For instance, when a student’s excellent thesis or final year project is published, some universities allow the practice of including the supervisor’s name as co-author, or worse, even as first author. But is this not a gross injustice to the student?

Some might argue that the student has received supervision and academic guidance during the entire process, hence, the inclusion of the supervisor’s name.

Now, this twisted logic should be reviewed – precisely because supervisors are expected to supervise and are paid to do the job. Supervisors are certainly expected to contribute to the overall content of a thesis. Otherwise, they would have failed in their responsibility as supervisors. 

Fear and feudal thoughts best explain why plagiarism is a plague that endlessly victimises students. There is no cure in sight when the problem is systemic. Fear controls the victim’s everyday thinking and relationships. As this remains unseen, fear creeps and engulfs the victim like a virus.

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
25 Sep 2022 1.06am

This is a good article exposing what is happening. This happens also in other countries. Malaysia is so desperate that its universities climb up the world rankings to attract foreign students. But being up there does not mean that the teaching is world-class. The pressure to publish also leads to giving less attention to teaching and using students like as mentioned in the article to benefit the teachers.

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