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Plagiarism that plagues local academia

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If left unchecked, cheating would become part and parcel of the learning culture in academia, warns Mustafa K Anuar.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But in academia, plagiarism – or simply put, an act of copying other person’s intellectual work without attribution – is, and should be, considered a cardinal sin that requires stiff punishment.

While plagiarism is not a new ‘disease’ that has afflicted local universities, the apparently rampant unethical practice among local academics, as cautioned recently by retired Prof Omar Shawkataly of Universiti Sains Malaysia and Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak, is indeed cause for concern.

In fact, it is alarming to learn that many of these academic culprits have got off scot free or merely been given a slap on the wrist – and, worse, given a golden handshake on their way to the exit door. In certain cases, political intervention may have come into play.

The ‘cool’ reaction of the authorities concerned regarding such cases sends a wrong signal to other academics, especially those who seek a role model.

And at a time when the academic standing of many local universities leaves much to be desired, such an act of cheating, among other academic ailments that have befallen the local academia, should make the authorities concerned sit up and take notice, and commit themselves to necessary and stern action.

Burying their heads in the sand for fear of public humiliation is not a mark of a university authority that is serious about making a real difference. A negative image of a university resulting from such academic thievery should be handled squarely and transparently by the authorities.

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To be sure, plagiarism is a symptom of many serious problems that the academic establishment faces.

One problem relates to the kind of mindset, particularly among junior academics, who are obsessed with getting into the fast track – in any way possible – to swift promotion.

These are people who cut corners and do things at all costs to get the promotion they crave. Copying other people’s intellectual work without acknowledging them is one of the easier ways. This is obviously a bad example for their students, some of whom have nonchalantly committed such an unscrupulous practice.

This is apart from climbing the administrative ladder for certain academics who covet the high position in the university hierarchy, yet another faster route to promotion.

Another aspect that needs close scrutiny is the university’s obsession with the key performance index (KPI) that puts pressure on academics, including those whose academic credentials are a wee bit weak, to such an extent that some of them indulge in plagiarism.

Number-crunching by the authorities (in terms of gaining points for improved KPIs) has also witnessed the phenomenon of what can be called “pillion riding” (membonceng).

It usually involves a group of, say, five or six lecturers writing an academic paper with the possibility of the last two or three not putting in their fair share of work, if at all, to this academic endeavour.

This warped practice of giving a purportedly leg-up to the academic laggards would be repeated in other academic enterprises. The academic rigour that is expected of a university worth its salt becomes an alien thing in this context.

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Certain lecturers become devoid of scruples when it comes to getting brownie points. Given the unequal power relations that exists between lecturers and students, such lecturers tend to lean on their students so that they get credit for an academic paper that they merely lend their names to.

And quite often, the lecturers’ names will be mentioned first on the academic paper before the students’, if at all.

This scenario reminds us of how former vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya Ungku Aziz used to refer to such questionable academics as “professor kangkong”. This practice gives a bad name to a profession that is supposed to be noble.

Cheating of this nature would not add value to the body of knowledge that a university is supposed to build on over a period of time. Neither would it enhance the dignity and academic ranking of the institutions of higher learning concerned.

If left unchecked, cheating would become part and parcel of the learning culture in academia. Surely this is not the kind of graduates we need as part of our nation-building efforts.

Given that academia is, to some degree, no longer a place where idealism is nurtured, valued and jealously guarded, it is not stretching our imagination to say that what ails local institutions of higher learning as a whole is a reflection of the larger society where cheating tends to be condoned, if not handsomely rewarded.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

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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Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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