A recent news item caught my attention— "High Court directs the University Grants Commission (UGC) to submit a report on PhD approval process". It was reported that following a writ petition filed by Supreme Court lawyer Advocate Mohammed Moniruzzaman, the High Court of Bangladesh wanted to know whether public and private universities are conferring PhD and equivalent degrees to students following the rules and regulations of the University Grants Commission.
It is alleged that an associate professor of the department of Pharmaceutical Technology of the University of Dhaka was conferred a PhD degree on the basis of a dissertation that was highly plagiarised. According to a report published in Prothom Alo's online version, 98 percent of the thesis of the faculty member was taken from a paper authored by another researcher.
Unfortunately, this is a practice that is common in our country, since most people are unaware of what really constitutes as plagiarism. The word derives from the Latin plagium which means "kidnapping", and is worldwide considered to be the equivalent of cheating on an exam. It happens when you quote or paraphrase the writings of others, while leading the reader to believe that you are the sole author of the text. According to Columbia University's graduate school handbook, "Plagiarism includes buying, stealing, borrowing, or otherwise obtaining all or part of a paper (including obtaining or posting a paper online); hiring someone to write a paper; copying from or paraphrasing another source without proper citation or falsification of citations; and building on the ideas of another without citation." Students are also forbidden from submitting the same paper to more than one class.
Plagiarism is a form of corruption perpetrated by two parties, the student and the university. Academic institutions throughout the world have been tackling this issue for many years, and the problem has taken a new turn with the proliferation of the World Wide Web. Many developing countries have taken measures to check the veracity of data and authenticity of research in order to meet the challenges posed by the availability of research papers online and the proliferation of vendors who are also known as "essay mills", who sell term papers and dissertations. An academic dean of an online university commented that the number one enemy of academic integrity regarding doctoral writing is the abundance of fraud-selling websites.
During my own graduate studies in the USA, writing the dissertation was truly a labour of love. My dissertation was subsequently published as a book by the University Press of America. In the US, the practice is to require a PhD candidate to follow the hard and fast rules set by the university. First, one must finish the required coursework and take the "comprehensive" examination. Second, after passing the comprehensive, the candidate, known as ABD (all but dissertation), submits a proposal for the thesis and works under the guidance and supervision of the thesis advisor(s). Third, the candidate then submits the dissertation for review by a committee and on approval, defends the work in a seminar where the department invites faculty, graduate students, and other researchers. During the defence, the dissertation is subjected to intense scrutiny and the candidate has to explain the research methods used and also answer questions about the research findings.
At Boston University, where I was enrolled, we were constantly reminded of the primacy of academic honesty. My professors repeatedly emphasised the importance of academic integrity and frequently discussed various forms of dishonesty. The following paragraph, taken from one of our "Academic Bibles", was read to us:
"Academic integrity concerns honest research practices as much as avoiding plagiarism. Research misconduct falls into three categories: plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication. Falsification includes purposeful manipulation, modification, or omission of data or results. Fabrication is the making up of data or results and the recording or reporting thereof." We knew that we could quote from another source as long as we acknowledged and properly cited the other work. Having a professional to write for you was also forbidden.
"Plagiarism is a form of corruption perpetrated by two parties, the student and the university. Academic institutions throughout the world have been tackling this issue for many years, and the problem has taken a new turn with the proliferation of the World Wide Web. Many developing countries have taken measures to check the veracity of data and authenticity of research in order to meet the challenges posed by the availability of research papers online and the proliferation of vendors who are also known as "essay mills", who sell term papers and dissertations. An academic dean of an online university commented that the number one enemy of academic integrity regarding doctoral writing is the abundance of fraud-selling websites."
Plagiarism is a serious, yet widespread type of research misconduct, and is often neglected in developing countries. As can be gathered from an opinion piece written three years ago in The Daily Star by fellow columnist Fahmida Khatun, plagiarism is poorly acknowledged and discussed in our academic world. She wrote: "There is a new group of eager learners who avail the opportunity to get doctorate degrees from various sources and means. There are several doctorate degree holders in the country now who have obtained their degrees through sub-standard, non-accredited western universities operating illegally."
So what is the solution to this problem? First and foremost, the UGC needs to outline its policy on plagiarism, clearly establish the consequences, and enforce its "academic honesty policy". Secondly, all senior faculty must be given the proper resources, and trained to detect plagiarism using "text-matching software".
Thirdly, all our universities should develop codes of conduct and other internal policies and procedures that clearly describe areas of academic misconduct and possible consequences of violations, such as a reduced grade, a classification of the thesis as "inadequate" or other disciplinary actions, with the highest punishment as removal from the university.
Finally, all PhD candidates must be constantly reminded during their graduate work and research that paraphrasing, or "putting the ideas and theories of another into one's own words, or rearrangement of phrases or inserting synonyms of the original author's words does not allow one to avoid committing plagiarism." They must be trained by a professional to acknowledge the source of paraphrased or quoted material each and every time. They should also practice how to make careful documentations of the sources used and "review the final manuscript to ensure each quote or paraphrase received proper acknowledgement through the prescribed writing format (in-text citations, footnotes, reference page entries, etc.)". It is only through such comprehensive and meticulous interventions that we can even begin to deal with the scourge of plagiarism in our tertiary education institutions.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow at International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.