Plagiarism: A symptom of a much larger problem in our culture
Plagiarism is a global problem, but the occurrences of academic fraud take place in epic proportions in Bangladesh as this obnoxious practice is infused in our national psyche. Starting from copying music to copying homework and buying readymade thesis, creativity is a rather rare phenomenon and not a mainstream occurrence.
The recent incident of an MP hiring eight lookalikes to sit for her exams emphasises that even our political elites participate in contract cheating, a practice that is illegal in many countries and a criminal offence in the UK. The phenomena of outsourcing homework, assignments or other forms of assessment to third parties to partially or completely fulfil the requirements of an educational degree is defined as "contract cheating", a term coined by Thomas Lancaster. Plagiarism on the other hand, is an academic offense that constitutes of citing ideas or quoting without proper acknowledgement.
Generally, these dishonest mechanisms to pass exams or to fulfil the requirements of a coursework is a symptom of a much larger problem in our culture—tolerance of fraudulent mechanisms to attain one's achievement. When tolerance and accommodation of amoral practices such as bribing educational institutions for admission or paying bribes to get a respectable job exist, how can we tackle our culture of rampant plagiarism? Academic honesty is, after all, a reflection of our moral parameters.
Contract cheating and plagiarism are not only widespread among students, but it is also practiced by some faculty members. A few years back, the nation witnessed the incident of several faculty members of Dhaka University, who were accused by the University of Chicago Press for plagiarising Foucault. Taking into consideration the embeddedness of academic dishonesty, it is not surprising that Bangladesh ranks globally at the bottom of the competitive rank index.
Plagiarism and contract cheating are rampant as our universities do not harness a research culture. The research culture is often centred around publishing in low-quality local journals which are sufficient for promotion. Research in the advanced countries is centred on the production of original knowledge. But Bangladesh lacks production of original knowledge, and some engage in intellectual theft. There is no research on the topic of intellectual theft, however, based on anecdotal evidence it becomes apparent that ideas from junior faculty members are sometimes stolen by their senior colleagues. In addition, junior academics/colleagues are often trapped into becoming the second authors even though the junior academic initiated the project idea. Often, university administration gets threatened by the intelligence of junior faculty as has been the case of Farhan Uddin Ahmed who was assaulted by the Brac university registrar two years ago. This practice needs to stop! Individuals should receive their due credit and recognition both in universities and also in research institutes.
The best defence against plagiarism and academic dishonesty is to harness a culture of honesty. In an environment where honesty persists, few engage in such activities. If individuals engage by any means, the repercussion for plagiarising is severe. When Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former Defence Minister of Germany, was found guilty of plagiarising in his doctoral dissertation, he was forced to step down from Angela Markel's government. The plagiarism scandal shocked the German nation and lead to a public outcry.
What about in Bangladesh? The MP, who got other people to take exam, was not expelled from her position. She continues to hold her position of power, which reflects that contract cheating is taken rather lightly in our political culture.
In addition, there are numerous incidents of the student wing of political parties forcing professors to pass them in an exam having submitted a poor answer script or without even appearing for it. State inaction against episodes of contract cheating clearly sends a wrong message.
Fraudulent academic practices are not acceptable in any form, and those guilty of committing the act should be harshly penalised. Academic misconduct is taken rather as a serious offence in European, North American, or in Australian universities. In Germany, if a student is caught plagiarising once, s/he is failed in the course and gets issued a warning letter. Subsequent plagiarism will expel the student from the university, and the student will not be able to take admission in another German university. However, most students do not engage in cheating as they are ingrained with strong morals. Families and schools act as powerful institutions in instilling righteousness. As a consequence, incidences of plagiarism are very rare due to upright values and the profound love for learning.
On the contrary, our universities are lenient on plagiarism and some academics passively encourage the practice. It is not uncommon to hear students passing their university courses by submitting the homework of former students. The instructor is aware of the copied homework, but instead of failing his/her student—the students pass with respectable grades. In addition, a certain portion of students pass their examinations by purchasing assignments and thesis from Nilkhet. Far from being a criminal offence, the buyers and sellers of essays continue to thrive as law enforcement agencies turn a blind eye to these illegal businesses. The government needs to enact tougher stance against these businesses that sell such essays.
Currently, the government of Bangladesh does not have a policy on plagiarism and contract cheating. A policy on contract cheating and its implementation mechanism is an urgent need to protect the young minds of this country. However, for any policy to be effectively implemented, strong political will and bureaucratic readiness are essential. Plagiarism and contract cheating will continue to thrive unless the state deals with the issue with an iron fist.
Namia Akhtar is a postgraduate student currently writing her master's thesis at the political science department of the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University, Germany.