Some thoughts on plagiarism

Recently, I came across an interesting article titled ’Putin’s dissertation and the revenge of RuNet’ The article focuses on academic plagiarism by the ruling class especially in Russia. They are being unearthed by Dissernet. Citing various actions against Dissernet at the official levels, the article argues, that the ‘hunter is (unfairly) being hunted’ now.

plagiarismI am not interested in the politics of this article. I have come across quite a few Russia-bashing articles in western media.  I have my own views in this regard. I am, however, of the view that this article is worth a read from an academic perspective. I have, therefore, decided to pen down some of my thoughts from both legal and ethical perspectives. We had earlier covered alleged instances of plagiarism. [1, 2 and 3]

As far as legal perspective is concerned, copyright infringement can definitely be claimed. The principles set out in R.G. Anand v. M/s. Delux Films & Ors (1978 SC judgment) apply: (with some modifications on the language so as to make it reader-friendly):

  1. “There can be no copyright over an idea, subject matter, themes, plots or historical or legendary facts and violation of the copyright in such cases is confined to the form, manner and arrangement  and expression of the idea by title author of the copy-righted work.
  2. Where the  same  idea is  being  developed  in  a different manner,  it is  manifest  that  the  source  being common, similarities  are bound to occur. In such a case the courts should  determine whether or not the similarities are on  fundamental or  substantial  aspects  of  the  mode  of expression  adopted   in  the copyrighted work.  If the defendant’s work  is nothing  but a literal imitation of the copyrighted work  with some  variations here  and  there,  it would amount  to violation of the copyright. In other words, in order to be actionable, the copy must be a substantial and material one, which at once leads to the conclusion that the defendant is guilty of an act of piracy.
  3. One of the  surest and the safest test to determine whether or not there has been a violation of copyright is to see if the reader, spectator or the viewer after having read or seen both the works, is clearly of the opinion and gets an unmistakable impression  that the subsequent work appears to be a copy of the original.
  4. Where the theme is the same but is presented and treated differently so that  the subsequent  work becomes a completely new work, there is no  question of violation of copyright
  5. Where, however, apart from the similarities appearing in  the two  works  there  are  also material  and  broad dissimilarities which  negative the  intention to  copy the original and the coincidences appearing in the two works are clearly incidental, no infringement  of the  copyright comes into existence.
  6. The violation must be proved by clear and cogent evidence.”

ethicsPlagiarism v. Integrity

“Integrity” is not a superfluous word. In fact, scholarship has led to crystallisation of several principles. Plagiarism evidently violates the very essence of integrity.

The word “integrity” stems from the Latin adjective integer (whole, complete). In this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. An individual’s value system provides a framework within which the individual acts in ways which are consistent and expected. Integrity can be seen as the state or condition of having such a framework and acting congruently within the given framework. It encompasses consistency in actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. Integrity can be regarded as the opposite of hypocrisy. It regards internal consistency as a virtue. It suggests that parties holding apparently conflicting values should account for the discrepancy or alter their beliefs.

An academician, who is expected to nurture integrity in impressionable minds, cannot be found to be lacking in it. A proven case of plagiarism is enough to sound the death knell of academic life in some of the prestigious institutions around the world such as Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Princeton and Max Plank. Mark S. Halfon (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College, City University of New York) writes that persons of integrity: “……….embrace a moral point of view that urges them to be conceptually clear, logically consistent, appraised of relevant empirical evidence, and careful about acknowledging as well as weighing relevant moral considerations. Persons of integrity impose these restrictions on themselves since they are concerned, not simply with taking any moral position, but with pursuing a commitment to do what is best”.

The plagiarism related controversies reported in SpicyIP are indeed highly disturbing. The Indian legal academia has definitely not performed to the best of its abilities. The quality of legal scholarship is still far from satisfactory. In fact, academic inefficiencies have long term, deleterious effects on generations. If Indian legal academia (and academia in general) intends to excel, it needs to nurture both institutional and individual integrity. Further, it should have both preventive and punitive vigilance framework. A mere legal framework (read it as “Austinian sanction”) will not be enough. A robust ethical framework is equally important.

Since I discussed ethics here, I would like to highlight the absence of robust Indian scholarship on ethics in post-Independence era (which (I believe) contributed to lack of awareness in ethics in both academia and public discourse). I am of the view that Indian academia has severely underrated the significance of scholarship in moral philosophy and virtue ethics. Questions on meaning and value of life are very important questions. We need more like Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Mr. Jiddu Krishnamurti and Prof. Noam Chomsky. The Indian legal academia can, in fact, take the lead in this regard as law and philosophy are intricately connected to each other. A ‘morally upright skilled’ citizenry is what any nation needs. One qualification cannot be a substitute for the other and all are equally important.

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1 thought on “Some thoughts on plagiarism”

  1. Mathews, thank you for highlighting some of the most important aspects of this tremendous issue. Yes, unfortunately, plagiarism becomes a common issue in the academic community. It refers not only to students who could plagiarize searching for the easiest ways of writing essays – but, woefully, it concerns researchers and scholars.

    Verbatim plagiarism could be simply revealed by using special plagiarism checkers as Unplag, iThenticate… But when someone uses your idea, revise it, add some other’s ideas (without mentioning the sources!) and provide the “original paper” it’s hard to prove and disclose.

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