Plagiarism is by far the most common form of research fraud. Widely practised by faculty and students at India’s higher education institutions, it is, for the most part, not even considered unethical. A high-level, UGC-appointed committee, headed by Sanjay Dhande, former director of IIT-Kanpur, is looking to change that. The committee is currently finalising a set of rules and regulations that will clearly outline what plagiarism is and recommend different levels of punishment — including salary cuts and even dismissal — for different degrees of plagiarism. With the adoption of these new rules, higher education in India would have taken an important step towards improving its research culture.
A fairly large number of PhD dissertations submitted at our universities are plagiarised, often with the blessings of faculty members. Many teachers themselves plagiarise quite freely, as they dish out journal articles and books, because there are no adverse consequences. In most cases, offenders actually benefit from it.
Plagiarism, however, is an archaic form of research fraud. The academic world has moved on, embraced new techniques of dubious research and discovered fresh avenues to publish that research. While the UGC’s new initiatives are necessary and welcome, they are not sufficient to address the larger problem of research fraud. Let us consider just two new offences that have become prevalent in recent times to understand the limitations of the current anti-plagiarism initiatives.
Over the past few years, hundreds of fake academic journals, most of which are primarily online publications, have proliferated. These journals exist for the sole purpose of making money from authors. They are labelled “fake” because one can literally publish gibberish in these journals for a small “processing” fee. Academics and students worldwide routinely receive emails from publishers, soliciting contributions. Following in the footsteps of faculty members, and sometimes inspired by them, undergraduate students also have taken to publishing in order to pad up their CVs. For fresh PhDs, the easy option of publishing their dissertations with foreign publishers without any academic review is all too tempting.
“I didn’t know” is the most convenient excuse one hears from those doing business with dubious publishers. However, many faculty members are faking it on purpose for potential benefits, usually career advancement. Others are doing it to show that they have utilised research grants from the UGC or other organisations. There really are no excuses for “I didn’t know”. Jeffrey Beall, an influential voice speaking up against predatory publishers, maintains a blog which lists and updates all dubious publishers. All one needs to do is verify with his blog whether the publisher or journal is genuine or not.
The second form of research offence, one that is not common in India yet but is likely to catch on in future, is the use of software to generate academic papers. In 2005, Jeremy Stribling, a computer science graduate from MIT, and his colleagues developed a computer science paper generator that could stitch together nonsense papers with impressive graphs and such.
The papers produced by their SCIgen software read genuine enough to make it to big conferences and established journals. SCIgen has been utilised by several academics, many of whom are affiliated with Chinese universities, to publish more than 100 articles in journals and conference proceedings by reputed publishers such as Springer (Germany) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE, US). It took some chasing by Cyril Labbé, a French computer scientist, to bring down SCIgen papers. Incidentally, Labbé also maintains a website where one can screen for SCIgen-created papers.
Computer-generated papers are not limited to computer science and related disciplines. Les Perelman, a former director of undergraduate writing at MIT, and his students at Harvard and MIT have developed the Basic Automatic BS Essay Language Generator or Babel. Perelman is at war with essay-grading automatons, which are increasingly being used to grade humanities and social science papers. The Babel generator is primarily designed to fool the machines but such programmes may soon be able to create authentic-enough papers that dupe humans as well.
How long will it be before geeks develop “Babel Plus” to generate papers that get past human scrutiny? That is hard to say but what is certain is that such programmes will become popular for preparing papers in the humanities and social sciences unless specific rules are laid down to check this kind of academic fraud.
The current anti-plagiarism initiatives are absolutely necessary, but it is clear that they will address only a small part of the problem. The UGC will have to do more to clean up the research environment in the country.
The writer is assistant professor at the department of humanities and social science, Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani, Goa