Debating Plagiarism: Indian Academia Is Producing Imitative Conformists

Every day in our classrooms we are destroying the uniqueness and autonomy of the young student, and producing ‘trained parrots’ continually speaking a borrowed language.

Recently, The Wire published quite a rigorous article on plagiarism, detailing the way some teachers in a leading university in Delhi have been found to have plagiarised their research works. I am writing this piece not to make any judgement on these specific cases; nor do I wish to stigmatise them. As a teacher deeply engaged with the rites and rituals of the university life, I feel that we need to go deeper into the practice of plagiarism. This requires intense self-introspection on our part, not just condemnation of select individuals.

It is in this context that I wish to make two points relating to the way institutionalised academics in India tends to make us non-creative/imitative conformists, and the changing self-perception of an academic in terms of rapidly produced books, papers and edited volumes.

The learning machine that promotes plagiarism

It is sad that the learning machine discourages creativity and independent thinking. Enough has been said and written about the exam-oriented/textbook-centric/teacher-directed school education in India – a system that discourages dialogue, experiential knowledge, and generates chronic fear – fear of making a mistake, fear of not giving the ‘right answer’, fear of being condemned as ‘mad’ for thinking differently. No wonder, it produces thoroughly ‘trained’ minds (its ‘success’ stories) without any spark of creativity.

At times, a non-bookish/original answer is discouraged by the school teacher. We learn to be ‘safe’; we learn to speak the language of what others have defined for us; we learn to devalue our own expression, our own thinking, our own style.

As this schooled mind enters the university, the story begins to repeat itself. As I am not competent to talk about natural sciences, I wish to take my illustrations from social sciences. Let me recall what I experienced as a student of sociology at a leading university in Delhi. My professor asked me to write a paper on caste. I met my professor and conveyed my wish. ‘Sir, I have read what you have asked us to read. However, in my paper I wish to write something more: the way I saw, experienced and analysed the institutionalisation and practice of caste, and through this account, I would learn and unlearn the texts you have suggested.’

The professor said, ‘No, you can’t write what you think, experience and feel. You are required to write the way the likes of M.N. Srinivas and Louis Dumont have thought about it’.

I followed his instruction and wrote a highly-mechanised but ‘academically impressive’ paper with predictable quotes and references from the big names. Needless to add, I got a good grade. In other words, I got the message: My style, my perception, my words do not count; what matters is a defined academic format, a style created by others. I have to be clever in the art of copying.

I, therefore, ask the question: Is it that our thinking itself is plagiarised? I believe that we need to take this question pretty seriously. For instance, at times I feel that the kind of sociology we teach is nothing but plagiarised. Is it, therefore, surprising that almost like a trained parrot we begin to equate the discourse of power with Max Weber and Michel Foucault, gender with Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, and post-colonialism with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi Bhabha? I am not saying that their ideas and books are unimportant; nor am I saying that we should not read these books. My argument is qualitatively different. Books should be seen as enabling a moment of engaged conversation between the author and the equally alive reader, a move towards an expansion of one’s horizon, and the creative/critical process of filtering, altering and amending the arguments put forward by the authors, no matter how important they are.

However, when these books are allowed to invade our thinking space and stop our own voices, they become constraining. Far from being encouraged to think creatively, we feel tempted to see the world through the eyes of these celebrity authors. No wonder, our research papers, dissertations and theses are fast becoming like heavily standardised/predictable products – with the similar ‘review of literature’, similar ‘academic style’, similar set of references and similar kind of trendy bibliography.

As teachers, I have noticed that quite often we get impressed by these ‘smart’ presentations. No wonder, the language in which many of us write is inauthentic; it is not our language; it is something that we have borrowed from others – may be from a trendy scholar, or a trendy journal.

I must add that in this age of imitation I feel extremely annoyed when we ask our students for attending the rapidly growing workshops on ‘academic writing’. I insist that there cannot be any standardised academic style. We are all unique, and our styles are bound to differ. Did Marx and Weber write in the similar style? Or, for that matter, do Ashis Nandy and Bhikhu Parekh follow the same pattern? Is there any reason to think that writing a heavily reference oriented/jargonised bad prose is the only style possible?

We often destroy the confidence of young learners in these workshops. Many of my PhD students often express their agony; they say that they are afraid of writing anything on their own because they have been trained to believe that everything (even a statement like this: ours is a caste-ridden/hierarchical/violent society) has to be legitimated through the writings of others.

Meaningful references should be distinguished from the prevalent practice of obsessive reference sickness, and we should never forget that we too matter, and if we succeed in writing in our own terms with solid argumentations, empirical evidence, critical imagination and spirit of communication we begin to contribute to the domain of ideas. Otherwise, if we plan to become like another Spivak, another Srinivas, another Lacan; or if we think that the style of a fancy publication house is the only style possible, we do a great damage to creative learning. This cleverness prepares the ground for an academic industry promoting plagiarism. Some are caught because they are not smart enough, and many others save themselves because of their mastery over a sophisticated art of referencing. Otherwise, barring exceptions, most of us are trained to be imitators.

Publication industry and plagiarism as its sub-text

There is another factor that needs consideration. It is sad that we seek to quantify and measure everything. It seems whatever is immeasurable is irrelevant. As this cult of quantification enters the academic life, we tend to define ourselves in terms of the number of books, research papers and edited volumes we have published. If for years you have not written a book or even a paper, but you have evolved every day as a learner (believe me, in my college days I have seen extraordinarily creative teachers/thinkers without any book to their credit) you are bound to be seen as a ‘non-performer’ because your inner growth cannot be measured.

This dangerous doctrine ‘publish or perish’ has put immense pressure on teachers and researchers. Everything is related to it –career curve, promotion, salary and above all, ‘respectability’ in a networking society. No wonder, it encourages almost a neurotic obsession with publication. A book, five research papers, an edited volume, five international conferences in a year – if this becomes the success index of an academic, you can imagine its disastrous consequences. This ‘publication industry’ is bound to promote dishonest/inauthentic practices. In the age of internet, ‘instant solutions’ are always available; ‘cut and paste’ becomes the normal practice. Or, you keep repeating yourself; your tenth book is like the eighth book with a new presidential address you delivered at a conference. This ‘performance anxiety’ has created a milieu that is inherently conducive to the practice of plagiarism – sophisticated or otherwise.

If we are truly sincere about creating a vibrant/creative/honest academic culture in India, we need to see beyond those ‘condemned’ scholars; we should look at ourselves – the way every day in our classrooms we are destroying the uniqueness and autonomy of the young student, and producing ‘trained parrots’ continually speaking a borrowed language. We also need to realise that deep thinking amidst silence is more important than the constant production of writing material. We ought to be free from the anxiety to prove our ‘worth’ before others.

To conclude this piece in a lighter (yet revealing) tone, I often ask my students to see in a village what Srinivas and Andre Beteille have not seen, to find in a prison what Michel Foucault has not found, to see gender studies beyond Judith Butler, to realise that mindless references and a lengthy bibliography do not necessarily enrich one’s arguments, and to trust that her/his way of seeing the world is no less import than that of Deleuze and Derrida, and the life worth living is to be oneself – unknown and non-fashionable, but original and authentic. Some take me seriously, and some laugh at my stupidity.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU.