The Sciences

UGC's Anti-Plagiarism Rules Don't Make Room for Realities of Indian Academia

It is difficult to imagine that people in positions of power and with strong political connections will be caught and penalised for plagiarism.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) recently approved the UGC (Promotion of Academic Integrity and Prevention of Plagiarism in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2018. These regulations are dedicated to addressing plagiarism by students, researchers and faculty at India’s universities and colleges.

Plagiarism is, along with publishing in fake journals and fabrication and falsification of research, among the major offences committed by academics worldwide. Other lesser known, though common, offences include the practice of adding an author’s name to a paper when she has not contributed to the research, not acknowledging conflicts of interest and general sloppiness in conducting research.

In many countries and certainly at the better universities across the world, there are regulations and strong mechanisms in place to detect and punish offenders. Still, academic fraud of one kind or another takes place everywhere.

Until recently, the UGC as well as the universities have been rather casual with matters of research fraud. As a result, existing regulations and investigative and punitive mechanisms have not deterred fraudulent activities. Offenders usually get away with small and big crimes and this has encouraged others to follow the same path. Slowly, however, the government is taking steps to address research fraud. The latest set of UGC regulations pertaining to plagiarism are an example of the government’s intent to control research fraud. But it is important to understand that anti-plagiarism measures by themselves only attack one pillar of research fraud and must be combined with attacks on at least two others: fake journals and fabrication/falsification of research. It is also necessary to admit that the immediate impact of these anti-plagiarism measures will be minimal.

API and promoting research fraud

Though research performance of India’s universities and other academic institutions has improved, it is overall still dismal. There are many reasons for this research deficit, of which inadequate funding is an important one but not the only factor. Indian academic institutions underperform in research because most universities have traditionally emphasised teaching over research. Indeed, research has been close to the bottom in terms of institutional priorities. However, with the growing popularity of world university rankings in which India’s universities perform poorly because of low research output, the government started to take notice and take measures to address the deficit.

One of the first attempts at addressing the research deficit was the introduction of the academic performance indicator (API) in 2010. The API required all faculty members at central universities and central-government funded colleges to do research and publish – in addition to teaching and administrative duties – to benefit from the Career Advancement Scheme (CAS). Unfortunately, most state universities and colleges also adopted the API. With the widespread application of API across all kinds of academic institutions, including undergraduate institutions that are entirely teaching-focused, faculty members were left with no choice but to publish or stagnate in their positions. These included people who lacked any basic training for research and those who were already overburdened with teaching, administrative and other responsibilities. Further, most teachers work at colleges with woeful infrastructure and where the overall academic environment is inimical to substantive research.

The result of the nearly-compulsory implementation of API was that many faculty members took recourse to plagiarism, publishing in fake journals or both. While for some, plagiarising and/or publishing in fake journals was simply a short-cut to career advancement, for most it was a necessity. In both cases, they fed each other: research-deficient faculty members plagiarised and published to catch-up or get ahead of those who were carrying out genuine research, and at some point the latter realised that they would be left behind if they did not do the same things. Many started to plagiarise, publish and flourish. This gave birth to what is now a flourishing global industry of fake journals headquartered in India.

To a great extent, the current and ongoing wave of research fraud in the form of plagiarism and publishing may have started with the API, which itself was a by-product of the growing popularity of the world university rankings. The API was created to boost India’s research output and improve the rankings of its universities; instead, it gave a tremendous boost to fraudulent research.

The API is soon to be revised but the improved version falls short of recognising the proper structure and complexities of India’s higher education sector and will continue to be abused.

Fake journals menace

The Indian Express recently carried a series exposing the fake journals industry in India. This has reportedly led to an immediate response from the government, with the higher education secretary R. Subramanyam issuing an order: “If any substandard/predatory journals are found to be in the list recommended by the vice-chancellors, that would be held personally against the vice-chancellor concerned.”

It is a pity that neither this government nor previous ones paid much attention to reports extending over more than a decade on various kinds of academic malpractices that benefitted dishonest academics and punished honest, hard-working ones. This has direct implications for the new anti-plagiarism measures that the government has put in place. Over time, a large number of academics have risen up the ranks by getting away with academic fraud and the task of restoring academic integrity is now to be placed in their hands!

To its credit, the government has in the last couple of years tried to deal with the menace of fake journals. In mid-2016, the University Grants Commission (UGC) took up the difficult task of preparing a list of legitimate journals; faculty members would have to publish only in these journals to benefit from the API. The task has so far been done rather badly. In early 2017, the UGC released a messy first list of legitimate journals that included the names of several fake journals and excluded many legitimate journals. In May 2018, it removed the names of 4,305 titles from its list, noting that these were “of poor quality,” provided “incorrect/insufficient information” about themselves or made “false claims.” In the process of excluding fake journals, however, it also removed several legitimate journals from the list. ‘The list’ very much remains a work in progress and will be for a while.

The new UGC rules

The new UGC regulations on plagiarism represent a sincere attempt to restore some credibility to Indian academia. The text of the regulations is clearly written and there seems to be little that is ambiguous or wrong with it. One can of course debate some specific aspects of the regulations but overall, it is an excellent document. However, the true test of any set of rules and regulations is whether they will be effective. In this case, it seems that anti-plagiarism measures will at best only be partially successful and that too with the passage of a considerable period of time.

In the pre-API era, only a select ambitious academics indulged in research fraud because the others did not have to publish research articles for regular career advancement. For the most part, what mattered was teaching experience measured in terms of number of years. After the API was introduced, publishing was no longer a matter of choice, as outlined above.

The Indian higher education system also experienced massive deterioration from the 1980s onwards, and certainly in terms of the kinds of people it attracted, including faculty members. Academia became for the most part a leftover profession, which one joined after failing at everything else. At the risk of generalisation, one can say that India’s higher education sector is dominated by the mediocre in terms of its faculty. A simple research project involving re-examination of PhD dissertations submitted at some Indian universities, including the best ones, will almost certainly show that many of existing faculty members carried out substandard research and engaged in plagiarism and fabrication. Many of them are now heads of departments, principals, vice-chancellors and academic bureaucrats in positions of power.

The clauses regarding detection, reporting and handling of plagiarism in the UGC regulations suggest one can’t be too optimistic that they will be effective. These regulations call for the creation of a Departmental Academic Integrity Panel (DAIP) consisting of the head of the department as chairman and two other members, one a senior academic from outside the department, to be nominated by the head of the institution; second, a person well versed with anti-plagiarism tools, to be nominated by the head of the department. Plagiarism cases are to be reported to the DAIP, which will also have the power “to assess the level of plagiarism and recommend penalty(or penalties) accordingly.”

The UGC regulations also call for the creation of an Institutional Academic Integrity Panel (IAIP) consisting of the pro-VC/dean/senior academician of the institution as chairman, and three other members, all of them nominated by the vice-chancellor/principal/director of the institution: a senior academic from the home institution; one member from outside the home institution; and the third, a person well versed-with anti-plagiarism tools.

According to the UGC regulations, the manner of dealing with cases of plagiarism will be as follows:

If any member of the academic community suspects with appropriate proof that a case of plagiarism has happened in any document, he or she shall report it to the DAIP. Upon receipt of such a complaint or allegation, the DAIP shall investigate the matter and submit its recommendations to the Institutional Academic Integrity Panel (IAIP) of the HEI.

What could go wrong?

As stated earlier, the regulations are quite well-prepared and written – but there are immediate problems.

Assuming that the head of the department is ‘clean’, can we expect her to pursue charges of plagiarism against a colleague? Department heads are appointed by rotation and the current head may not take any action for fear of being harassed when someone else takes over as head. Second, if the head is someone who has herself engaged in shady practices, she is even less likely to take any action since others may target her as well. The same set of issues will come into play at the institutional level, with the IAIP.

The fact is that the success of the anti-plagiarism regulations is contingent on how they are applied by the people who run India’s universities, from vice-chancellors down to faculty members. There are all kinds of structural obstacles to making the anti-plagiarism regulations work effectively. They will be successful if over time, Indian universities, especially research and teaching-cum-research institutions, open themselves up to hiring faculty on the basis of merit and with proper scrutiny. With the exception of a few institutions, this is not happening yet. For example, it has been reported that even at a premier institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), several new faculty appointments have a record of having plagiarised in their work.

Recently, Parliament was informed that over the past three years, there have been three cases of plagiarism against vice-chancellors and others where appropriate action has been taken: Chandra Krishnamurthy, vice chancellor of Pondicherry University (2015); Anil Kumar Upadhyay, reader of Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi (2017); and Vinay Kumar Pathak, vice chancellor of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technical University, Lucknow (2018). These numbers are ridiculously low. Of course, there is no way to know what the actual numbers of plagiarists and others who engage in research fraud are, but it would not be wrong to assume that many of them will be responsible for giving teeth to the UGC’s plagiarism regulations.

In an interview, Jeffrey Beall, who ran a hugely-influential website which identified fake journals and publishers until he was forced to shut down, said, “There is no easy solution. I learned that the publishers now have much political power, and they will do anything possible, including collusion with universities, to attack their critics.”

The same is true for plagiarism and plagiarists. There is no easy solution. Many plagiarists are vice-chancellors, principals, deans and occupy those positions because of their proximity to politicians. They are considered respected members of the academic community. It is difficult to imagine that people in positions of power and with strong political connections will be caught and penalised for plagiarism.

There is, however, one step that the government can take to limit plagiarism and research fraud: tweak the API to make research optional for college teachers.

Pushkar is director of The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.

The Hindi version of this article, which was submitted for publication on August 8, appeared in Rajasthan Patrika on September 4 and may be accessed here.