Editorial, The News, March 03, 2008
The Punjab University (PU), one of the most prestigious centres of higher learning in the country, appears to have degenerated into an institution harbouring plagiarist professors of every tier. The former head of the university’s Psychology Department, removed a few weeks ago after allegations of plagiarism made against him were found to be backed by evidence, has now accused the professor appointed in his place of stealing from the work of students. He has also alleged previous complaints against her to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) had been ignored. This latest fracas comes only a few days after the PU chancellor, the governor of Punjab, dismissed several high-profile physics professors who had been found guilty of similar academic fraud following an HEC-ordered inquiry.
While the entire situation has led to a Pandora’s Box of accusations and counter-accusations being opened up, with accusations of deliberate conspiracy thrown into the cauldron by those accused, the whole situation exposes the scale of the plagiarist menace in the country. Over the past few years alone, similar charges have led to punitive measures against staff or research students at the Government College University in Lahore and the Jamshoro University in Sindh. It is feared the problem may be just as rife at other places. In the first place, for all the criticism levelled towards it, the HEC needs to be commended for taking on the matter head-on. Its unflinching determination to deal severely with plagiarists has helped drive home the message that such academic fraud is unacceptable. Till now it had been seen as a practice that was only rarely referred to or even regarded as an offence.
Such attitudes, which are contributing to the ongoing, and extremely ugly, controversy at the PU, are also a reminder of just how low our academic standards have slipped. It seems that not only students, but also senior professors, think little of claiming work done by others around the world as their own. A similar mindset and the disappearance of ethics from academics at all levels, has contributed to the widespread menace of cheating — with surveys showing that many students, from primary level upwards, do not even see this as a problem. In fact, the malaise does not affect only academics and teachers but also is quite pervasive, perhaps because of the widespread use of the Internet, among students. Many assume that there is nothing wrong in copying, often verbatim, material from elsewhere without attributing it to the original source of publication. The presumption is that there is nothing wrong with this and that such material is in the public realm. Clearly, any attempt to stem the tide of plagiarism on our university and college campuses will have to take into consideration this aspect as well. A start could come from the HEC which could require all such institutions to formulate and implement honour codes that unambiguously set rules concerning plagiarism and which empower administrations to penalize students that violate such guidelines.
A major change in the approach to academics is required if the prestige of once renowned institutions is to be restored. Private-sector universities have shown that it is indeed possible to enforce rigorous standards of research and study, on par with those expected anywhere in the world. Other institutions, including those based in the public sector, need to emulate these models — and thus rescue higher education and research from the depths into which it has currently fallen, largely as a consequence of indifference shown in the past by bodies intended to enforce standards and prevent the kind of malpractice that now seems to be rampant at the PU and elsewhere.