Habit of mechanically copying: Are we creating a culture of plagiarism?

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By Priyanka Kothari & Subrato Banerjee

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins criticises the God of the Old Testament for he carefully engineers (with so many children being born to houses of different faiths) conditions leading people to violate the very first of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not worship any other gods before me, and then eventually punishes them for the violation.

In India, teachers have mostly been God-like in this very sense … primarily for conditioning students to plagiarise (to the extent of making it a habit during primary and secondary education), and then eventually punishing them for it (mostly at the stage of tertiary education).

In order to counter the problem of plagiarism—by which here we refer to the practice of copying verbatim, assuming in the process, wrongful ownership of what is copied—it may first help to understand where this habit comes from.

To the representative teacher of the primary/secondary level, anything reproduced verbatim from the textbook is either a treat to the eyes or music to the ears—it perhaps activates the pleasure regions of the brain. The student, in turn, earns a reward (in the form of higher grades) for providing this pleasure. He then associates this reward to the ability to reproduce text-bookish language down to the last detail, and therefore hones this ability. Here, the student is only naturally responding to a system of reward put in place by the teacher. He does not realise that the act of simply reproducing text-bookish language has an almost simultaneous side-effect, i.e. the habit of copying. In such a system, a lack of acknowledgement to the original source very subtly becomes the norm, often to the extent that we even fail to see that something is obviously wrong.

The habit of mechanically copying is not the only consequence. The need to reproduce verbatim equates textbooks to the word of God which must not be questioned. Questioning and improvising is seen as a deviation from the norm—one that isn’t rewarded. We do not argue that it is wrong to treat something as sacred, but making a mindless ritual out of the habit of copying is not without consequence, as is the case with forgetting the very reason behind why certain rituals do emerge. Accidently stepping on a book or pen, for instance, does make us conscious to the understanding that each is a tool meant to facilitate education—and that itself makes the tools sacred, and therefore shouldn’t be reduced to the status of objects to be mechanically worshipped without much thought.

In addition, there are population pressures creating competition levels that haven’t been matched by the provision of education-related infrastructure (more institutes of education, laboratories, libraries, etcetera). Where a quarter of a per cent is all that makes the difference between admission in an institute of repute and selection in one that isn’t, the comparison is almost often between two like candidates. Then, it is just a matter of whose performance is marginally closer to perfection—and here textbooks serve as godly standards. Copying, therefore, becomes a dominant norm, deviating from which has serious consequences.

Finally, after close to a decade and a half of schooling within a culture that harbours the habit of copying, when a student actually reaches tertiary education, s/he is reprimanded for plagiarism. We teachers punish students for being conditioned in a culture of education that we have ourselves created for them. At the stage of tertiary education, where our students are already reasonably mature, there is no merit in our pointing out that the authors of prescribed textbooks are also human, who can therefore make errors. To us, the most serious consequence of copying is that it discourages independent thought and can kill the very curiosity that enriches the process of learning. For instance, Euclidean geometry taught in schools almost always leads students to believe that parallel lines can never intersect … and students who pursue mathematics and sciences at the tertiary levels see those beliefs challenged in the geometry of curved spaces.

A culture of education is more fruitful when students exercise the freedom to question and contest what they read in textbooks (possibly creating valuable new knowledge in the process), instead of producing facsimiles of printed textbook material during examinations. Correcting the effects of this decade-long conditioning may very well need more than a couple of years in tertiary education—and certainly more than a few orientation workshops on plagiarism (they say, old habits die hard!). Of course, copying isn’t always bad—children do benefit from carefully mimicking their parents when they learn how to cross roads with moving traffic {following instructions is important to those who cannot (still) think for themselves}. We must understand that students can learn a great deal from their experiences when they remain curious and are encouraged to explore everything for themselves. As a first step, we teachers need to recognise and admit our own role in permeating the culture of plagiarism instead of penalising our students for it. As a second step, it is our duty to teach students that plagiarism is equivalent to stealing—an action that children recognise as bad even at an impressionable age. We educators clearly do not have the right to be angry. At the end, we are teachers, and that itself makes anger a luxury we cannot afford.

Kothari is with the Mumbai School of Economics and Public Policy and Banerjee with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Views are personal