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Do people who use the term plagiarism even known what it actually means and what its limitations are?

When the term ‘Plagiarism’ is stripped of the meanings it has come to represent with recent applications of the word and when the dictionary meaning of the word is considered in isolation, it simply means ‘the act of using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to that person’ (as defined on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary). According to this simple definition there are two criteria for the application of the term ‘plagiarism’ to any sort of work. First, there has to be an instance of a borrowed concept or idea. Second, there should be an absence of acknowledgement of the origins of this borrowed concept or idea. Only when these two criteria are met can one justifiably use the term plagiarism (in its verb form ‘plagiarised’) to describe those sections of work which fulfil these criteria.
Academics is probably the broad field where this word has the most scope for being applied and is put to use the most. Yet not always is it used in the right manner, the right manner being the satisfaction of the two criteria. Here, I wish to specifically focus on the application of the word in the process of evaluation of a student’s work by the faculty.* The feelings that the word evokes are, in my experience, either prejudiced loathing or smugness at thwarting attempts to plagiarise –the former emanating from the students and the later from the faculty. This is certainly a generalisation since I had the opportunity to have been taught by a truly inspiring teacher whose view on plagiarism is as relieving as it is sensible. But both the teachers’ earnest and predetermined efforts to detect plagiarism in students’ work and the unsuspecting students being caught plagiarising (and subsequently cursing the word) are very common. They monopolise the usage of the word so much that even the sample sentence showing the usage of the word on the Merriam-Webster’s webpage is ‘the student was accused of plagiarism’.
But coming back to the point that I earlier mentioned – that the word is not being used in the right manner – I wish to validate it by pointing to the means of testing plagiarism in a students’ work. Any matter that is contested on some grounds can be settled only when the contesting claims are subject to a mechanism of resolution. And so is questionable usage of a word justified only when it is subject to a validating mechanism. For instance, common claims over property or cases of murder are put forth before a court of law and after the due procedures are followed, the judgement is passed. The trial in a court of law is the mechanism here and the relevant laws the criteria. By the same token, when a students’ work is sought to be accused of plagiarism, the mechanism followed is to put the work through a plagiarism-checking-software. Herein lies the tragedy. A plagiarism software is just a tool that compares the words in the students’ work and tries to match them with the sources accessible by it on the internet. When some sentences or parts of sentences or sequences of words are found to match with those in some existing sources, the plagiarism-checking-software highlights the matching parts and mentions the original source. Now what happens in the process of checking is that material which is quoted and cited is ignored by the plagiarism-checking-software. But everything else is compared. In this kind of an algorithm only the first of the two aforementioned criteria is applied, and mechanically at that, giving rise to many a problems. The software doesn’t have the cognitive capability to recognise the borrowed concept if it is expressed in a manner different to the original source. It doesn’t recognise if the matching texts are actually used in the same context and with the same intention in both the cases. It simply cannot make the requisite judgements. But when a teacher reads the work, he/she would be a more adept at recognising plagiarism since by virtue of being a human being, and blessed with intelligence that the machines cannot match yet, he/she would be able to apply both the criteria as they are supposed to be applied and catch instances of plagiarism accordingly. One would hope that the teachers are learned enough, since in any case the UGC’s rules make sure they are qualified enough,** to avoid one-dimensional scrutiny akin to the software. One would also hope that the teachers have the minimal courtesy of actually reading the students’ work and are competent enough to recognise which sections of the work are copied without acknowledgement and which are not.
Plagiarism-checking-software have many failings, worst of which are the inability to apply the second criterion and ludicrous application of the first criterion. These clear limitations apart, there other issues as well. Issues arising not necessarily due to the incompetence of the software but due to the attitude of those resorting to the use of the software – the attitude of the faculty in relying on the flawed software exclusively and definitively. If, in the aforementioned faulty manner, a student’s work is judged have a Similarity Index of 20 percent by the software, the faculty rather naively conclude that the ‘level of plagiarism’ in the student’s work is 20 percent and take consequent actions. What if the student has used borrowed concepts but has acknowledged the original source in a manner other than that recognisable by the software i.e. in a manner other than quotations and citations? An example of how this can happen is given below.
As Satish Chandra argues in his blog post on the issue of separation of Andhra Pradesh, the filthy nature of politics, just like all the things taking place in the separatist agitation in Telangana is valid for the integrationist movement which is still taking place on the other side.
Now, though this text and the idea behind it is copied from another person’s work, the original author is clearly acknowledged. There is no intention of pass off the original author’s idea as a novel thought. Yet, in a plagiarism-checking-software this section of copied text would add to the Similarity Index. While this kind of unjustified indictment of the students’ work stands at one end of the spectrum of problems arising out of one-dimensional application of the first criterion, at the other end is the issue of unfair advantage that a student receives due to non-detection of plagiarism. If the students’ work is utterly based on unacknowledged borrowed concepts, the text adequately paraphrased and modified to avoid detection by the software, the students goes scot free.
Similarly, if a student has submitted a work entirely based in borrowed concepts, but each of which is adequately given credit to in a format that the software recognises, has he/she done a commendable job? Is the work sufficiently original to be considered as the students work? Is the purpose of the assignment – to enable the student to learn – achieved? On the other hand, if the student has demonstrated the knack to pick up the right concepts and compile them in a logical manner to complete his work, isn’t the purpose of the assignment – to test the student’s grasp of the subject – achieved regardless of the Similarity Index? These questions are tangential to the topic of this essay and in any case, the software is not even an entity with cognitive capability which merits a mention that it is beyond the software’s capability to answer such questions. This is precisely why a teacher should be the judge of the students’ work on all matters, including that of plagiarism. A teacher has the simple benefit of being an intelligent life form, as opposed to a plagiarism-checking-software whose ‘thought’ cannot go beyond the limits of its iterative algorithm, and therefore is better equipped to answer the above questions, all of which are central to the issue of plagiarism.
This tragedy of using a non-intelligent and iterative algorithm based plagiarism-checking-software can be more bluntly explained by taking recourse to the arts. Let us take the example of a painting of a ship-wreck. A student is inspired by the concept of illustrating the power of nature by depicting humans as being insignificant and weak in front of the forces of nature. The student uses this concept in his own painting, with the theme based upon the recent incidents surrounding the jet plane that has gone missing during the course of its flight. The student paints the vast spread of the ocean, the minute debris, the passengers who are clinging onto the debris and waiting for help, and the planes above making futile attempts to locate them. If the plagiarism-checking-software is used here, it would check for 1) all paintings with the same shades of blue used to paint the ocean 2) all paintings with wreckage in the sea 3) all paintings with humans clinging onto wreckage for their lives and maybe some other things as well. This would surely throw up numerous pre-existing shipwreck paintings as a match and the student is summarily accused of a high level of plagiarism. This is in spite of the student inscribing ‘inspired by shipwreck paintings of so and so’ at the bottom corner of his painting. The software simply doesn’t recognise this inscription. The art teacher on the other hand surely would not miss reading the inscription. The student is merely applying the idea learnt form a painting and applying it in a different context (depicting the futility of the technological prowess than man has achieved when it is pit against the sheer enormity of nature). He/she has not plagiarised, yet is accused of it. Foolish this example might seem, but it is no more foolish than the use of the farcical plagiarism-checking-software by the faculty.
What is most irksome is the smug look on the faculties’ faces when they are running the students’ work through the plagiarism-checking-software. It is as if they are using a fool-proof method that even God couldn’t have designed better. Their look is as if the students are not smart enough to beat the software. Their triumphant looks make one wonder if there aren’t loads of articles on the internet that give detailed instructions on how to beat the software. As if Microsoft Word can’t replace words with their synonyms. As if the students’ can’t paraphrase entire paragraphs. As if the students lack English skills to beat the software. As if
‘As Satish Chandra argues in his blog post on the issue of separation of Andhra Pradesh, the filthy nature of politics, evident in all the things taking place in the separatist agitation in Telangana is valid for the integrationist movement which is still taking place on the other side’
can’t effortlessly be written as
‘Politics of the sort which are filthy and clearly apparent in the current happenings in Telangana, where the separationist movement is ongoing, are the same in the other parts of the state where the integrationist agitations are taking place.’
It is unfortunate that the students have to face such a situation. One could excuse the students for viewing the software as one the Ten Commandments. If at all there were such Commandments for academics, the Plagiarism Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not plagiarise’ – would be first on the list. The faculty then must surely be guilty of committing blasphemy by replacing the original Commandment with a new one that is final and unalterable. A Commandment that is not just instructive but also judgemental. The Commandment “Thou shalt not plagiarise” has been replaced by “Thou shalt be judged to have plagiarised by the Software”. The Software has become the Pope. The Catholic clerical faculty have ensured that much. The Protestant students are sadly left with no other route but to fight the bigoted attitudes of the Catholic clerics and face the threat of prosecution.
* Whenever I have used the word ‘faculty’, I am referring to those teachers who are accused of relying on the plagiarism-checking-software as the holy grail of academics. Students would be the judge of whether or not the teacher is guilty.
** There are means, some of which I have witnessed personally, to even bypass UGC’s requirement of a qualification and experience.
Post Script: If anyone knows of a plagiarism-checking-software that is not prone to the limitations mentioned above, do let me know. Although, if such a software exists, it would mean that this essay is a most laborious exercise in futility, I would very much appreciate it. I would metaphorically shove it in my institution’s face and literally fight to make them use it instead of the troll software they are using now.