When 12-year-old Gunjan Malik, a class VII student, did a copy-paste job on junk food for a class assignment on lifestyle diseases, she didn’t think much of it. That was until her teacher pulled her up for internet plagiarism — lifting chunks of text off the internet and passing it off as her own. She was asked to redo her assignment. While Malik is cursing the plagiarism detection software that did her in, for many teachers, programs like Turnitin and Viper have been a godsend when it comes to checking the growing trend of internet plagiarism among students. Some institutions are now more clearly defining plagiarism in school policy and making the use of anti-plagiarism software mandatory. “While giving an assignment, we give students 20% leverage for any usage of internet content in their work,” says Parvez Ahmad, an accounts teacher at RIMS International School, Juhu.
If the software detects more than 20% internet content in any submitted assignment, the work is simply rejected.
Rahul Dutt Awasthy, an independent cyber-forensics security consultant, says that even schools that don’t use anti-plagiarism software can employ simple methods to detect plagiarised content. “Teachers know every student’s capabilities. If they suspect that a project is too good to have been done by a particular student, they can simply lift a paragraph from the submitted work and put it in Google Search under quotes,” advises Awasthy. If the work is indeed plagiarised, Google will throw up the same content as a search result.
Both sides of the story
For students, plagiarism is an offence committed in light of its convenience. “Sometimes, while doing online research for a project, the information matches the project requirement to the T. So, with all the workload, the temptation to simply cut and paste is too hard to resist,” reasons an ICSE student.
Manju Sadrangani, principal, Billabong High International School, Santacruz, explains, “Indian students are not aware of internet plagiarism per se. They just go online and pick up a photograph, clipping, article or speech, and simply add it to their assignments.” But with the growing significance of copyright laws and intellectual property rights in the public sphere, Sadrangani cautions that the need to curtail internet plagiarism is more critical than ever before. “If it’s not arrested early on, it becomes an attitude and a way of life,” she says.
Sudarshan Sridhar, who is now 23, still remembers the time he made it to the debate team in his suburban Mumbai school because of a class assignment he submitted on the birth of modern democracy. Having the gift of the gab, Sridhar sailed through the debate season without anyone finding out that the paper he’d submitted was actually lifted off the internet, verbatim.
“These days, it’s not about how much you know but how you put across what you do,” he explains, adding that with the internet, everybody today indulges in some degree of plagiarism.
In the West, the seriousness with which an educational institution treats cases of plagiarism among students points to its own credibility. But in India, students are often let off with a stern warning. So if plagiarism is rampant in Indian classrooms, it’s not just the students who are to blame, says educationist Kavita Anand, executive director, Shishuvan, adding, “Internet plagiarism is simply a manifestation of rote learning in more ways than one.”
Entrenched in an education system designed to produce an assembly line of rote learners year after year, and from which they’ve themselves emerged, teachers are clueless about how to better engage their students. “Very few teachers know how to ask questions that require a fair degree of mind application,” says Anand.
One way to do this, says Avnita Bir, principal of RN Podar School, is to make projects opinion-based, where students are required to give their interpretation and substantiate it. “For instance, if it is a social studies project on the second world war, there will be a gamut of information and pictures available. What students can be asked to do is to give their understanding of the cause of the war. Or, if it’s an English studies project, they can be asked to put themselves in a particular setting and say how they would react.”
More than policing students, therefore, teachers can spend their time more usefully by coming up with projects that do not prompt plagiarism, says Bir. “It is the school teachers who need to be innovative. But some teachers either don’t have a creative bent of mind or they do not have the time or inclination for it.”
Plagiarism or progress?
Like many, educationist Nitya Ramaswami too believes that internet research cannot substitute for the knowledge one gains from reading and researching through books. Yet she also concedes that “we can’t have children of the 21st century in 19th century classrooms.”
Tannu Kevalramani, a parent, agrees that is better to use all the available resources. “While using the net articles, they will read them at least once. Even if they are doing a cursory read, they are learning something,” she argues, adding that reading ten books to write an assignment is just not practical, given the workload.
According to Ramaswami, the focus should be on training children to be “digital learners.”
But, she adds, “For that we need good teachers and librarians who can highlight the importance of originality and offer students guidelines on how to use the internet with honesty and integrity.”
For example, in Billabong High International School, students are introduced to the topic of plagiarism from Std V onwards. This means that the students are trained early on to give photo credits, put in the name of the journalist or the publication for an article, and give proper credit to the author for any quotes used.
Akshit Agarwal, 16, a Std XI student of Dhirubhai Ambani School, says that he is allowed to use as much information as he wants from the internet. But there are only two ways of accommodating that information in his final project. “I either have to understand the content and write it in my own words, or I have to credit the due source followed by my own understanding of the stated matter.”
Anand suggests that holding follow-up sessions on a submitted project is a good way to check if a student has actually understood his own work. Also, giving students elaborate case studies, asking them to put theoretical concepts to practical usage, is also a good check. “So, if it’s a law project, give the students a particular situation, and ask them how it can be addressed using a particular article of law, as opposed to asking them to simply enlist the articles,” she explains.
While all these moves point to a positive trend in schools taking internet plagiarism more seriously, considering its existence in a vacuum might be shortsighted. A junior college economics teacher in a prominent city college feels stemming plagiarism by introducing new teaching methods is unreasonable in a classroom with divided interests and where the teacher must keep track of things like student attendance.
“When you get caught up in bureaucratic paperwork for an over 100+ strong class, and you know the student is never going to pick up an economics textbook after he passes the standard XII, you might be tempted to let things slide,” she offers equivocally, adding that she herself has never done it, so far.