Beyond Plagiarism: How Honest Research could be Promoted in Nepal

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

A little over a year ago, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tribhuvan University (TU) called me and asked if I could examine a PhD dissertation submitted to the Office on a subject on which I had done research in the past. I agreed. The dissertation was sent to me. When I eventually got around to reading it, I got the surprise of my life. Its abstract contained words - a whole paragraph - that I had written some years ago. Suspicious that the PhD candidate in question might have plagiarized more of my writings, I read the rest of the dissertation looking for familiar words.

When I was done, I discovered that the PhD candidate had not only copied several other passages from articles I had published, but also from a widely-known report written by others on the subject of his research. So on August 30, 2014, I sent the dissertation back to the Assistant Dean of the above-mentioned Faculty of TU with a cover letter which read:

“I have finally read the above-mentioned dissertation and taken note of what you have asked me to do as an external examiner. In particular, you have asked me if the dissertation ‘embodies the results of the candidate’s research’ and ‘shows evidence of the candidate’s own work.’ As you are aware, these questions are directly related to the integrity of any academic work that is put out for evaluation before a degree-granting university such as Tribhuvan University …. A judgment on the issue of the intellectual integrity of the work should precede any critical analysis of the work under evaluation. The output of academic research done by anyone should be an honest reporting of what one has found through one’s own study and research. Furthermore, when the ideas and words of other researchers are included in one’s work, they should be properly referenced and cited as is customary all over the world. Without a commitment to this kind of fundamental honesty, academic work cannot be done and those who cannot adhere to this basic rule of academia should not be in the business of academic research. Work that does not embody such honesty should not be recognized by universities when they are done by its students or faculty members.

“In my reading of the dissertation by [name withheld], I came across many passages that he has copied from the work of others without resorting to the proper citation and referencing methods employed in any honest academic work worldwide. To give you some examples of what I found, I have highlighted passages in the dissertation and written down marginal notes on their side to indicate where they were copied from…I have also provided copies of two writings from which [he] has copied text unethically and highlighted original passages which have been copied by him and provided appropriate page numbers where those copied texts can be found….Since [the Phd Candidate] has copied paragraph after paragraph from [previously published works], I don’t think his copying is a result of a moment of lapse in the academic referencing requirements. He has done this copying methodically and intentionally, hoping to fool his supervisors at TU and external examiners who might be asked to evaluate his dissertation.

“Therefore, before this dissertation can be critically appreciated for its contents and its strengths and weaknesses evaluated, the concerned researcher … needs to revise it from top to bottom and make sure that it contains no plagiarized materials. All ideas and words borrowed from the work of others (academics and other writers) must be properly cited and referenced. The findings from his research should then be evaluated by him in contrast to or in support of arguments and positions elaborated by previous academics …. If [he] revises his dissertation accordingly, it should be re-evaluated both internally and externally as per the rules of TU. If he is not willing to revise his dissertation to come clean on the integrity count, it should be rejected by the Office of the Dean of TU because it does not adhere to the basic honesty requirement of any academic work. I trust that you will be strict in enforcing the basic honesty requirement in this and other academic works that have been submitted to your Office.”

The Dean’s Office took my letter seriously. It asked the concerned PhD candidate to revise his dissertation and re-submit it after plagiarized materials had been either removed or properly credited. The PhD candidate was also required to submit an additional response text stating that it was not his intention to plagiarize but that it happened due to his “little knowledge of citation” (sic). He also added that he regretted it. Forgetting his intentions for a moment, we should note that the PhD training process at TU should have taken care of his ‘little knowledge’ but it clearly did not. That is an area to address.

Thinking beyond this particular case, there are some obvious points to consider. First, plagiarism is a problem in Nepali academia. It is rampant at the university student level even for a research degree such as the PhD. To tackle this, the sanctions have to be tougher. Students who plagiarize should be told that this kind of academic dishonesty comes with a price. Even if they are able to fool their teachers and supervisors now, future readers of their theses and dissertations are more than likely to discover their acts of plagiarism and report them to the competent authorities and shame them in public. Sanctions should be such that even if they are discovered years after the degree has been granted, the university in question should be able to retract the degree(s) it has granted to the student in question.

Second, research students enrolled at the MA, MPhil and PhD levels in Nepal’s universities should be provided more comprehensive help in their endeavors. Such help should begin with lectures on the long-term benefits of honest academia and then include intensive writing workshops on the nitty-gritty of the research and writing enterprise.

Third, as should be clear from the example discussed above, it is not true that plagiarism is not an issue in Nepal. It clearly is for me and for many academic colleagues I know and have worked with in the past. Among practicing academics, for every cheater, there are many more doing honest hard work under very difficult and non-rewarding situations (no wonder so many bright academics have moved on to greener pastures). The visibility of this hard work being done by honest academics needs to be enhanced and here, both big media and social media could play some important roles that have been enumerated in various articles and discussions elsewhere. Such enhanced visibility might attract bright members of the younger generation to join the world of research. Incidentally even schools have a clear policy on plagiarism these days. The school that my kids attend states in its guidelines: “Plagiarizing … is cheating” and adds, “Students have to identify the sources used in their writing.”

Fourth, as individuals, we can stop plagiarism by refusing to ‘pass’ people who cheat. When we (as teachers, thesis supervisors, external examiners, etc.) point out acts of plagiarism with evidence, it will be hard for university deans to ignore them. The strategy for honest academics is to build a college of similar-thinking professional colleagues across the political spectrum so that managers of Nepal’s universities, appointed through the shameless practice of bhagbanda, cannot undermine our academic credentials and karma.

Fifth, we can stop plagiarism by providing those trying to be honest academics (and those trying to help the former) with a financially secure working environment. For that to happen, academic salaries need to go up in public universities if we want to attract and retain teachers and researchers who believe in the honest grind. In addition, the faculty recruitment and promotion system in our universities has to be transformed thoroughly emphasizing its horizontal accountability aspects.

Finally, in Nepal, everyone wants academics to do good honest work and research, but no one wants to pay for it: not the government, not the foreign donors (some of whose arrogance seems to suggest that all knowledge is created in London, Washington DC or some such metro capital), and certainly not the private sector. The state needs to come up with a social science funding scheme that is both generous and thoughtful in the ways in which it supports aspiring, junior and senior researchers, archives and archivists, libraries, and journals. The donors need to support genuine experiments in long-term research without hiding behind their flavor of the year development slogans or assuming that Nepali organizations cannot meet their global protocols of ‘due diligence’ (one wonders how such protocols allow them to hire consultants with zero knowledge about contemporary Nepal to advise them on solving this country’s major problems). And our private sector needs to support good research with money instead of whining about how information and analysis gaps have stunted their businesses.

Without such a broad agenda, public chest-beating around a case or two of plagiarism will make little difference. But is anyone listening?

(Onta is a research director at Martin Chautari. His recent books include 'The State of History Education and Research in Nepal' (2014, co-written with Yogesh Raj) and 'Nepali Magazineka 25 Varsa' (25 Years of Nepali Magazines, 2013, co-edited with Arjun Panthi and Harsha Man Maharjan)


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