A Question of Ethics

A short news item reported in the Hindu today (21st February 2012, p 9) on an issue related to “plagiarism” in an academic situation in a premier centre of scientific excellence in the country has set me thinking on the whole question of academic ethics. The scientists who stand accused under the eye of scrutiny in this context might perhaps be innocent or even be unaware of the gravity of their deed: somewhere it is also mentioned that they had only drawn some information related to the literature survey in context.  However, the issue is not as simple as it appears to be. What is “overlap by oversight” intended to mean in this context when the entire onus should be on the authors of academic papers? One cannot dress oneself up in borrowed feathers and claim academic privilege.

We live in a civil society where we uphold as inviolable all rights to an individual’s property and possessions, in the material sense. We have laws and regulations to ensure the protection of such rights. However we still do not ascribe much sanctity to intellectual property rights as such. For scientific discoveries and inventions we have patents and legal rights, but not so for any individually generated idea or concept. Any way who recognizes such things as of any consequence these days amidst our society? People have no qualms in spouting other people’s ideas as their own. Once someone comes up with something, the other appears to think it is there for the taking for all simply because there is no legal record for such statements. Similar is the case with creativity and almost all literature.

Not so long ago, a renowned film maker approached me and asked me to rework a script based on a famous literary work.  I was delighted and replied that I will do it provided I get enough time and am able to get the copyright permission from the writer and publisher.  The man’s reply shocked me.  He said: Don’t wait for such things! I just need you to capture the same spirit.  However, the poor soul was so insensitive to my arguments that borrowing without permission amounts to intellectual burglary and it is unethical.

This is the case with another well-known fiction writer in the Malayalam who raised a controversy for having lifted a whole section on sea-faring from Gurudev Tagore’s work and incorporated the same into his work. In response the author politely recorded that he wanted some information on sea faring and so he used Tagore! This is the abysmal level to which fame-mongers and opportunists fall into for securing their own name and fame in the eyes of the media!

Academics are none the worse for indulging in such heinous acts of plagiarism. There was an instance of one PhD thesis submitted to a certain university which was evaluated by an external examiner who was shocked to realize that he himself had been an adjudicator for the same thesis submitted by another scholar from another University! The case was examined and the thesis summarily rejected. But then perhaps only one in a thousand such cases come up to be reexamined. Many often go unnoticed. In our fast and faster ways of living we are compelled to pass everything by. And of course media seldom follows up anything, because they survive on breaking news minute by minute. Nevertheless what get left behind half-way through might be matters needing to be readdressed. Society becomes blind to issues of such gravity because they are not re-invoked in the limelight.

In peer reviewed journal articles there is of course less chances for such plagiarism to go unnoticed what with such new and newer softwares available. Nevertheless the very idea of plagiarism needs to be brought to the forefront. We need to recall that when Aristotle envisioned the academia among the other subjects like Logic and Rhetoric he had also introduced Ethic as worthy of being taught there in. Perhaps he had visualized the compulsive need for the presence of ethics in academic debates. This is virtually absent in today’s cut-throat world of competition and success.  Publish or perish appears as the motto in a market-driven world of teaching learning and evaluation. The teacher who strives to excel finds himself/herself in the situation similar to burning a candle at both ends. Perhaps it is this pressure to re-search, find, and publish that compels them toward such acts of intellectual suicide— their potential incompetence goes unrecognized while they stay on in circulation. The intellectual and academic condition deteriorates day to day. One can seek pardon as a fresher or undergraduate perhaps but a senior academic caught under such culpability cannot fain ignorance.

Plagiarism in any form needs to be addressed and completely wiped out. Students, scholars and young academics have to be warned to stay on this side of the line by their seniors through setting exemplary examples of their own. If such senior scholars and scientists commit criminal acts of ignorance they cannot be pardoned because they plead not-guilty. Ethics is something that has to be incorporated into human actions in every sphere of life including the intellectual. What is one person’s finding cannot be appropriated as another’s—this amounts to neocolonialism in the geography of the mind. How could we remain complacent or neglect these issues?

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