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Plagiarism Overview: Op-Ed by Prof. Smruti Ranjan Sarangi, IITD

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Plagiarism primarily happens because people lose the sense of belonging to the place. They do this to regain a sense of identity. The same student would be a topper in school, and the idea of plagiarism would never cross their mind. This is because it would hurt their ego if they ask a question to another student. But in IIT, the same student can very well enter a room of 150 odd students, complete their degree and graduate from IIT without anyone even knowing about the student. The student might meet their entire group only during the freshers meeting or during the convocation, provided the student graduates within completion time. It is truly an unfortunate part of the system, but they don't mind plagiarising a little bit if they can get away with it because of this collective identity loss. So one advantage of online teaching is that I get to see everybody's name. Even if I can't see their photos, I get to see their names. By addressing them by their names, it further has a very positive effect on them. It reinforces the fact that they have an identity.

They are made to think about who they are, and the answer is based on whatever aspects they have. This instils a feeling that “I should not copy”. I'm currently checking my major and if plagiarism were there, then many students would have performed much better. These are all take-home exams and are not proctored. But despite that, since everybody knew each other; they had a sense of identity. I told them that I would run Turnitin, and if there are more than five or ten worth noting, they will be awarded a zero in the entire exam. Of course, alongside the positive measures proposed, negative measures should also be there. That more or less is my take on the issue. It's a complicated social phenomenon. But the primary reason it happens essentially has much to do with the student and students’ perception of their image and identity.

During the lectures, when they ask a question, I address them by their name. So I made it a point to address everybody by their name. In the mid-term and end-term, I sent everybody their answers by an individual name and a few personalised lines regarding their mid-term and end-term performance. So I reinforced their notion of identity.


If the evaluation is fair and within a range of comfort, say the assignment will take two weeks, but you give students four weeks, so they fall within the range of comfort, one would expect the students not to copy. What was happening previously is that even within this range, people used to happily plagiarize in large classes. Students know that we run most of the software-defined programs and in spite of that people did it. As I said, unless you invest in self-work, eventually they will copy.

When we were graduate students, our class strength was around 30-35. Out of that maybe three or four people lost track as they kind of fell behind but the rest were in good shape. But the dynamics change when you have a large class. Think about what drives people. Virat Kohli, for example, obviously has a huge hunger for big runs and centuries. But what drives him is his desire to prove himself in his own eyes by doing a good job every day. You live with yourself 24 hours a day, and the only property you have is an image of yourself. You may call it your self-esteem, identity, ego or anything else. The moment you rob a person of their sense of identity, you take away this property.

As long as we don’t see a shining image of ourselves, we wouldn’t mind cheating. Similar to how nobody minds throwing a piece of paper in a garbage can as there’s already a lot of garbage in there, in your eyes, the moment that this barrier has been broken, you have nothing to lose. The best that can happen is you get your work done faster. But what is the worst that can happen now? Getting an F in a course? That’s not nearly as strong a barrier as your self-image. In our time what came in the way was that people thought it was breaking their image. When their image was falling in their own eyes because of actively asking somebody for something, i.e, if the people in the offense were prideful enough and had a sense of vanity, they did not ask. At that time we didn’t have a plagiarism policy and there was no honor code. In spite of that, people did not plagiarize.

In Switzerland, there are no gates to check your metro ticket. You are expected to be a good citizen and buy your own tickets. If you don't do that, let's say you're caught without a ticket, then the fine is huge. As I said, you can easily do it in India and find that hardly anybody will buy their tickets. You will find that the extremely rich people still won’t buy a ticket, but if the same people went to Silver Line, then they would buy it because they would feel like they’ve come to a better place and have earned their way there. Hence, they would try to maintain that image. The point is, after the first time you get an F on your resume, all bets are off. The reason why many civilized societies avoid sending first-time offenders to jail is that once someone has gone to jail, their conscience is broken and they won’t mind going in three or four more times. Basically, you’ve broken that emotional barrier. Given the fact that they’ve gone once in a lifetime and maybe had a lot of fun committing the offense but didn't cover their tracks, the next time they would surely cover their tracks. When people join IIT, the first few weeks are very serious and the moment they see an exam bombing, they do try but once they give up and have an F grade, then it's all downhill unless they cultivate an image. So they fall downhill, graduate and go back. Even after that, we have done long term longitudinal studies of trying to correlate CG with achievement in life (however it is defined).

The correlation is reasonably strong. Though no correlation would be 100% right, it is the closest that you can get as far as empirical data is concerned. The primary takeaway is that it’s an important thing and has an effect which stays for a long time (10 years at least).

The advantage of teaching a small class is that it is possible to do these interventions. But in large classes, plagiarism does happen. Reinforcing identity can be easier for smaller like classes, say classes with 20-30 students. However, if there is a large UG class, you can tell them anything, but plagiarism is still rampant. Compare this with Switzerland. They also have classes with 200 students. They too conduct proctored exams and run software to check for plagiarism in the codes. There is something else in Western countries which isn’t present here. In Western countries, you define your identity in several ways. Even if you are not getting a lot out of academics, on the weekend, you can go and play a game of tennis and become a tennis star. You can then draw a sense of self-worth from tennis, or you can draw it from skiing, or the number of romantic partners you have, or even the number of tequila shots you can take before collapsing. It doesn’t matter where you get it from. The point is, that there are avenues for you to do something essentially outside of academics. Those can be sustainable sources for the crucial sense of self-worth. Here, what happens is that prior to joining IIT, for 4 or 5 years people are doing only coaching so they don't know anything else. In previous decades, the JEE coaching used to prepare a student better for studying in IIT because the exam used to be highly subjective. There were no objective questions. Thankfully, these formats were similar to the internal IIT formats. Now, JEE is a much simpler exam. All the questions are objective. Doing well in this exam doesn’t guarantee that the person will do well in internal IIT exams. The student now is in a very problematic situation. They don’t know anything else and have only been doing academics till now. Their trump card, academics, is not selling anymore. They don't know any other way in which they can reinforce their sense of self-worth. So that's why people get into computer games, miss classes and then try something to pass their desperate times. Plagiarism is just one of them.


I don't think that CG and learning are two separate issues. It might be a separate issue for a transient duration. For one semester, this person is not really interested in the concept. So they just figure out a few shortcut ways of actually getting good marks in this one semester. Sustaining yourself, finding the energy to sustain yourself this way for four years is not possible. Nobody has that kind of mental control. You are told in jee to somehow keep yourself together, get a good jee rank and then the rest will all be great. Your biology is fundamentally different when you are 16,17 or 18 as you are still a kid. Kids are by definition obedient.

Basically, in the case of chimpanzees, the young ones listen to their parents but that is contrary to what the adult ones do. When you're a kid, you can still keep yourself tied up and disciplined as you're in your parents’ home. Even if you're not disciplined then your parents will teach you a lesson but when you are totally unleashed and unshackled in the hostel, losing your self-discipline and not studying is genuinely enjoyable. Who doesn't like the newfound freedom, especially since many are denied their freedom for such a long time alongside a habit? One thing I like about the new education policy which is also a suggestion from the faculty is that there are multiple exit options and this is what I think is required. There's no point in keeping somebody in the final year if that person is absolutely disinterested in their area. After the second year, they can very well get a job and if it is an education policy, then it becomes a national standard. It's something for the less interested whereas the more interested can keep studying. I think the government eased out this problem and that's why they did this.

“Also last year in the news, I had read that for the weaker kids who were unable to complete their four-year course, they can exit with a Bachelor of Science in the same department after three years.”

That is also right but I don't think it was ever passed by the Senate. I have also read but that is more like fake news. Because the national education policy is the big scene, that is setting the tone for the next 20 years. If at that level it has been done then the Ministry of Education will reveal some kind of contact mode and provide more flesh to the Senate. Nothing can stop this and also that vital factor is the aim of a student not getting caught in plagiarizing for fear of their community disowning them. For example, if I am a Hindu who’s caught eating beef, then that particular community is going to disown me. The question is, will my community do the same if I’m a student who’s caught plagiarizing?

So, some communities actually will, I have been dealing with variants of them for quite some time. If a student is coming from such a background, even if they make one mistake then they’re not going to make the second one. Because they realize that they’re not going to get enough support from their family and whoever they consider being the extended family. But, I would say 80 to 90% of the parents have revealed that they think colleges are for fun, movies and exactly what Shahrukh Khan used to do.

In the movie Student of the Year Part 1 and Part 2, we can infer something. There were three competitions in Part 1 with one-third weightage on academics, but in Part 2 they took out academics altogether. These stereotypes have become the current trend, and people believe that is what college is for. It is not really for education and so plagiarism isn’t a big deal. This is the societal attitude, which many students also believe but nothing much can be done about it. I remember I used to have a student and I told her father that if your daughter does not reach a certain point, we are going to terminate her. He didn’t believe that somebody can actually be terminated. Eventually, the girl got terminated. But then, her father still couldn’t believe how somebody could be terminated from a place. People have the attitude that this degree is my birthright.

If this attitude is there, it does cause a lot of issues. In fact, my own relative had a similar attitude, in spite of me counseling him when his son was in IIT. Ultimately you can’t get a good job primarily because you have a low CG and as a consequence less knowledge. One realizes that your CG matters, studying matters, investing in yourself matters. But what happens is that in your final year being in computer science, you join TCS or Infosys. You will never be able to get a job at Google. This kind of permanently sets the tone for your professional life. That is why plagiarism and other things matter. Not many parents realize that it is also a societal issue.

The same effect happens in the minds of our PG students also. When I have a small class, if they reinforce/lose(see later) their sense of identity, they tend to copy then. Because then the positive overtakes and overcomes the negative. Many times you'll know that a person has copied but the burden of proof from you is slightly less than a threshold. Well, in principle, if let's say somebody's being given a fail grade, it's a legal issue. The student is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. In your heart of hearts, you know that a student has copied but you still pass the student primarily because it may not stand in court. You know that's what you have to do, you have to look at it from a legal point of view. You don't want to return something illegal, regardless of what you think. A lot of people are at that point where it is just below the threshold. But as I said, negatives are scaring people and we end up saying I'll do this, I'll do that and throw you out and so on.

People should fight for what they can achieve. If they cannot manage the four years, I hope the NEP comes to the rescue. And the other thing is that somebody should know their name. Unfortunately for 90% of the UG students, nobody knows their name. You only know the names of the toppers and those who have distinguished themselves by failing not just in one but in several courses.

So they are the only people who are getting discussed. Then there are a few of these specialists like Roger Federer who hit just above the net. These people will take seven courses and get a D in all seven and will become a hot topic for discussion, but for somebody who's in the middle or not a topper, they will not have any effect. For example, I have 136 plus students. I know three or four because they have done something and that something is often negative. They have distinguished themselves in the annals of indiscipline.

Let's say somebody's name is Karthik and we tell him “Look Karthik you're a good guy and you're not supposed to copy.” So then, he won’t. Unless we do some special memory training, it’s not possible to remember 200 names in a large UG class. But in the PG batch, I do remember, at least the ones that I’m connected with I know them by their writing style and so on.

What I said is that in any case the positive should overtake the negative where most systems should be based on a sense of fear. In Switzerland, the reason it works is that the government really takes care of them. You get world-class medical facilities for free, world-class education for free and much more. So then you think that look, I'm getting so much for free then I should better buy a metro ticket. In India, would you ever go to a government hospital? No. Nowadays, even though in Delhi they're better right? And essentially that's the main thing.

I have watched this show on the discovery channel based on NDA (National Defense Academy). I found that the Butlers serve food with fantastic crockery and silverware to the cadets and they get a lot of respect. One reason that that is actually done and why I think we should do is - even if a student doesn't want to, they should be forced to get an aristocratic living for themselves in the hostel. That gives a sense of direction, of ambition, and above all of a centre of excellence and self-work. We can't increase the mess bill by two rupees per month, because people will start dancing on the warden’s table and we kind of seem to be enjoying that. If I were the director, I would have outlawed that and ensured that everybody comes to the mess in proper Victorian style and eats with proper table manners. My intentions are not to militarise things, but it gives you a sense of belonging.

When I worked at IBM, the way that IBM used to treat you in the initial days was very special. That's the reason a lot of people actually did a lot of work for IBM. Now for example, if the hostels are improved in infrastructure, the amount of plagiarism will come down as people will admire it as a quality place where such kind of behaviour will not be entertained. Human beings are complicated, but essentially it comes down to a sense of identity and self-respect. If they feel that they are valued then they will not devalue the system. But if they feel that they are just an entry number, who comes into the system and goes away, then why not try your hand at just copying a file from a university? I think that's the thing with such large classes in a country like India, but such things should be done. In IIT itself, It's happening in PhD and Mtech programs where there is a small class. But last semester, I taught a UG class of 199 students out of which I barely knew 5-6 students. So we have some way to go still for the UG programs.

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