Technical Plagiarism: the Scourge of Pakistan's Educational and Creative Industries

After suffering the wholesale plagiarism of articles from Simple-Talk by a Pakistan-based website (now 'suspended'), we asked our Pakistan Correspondent, Alamzeb Kahn, to find out more about the extent of the problem in IT, and the increasing government involvement in international action against the global problem of plagiarism.

Plagiarising professors, a government blacklist, and a creative industry consistently undermined by thieves – the fruits of a visit two months back to the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Pakistan’s top education organization. The visit was prompted by personal reasons, but I came away with astonishing revelations that students, researchers, and even professors are involved in plagiarism when it comes to research and authoring.

On my insistence, I got the full story from several concerned officials, who explained to me that the practice has been inculcated in Pakistan’s society to such an extent that some of these cases are now being handled in our civil and lower courts. Their disclosures triggered my curiosity to get the facts.

The blacklist

My initial scoop came from a senior official in the HEC, which governs Pakistan’s universities. The official, who wished not to be named, said that plagiarism by students, lecturers, and even professors, is becoming more common.

He told me that those involved include senior professors at Pakistan’s leading universities, including Mehran University of Engineering & Technology (MUET) Jamshoro, University of Karachi, UET Lahore, University of Peshawar, Bolan Medical College Quetta, Bahauddin Zakariaya University Multan, and Punjab University Lahore.

According to the official, submitting a copied piece of writing as one’s own original work can lead to a student, lecturer, or professor being suspended or expelled from their institution. In most cases, academic degrees or awards may be revoked as a penalty for plagiarism, because it is such a gross violation of established norms, rules, and regulations.

“We have tight rules for professors and researchers. If we find them involved in plagiarism, the wrongdoers are punished by sanctions ranging from suspension to termination, along with the loss of credibility and integrity,” he explained.

However, around a dozen faculty members and scholars are currently blacklisted, on the grounds that their respective Universities have not taken appropriate action against them as per the HEC’s Plagiarism Policy. The blacklisted faculty members are not eligible for any financial benefits until their cases are concluded.

A professor who works for the HEC offered a more optimistic assessment. He said that, against a backdrop of fundamental improvements in Pakistan’s higher education system, academic respect, recognition in scholarly publications, career development, and financial gains are increasingly based on original research, rather than work that follows-up the efforts of other researchers, a further discouragement to plagiarism.

He added that the HEC is taking every possible step to discourage the menace of plagiarism, mainly by introducing exemplary punitive actions.

The view from industry

My next move was to find out how much deeper plagiarism ran in Pakistan. I decided to speak with some of my contacts working on the frontline of Pakistan’s technology industry. If anyone was being hurt by plagiarism, it would be them.

Ali Shah, a senior University lecturer in north western Pakistan, who runs a computer business part time, was the logical first port of call. His work bridges the gap between academia and business. He confirmed that plagiarism is rife.

“For me, part of the problem is that there aren’t any globally accepted rules to tame plagiarism in technical essays. Technical work can’t be described as literary, so most of the time people consider it acceptable to use bits of someone else’s text, without having to indicate the specific source. More capital, more hard work, and professional staff are required for technical writing which is free of plagiarism. In addition, fresh, advanced work in technical writing depends on scrupulous research, because of course, plagiarism is not only unacknowledged reuse of another professional’s hard work, but another’s ideas too.”

“I have a software development firm, and, if you ask me, 70% of software or website professionals are involved in plagiarism, particularly technical plagiarism aimed at saving them money and time.

“Technological loopholes provide a golden chance for computing professionals to beat academic plagiarism software. Plagiarism detection systems, such as Turnitin, are open to simple cheats which allow ‘professionals’ to evade detection when submitting copied material or work.

“My own investigations suggest that most of the time computer professionals and university students can easily modify plagiarized work to avoid detection, and succeed in getting their degrees. I’ve read that Turnitin, the internet plagiarism-detection service, claim that very advanced or highly-skilled cheating methods are needed to avoid being caught, but then Turnitin is dedicated just to detecting and catching when tricks have been used by the plagiarist.”

I got a more charitable take on plagiarism from Junaid Shah, who holds a master’s degree in Computer Science and now helps big firms develop their websites.

“No doubt, most of the time people never know that their work is considered plagiarism. You start doing work in your own way, but it begins to sound like something you have read before. Ultimately this leads to plagiarism quite unintentionally.”

“But I do think the government should formulate tough measures against those who imitate another person’s work and paint it as their own,” Shah added.

To me, what plagiarism means is crystal clear in theory: an attempt to steal another person’s ideas or writing material and pass it off as your own work. For example, when a student writes an article, they must cite the websites and books used as references. Otherwise, most of the time, they are at risk of being labelled a plagiarist. In fact, the word plagiarism comes from Latin ‘plagiarius’, a kidnapper, or even a literary thief.

In practice, however, it is much tougher to explain what work constitutes plagiarism, as Shah pointed out to me. There are no hard and fast rules except that one is morally bound not to steal someone else’s hard work.

And in Pakistan, there are neither established rules for dealing with plagiarism, nor are individuals aware of any punishment for it.

Next, I spoke to M. A. Jahan about plagiarism of Web content. He’s a master in Computer Science who helps develop websites, and does programming and networking for leading colleges in Islamabad. He explained that the problem, and what measures can be taken to prevent it, is wide-ranging, and complicated to resolve completely.

“There is ample knowledge in Pakistan, and the world, about the Internet, its use, and all the content that’s available. Now, keep in mind that really excellent text, for example, is specially designed or written for a particular web page – no cutting and pasting involved. Quality work always keeps its identity and individuality and, due to easy Internet access, it’s easy to find out who it belongs to. It’s hard to plagiarise the best work.”

He went on to explain what measures could be taken in the cyber world to combat thieves.

“There are no hard and fast rules to prevent people from stealing from your website, or damaging it. The attacker or thief can disable the various languages that build your webpage, and start capturing images, or using scripts to hack your web content. However, one should not be totally pessimistic. There are measures to stop most cases of theft. For example, ensure permissions are set properly on your site folders and check your log files periodically for hacking attempts.”

A senior government official in the ministry of Science and Technology, who I contacted in the course of my investigation, elaborated on these measures for protecting webpages, “A spider, or ‘bot’, should adhere to the direction in your robots.txt file. Your log files can tell you all the bots that visit your website. If a particular bot is not desired at your site – perhaps one from a country with no copyright protection – you can ban it.”

“Why should I spend money and time on work which is 100% insecure?”

My final stop in the business world was Muhammad Ijaz, who runs his own software house. He explained to me the crippling effect plagiarism can have on creative work.

“For several years, our software house has focused on providing creative work for professionals at their door step, with a low cost. The problem that we face is how to protect our hard work from rising piracy and plagiarism.

“I think, in the whole Third World, and particularly in Pakistan, there are no rules to contain the problem of plagiarism.

“Creative work, like building your own website, takes a great deal of work and plenty of finance.

“So, as a victim of plagiarism, you start to wonder, why am I putting myself in this uncertain situation when others just modify or steal my work in a single day, then label it as their own?

“Ultimately, as a professional you think, why should I spend money and time on work which is 100% insecure? Piracy and plagiarism completely sabotage our future and that of the next generation. It stops the advances in the computer world that come with the creation of new work and original software.”

He added that there is a dire need for the government to introduce tangible laws that discourage plagiarism and promote the computing profession.

Government action

Some ministries and institutions have indeed begun to implement rules to prevent plagiarism and punish those involved in it.

Mudassir Husain, a senior official in the Ministry of Information Technology, told me that his ministry strictly followed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance (PECO). The Ordinance is intended to prevent “any action directed against the confidentiality, integrity and availability of electronic system, networks and data as well as the misuse of such system, networks and data”, and includes sections on electronic fraud and electronic forgery.

“Let me tell you very frankly,” he said, “that with the arrival of the Internet, and with so much work appearing online, plagiarism has become very easy.

“The government issued PECO in 2007 in an apparent attempt to punish those involved in plagiarism, and to provide a mechanism for investigation and prosecution of offenders. Specifically, it established a special investigation and prosecution cell within the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to probe and prosecute these offences. However, although the Ordinance was implemented three times, it lapsed in 2009.”

The ministry took the 2007 PECO Ordinance to the National Assembly in 2010, to try and get it reinstated. It was referred to a committee for thorough consideration, but it has not yet received formal approval.

Moving hither and thither throughout the technical world, gathering views from different professional groups, I am worried that the menace of plagiarism is working like venom in the research industry, and has paralyzed the creative mind of our society.

However, one must hope to find some light at end of this dark tunnel. It will only be possible if our government takes charge of the situation, ideally with international collaboration and support, and chalks out a framework for eradicating the roots of plagiarism across the globe.