Let us stand against plagiarism

I was eating food in Govind Bhawan’s mess this June, around the same time when the M.Tech. dissertations of final year students were due. Most of the students think that I am student so they freely talk to each other about their escapades. One of them said, “Mine was only 50%.” Another said, “Mine just passed at 20%.” Yet another said, “Mine matched 100%.” I was curious to what they were talking about, so I interjected and asked them. They were discussing how much of their M.Tech. dissertations were copied directly from the internet (that the plagiarism software at IIT Roorkee library could find).

I was an examiner for M.Tech. seminars this year and I was aware of how these students make their reports for the seminar, so I commented, “It only takes you a couple of hours to make these reports.” One of the students commented, “Sir, it takes us six.” Six hours to write a report 30 pages long. The nonchalant attitude of the student showed how he was not even slightly afraid to admit it.

It really saddens me to see this sorry state of affairs at IITR. If you ask any of the students, why don’t they write their thesis on their own. You would get an answer that nobody is going to read it anyway, so what is the point. First of all, how can you expect someone else is going to read it when you yourself have not written it, or even read it for that matter. Secondly, even if no one else is going to read it, what about the practice that one gets while writing a technical report. Why waste paper for this futile exercise where no one benefits, except the paper mills at the cost of lives of trees?

Any exercise that one does as a student is meant to train him in various things that will be useful to him in the outside world. Writing a report, technical or otherwise, cannot be avoided whether you work in the industry or academia. Let us say, that a company hires you from IIT looking at your wonderful credentials, e.g., 9.0 CGPA. After a few weeks of work, your boss asks you to write a report on an experiment that you just conducted in the company. You cannot google a technical report an experiment that you just conducted. You have to write it yourself. But, since you never completed this exercise while as a student, you will be thoroughly embarrassed in front of your boss who had great expectations while hiring you. This brings a bad name to not only you, but also to your advisor, your institute and your department.

It is high time that the students realize that they cannot copy other people’s work and claim it as their own. When one writes a report, even if it is just literature review and not one’s own work, one is supposed to digest the material and write it in one’s own words. Then that exercise has some benefit, otherwise it is not “Literature Review,” it is “Literature copy and paste.” Doing the kind of copying that goes on here, even in a course report, can get you expelled from the institute in US, what to speak of doing it in a dissertation.

To improve the current situation, the students should understand why an exercise is given to them and how it will be helpful to them in their careers. They should practice, not using copy and paste function for any kind of academic writing, whether it be a term paper, an assignment or dissertation. It will greatly improve their understanding ability because they will now have to exercise their thinking muscles which were being used in copy-pasting and devising new ways of beating the plagiarism software. Your energy can be used in more constructive ways.

We, faculty, also have to take steps to improve this situation. We should make it clear to the students in the beginning that any kind of plagiarism will be unacceptable to us. I have told my students, that they cannot copy-paste even one statement from anywhere. They have to write it in their own words. And, if we find our students not complying with this simple request, we should take strict action against them. And, if such infractions are repeated, then we should be strong enough to say “Goodbye” to them. We do not want our name or our institute’s name to get spoilt because of such cases.

Let us all together improve the standards at IIT Roorkee and bring glory to our institute.

I request all (especially the students) to participate in this discussion so that we can improve the situation in our department and institute. If you have alternative methods of evaluation of projects, such suggestions are welcome as well.

PS: Please do not use names of students or professors in your replies.

I like to blog about various topics ranging from education in IITs to social issues in India and US. All opinions and views presented here are my own and not of my employer.

21 thoughts on “Let us stand against plagiarism

  1. Hi, I appreciate the step taken to curb plagiarism. Here, I would like to make some point. One, As soon as student enters research work, the student should be given clear research topic by adviser. For M.Tech students, its kind of very essential since they have no idea what research is?, where to find topic, relevant papers etc. After allocating topic, some adviser forget about research being done by their students. Doing good quality research alone for novice is really hard. What happens is that student is evaluated at the mid term /end term about the progress. Student will present or write something of their own when they have done something. When they have done nothing, writing dissertation of their own is out of question.Only option left to them is plagiarism.

    Here my point is that adviser should keep track of students activity weekly. ask them to write about the experiment, literature work they have done etc. this way, at the end, student will have their own written dissertation.

    • I agree that we, as faculty, have to take some blame for it. But, you cannot put all the blame on faculty. It is the student’s project and he/she has to take the initiative to regularly meet the advisor. If you don’t take the initiative, it is unlikely that you will get any kind of help.
      I have very recently joined here, so my sample size is very small. I have a total of 6 students (2 Ph.Ds and 4 B.Techs) who are working under me. Out of them, only one B.Tech. student has ever taken the initiative to come and meet me. This shows the sorry state of affairs.
      Students, please understand: “It is YOUR project.” You are responsible for it. You have to take the initiative to make it move forward. Your faculty advisor is not going to do it. He is your “advisor” not your “boss.” It is not his work, it is your work. So, you should hold weekly meetings with your advisor on your own initiative. Then, you will see your project progressing forward. Good luck with your M.Tech. dissertation.

  2. IMHO, initially, in the beginning of the semester students should be strictly told by their respective advisers that at what time adviser will meet them so that student come prepared at that time. In some cases, adviser is unavailable during scheduled meeting and in some cases lethargic students don’t come and take initiative. If there is no scheduled meeting, students has to catch up adviser while adviser is in meeting with someone else. what happens is that there is little time for discussion on progress done so far. Some time students has to wait for long time outside the cabin to see if their adviser is free specially in India. I have heard that in US, faculty maintain calender of his/her availability so that anybody can see/meet at that time. Secondly, I have also heard that students learn from there peers and lab met more than from their advisers(one student from UT Austin told me this).

    Here my point is, adviser should try to maintain an environment in the lab so that students themselves come to lab regularly or at least remain motivated to work wherever they are (There are invariably some students who don’t want to work). I’m sorry if I said something wrong.

  3. IMO this plagiarism in IITR exists because of two reasons. Of them, one is insincerity of students and other is insincerity of institute. Let’s leave insincerity of student aside, as I won’t care even if such people are asked to leave the institute. But on the contrary, insincerity of institute is a matter of serious concern and should be tackled efficiently, since students don’t have the privilege to say goodbye to prof/college.

    Chandu pointed out that at the time of MID-Term evaluation, people don’t have anything ‘substantial’ to write in their report. So they are forced to copy. Chandu’s solution of giving them cooked problem and semi-cooked solution is not the answer. Finding the shortcoming in available literature is indispensable part of research. I don’t understand why, it should be brought down to the level of applying your available skills to a fixed problem with probable solutions.

    A professor in IITR once told me that “For a Bachelors or Masters student, search for a solvable problem is our responsibility, while for a PhD, it is student’s”. I don’t understand the need for this demarcation? The root of this problem lies in the opinion of professor that “some concrete result should come before a student finishes his/her term”. Why this is so?? Why can’t a proper understanding of a problem be considered as a research project for bachelors and masters??

    6 months time (for Bachelors) is too less to do anything concrete and original. That makes copying inevitable if our thesis formats are like observation, results and future work kind of things. People think, “why to waste our time in understanding the problem or topic when this will be of no use without concrete solutions”.

    The simple solution for this is that, we can start accepting dissertation in open formats. Why do we want him/her to say something like observation, result, future work?? I have seen many theses of prestigious universities, where people write their thesis as the time-line of their research manoeuvres.

    I believe that, If the format is open, people will try to put their effort in original research as they know that whatever they understand about the topic/problem is acceptable and they will not need google/prof for the ‘results’, which in my opinion, is the most important reason for sincere people to embrace this coping route. Here, at any point of time, a student will have substantial things to write.

    ******************************(Deleted)******************************

      • I edited your post to remove the last line. Please do not use names of professors or students in your comments, otherwise this discussion will go out of hand. I will respond to your above post when I get time.

    • Learning is a two way process. So, insincerity of the students cannot be left out in any such conversation. It is very hard to change a system that has been in existence for a very long time. I am making small attempts along with my colleagues to reduce the inefficiencies in the system and make it better both for the students and faculty. But, my blog post was meant to make the students understand that it is their life and they should put all possible efforts to make their stay in IIT as fruitful as possible given the constraints of the system.

      It is far easier that to change the students’ mindset because it can be changed on an individual level whereas to change a whole system is more difficult because you face opposition from all corners. Hopefully, at least one student got my message.

  4. I respect the fact that you are serious about the plagiarism business. But you have to know that there is seriously no incentive to write a thesis on one’s own. There is a diverse crowd at the IITR: some studied in a small town school and some studied at a big private school. Leaving a handful of students, hardly anyone knows how to write. They have not been taught to write anytime. Look at SAT. They use Math, Critical Reasoning and Writing. Look at JEE. PCM. There is no training for technical writing. Make a course at IIT for writing. Make it compulsory but non-gradable. Make it for everyone. B.Tech. M.Tech and Ph.D. If they have taken it once, it’s ok. If they want to take again, let them take it with a reason.

    I was an undergraduate at the ChemE department. And I can surely tell that it is the worst department at IITR. B.Tech projects were given out by a Lottery. Can you imagine! Projects given out by lotteries and not by choice. And every project is the same kind of stuff which ahas been going on for years. People make a 400 page report out of which 350 pages are copied from the previous year’s theses. It incredibly shameful. I’ve been a part of this. I copied too. What can I do other than that? Even the professors are not reading 400 pages. They are not looking at anything.

    There is no assignment which was ever seriously taken by the students in my department. I can safely say the same for M.Techs and Ph.Ds.

    Are you on Quora? You will find a lot of answers regarding IITs. Students are not doing out of interest, Students are doing everything out of compulsion. They don’t want to learn to write. It’s an effortful task and they don’t see any fruitful result.

    That is what a university education is for. It is to teach students what they do not know. Students and Teachers alike are failing at the IITs. There is no one side to blame.

    IITR needs reforms. Massive reforms. Look at IITB, IITD, IITK. They have many flexibilities which IITR does not have. Double Majors. Swtiching BTP for courses. Lot of exchange programs. Minors – which were introduced in other IITs years back, has been introduced at IITR lately.

    Just a like a parent who sometimes rebukes his child just in order to motivate him to do good, we need to look at IITR’s shortcomings to improve it.

    I can write a lot upon it because I’ve read and discussed and thought a lot about this. But I would stay at this point.

    A concerned alumunus

    • I completely sympathize with you for what you experienced here at IITR. I will try to address your each of your points in the followinng paragraphs.

      1. I agree that there are a diverse group of people at IITR, but increasing one more course in technical writing is not going to solve the problem because people will do the same thing in this course as well. They will copy. The way to learn cycling is by cycling. If we are sincere enough to do the writing assignments that are given to us in various courses, projects and trainings, we will be in a good enough condition to write a B.Tech. project thesis on our own. I am sure that having such a course cannot hurt, but unfortunately our tendencies in other courses cannot suddenly disappear in this course.

      2. I feel extremely sorry for you that you were assigned a B.Tech. project through lottery. It is an absolutely horrible way of assigning any project, what to speak of the most important course of one’s B.Tech. carrying 10 credits. I think we faculty should be practical in understanding the needs and capabilities of the students and such ridiculous exercises as 400 page report for a B.Tech. project should not be encouraged at all. If such practices are still going on, please encourage the students to contact the HOD to make changes to the BTP allotment procedure. They can take the help of a willing faculty to present their case to HOD. We have brought about quite a few changes in our evaluation procedure of BTPs after I joined the department just a few months back. I am sure that if the case is presented properly, the HOD should have no problem in changing the procedure for allocating BTP students based on their choice.

      3. As far as students doing everything out of compulsion, there is no straightforward solution to this problem. There are few things that contribute to this. Some students may not be interested in engineering but are here because of pressure from parents/society. Sometimes, we, as faculty, are unable to create the interest in the students, even if the students are initially enthusiastic to learn. Another factor is that sometimes students get distracted with various other things in IIT that they find their studies a drag and they completely forget the purpose over here. I think the rigid curriculum at IITR also contributes to the disinterest of students.

      4. I also feel that there should be much more flexibility in choosing electives for the students. When I graduate from IITD, I had a choice of 34 open category credits out of 180, where I could choose any technical course (either UG or PG) in the whole institute. I ended up taking almost all the PG course of Physics department because I was interested in semiconductor fabrication which electrical engineering at IITD did not have at that time. At IITR, even if electives are offered, there is a very small set of courses (e.g., 2 out of 3, sometimes even, 3 out of 3, so they are electives in name only) that you can choose from, which takes away the fun of choosing electives.

      Again, I request you to ask your juniors to take up the issues that are bothering them and talk to a faculty in their department who is willing to help them with their cause. I can also help if someone approaches me, but again my influence in the other departments can be very limited. If I start interfering with each and every department, soon I will have a lot of enemies. So, the best course is for the students to band together and put their suggestions in front of the HOD or Dean (academics).
      But, the students should really consider their benefit when they want any changes implemented. Because, sometimes at this age, we have a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot. A case in point: Reduction of 2 mid-terms to 1. This semester, our midterms were held two-thirds into the semester. In many of the courses, the answer scripts have not been shown. So, the students have no idea where they stand and finals are just couple of weeks away with Thomso in the middle. Having more spaced out two midterms were better. We, faculty, readily agreed to this proposal because it was less workload for us.

      Again, I request the students to take up the issues bothering them right now. Because it is your life, it is your education. You are paying for it with your (or your parents’) money and your time. So, you should get the best out of it. If you are not, you should make efforts to change the system so that the situation can improve.

      I thank you, WhenImetIITR, for your thoughtful reply. Hopefully, some changes can be brought about in the educational system at IITR.

  5. Significant number of students with weak spoken and written skills are a part of the IITR environment. One way of addressing this is by assigning some weightage to vocabulary in internal tests conducted for admission, since a poor command on English could apparently be one of the reasons contributing to plagiarism.

    Another simple way of reducing plagiarism is to set a benchmark for it. I do not know the anti-plagiarism software being used at IITR now, but Turnitin is certainly a good one. Supervisors can ask students to first submit soft-copies which can be scanned for plagiarism (if it is not too time-consuming) and certain thesis can be rejected once the level of plagiarism exceeds 10%, for example.

    There is a need to motivate students even though one expects self-motivated learners at IITs. I can only hope that IITR is able to get rid of this blot sooner than later.

    A concerned Alumnus

    • You are right, some people indeed have poor written and oral English. But, that cannot be used as an excuse for copying other people’s work. I encourage my students to write in their own words using whatever English they know. It is a far less serious problem than copying other people’s work and claiming it your own.

      It is very easy to see that someone has copied when they have very poor English when they are speaking but suddenly, they are able to write excellent English.

      Some fear is good, but, I feel really sad that we have to make the students feel afraid for every small thing, because they don’t want to take any initiative to do good work. It is very hard to operate on the platform of fear both for the “feared” and the “fearer”. I would love it if all the students were good and they would do such simple things on their own.

  6. It feels really good to see someone so proactive among the faculty for improvement in every area. We need more professors like you who have had diverse experiences and have seen different educational landscapes.

    The suggestion for a writing course was just an idea. There can be other ways by which students can be stimulated to write on their own.

    The BTP thing at the ChemE department has been going on for years. And it is truly horrible. I have already graduated from the institute but I carry a sense of deep shame that I was a part of this pervasive debauchery.

    Your suggestion that students should go and talk about this stuff will be applicable only when they wake up from this complacency and slumber. They are sleep waling students. The ones with me were too. Most of them. They don’t care about what project they get when they know that they have to copy it eventually. And on top of it, its a team project. You know what happens when its a team project. All the work is done by one ot two people while the rest just manage to submit their report. It’s awfully bad. And that’s why I say that my department is the worst.

    What IITD and IITM – as far as I know- have done is they have given a choice. If a student wants to take up BTP, they can do it. but if a student not interested in a project, wants to take up courses, they have allowed that too, equalling the same credits, of course.

    Isn’t that the better way? The ones interested would only turn up for a project. The faculty would not be burdened. On the other hand, they would get the ones who are interested in the project. This has just happened a year or two ago. In fact, I personally know some students who ahve graduated and utilised the option. Similarly, IITB had optionalised summer internships. Branch change rules are extremely flexible there.

    Another suggestion about students taking to Dean (Academics) is really good. But then, students at IIT are afraid. They are a fearful breed. Not many has the courage to talk about academic reforms. A more effective approach would be a shout out – a notice – from the Dean asking students about what can be done and where they seem improvements are necessary.

    For example, Dean (Academics) can have an half-hour quick session with each undergraduate class in a department and then in every department and then he can put forth to the Director or may eb to the Senate or as per how the process works. But he would have to make the effort.

    We should be happy and optimistic that IITR has tremedous scope for improvement and reforms. But after we have realized that, we should also start working immediately on it. If the administrators will not show their flexibility, if they would not show their welcoming attitude, no student would be able to gather the courage to come up to them and say their problems.

    And it’s heartening to seep rofessors like you who care for things. Your students are luck to have a professor like you. I hope similar luck befalls on other students too.

  7. I am a CS IDD student at IITR. Just because there are not enough faculty we have to forcefully opt Electronic Core courses to complete out credit. And you know how you will get marks. we have no interest in EC. till now my half of courses was EC subject which are not going help me in my thesis. And Prof will not let you choose your topic of thesis , he will assign one out of our interest.

    • I agree this is a problem currently in CS because of shortage of faculty. But, in the last few months things are changing because of new faculty joining the department. 3 people have already joined the department and hopefully you will have more in the coming months. Then, you will have electives in your department and more importantly in the things you are interested in.

  8. Hi Prof Kumar,
    I sincerely wish your initiative is noticed and supported by many more senior faculty so that it brings a change in the IITR system. I had been a happy member of this system for 5 years and I wrote my M.Tech dissertation here mostly without copying but I know a lot of other theses copied much more material from the Internet (including complete paragraphs and even graphs). One of the reasons was exactly what had been stated here: the lack of experience in creative writing in B.Tech anf M.Tech students. One way to deal with this could be to have a writin association in each dept comprised of senior phd students and some professors who can help students express their ideas in a proper manner fit for technical publication without indulging in plagiarism. Also there is a need for professors to assign more projects and term papers in courses to ensure students don’t have the option of passing the course by cramming and also give them some writing practice. Finally it comes down to how interested you are in your thesis work to write it in your own words because writing a 80 page thesis takes atleast a couple of weeks. So proper encouragement and hand holding is required from professors. Every department should announce a best thesis award for M.Tech that will encourage people to be original. And a last suggestion is that the faculty must take active interest in reading theses and attending btp and mtp presentations. A student will not be excited or intimidated enough ( whichever) to present original ideas unless he/she knows there will be a critical evaluation of his/her ideas. During my time because the semester was ending only your advisor and a couple of other faculty (most of whom haven’t read your thesis) we’e present to listen to your ppt. This needs to be expanded to have a more serious evaluation.

  9. I see that you’re enjoying Quora. And many of your answers are really honest and good. All the best Professor. I hope all your students treat you like Mr Williams was treated in Dead Poets’ Society. With awe, admiration and love. Good Luck

  10. Brijesh, I appreciate your effort in bringing a very important topic where our students lack skill.

    You can visit the department library and find out at least five thesis, you feel, they can meet your expectation. Or can be put forward to student as a role model. Now, they can take a look at those thesis – “so called nice thesis”.

  11. I feel happy after reading this as my thesis advisor talks with me every week and checks every result I have thoroughly … That’s the best way by which we can stop plagiarism.. And I’m sorry as I am not a student of iitr so I shdnt have commented..

  12. Greeting Prof Kumar,
    Really delighted to find your conscious efforts in discussing students and institute related issues on your blog. I am a PhD student at IITD and cudnt help myself without leaving a msg here. Kuddos to your efforts. Warm regards.

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