Exposing the Plagiaristic Practices of Pakistan’s Phds
Laila Akbar Ali has been a part of the Aga Khan University, Karachi for 26 years. As Associate Dean of Student Affairs, she says she has never heard of plagiarism by a student. She maintains there has never been a case at the AKU that has gone all the way to a disciplinary committee, albeit there was one instance where a student was failed and he/she went to court to contest it, but that’s about it. She says students are told at the start of their academic session that the AKU has a strict policy against students trying to pass off some one else’s work, research, or ideas as their own. Professor Akbar Ali does concede, however, that plagiarism means different things to different people. For example, she says, if a student forgets to give a proper citation for his/her work, that is not ‘plagiarism’ – just an honest mistake that can be rectified immediately without any ruckus created over it.
It was therefore a surprise to her that a case was brought against a faculty member by a student; that this case was investigated under the direct orders of a Provost who served the AKU for a period of two years (2009-2011); that a three-member committee took six months to reach a guilty verdict, following which the teacher was fired. Interestingly, the HR manager at the AKU also claimed complete ignorance about the incident. And in 2008 there was a case reported in the media where a former student of psychology alleged that her former thesis supervisor (a senior instructor who worked in the Department of Psychiatry at AKU Hospital) had stolen her thesis. The AKU faculty presumably does not know of this case either. Meanwhile, the accused professor still has his job.
The AKU case was part of a list of five ‘successful’ cases that was asked for and provided to me by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Without giving specifics – i.e. individuals’ names, years or the departments that the cases belonged to, the list featured incidents that had occurred at the Punjab University, Peshawar University the International Islamic University (IIU), the Federal Urdu University and the AKU, went on to disclose that each had been resolved on the basis of evidence provided against professors guilty of wrongdoing, who were subsequently discharged from service.
Despite repeated requests for more information, the HEC refused to offer any further details about the cases.
For their part, meanwhile, most of the universities completely denied that any instances of plagiarism had ever occurred. The IIU’s registrar (Director Academics) maintained he was not aware of any case where a committee was constituted by the president of the university, where the verdict of guilty had been proclaimed or a professor fired. The Punjab University’s registrar, apparently an extremely busy man, repeatedly told me that he knew exactly which case had been referred to in the HEC list and maintained he had ordered the unearthing of the records to provide details, but that has not transpired to date.
This cloak of silence by the universities and the bureaucratic culture of the HEC is at the heart of why today’s academia is riddled with plagiarism.
The Higher Education Commission was created through an ordinance in the Musharraf era. Depending on who you talk to, it either nullified or remodelled the University Grants Commission, an organisation that was responsible for regulating the standard of university education through an Act of Parliament.
Its new avatar notwithstanding, the HEC has done little to promote the quality of research or academia, and perhaps even less, the cause of ethics. According to the data provided by the HEC, the total number of allegations of plagiarism received by the HEC to date is 120, with 19 of the cases currently under investigation. Of the others, plagiarism was proved to have occurred in 35 cases, whereas 60 of the cases were dropped on account of a lack of evidence.
HEC is the main organisation funding university research in Pakistan. According to the HEC website, the current rate for funding high-impact research work in all public universities and 26 private institutions in the fields of physics, chemistry or biology is Rs 10-20 million. The research work is approved only after a peer review deems it worthy of selection. Universities have policies to provide monetary rewards to students who do high-impact research work. PhDs are only handed out if students are able to get two papers published based on their research.
Just to give an example, between 2007 and 2010, the number of publications at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad (QAU) rose from 409 to 548; at the AKU from 186 to 416; at the Karachi University (KU), from 276 to 387; at the Punjab University from 162 to 352; at the Bahauddin Zakaria University from 50 to 133; at the Balochistan University (UoB), from 28 to 49; at the IIU from 5 to 47 and at Peshawar University from 77 to 137 (Source: HEC website).
Even the number of universities generating research papers increased from 42 in 2007 to 95 in 2010. According to the HEC website, there are 74 public sector universities and degree-awarding institutes and 62 private sector ones with dozens of colleges affiliated with each.
Research-backed work also determines how soon and how much a professor can climb up the ladder of professional success. For example, an HEC-recognised meritorious professor (grade 22) must have at least five research publications in five years under his/her belt and should have produced two PhDs. or one PhD. and five MPhils in the last five years. There is no other way to be promoted as meritorious professor.
The benchmarks set are so high that against this backdrop even a hint of plagiarism can ring a death knell for a teacher’s career as well as the reputation of the university where it occurs – especially a public university, since they are funded by the federal government and the HEC can withhold grants if plagiarism is proved. A case in point: In 2007, the HEC decided to withhold a Rs 139 million grant to the Punjab University when it delayed finalising the dismissal of five teachers, including the director of the Centre for Higher Energy Physics. The matter had been under investigation for a year. The teachers had published a research paper in a journal using material copied from a foreign professor’s research journal. It was only through an order of the governor as chancellor of the university that the VC was notified of the accused teachers’ termination of service. The five teachers were put on the HEC blacklist, two went to the Supreme Court seeking an overturn of the ruling by the governor. Currently, all five are appealing for their removal from that list.
And for good reason: Once a teacher is blacklisted, he/she cannot seek employment in any academic or research organisation, or he/she may be demoted as a lesser penalty and his/her research grants may be withheld. Conversely if there is insubstantial evidence, he/she may be let off simply with a warning.
Charges of plagiarism are, of course, not confined to Pakistan. Just this April the President of Hungary, an Olympic champ, had to resign as president because there was suspicion at his university about the veracity of his 1992 doctoral dissertation on the modern Olympic Games and it was eventually revoked. The charge was considered so serious that in his resignation speech Pal Schmitt admitted the issue was “dividing the country.” In Pakistan, meanwhile, politicians with fake BA degrees routinely become legislators and ministers and are rarely taken to task, even when these frauds are exposed.
Sometimes the HEC blacklists a teacher charged with a misdemeanour first and the university starts investigating the allegation later. In 2008, the HEC informed the Federal Urdu University, Islamabad that one of its professors of computer science was guilty of blatantly copy-pasting some one else’s material and hence should be fired. Speaking on the phone from Karachi, the university registrar, Dr Qamar-ul-Haq, however, contended that the case was not one of ‘plagiarism,’ but rather of misunderstanding. He maintained that an assistant professor was supervising the PhD work of two students when one research fellow blamed the other of having copied his/her material and went straight to the HEC with the complaint. Nonetheless, the supervisor conducting the work, who had been working at the university on a per month basis, was discharged. He went abroad, while the student accused of plagiarism was blacklisted.
(Continued on next page)
The opinions expressed in this article and the views shared by readers in the comment forum below do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance or policies of Newsline.