August Issue 2012
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.
Part of the problem is the sharing of the workload and ideas between supervisors and students. How much of a student’s work is really his/her own is a moot point. This was the case when a student launched an attack against her supervisor for having copied and published her research work in her own name. The supervisor’s contention was that since she, the professor, had done most of the calculations, had prepared the questionnaire and had delivered the results, the student had no right to complain about what was not hers to begin with. Such back-and-forth slinging matches are frequently observed in such cases.
Any complaint received by the HEC is first sent to the academic institution from where the problem originated. If no action is taken by the institution, the HEC proceeds to take up the matter. “There are 130-140 odd universities in Pakistan,” says Dr Sohail Naqvi, Executive Director at HEC, speaking on the phone from his office in Islamabad, “Cultural problems and a poor command of the English language all play a part in students cheating and taking short-cuts. But we are not the Chaudhrys of the village.”
However, the HEC had to turn into reluctant Chaudhrys in the case of the vice chancellor of Peshawar University who was accused by a suspended LLM professor at the same university last year, of having written a plagiarised book. Passages of The Durand Line: Its Geo-strategic Importance (2000) resembled the text of another book Pak-Afghanistan Relations (1985) written by Dr Kulwant Kaur. Kaur wrote to the HEC which sat on the investigation and then proceeded at a snail’s pace till the disgruntled professor Kaur went to the Peshawar High Court and asked it to order the HEC to conduct a fitting inquiry. Ultimately the PHC set the wheels in motion and after nearly a year, the governor was asked to dismiss the VC. The governor then sat on the verdict for a while. Finally, the VC was sent on ‘compulsory leave.’
“Previously, the standard operating procedures for plagiarism cases did not contain any provision for taking action against a Vice Chancellor and action could only be taken against the accused faculty or staff,” says Muneer Ahmed, Deputy Director, Quality Assurance Division at HEC Islamabad.
But the HEC’s board of governors, who are permanent members elected for a 3-4 year period, took a decision about this matter recently. “Now a committee can be formed to investigate charges of plagiarism against any VC,” says Ahmed.
According to him most of the cases are brought to the notice of the HEC after the conferral of the degree to the accused student. Usually complaints are made by peers/colleagues of the accused and in very rare cases, the university administration itself shares such cases with the HEC.
Plagiarism cases in PhD, MPhil and research papers pertain to physical, engineering, medical and social sciences. Some blatant examples of plagiarism, as given by Ahmed, are as follows: The author of a PhD thesis simply translated the content from a foreign language to English; in one research paper the author changed the abstract with the conclusion and vice versa, but retained the original source material word for word. In yet another case of plagiarism, after copying the entire material from a published journal, the author did not even bother to change the reference list.
The HEC has given all public universities and most of the private institutions the plagiarism detection software ‘Turnitin.’ “We put students’ theses on the web, to make Pakistani research acceptable to the world — but if someone has cheated, that will also be apparent. We have tried to address the issue in a transparent manner,” says Naqvi.
Speaking on the phone from Jamshoro, Ahsanullah Baloch, a HEC-approved PhD supervisor at the Mehran University of Science and Technology, emphatically stated that Turnitin had made a difference. “There were no checks and balances before, but now when a completed thesis comes to me, I check it in the system. And all of the teaching faculty as well as registered PhD students have access to it via campus computers,” says Baloch.
It is interesting that more and more claims of plagiarism have come up since the advent of and increase in the usage of the internet. It is safe to assume that people cheated before the internet — maybe borrowing matter from library books to complete their literature reviews or ideas that had already been researched to make things easy in the formula department. But the fact that now software can detect a passage or para and which source it has been taken from, has done wonders to establish a prima facie case of plagiarism.
But sometimes plagiarism is only half the problem. And one such case, where the bullying tactics of a bunch of physicists collided with the bureaucratic nature of the HEC, is as follows:
Dr Amer Iqbal became interested in physics as a child, when his elder brother told him about gravity, black holes and time dilation. Later, programmes shown on state-run PTV such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Pervez Hoodbhoy’s Ilm Kay Raastay further developed his interest. Now 40 years old, Iqbal has spent the last 23 years honing his skills in the study of mathematical physics.
The product of army public schools and with an MSc in mathematics from the Quaid-e-Azam University, Dr Iqbal went on to study physics at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), two of the top-ranked universities in the world. Two-and-a-half years ago, he left his teaching post at the University of Washington and returned to Pakistan to join the LUMS School of Science and Engineering as an associate professor of physics and mathematics. Currently, he is based at the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics in New York, while on academic leave from LUMS. “Physics asks and tries to answer the most fundamental questions about the universe,” he replied in an email. “From subatomic particles to the structure of the universe, physics not only encompasses all phenomena, it is quantifiable on relatively simple laws. This universality is extremely attractive for me.”
A year ago, Iqbal was forwarded the CV of a prospective teacher for the LUMS physics department. The applicant was Samina T. Yousuf Azeemi, a PhD holder from and former associate professor at the University of Balochistan, who was working as associate professor of physics for the Government Post Graduate Islamia College at Cooper Road, Lahore at the time. Islamia College only offers a master’s degree in Urdu, and all other subjects, including physics, are taught only at the BSc level (which is a four-year programme). When Iqbal looked over her CV, he saw that one of her published papers in eCam Journal was available online. “After reading some sections of the paper it was clear to me that it was complete nonsense,” he says. “After a Google search it also became clear that major portions of the paper were pieced together from various websites and books.”
Dr Iqbal conjectured that the paper was published because money was paid to eCam, which is an open access journal which charges USD 1500 to publish a piece. “At the time her thesis was not available online so I did not pay any attention to her other papers as I was busy with other things,” says the professor.
Ms Azeemi didn’t get the job, and Dr Iqbal forgot all about it until January of this year when he saw an article written by the HEC Chairman, Dr Javaid Laghari on the commission’s commitment to the quality of research produced by Pakistani universities. That reminded him of the Azeemi thesis. He checked the HEC archive on the web and found the thesis online.
The 127-page PhD thesis, ‘A Quantitative Study on Chromotherapy’ surmises that colour can cure all ills. The student and her supervisors try to prove their argument through science — physics equations and experiments in biochemistry. However, according to Dr Iqbal the equations are wrong, the science is faulty and the premise is, in itself, inaccurate and has no place in science, physics or otherwise. Hence, the professor contends, the thesis did not merit a degree of any kind, much less a doctorate.
The universality of physics that appealed to him so much, failed to endear to the concept of colour therapy being investigated in the sphere of physics to him. To top it all, a simple Google search showed that some parts of the thesis were lifted from other sources (just like the paper). Azeemi completed her thesis in 2009. To make matters worse, her supervisor turned out to be Dr Syed Mohsin Raza, the Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Balochistan and a distinguished professor with 36 years of service and a Tamgha-i-Imtiaz in science (physics). Her co-supervisor, meanwhile, was none other than the current Vice Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University, Dr Masoom Yasinzai, the first man from Balochistan to hold the post, who previously served as VC of the UoB and was the director of the Institute of Biochemistry when work on the thesis was going on. His name is on one of the published papers as a co-author.
Dr Iqbal could not believe that such substandard work had been endorsed by such esteemed seniors. He painstakingly highlighted the 18 plagiarised portions in the thesis taken from nine separate web and book sources, and emailed the thesis and the three published papers to Dr Javaid Laghari in February 2012, copying the email to Dr Sohail Naqvi and like-minded physics professors such as Dr A. H. Nayyar (LUMS, Lahore), Dr Isa Daudpota (Air University, Islamabad), Dr Abdullah Sadiq (Head of the physics dept., Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences), Dr Sabieh Anwar (Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad), Asghar Qadir (NUST, Islamabad), and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy (LUMS).
“For far too long the HEC has ignored the issue of quality of research work and they have focused their energy on increasing the number of publications,” says Dr Iqbal. “It is time to focus on quality. People writing hundreds of meaningless papers a year should not be rewarded.”
In a short span of time, more physicists were being copied in on the email: Dr Khursheed Hasnain (Chairman, Dept. of Physics, QAU), Dr Masroor Ikram (also from PIEAS), Dr Ishrat Waheed (Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, Riphah University, Islamabad), Dr Riaz Khan (director, Centralised Resource Lab, Peshawar University) as well as other HEC officials such as Dr Nasser Ali Khan (Chairman, Committee for Development of Social Sciences and Humanities, HEC) and Dr Riaz Qureshi who heads the Quality Assurance Division at HEC.
A quarrel ensued on the email between the physicists and HEC officials, which took on the proportions of a witch-hunt. In an email communication between Feb 17 and March 12, there are all kinds of temperamental demands thrown at the HEC from the physicists and all sorts of exasperated replies from HEC officials.
A debate that should never have occurred, least of all on email, was fought long and hard between supposed professionals, all bent upon making the other person concur with their point of view. Dr Hoodbhoy contacted the media to bring the issue into the public sphere, and the HEC conducted their own internal investigation to examine the charges of wrongdoing.
The process of the approval of a thesis is not easy. Even an under-developed, under-funded and under-monitored university from Balochistan has certain standards. Prof. Dr M. Yaqub worked last year as the focal point at UoB in relation to incidents of alleged plagiarism. Speaking on the phone from Quetta, he explained the procedure for thesis approval: “Each MPhil and PhD thesis is submitted to the Quality Enhancement Cell at University of Balochistan (UoB). The HEC-provided software, Turnitin, installed at QEC, can tell whether passages have been copied in 15 minutes. Only the text is seen, not the experiments. A certificate is given stating that the thesis is okay. Then the thesis is submitted to the university. The controller of examinations sends the thesis to an external examiner. The EE sends in his report. The EE report along with the thesis is submitted in the registrar’s office. This office sends the thesis and EE report to the Board for Advanced Studies and Research. This Board meets 3-4 times annually and discusses academic matters. Everyone from the vice chancellor to the pro VC, to the registrar and the deans sit on this 15-member board — and all of them read the thesis. This statutory body communicates to the supervisor the kind of revision required — whether minor corrections are needed or major ones, in which case the student may even be asked to redo the tests. Only when this board gives a certificate of approval is an external examiner called to take the student’s viva. The viva report is sent to the VC, the dean, the supervisor, etc. All of them sign it and a confidential report is then sent to the Board for Advanced Studies and Research. This board then awards the degree to the student.”
Dr Yaqub maintained he had not seen any cases of plagiarism during his two to three months on the job. A PhD student had to get papers published in a national and international journal, but what really made the difference was the ‘impact factor’ of the research done. “International journals are free of charge but to get published in good ones one has to pay Rs 50,000-55,000,” said Prof. Yaqub, adding quickly, “but it’s not like these organisations will publish plagiarised work as long as they get the money. No, they have their own referees who check the quality and quantity of the sent paper.”
Interestingly, the three research papers were published in non-traditional alternative therapy proponent journals which, though HEC-recognised, are still considered off-the-charts by the physicists: Evidence-based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (eCam, 2005), Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies (Elsevier, J Acupunct Meridian Stud, 2009) and The Scientific Research Journal of Chinese Medicine (SciRP, 2011).
Comments of the two recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics, Dr Steven Weinberg & Dr Jack Steinberger, were originally communicated with by Dr Hoodbhoy in personal email correspondence between the three. Dr Hoodbhoy forwarded the comments. In them, Dr Weinberg is dismayed and writes, “This thesis is positively dangerous since it may lead patients with severe illnesses to rely on ‘chromotherapy’ rather than on scientific medicine,” while Dr Steinbeger is shocked by what he has read and simply writes: “A reasonable physics department should not have accepted anything like this work. It is not physics, it’s medical and even for those fields it is utter nonsense,”
Dr Naqvi feels it’s a non-issue: “One of the foreign referees who checked this thesis is a MIT graduate who was a student of one of the two Nobel Prize winners that Hoodbhoy quoted. So without knowing all the facts, an issue was created. We have no right to judge scientific merit and rate the approved work of a scholar as hopeless — after all, it was processed properly.”
Ms Azeemi, currently working in another college in Lahore, had dedicated her thesis to her deceased father who had worked as a spiritual healer treating people through colour therapy, among other things. On March 18, I sent Ms Azeemi an email query. She defended her thesis in her email response. “Our work is original. Theories are man-made and never complete. It will definitely be on the eCam record that only after strict referencing was the paper accepted for publication. We did not change the references and the text was reproduced as it is, so that no other meaning or interpretation could be drawn.” That assertion is, however, erroneous because pages and pages of definitions, opinions, and text are copied from other papers and included in the thesis without any reference number or quotation marks.
Ms Azeemi’s main supervisor Dr Mohsin Raza, meanwhile, refused to comment on the issue.
Dr Masoom Yasinzai, Azeemi’s co-supervisor, disclosed that he was was asked to be the co-supervisor only in the last year of the thesis work, when the theory needed to be proved in biological systems. He conducted the tests and wrote the results with diagrams. The first paper was even written by him. The foreign referees sent 5-6 paged encouraging reports. “They ranked it high because of its value in the field of biophysics,” says Yasinzai. He added that he would resign immediately if anyone could prove that a single penny had been charged for the much-cited paper.
In fact, Yasinzai is extremely hurt by the allegations. He felt that if Dr Hoodbhoy had noble intentions, he would have gone about the whole thing in a different way. “My science is laboratory science, observations, readings, not theory…. If his motive had been an improvement in higher education in the country… then he should have consulted the relevant professor — but I was never contacted by him.”
Dr Hoodbhoy retired from QAU in 2010 and has been associated with LUMS since then, but continues to voluntarily supervise some QAU students.
It would have been better if instead of having a media war over this matter and ending up with bruised egos in the process, all parties had simply followed the rules as laid down by the system. A formal complaint should have been launched at UoB or QAD by any of the physicists if they felt so strongly about this issue, and they should have followed up on what was being done on the matter. The HEC should have taken the high road as well and called in a meeting of the accusers and the accused to judge the matter in a more transparent manner. Instead, because of this fiasco, no one comes out smelling of roses, and nothing constructive has been gained either for the betterment of science or the system.
And as for the quality of research, in the last 10 years since the HEC was formed, nothing even remotely close to the achievement of two Cambridge professors has been accomplished. In 1953, they had published an article in Nature magazine and described the structure of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), otherwise known as the secret of life — based on the groundbreaking black and white X-ray photo taken by someone else — a female biophysicist never credited in the article or at the Nobel Prize ceremony where the three men won the Nobel Prize. The significance of the omission remains moot to this day.
This article was originally published in the August issue of Newsline under the headline “The Rites and Wrongs of Higher Ed.”
The writer is a freelance journalist.
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