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WORK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF

The National Council of Educational Research and Training has finally come up with Contemporary World History, the textbook for the plus two courses of the Central Board of Secondary Education. Expectedly, its style, presentation and subject matter are stodgy. But what is sad is that chunks of the book have been “lifted” straight out of a standard American textbook by Edward Burns, Philip Ralph, Robert Lerner and Standish Meacham, entitled World Civilizations, Their History and Culture, which was first published in 1955.

Agreed, all authors depend on those who came before. We all borrow ideas, adapt them to suit our needs and predilections and pass them on as our own. Nothing wrong with this, especially if we acknowledge the origin of these ideas. But what is not acceptable is “lifting” words, sentences or whole passages of another’s work and passing them off as your own. This amounts to plagiarism, especially if it exceeds a minimum number of words in continuous prose. Put simply, titles, ideas and facts are not copyrighted — their expression, in the words of the original creators, is.

Says Lerner of the Northwestern University and fellow of the Medieval Academy and the American Academy in Rome, over e-mail, “It is certainly plagiarism. Four of the five passages (cited in sections of the Indian press) were written by me.” In defence, NCERT authors say that the views expressed by the Americans “tally” with their own. And so they have made the views their own, to the extent of lifting the words and sentences in which they had been expressed. By any standards, NCERT’s explanation is a mere fig-leaf. Sadly, the views expressed by the Americans are not so startlingly original that they could not have been rewritten. Or, if that was too great an intellectual exercise, the source could have been acknowledged either as a footnote or in the introduction.

But such thefts happen everyday, especially among the hundreds of fly-by-night publishers who are not guided by any publishing convention. And then there are the big fish. A former Indian ambassador to the United States of America, who lifted a short story by Robert Lynd and had it published under his own name in a national daily; a leading Indian writer in English who lifted sections of Zaehner’s Hindu Scriptures and published it in an American journal; a former home secretary, who lifted passages from someone else’s memoirs and passed them off as his own!

As for textbooks, especially in science and mathematics at the plus two level, there is virtually no end to the straight “copying” that takes place. For instance, all tutorial schools borrow heavily from four or five books: Resnick and Halliday’s Physics, Feynman’s Lectures in Physics, Krechmar’s Algebra, some old Soviet books on mathematics and physics, and Loney’s Trigonometry and Coordinate Geometry. At best, some spin is given to the questions, but the essence is the same.

There are two reasons why plagiarism is becoming so widespread. One, there has been a very sharp decline in language (not just English) — very few teachers can write straight, simple sentences and string them into paragraphs. Two, teachers, who are the authors in most cases, know they can get away with it given the apathy of the general reader. It is far easier to “copy” than to work it out yourself.

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