Copy Cat

Anyone who has studied or taught in Indian lawschools will have confronted the widespread culture of plagiarism that exists. This is not unique to the legal academy, as Manjari Katju charts in the state of plagarism in Indian social science research in a special issue of the EPW.

Among the other articles, what might attract some readers is Prashant Iyengar’s attempt to “rescue Indian academic research not by denying the charges of plagiarism, but by charting an alternative trajectory of plagiarism so that each successive instance does not amplify our sense of embarrassment and crisis in the academy”. Iyengar draws extensively from his experience at NALSAR to suggest that the problem of plagiarism acquires its present day moral connotations because we have at some level bought into a ‘Western Romantic’ idea of creativity based on individual genius. Indian traditions, he suggests, allow for a greater heterogeneity of both expression and authorship. He later contrasts two notions of creativity, the first as that of generation and the second that of rearrangment. He suggests that lawschool research might not be ‘generative’ but is moving towards “recombinative creativity”. He argues that the introduction of new plagiarism checking software, will compel students to rework their scholarship in more original terms. He draws an analogy to Lawrence Liang’s work on pre-print cultures, where scribes who manually copied existing texts did not do their work slavishly, but shaped the texts they copied, often transforming it fundamentally. Iyengar ends on a more cautious note, stating pragmatically, though not necessarily following the logic of his own argument, that different standards must apply for students and ‘established academics’. Those interested in college plagiarism might want to look at Jonathan Gingerich and Aditya Singh’s recent study.

I think it would be more productive to move Iyengar’s arguments away from the parochial concerns of collegiate plagiarism to larger questions about legal writing in India.

For instance, can we use this insight to understand how Indian judgments are written? Rajeev Dhavan famously castigated the attitudes of Supreme Court judges “as typical of the decision-making habits of middle-class metropolitan Indians : technically unpredictable, not uninfluenced by imitative cosmopolitan habits, conditioned by native instinct to a depth not yet predictable by the psychologist or documented even by the novelist, the dramatist or the fiction-writer, and suffering from an over-sensitive opinion of their lonely and unparalleled position.” He was particularly critical of their use of large texts of foreign judgement completely out of context. Could the idea of ‘recombinant creativity’ be productively used to understand comparative constitutional law as it as evolved in India?

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  • Interesting post Rohit. I certainly sympathize with the idea that the academy has placed too much emphasis on everyone becoming a mini "genius" with a unique idea and not placing enough emphasis on good synthesizers or people who just know how to find relevant information. That said, at least in the context of students I find it is rather easy to generally spot plagiarizers as their papers tend not to be relevant to the question asked. Instead of recombining ideas already out there to answer the question at hand the paper is just a non-application of mind to the problem in front of them. I think instead of the romantic idea of genius though the reason school's have pushed for ending plagiarism amongst students is actually market demand. Some of the most prized individuals in today's market are those who can write well and think critically/creatively about a problem. To demonstrate both of these in school teachers need original papers to mark. The correlation between non-plagiarized papers and success in the market is certainly not a perfect one, but I imagine it is not tenuous either.

    As for the reasons for plagiarism – too many papers being assigned, no detailed grading of them, lack of English skills, etc. I think they all need to be explored, but their discussion in Iyengar's paper didn't seem to drive his main argument forward as I can't see how they would be a normative justification for a different approach to knowledge creation even if they are an explanation.

  • Hi Rohit and Nick,
    First off, thanks for engaging with my article. I think you've both been very nuanced and sympathetic in appreciating the strengths, and naming the weaknesses of my piece.

    Incidentally, the version that EPW carried was a very early draft and I had refined my arguments considerably in its subsequent iterations. The final version makes a somewhat different argument than the one that got published. You can download the final version at

    The changes are in the introduction and the conclusion sections and give my argument a slightly different charge than the EPW article conveys. I invite you to read the updated version and see if it either addresses or further inflames your misgivings with my argument.

    Responding specifically to your comments:
    – @Rohit: I've put up a post on my blog ( in which I discuss your interesting idea about recombinative originality in the judiciary.
    – @Nick: I think the (legal) market values and demands individuals who are capable of thinking critically but also able a) to mute their critical faculties at crucial moments
    b) who are capable of creating intelligent pastiches. (witness how contracts are drafted in most Indian law firms).

    In the past several decades, the University system has definitely been in a tight embrace with the market so that, you're right, ivory towered originality is not the sole mover of academic research policies. But that's not to say, that it isn't invoked as an (and possibly the sole) evaluative criterion when judging plagiarism. (Some changes in my updated article make this point clearer)

    Secondly, I don't think I even attempt to present my case study as a "normative justification for a different approach to knowledge creation". I merely use them as background to present an alternative nomos by which these habits of copying may be sensible. My point, as I've said in the article, is about recalling the heterogeneity of possible standpoints by which originality may be viewed. It does *not* recommend the privileging of one over the other.

    Rohit was quite right in calling attention to this as a logical inconsistency. Ideally, I should have recommended, following the logic of my case study, that we completely jettison 'creatio' originality for the 'invenio' alternative. As an academic, however, I am unable to suppress my nostalgic longing for 'creatio' scholarship, in favour of the possibly 'sexier' inventio one. It is this that explains my conservative 'pragmatic' conclusion.

    Once again, many thanks for your comments. 🙂