A plagiarism incident in Pakistan

A committee constituted by the Pakistan Higher Education Commission (HEC) concluded last year that Muhammad Suleman Tahir, vice-chancellor of the Khwaja Fareed University of Engineering and Information Technology (KFUEIT), hadn’t been responsible for plagiarising from a master’s thesis in a paper published in February 2021, per Retraction Watch. The HEC is charged with regulating the country’s centres of higher education.

When Farukh Iqbal, who wrote the master’s thesis in question, discovered the copied text, he wrote to Fuel, the journal that had published the 2021 paper, and the HEC. The editors of Fuel retracted the paper in June 2021 after an investigation substantiated Iqbal’s claims.

However, Tahir responded with a $2.8-million defamation suit against Iqbal and objected to Fuel’s decision to retract the paper. He also wrote to RMIT University, Melbourne, where Iqbal was pursuing a PhD, alleging that Iqbal had actually plagiarised from a paper written by one of Tahir’s students, and that Iqbal should be held responsible for that. But an RMIT investigation found this to be an unfounded allegation.

Then, in February 2022, the HEC concluded that Tahir wouldn’t be sanctioned but admitted that Tahir’s student’s thesis had itself been substantially plagiarised from some other source. This is bad for Tahir because the HEC requires the supervisors of students who have submitted plagiarised work to be “blacklisted” for five years. So a month later Iqbal appealed the HEC’s decision to not punish Tahir. The HEC said it would respond in two months, but is yet to do so.

Since then, Retraction Watch wrote, Iqbal has decided to discontinue his PhD. 

This is a terrible incident with different kinds of parallels to stories we have already heard, although it might be new in that we have someone disputing an accusation of plagiarism tooth and nail. Among the various forms of academic misconduct, plagiarism is likely the easiest to prove.

Setting this aside, Tahir’s response recalls those of researchers in the US and other parts of the world who have threatened to sue or have sued their accusers for defamation when in fact the wrongdoing on their part is easily proven (or disproven, for that matter). Since I pored through Retraction Watch recently, Carlo Croce comes first to mind, but a close second is the infamous Didier Raoult. I wonder what a court can determine that scientists and scientific journals already haven’t.

Perhaps more relevant are the parallels to stories from India, where, among other things, those accused of plagiarism or greater forms of misconduct have often responded at least at first by pointing all their fingers at a student. (The NCBS incident comes to mind, as do the names of C.N.R. Rao, R.A. Mashelkar, etc.) The Pakistan HEC’s policy to punish both the offender and the offender’s supervisor is enlightened, but sadly it is only on paper: in reality, the blame-apportionment problem doesn’t seem to arise.

Note that Tahir’s defence at one point, that “he was not aware of” the Fuel paper and that “his name was added without his consent,” is reminiscent of an excuse advanced by B.S. Rajput, the infamous vice-chancellor of Kumaon University who, together with his student Suresh Chandra Joshi, was found guilty of plagiarism in 2003 and forced to resign. One of the questions the university’s inquiry committee considered was, according to Frontline, “whether Rajput was the co-author of the [offending] paper” and, if so, “whether he was guilty of plagiarism”. This question had arisen because Rajput had asserted until then that Joshi had added his name to the paper without his consent.

Finally, Retraction Watch wrote that “the experience contributed to [Iqbal’s] decision to leave his PhD studies”. The precise connection here isn’t clear but I imagine it must have been stress in part: even frivolous defamation suits take a toll on the mind, as can the prospect of being overseen by a statutory body (in one’s home country) that acts in ignorance of its own statutes. Retraction Watch noted in a February 2022 post about the same case that “the Pakistani government has at least tacitly backed Tahir”, on the back of the following comment from Iqbal:

I have also launched a complaint in the Pakistani prime minister portal and that office sent all the times my complaint to a concerned university whose VC is guilty and all the time they replied that we did not find any plagiarism even [after] the paper is retracted by ELSEVIER.”

In its latest post, Retraction Watch said this reveals “as much about the value of political muscle in Pakistan as it does about academic dishonesty”. This is a near-perfect reflection of former Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar’s decision in 2018 to appoint “at least two faculty members, whom [Kumar] nominated to various decision-making bodies, and two new recruits in teaching positions [who] have produced plagiarised research” (source).

It is infuriating, and then demoralising, to have your work copied and passed off as that of someone else. That Iqbal has chosen to leave academia is perhaps the worst outcome of this whole episode, and a clear example of the damage we stand to inflict when we adopt a chalega attitude to seemingly minor offences like plagiarism.