Wednesday, March 02, 2011

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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