Whispers In The Halls: Of Power Relations And Academic Integrity

"The real concern is not the elevation of such invisible thieves in their careers; it is their elevation at the expense of others' labour and erosion of foundational principles that academia should uphold"

Whispers In The Halls: Of Power Relations And Academic Integrity

Are we privy to the identities of the authors of this article? How, precisely, do we ascribe authority to the authors? The names in the bylines might serve as obvious clues. But just how important is it for us to be certain that these same names are the original authors of this text and that it is not a stolen work of an assistant, a student, or a junior professional? Ought we, in perpetuity, always be unquestionably and unproblematically trusting? Can the contours of trust in authorship, venerable as they may be, retain their resilience in higher education where asymmetrical power relations are ubiquitous now more than ever and professors hold as much authority over their students’ work as a monarch holds over his subjects? 

We don’t know!

In fact, despite being a norm, the cases of authorial or intellectual theft do not come to the surface anywhere in the world and the literature on it is oftentimes relegated to the peripheries like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak on the ‘Invisible Thief,’ and in a society like Pakistan, where the so-called intellectual elites or ‘disciplinary gangs’ along with the university administrations discipline much of the thought and work of students and junior professionals, the situation is detrimental. While there is an obvious dearth of academic literature and media discourse vis-à-vis intellectual theft, these invisible thieves do not elude the hallowed precincts of day-to-day conversations among academic peers and students. Anecdotes circulate within the academic corridors of professors and policy experts in think-tanks, and retired state officials in Pakistan’s case, who ‘steal’ the work of assistants, students, and junior professionals, either overtly or through subtler manipulative strategies because why would a student not want to have their name alongside a ‘Star Professor’ or being positioned secondarily to a renowned author is decidedly preferable to being entirely disregarded in terms of acknowledgment. 

Undoubtedly, each person has their own specific motivations for plagiarising or stealing someone’s work, but it is reasonable to assume that promotions and better monetary awards, reputation, lack of confidence in one’s own work, and confidence that they are going to get away with stealing because of the power that they possess in the institution, has got to do something with it. And it is rather easy to get away with it in social sciences and arts and humanities, and if you are in a privileged position in a privileged institution, even legal challenges do not matter as the cases of Dan Brown or Thomas Keneally demonstrate. 

In Pakistan’s case, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy has persistently critiqued the pervasive culture of authorial theft and plagiarism in the academia. His work, however focused on natural and applied sciences academy, reflects a trenchant analysis of the epistemological decay that these practices signify. In social sciences, the crisis is a bit complex and often manifests itself in a covert manner, much like being under the invisibility cloak. Not very long ago, a similar instance took place in one of the most prestigious and glorified institutions in Islamabad wherein a Star Professor not only plagiarised the work of a former student and colleague (hereinafter The Student), but also managed to get away with it, thanks to his support system at the top brass of the institution. 

Rewind to 2018, an academic research grant was awarded to a highly militarised social sciences department at this institution. The Professor led a team of six researchers, including The Student. The Professor compiled a book from the chapters contributed by the dedicated researchers. The Student then joined the department and transitioned into the formal employee workforce under the Star Professor’s mentorship.

Fast forward to October 2022, The Student received a link to an online publication from a friend, finding out that the Professor had published her chapter in a prestigious international journal, accrediting another former student and one of the researchers on the project (hereinafter the Freeloader) as the co-author. The Student, no longer an employee at the department, reported the case to the Editor of the Journal, who, displaying diligence, initiated an investigation. The Professor minting his words and doing what he did best offered responses to the Editor that proved insufficient, prompting the Editor to involve the university's Research and Integrity Office.

The Integrity Office benched a committee, comprised of 5 men (hereinafter the Man-el), and reached out to The Student with a series of inquiries. Despite the apparent discrepancies, The Student, though disappointed in her mentor yet desperate to seek justice, responded diligently. A face-to-face meeting was scheduled, and what transpired during the encounter added layers to the unfolding drama. 

On the day of the meeting, the Manel, lacking any gender balance whatsoever and marred by conflicts of interest, sat down to effectively check all boxes of maintaining academic integrity. In retrospect, it is noteworthy that the Editor's quest for an impartial investigation faced hurdles as the Professor was the Dean of the department; the precise reason why the Editor had to involve a third party in the process, i.e., the Integrity Office. Ironically, the Manel questioning The Student included the Principal of the department, under whom the Professor became the Associate Dean of the Department. Not only did he sit there but also enthusiastically defended the Professor’s position. The Manel, seemingly more concerned with The Student’s rebelliousness against the institution than the Professor’s alleged transgressions, painted a disheartening picture of the state of higher education in Pakistan much like what’s happening with any critique in the present sociopolitical (dis)order. 

However, before the meeting, The Student confronted the Professor over WhatsApp and got a confession that also proved insufficient to the Manel: “Sir, I came across this publication and I cannot resist but ask you if you remember that I wrote this chapter for the project. X (the co-author: Freeloader) had nothing to do with it. This is very disturbing. I do hope you will have an explanation for this.”

The Professor’s response to this message was: “Sorry just got back to Islamabad (mom ain’t feeling well). Give me a call when you can. But you are right; simply flacked- if this could be an excuse from my side. I edited and asked him (the Freeloader) to submit (correspondence)- the long pending one. Later, took care of the revisions, personally. Sorry, All I can say!”

In the aftermath of the meeting, the Editor informed The Student that the Integrity Office had confirmed the Professor’s authorship of the published content, not that The Student had hoped for a fair verdict, especially after the Manel meeting which was all sorts of ludicrous. Months later, The Student had a chance encounter with an individual (hereinafter the Juvenile Informant), also an employee at the university, at a conference that further solidified the stinking ethics that have become the DNA of academia in this country—the decision had been rigged from the start. The informant disclosed that someone had accused the Dean of authorial theft, and that the Manel’s goal was in fact to shove this under the carpet before things got out of hand.

The real concern is not the elevation of such invisible thieves in their careers; it is the elevation at the expense of others' intellectual labour and the erosion of the foundational principles that the academia should uphold. This predicament extends beyond the personal ambitions of these Star Professors—it permeates the very fabric of academic integrity. The irony lies in the fact that those who are meant to uphold the sanctity of research and intellectual pursuit sometimes become instruments of perpetuating systemic injustices. The urgent call for reforms echoes louder, not only for the silenced voices like The Student in this case but for the integrity of the academic pursuit itself. This incident does by no means implicate all members of social sciences academia in Pakistan. It does, however, bring into question similar Star Professors under the protection and patronage of their respective Integrity Offices and Manels, stomping on the dreams and ambitions of those who once used to look up to them. Yesterday an Assistant Professor, today an Associate and tomorrow a full Professor, someone needs to count the number of heads stomped over on the ladder of success and glory of such Star Professors!