Sat, 05 Jul 2003

Indonesian educators plagued by lack of ethics, plagiarism

Simon Marcus Gower, Director, Research and Development, Harapan Bangsa School, Kotamodern, Tangerang

In the annals of literature and learning of the Indonesian archipelago there have been many significant figures that have enlightened and informed the world about this remarkable and wonderful "string of pearls" in Southeast Asia.

Around 300 years ago there was one such significant figure whose contributions to learning and literature have since become infamous, because this particular character would willfully plagiarize and basically steal much of his material from other writers.

Francois Valentijn was a Dutchman who left the Netherlands, for what is now Indonesia, essentially to seek his fortune. As a result of his time on the islands in the late 17th and early 18th centuries he produced a descriptive work that is widely viewed as an excellent guide to the archipelago at that time, namely Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien or the Old and New East-Indies.

Although being widely viewed as an important contribution to the history and literature of the islands, it is equally widely viewed as almost completely plagiarized

Yet there are still many who plagiarize their material and gladly claim honors and rewards leaving people with the belief that they have seen or heard something original.

What is most sad is that so many of the people who so willingly plagiarize are engaged in the world of education. Plagiarism is contemptible and unwanted but epecially in the context of education the loathsome nature of plagiarism is many times more offensive and completely without redemption.

An apparent "training" seminar organized for school principals along with their senior teaching staff featured a speaker that was to present ideas about organizing successful meetings and exercising good leadership within meetings.

From the ideas that he was presenting to the handouts that he was providing and the slides that he was showing, an ability to copy was certainly on display but there was simply little or no sign of originality in thought or even interpretation.

At an education conference in which apparent leaders of education in Jakarta were set to meet and discuss the development of Indonesian education, a speaker gave a speech that was quite captivating for his audience. Although clearly using a text he showed some ability to extemporize and responded well to questions; but there was a familiarity to much of what he was saying. Once the text of his speech was read that familiarity became understandable because, once again, what had been witnessed was not original thought.

The text revealed that much of his material had been gathered from other thinkers and writers but he had failed to genuinely acknowledge them with a full bibliography. He had claimed their thinking to be his own.

This kind of behavior does rub off on students. For example, a group of second year university students were set a task to complete a research paper that would require them to examine the work of eminent academics and researchers within their field of study. It became clear that they had no understanding of referencing sources, that would provide evidence that they had done the necessary research. What they produced instead was a paper that assimilated the work of others without any accreditation and even included quotations that did not have details of the person that made the original statement or remark.

In essence, then, these students were unable to represent their own research efforts and, either consciously or subconsciously, they were guilty of plagiarism in preparing their work. It is quite likely that they were blameless because if no one has ever shown them how to cite references and acknowledge quotations and all of their teachers have, to lesser or greater degrees, been guilty of plagiarism, they are quite likely to fall into this trap.

The world of education and learning needs to have a sense of respect for originality of thought and the contribution to knowledge. In a sense there should exist within all educators an unwritten but fully recognized and upheld honor code that holds plagiarism in contempt. This kind of code and its accompanying higher standard of ethics should make plagiarism an alien and repugnant thought for all educators.

Presently though, as the above examples have illustrated, this does not seem to be fully the case. Of course, economic realities may have to be factored into the equation here, in the sense that it might be economically expedient for some educators to be able to "sell themselves" through seminars and speeches whilst in fact plagiarizing and essentially selling someone else's ideas and thoughts. But expediency should not be placed above principle and responsibility and educators, in particular, have to have high principles and are by definition in positions of responsibility.

It is to be hoped that Indonesian educators will be held in higher regard than the above Valentijn. They will need to develop greater originality so that they can maintain high professional ethics and sweep away the plagiarism that currently seems to bedevil them.