US b-school uncovers rampant essay plagiarism, revokes admission calls & interviews, most of them Indians

Distressed by rampant plagiarism in admission essays, USA’s Smeal College of Business, Penn State University has decided to revoke the admission of one student and cancel six interviews. The common thread between them? They are all Indian save one. The school has also found at least 18 cases of mild and moderate plagiarism from the 250 applications reviewed for admissions to the class of 2012, of which at least 10 are Indians. Clearly an embarrassing moment for Indian applicants.

This admission season, applicants to Smeal were required to submit three essays along with their application, the question for the second one of which was ‘How do you see Principled Leadership impacting the business world today? Give an example of a time when you demonstrated Principled Leadership in your career or community.’

As Smeal’s MBA Admissions Director Carrie Marcinkevage scanned the essays to select candidates for interviews, she felt having read certain paragraphs before in essays by earlier applicants. Upon further scrutiny and Googling, she found that they had all been copied exactly as they were from an article on ‘Principled’ Leadership’ from b-school accrediting body AACSB’s website, without citation of source and passed off as the applicants’ original work. In one case, the applicant had not even taken care to change the font of the plagiarised paragraph as copied from its original source.

An alarm was sounded and the admission committee reread essays written by candidates about whom a final admission decision (either way) had already been taken. To their dismay, they found 18 cases of plagiarism of one sort or the another. Of these, at least 10 applicants were from India.

When I spoke to Ms Marcinkevage yesterday evening, she had already decided to revoke the final admission of one student – an Indian, had cancelled the impending interview of another – also an Indian, and was going on to announce six more interview cancellations, five of which were Indian. Five borderline cases, including two Indians, have been given benefit of doubt and a second chance at writing the essays.

‘Ironically the essay question is based on ‘Principled Leadership’. This not only negatively affects the applicants’ chances of getting into the school but also tarnishes the reputation of all the Indian applicants,’ Akshay Madane, an Admissions Graduate Assistant at Smeal wrote to PaGaLGuY.

Ms Marcinkevage’s team then started posting an advisory on GMAT prep websites, as it did the following on Chinese website, ‘The PSU Smeal Admissions team has discovered repeated plagiarism of one particular article among several candidates’ application essays. We recognize that appropriate use of intellectual property differs among cultures. In US business and academic practice, plagiarism is ‘using someone else’s words or ideas without properly giving credit’, and it is considered a violation of academic integrity… … Please use caution in essays to use quotations and cite your references. The admissions team will continue to review essays of all candidates (admitted and undecided) and will address plagiarism concerns as they arise.’

Having to deal with plagiarism among applicants or students is not new to business schools. In 2007, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business was rocked by a cheating scandal in which 34 students who had copied in a term exam faced stiff action, including expulsion and suspension. While incidents such as the one at Smeal or at Duke are the ones to make headlines, Admission Directors informally admit having to deal with copied answers and interview responses all the time, more from Indian and Chinese applicants than from any other nation.

It might be too forceful to conclude India and China as hotbeds of plagiarism based on experiences of American business schools, given that these two countries also contribute the largest numbers to the applications pools of the better business schools worldwide.

However, looking at India in isolation, it is also true that respecting copyright is not stressed upon enough in the Indian way. In the last decade, the Indian scientific and academic community comprising of professors, researchers and scientists have been regularly accused of plagiarising from Western journals. There even exists a Wikipedia entry on this problem. It is not that plagiarism did not exist in the Indian scientific community before the year 2000, but more likely that the pervasiveness of the Internet has made spotting it and causing embarrassment to the plagiarizer possible for everyone.

MBA students in India, even from highly reputed b-schools privately admit to rampant cheating in internal exams and projects as institutionalized culture, not participating in which can sometimes render a student as an outcast in the class.

At PaGaLGuY itself, we require prospective job applicants who wish to work with us to take writing tests or answer questionnaires. Despite resumes that shine with degrees from apex educational institutions and work experience in reputed companies, we often find a paragraph or two blatantly copied from a website without necessary credit.

In a way, copying is in fact methodically tutored to Indians as part of their growing up. A major contributing factor is that starting from secondary school (class 5th), when the complexity of subjects taught jumps up a notch, teachers often make it mandatory for students to reproduce examination answers exactly as they are in the textbook in order to score well. It is convenient for teachers because it helps them escape from the harder task of imparting real learning, and makes the job of evaluating test papers easier. In the absence of an explicit pushback against copying, and ineffective copyright laws that provide little optimism to victims of plagiarism, it cannot be denied that Indians grow up conditioned to thinking that copying someone else’s work and passing it off as their own is an acceptable thing to do. This needs to change.

This year, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore has replaced group discussions with essays in their admissions process. It is not known how seriously IIM Bangalore will take plagiarism in admission essays, or if they even have a process to check for a case of copying in the first place. It would however do shortlisted applicants good to learn some Copyrights 101 and the etiquette of citation, and not dig a possible grave to their admission chances with the shovel of plagiarism.

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