Recently, a piece of news saying that an Assamese scholar’s essay on Sankardeva was included by Harvard University in its curriculum was covered by almost all newspapers and channels in Assam. The story was subsequently carried by the national media as well, The Print writing that “the 15th century saint-reformer Srimanta Sankaradeva is now part of the course material at Harvard University’s Department of Religion”. The Hindu published a similar story, quoting Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, the author of the essay in question.
Since it was great news for Assam, and yet none of the reports cited any Harvard University source, I contacted Borkakoti himself to request for the link to the Harvard University website – the place that he claimed has uploaded his essay as part of its curriculum.
The author, however, led me to the website of Course Hero, and not Harvard University. For the uninitiated, Course Hero is an online learning platform – much like the guidebooks that students study before exams – that crowdsources practice problems, study guides, notes, essays and other such documents. It is a company that has a subscriber base of about 1 million and its revenue surpassed 100 million US dollars in 2019. Students pay to read the study material available on the site. However, there is an option to ‘unlock’ notes for free: you upload your own notes. The more you upload, the more you can download. Course Hero is not officially affiliated to any university in the US or elsewhere in the world.
How does Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti’s essay find a place on Course Hero? Let’s find out where on the website it is. The document, named on the site as unique_features_Sankaradeva_religious_philosophy.doc is uploaded under the section called ‘Notes’. The course title is mentioned as Religion S-1010, the professor as JOHN, and the school Harvard University. The uploader of this document goes by the name of iy155ygc. Course Hero has put a disclaimer at the top that says, “We aren’t endorsed by this school.”
I wrote an email to The Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University thanking them for including this work and asking for more details. To my shock, the university responded saying that they looked over all the materials and were “unable to confirm any connection with Harvard University”. They also corroborated that Course Hero is not affiliated to Harvard in any way. “The Committee on the Study of Religion does not number its courses in the way indicated (“S- 1010”). Additionally, our course with a similar number does not appear to relate to this topic,” the Committee wrote.
The response went on to add that they do not have a record of a “Professor John” ever having taught a course in the department.
This raises the question: who is iy155ygc, the person uploading Borkakoti’s essay on the site? The name does not give away much, and we can only speculate. It could be any Course Hero user uploading his/her notes. It is also not entirely impossible that the person is Borkakoti himself. But it is not Harvard University or any of its departments, and that claim has been conclusively debunked.
This hoax, however, raises many other important questions too – not least on academic integrity and on journalistic rigour and ethics.
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