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Nigerian universities and the plague of plagiarism

By Iyabo Lawal
30 May 2019   |   4:20 am
A former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, is not known for flippancy.

Peter Okebukola

A former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, is not known for flippancy. But when he claimed that 60 per cent of theses (project reports) of Nigerian undergraduates were plagiarised works, the academic community did not appear to be jolted; neither were the government nor the tertiary institution’s regulatory bodies, writes Head, Education Desk, Iyabo Lawal

A former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, Prof. Peter Okebukola, has a pedigree as an erudite scholar and a patriot. He is well-known in the education sector, nationally and internationally. His views are not taken with a pinch of salt.

Okebukola is not known for flippancy. Despite his repeated claims, however, that 60 percent of theses (project reports) of Nigerian undergraduates were plagiarised works, the academic community did not appear to be jolted – neither was the government nor the tertiary institution’s regulatory bodies – an indication that the issue is an insidious problem everyone is aware of.

Speaking at the inauguration of the CANVAS Learning Management System (LMS) at the Edo State University, the former NUC boss had expressed worry over the rising cases of plagiarism in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions. He was not joking as he disclosed that whole theses were sometimes plagiarised or some elements in them were subjected to the ‘crime of copy and paste’.

“Plagiarism means copying from somebody without attributing it to the person. Many of our students – even lecturers – will just go to Wikipedia and copy the page (content) and paste it as if they are the authors. So when the lecturer, who, maybe because of the volume of the work cannot go through, sees it (the thesis) he will say, ‘my students are brilliant’ not knowing that they copied,” a disturbed Okebukola told his audience which included erudite scholars and students.

A couple of months before he made the statement, specifically in November 2018, the education expert had warned about the insidious rise in plagiarism as he gave a presentation at the Kwara State University Education lecture. According to him, over “60 percent of long essays written by undergraduates” in their final year were plagiarised.

In addition, he stated that the rate of plagiarism – as a form of academic corruption – at master’s level was between 15 and 20 percent; and eight percent at the Ph.D. level.

He, thus, urged the government: “The government must place a high premium on education by providing adequate financial resources for the sector. Our institutions of learning must also look for innovative ways to raise funds. The teaching profession must be considered as one of the most important jobs and accorded due regard. The minister of education must appeal to state governors to give special emphasis to addressing the problem of the low quality of basic education. Also, there is the need for an enabling environment to be created for teachers and students through improved conditions of service and provision of basic infrastructures for the delivery of quality education.”

According to a study, ‘Plagiarism in the context of education and evolving detection strategies’, in the Journal of Korean Medical Science, plagiarism is an act of misappropriation of others’ intellectual property, including but not limited to scholarly texts, research methods, graphics, and ideas.

“Along with fabrication and falsification, it is classed as research misconduct. According to them, failure to obtain permission to reproduce previously published material and to acknowledge primary sources are the main components of the misappropriation.

“Although substantial unattributed textual copying may lead to authorship disputes and copyright infringement with legal consequences,” the research writers noted, “plagiarism is widely viewed as a distinct ethical issue, necessitating rewriting, rejection, or retraction of copied texts and whole papers, public shaming and expulsion of plagiarists with their temporary or permanent barring from publishing.”

In 2013, a university in Nigeria – the University of Calabar – kicked out four of its lecturers who were accused of plagiarism and 10 others were demoted for publishing their research works in fake or cloned journals which were presented to the university, resulting in their promotion and increase in salaries. The 10 academic staffs were made to pay for their sins as the school announced their demotion and ordered them to refund all money earned from their unmerited promotion. They were also barred from promotion for six years.

In a similar development, a professor and an assistant lecturer in the Chemistry Department of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, (FUNNAB), were given the boot for plagiarising. Elsewhere in Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti, six lecturers were sent packing for committing ‘crimes’ that included plagiarism. In Imo State, at the Federal Polytechnic, Nekede, 25 lecturers were demoted over the menace.

Sometimes, plagiarism can be a matter of litigation.

There was a report of two professors at the Department of Economics, University of Port Harcourt, sued for plagiarising the works of a Nigerian scholar – Victor Dike, an adjunct professor at the School of Engineering and Technology, National University, Sacramento, in the United States of America – without authorisation and or acknowledgment.

There was a report in 2016, regarding the allegation by an Indian researcher – Dr. Ruma Purkait, a forensic anthropologist in HS Gour University, Bhopal – in Bhopal that her work related to the ear biometrics was plagiarised by a Nigerian researcher and his student and published in an international journal.

She claimed that her research work was reproduced without her knowledge by one Dr. Samuel Daramola and his student, Oladejo Oluwaninyo, from the Department of Electrical and Information Engineering of one of Nigeria’s private universities.

Purkait narrated that when she discovered the academic fraud, she contacted the journal that published the work, Daramola, and Oluwaninyo. “It was shocking when the authors wrote back stating that I should sell them the data now at an affordable price,” Purkait said.

The apparently infuriated scholar added: “They used my name to authenticate their study which is not based on any data. They have also claimed a very high accuracy for their new method and have even given the details of the experiment how the data was used in a stepwise manner. Their work is a complete farce.”
Seventeen lecturers at the Delta State University (DELSU), in 2017, were disciplined for plagiarising. Some of them were demoted based on the recommendations of the Senior Staff Disciplinary Committee (SSDC). Some others were barred from holding any positions in the institution for five years.
Like lecturers, like students – that aptly describes the plagiarism plaguing hurting Nigeria’s tertiary education.

In the 2017 Mike Okwonkwo National Essay Competition, 27 students who participated were shown the way out for plagiarising.

The competition’s Chief Examiner, Prof. Hope Eghagha, had said: “After applying standard criteria in the assessment, we concluded that 27 entries were not original. In other words, they were plagiarised. This was after cross-checking each entry carefully with internet sources to determine their originality. This is one of the problems confronting us in the education sector. Some students simply downloaded materials from the internet and submitted the same as their original work.”

The Financial Times had reported a similar scourge taking place in the United States. It said in its 2012 edition: “As business schools make choices this month and next on their autumn intake, admissions officers are looking even more closely at submissions following the disclosure by UCLA Anderson School of Management that it has rejected 52 applicants to its MBA programme, suspecting they had plagiarised more than 10 per cent of their admissions essays. Post-financial crisis, schools have been busy refocusing students on business ethics and honour codes, only to find themselves prey to a more mundane violation – copy and paste. And while many believe plagiarism in coursework is on the retreat, business schools are now seeing it increase at the admissions stage.”

Executive Secretary, NUC, Abubakar Rasheed

It, however, added: “Places on exceptional MBA programmes are scarce commodities and the economic return is so substantial that some people are prepared to risk and to try things that would gain them an unfair advantage,” says Dave Wilson, chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which has invested heavily in biometric palm-vein technology to defeat applicants who try to cheat its graduate management admission test.”

It concluded by saying: “Of course, passing off someone else’s work as your own is an ancient practice – and Confucian-based cultures, such as China and Taiwan for example, take a more benign view. But the rise of the web means internet plagiarism has become a significant challenge to the integrity and reputation of schools and universities.”

The study referenced at the outset, admitted that there is no one-size-fits-all penalties for those who commit plagiarism.

It pointed out: “The seriousness of the charge and severity of the penalty depend on the specific motives of plagiarists (intentional, unintentional, or accidental theft), their awareness of related ethical norms, language proficiency, context, and volume of copying. Publication experts judge intentional and unintentional research misconduct differently. Despite the fact that both forms of misconduct distort the scientific record and should not be tolerated, there are some who argue that unintentional misconduct is ‘less serious’ and ‘less harmful’.”

The authors also admitted that there are different views regarding “self-plagiarism, or text recycling”, viewed by some authors as an acceptable form of reusing their own words and writings. “This is a vexing problem for those who work in a single field and publish articles with overlapping definitions, descriptions of methods, and references to own works,” they said.

“It is also a problem for academic institutions, where students’ dissertations containing their own published articles as whole chapters are viewed as self-plagiarised. In cases of reusing copyright-protected material, self-plagiarists may even face legal actions by primary publishers. To avoid ethical and legal issues, authors are advised to avoid adapting own previous publications and make an extra effort when (re)writing new texts.”

Commenting on this issue on the researchgate online forum, Emma Duke-Williams at the University of Dundee said: “I’d agree that for a review article, there may well be similar sections. One thing to remember is that SafeAssign, Turnitin, etc., are not plagiarism detection tools. They’re similarity detection. There should be similar sections (direct quotes, references, etc).

“They may also pick up frequently used phrases – some subjects have longer standard phrases than others, so ‘Software Development Life Cycle’ may, or may not be picked up as ‘similar’ – but it’s standard. I tend to tell students that zero similarity is also not always good, as it may indicate that they’ve put words together in a very weird way. What’s critical is what items are similar.”

In a similar vein, another scholar stated: “Similarity does not automatically mean plagiarism. In the best of cases, the similarity is a symptom indicating plagiarism a clue providing circumstantial evidence. The core of plagiarism is that you try to own an intellectual fulfilment, which belongs to another person. Avowal is still the best proof, but difficult to obtain. Logically speaking, similarity could be a necessary condition of plagiarism, but certainly is not a sufficient condition.