Grappling with a plagiarism problem in universities

Banishing academic dishonesty could help Mozambique nurture original thinkers who are economically efficient and socially suited to develop the country. But this will only be possible if administrators work with professors and students to build strong measures to combat widespread plagiarism, which is hampering the production of quality graduates.

A recent study revealed that various forms of plagiarism are rife at universities in the country. Plagiarism is seen as “presenting as your own another person’s words, ideas, data, artwork or designs – unless considered common knowledge – without referencing the true author”.

Five large universities were shown to have high percentages of plagiarism in a study published on 29 June in the International Journal for Educational Integrity by Dr Peter Coughlin, executive director of EconPolicy Research Group based Maputo, Mozambique.

Measuring plagiarism

The report, “Plagiarism in Five Universities in Mozambique: Magnitude, detection techniques, and control measures”, examined 48 undergraduate theses and 102 masters theses from Eduardo Mondlane University, Pedagogical University, Higher Institute of Science and Technology of Mozambique, St Thomas University of Mozambique and Polytechnic University of Mozambique.

According to the study, which presents a new method for classifying the quantity and significance of plagiarism, of the 150 theses, 75% contained 'significant' or worse plagiarism (at least 100 words) and 39% 'very much' plagiarism (at least 500 words).

There was a significant amount of plagiarism detected in both licenciatura and masters theses. Only 16% had very little or no plagiarism.

Two text-similarity-recognition programmes, Turnitin and Urkund, were used to identify potentially plagiarised passages, which were then professionally examined to verify whether those passages were improperly copied. The words in passages with confirmed plagiarism were then counted and summed for each thesis.

“The methodology I used is new in that it counted and classified the number of plagiarised words,” Coughlin, an industrial and agro-industrial economist who has worked in the country since 1991, told University World News.

The study looked at theses selected from the arts and social science departments.

Coughlin noted that text-similarity-recognition software did not detect any similarities with Spanish language documents, which would be easy sources for Portuguese speaking plagiarists. Important books and articles are often translated into Spanish, which academics can easily access.

In another plagiarism study on economics masters graduates in a Mozambican university that Coughlin did in 2013, “30% alleged that between 10% to 50% of the students had plagiarism in their theses”. But a random sample of 21 of the selected theses confirmed that all contained at least some plagiarised passages – “a percentage far higher than what the respondents estimated”.

Coughlin said opinions and self-confessions often underestimate the problem. An accurate picture of student plagiarism can only be obtained through empirical measurement.

Shortcomings of cheating

If academic fraud and, specifically, plagiarism are widespread, the plagiarist will learn less and many graduates will be sub-standard, thus jeopardising their education institution’s reputation.

The danger is in having graduates with diplomas and high grades but less knowledge and ability, said the report.

“The cheats also jeopardise their own long-term future since, with little valid experience conducting and writing about research, they will rarely attain real innovativeness and profound, original insights useful for society.

“Employers and the economy also suffer since such graduates have low skills and, sometimes, poor work ethics including outright thieving.”

Other studies, Coughlin said, have also revealed that there is a high correlation between the frequency of cheating at college and the frequency of cheating at work.

Combating the practice

Coughlin writes that, in other studies globally, universities have found that academic dishonesty is significantly correlated with how students understand the acceptance of academic integrity policies, the level of plagiarism being reported, the severity of penalties and how peers viewed plagiarism.

He said there is “need for clear definitions, consensus-building and consistent interpretations to quantify, understand and combat plagiarism, a global reality with many motives and educational, individual and national consequences”.

A good strategy requires understanding why and how students plagiarise and how the technical and socio-economic environment can facilitate or discourage academic fraud.

“Though learning to write well and reference sources should begin in junior high or high school, many university students lack these skills.” Citing Bennett, Coughlin noted that “ineffective study skills [are also] associated with substandard academic performance, lack of academic integration, and the tendency to plagiarise.

“Consequently, the failure to detect it and re-educate or discipline perpetrators nurtures a lax, tolerant ambience tempting additional students to choose the easy, low-learning route to a degree.”

Ashesi University in Ghana is lauded in the study as one institution on the continent that has set its “mission to educate a new generation of ethical leaders in Africa” and promote academic and professional integrity.

“Ashesi has created a niche market for honesty and high educational standards and has mobilised students and staff against fraudulent academic behaviour,” said Coughlin.

Holistic strategies needed

Students plagiarise due to ignorance, personal or peer-group pressures, values and practices, the opportunities presented, and the risks and consequences of getting caught, he said.

The Mozambican case suggests the necessity of a holistic strategy by educational institutions to teach and encourage professional ethics and discourage academic fraud.

He said various technical, pedagogical, administrative, regulatory and legal measures could be taken to prevent or discourage plagiarism.

The system can work if consensus is built among students, teachers and administrators about definitions, norms and the acceptance of individual and institutional responsibilities so that, when cases arise, teachers and administrators will have clear guidance about how to respond while also respecting students’ human rights.

Plagiarism can be best stopped by prevention, said Coughlin.

The primary focus should be on promoting writing and analytical skills, emphasising the academic and economic benefits of proper and good ethics, providing technological tools to train students to quote, reference and paraphrase properly, and establishing a private or public regulatory framework to ensure that universities, teachers and students cooperate and organise strategically on multiple fronts to prevent academic fraud, including plagiarism.

“When I moved from Kenya to Mozambique in the early 1990s, I realised that students were writing at low level and their analytical skills were weak. This motivated me to write a book, Claro e Directo: Como escrever um ensaio – translation Clear and Direct: How to write an essay – now in its second edition, said the former Eduardo Mondlane University lecturer and author of seven books.

Coughlin said universities must teach new students about the necessity and techniques for properly referencing sources and provide instructional materials and source-referencing software so students and staff can perfect their work.

He urged universities to discourage the use of secondary sources when the primary sources are available and dependence on often unreliable sources such as Wikipedia and non-PhD theses, since this practice is often associated with poor research and plagiarism.

Anti-plagiarism software essential

To train students and detect plagiarism more easily, lecturers need relevant software. He called for universities to have a database of incidents of cheating handled by a teacher or adjudicated by the university.

He said that to detect plagiarism, search engines need access to potential sources, all theses should be available online similar to the way libraries in the best universities traditionally do to make all theses available to the scientific community.

“To my knowledge, none of the more than 40 higher education institutions in Mozambique uses anti-plagiarism software,” he said.

He further warned that even if universities use such software, students and the numerous unscrupulous ‘paper mills’ on the internet would try to outwit the system by translating or paraphrasing from foreign language texts or by inventing new technical ruses to trick detection programmes. But universities should not be deterred.

Coughlin welcomed the proposed Anti-Plagiarism Regulation endorsed in April 2014 by Mozambique’s National Council for Higher Education, though it has not yet been enacted into law. If enacted, it would require universities to adopt explicit strategies, including the use of text-similarity-detection software, to tackle the plagiarism problem.