Plagiarism seen to be aiding drop in education standards

The quality of Nigerian university graduates continues to be a source of concern with many of the country’s academics and stakeholders pointing to the prevalence of plagiarism and academic dishonesty in universities as a contributing factor.

Last month, Dr Bongo Adi, a specialist in development economics who also consults for the World Bank, was reported to have said that 70% of graduates churned out in recent times by Nigerian universities and other higher institutions of learning were “unemployable”. This is despite the fact that a news report from last year highlighted the surge in first class degree awards and quoted a senior lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria who described the country as “a factory for the massive production of first class graduates”.

According to Enoch Banbilbwa, a biochemistry lecturer at the University of Jos, Plateau State, the rush to acquire a degree, be it bachelors, masters or PhD, has never been so great. Referring to the 2011 book Dying Education: Necessary Reformation – The Nigerian case by academic and administrator Alphonsus Emeka Ezeoke, he said the effect was a collapse in the foundations of learning which undermined the integrity of the entire educational system and brought it into disrepute.

At postgraduate level, where students are required to produce a thesis, this rush translates into the search for work to misrepresent as one’s own, in other words, plagiarise.

“Today, undergraduate students, who are unmotivated to carry out their own research, move from one of the nation’s 150 universities to another to get a copy of an already completed project thesis, to duplicate and present it in their own schools as a chosen topic for their thesis,” Dr Joan Hassan, department of mass communication, Kaduna State University, told University World News.

In some cases, lecturers even facilitate the plagiarism.

“Some lecturers are aiding and abetting this practice as most of them give the students the option of having the project written for them by the said lecturer,” said Ebute Michael, a final-year student in the department of chemistry, Benue State University, Makurdi. “They are given the option to accept whatever they are presented without questioning or crosschecking to see if it is a plagiarised work.”

In private universities, the practice is relatively contained owing to the availability of plagiarism detection software.

“In the private universities, the practice is a bit restricted as most of the universities and their lecturers can afford to buy detection software such as Turnitin to fish out a plagiarised work, but in the public universities the lecturers cannot afford this software and the complaint of a heavy academic workload serves as an excuse for them to allow plagiarism to thrive unabated,” said Dr Adewale Adewuyi, department of chemical sciences, Redeemer’s University, Osun State.

Academic dishonesty is not limited to students. There are instances of a lecturer supervising an undergraduate student in the writing of a project which the lecturer then assumes ownership over, publishing it in journals or presenting it at seminars without giving due credit to the student’s contribution.

According to Emmanuel Kwon-Ndung, a professor of plant genetics and breeding at the Federal University Lafia, plagiarism constitutes a serious threat to the academic system.

“It promotes a lack of credible and goal-targeted research activity among academics. It also leads to low impact research results. The most worrisome fact is that the practice is becoming prevalent in virtually all levels of tertiary education,” he said.

Kwon-Ndung said he recently served as an external examiner at another university and was presented with a project he had supervised some seven years ago at the Nasarawa State University. “The student copied the project and changed the locations in the materials and methods. So, I reported both the student and supervisors as guilty and submitted my report to the vice-chancellor.”

In his capacity as editorial board chairman of his institutional journal, Kwon-Ndung said he oversaw the introduction and use of a plagiarism checker on manuscripts submitted to the journal. “We discovered that over 70% of submitted manuscripts have a similarity index of over 50%, confirming that the work is lifted from other publications,” he said.

According to Kwon-Ndung, in addition to journal articles, lecturers are also guilty of dishonesty in their reproduction of books and even handouts in some cases. “There are copyright rules that are against the photocopy or production of certain books or journals without the consent of the author or publisher but some lecturers just copy and start sharing to students, sometimes at a fee, not paying regard to these laws,” he said.

Dr Tope Olomola, a senior lecturer in the department of chemistry, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, attributed the increase in plagiarism cases to the plethora of information available on the internet and the fact that the institutions are not doing enough to discourage the trend.

He noted that the first-degree level remained the most affected because many of the students are learning the rudiments of writing. “Hence they just copy and paste when given assignments. In some cases, even final-year dissertations are plagiarised. However, in the case of scientific article plagiarism and self-plagiarism, cases are more prevalent among postgraduate students.”

While unwilling to name those found guilty, he said consequences are largely organisation-dependent and vary from dismissal to demotion or suspension or no action at all.

Hassan of Kaduna State University said it would be difficult to say if plagiarism was on the increase in the absence of any formal study.

“But one thing is certain, the copy and paste syndrome has been a part of our educational system for years; what has changed is its modus operandi. In the past, university students imported hardbound copies of students’ projects from other universities. They would copy it verbatim and submit it for assessment, with the only difference being the preliminary pages. Today, with unlimited access to the internet, students lift soft copy of other authors’ works almost instantly,” she said.

She agreed that plagiarism was taking its toll on the nation’s academic system. “It poses a serious threat and undermines the standard of education. This explains why Nigerian universities always fare poorly in the Times Higher Education ranking … Ethical considerations in research are among the indices used in gauging how each university fares. How then do we compete with foreign universities when … all we do is copy and paste other people’s sweat?”

An economics graduate of the University of Abuja, whose name is known to University World News, told this publication he used to make money from students, writing their projects, sometimes with the help of lecturers.

“As a student I made a lot of money writing projects for other students. Lecturers usually contact me when executive students who cannot write projects show up. Since the end product is submitted to the same lecturer who commissioned you, due diligence is not adhered to, so anything goes. Today, even though I’m out of school, I still get called upon to write for those who have money and no time to write.”

Professor Abubakar Rasheed, the executive secretary of the National Universities Commission, has condemned the increasing levels of plagiarism in universities and said the commission will work with universities to introduce anti-plagiarism software to stop academic theft.

Rasheed, who addressed a workshop on the topic of higher education reforms and the Africa Centres of Excellence initiative in Abuja on 20 March, listed plagiarism as one of the challenges facing higher education. He said: “The challenges confronting the higher education system in Nigeria are alarming and these challenges have over time watered down the quality of our higher education.”