What can be done about the growth in dissertation mills?

Academic dishonesty is on the rise in universities in Africa – and globally – including dissertation fraud.

In a research paper published in 2020 titled “Academic Fraud: Solving the crisis in modern academia”, Paul Wilson notes that academic fraud is a growing threat.

Whereas the age-old practice of plagiarism continues, academic authorities now also have to contend with dissertation mills.

Despite the fact that dissertations are expected to be the work of the student under whose name they are published, there are several individuals and companies across the continent writing dissertations for students in exchange for money.

In the last couple of years, University World News has closely followed the rise of dissertation mills on the African continent as well as measures that have been implemented to try and curb the problem.

Countries such as Algeria, which were among the first to receive widespread reports of dissertation mills, have since introduced new measures for fighting the scourge of academic fraud. Nonetheless, dissertation mills and plagiarism continue to thrive across the continent. Part of the problem lies in the fact that software designed to curb academic fraud has not kept up with new ways of dishonesty that are continuously being deployed.

Software failures

Most of the software used to detect dissertation fraud cannot be relied upon to rule out plagiarism completely. This is according to PlagiarismToday, a website established to increase awareness of plagiarism on the web.

Turnitin, commonly used for detecting academic fraud, notes that anti-plagiarism software juxtaposes a student’s work with information in a software’s database to determine whether a student’s work was written with proper citing of sources and without plagiarism. In other words, if a student submits work that does not plagiarise digitised sources, or sources on the database of software used to check for plagiarism, their work is held to be credible.

In 2019 Debora Weber-Wulff wrote about this phenomenon in an article titled “Plagiarism detectors are a crutch, and a problem” published in Nature, an academic journal focusing on science and technology.

She wrote: “A system might fail to find plagiarism if the source of the plagiarised text has not been digitised, contains spelling errors or is otherwise not available to the software system.”

In Africa, some universities are facing challenges in digitisation. For example, some Nigerian universities have faced hurdles in the digitisation of academic work, according to research published by Osaheni Oni and others.

Digitisation problems mean dissertations and other sources of information that can be plagiarised may only exist as hard copies in some African universities. This is a huge loophole that can be exploited on the African continent where most colleges do not have online institutional repositories.

According to research done by Felicia Yusuf and others in a chapter dubbed “Institutional Repositories in Africa: Issues and challenges”, the development of institutional repositories (IRs) in Africa is still in its infancy stage.

Absence of institutional repositories

Only 24 African countries, out of 54, have institutional repositories according to the Directory of Open Access Repositories.

Institutional repositories are where universities store academic research produced by the institution, including masters and doctoral theses. The lack of institutional repositories in many African countries provides an opportunity for students who want to engage in dissertation fraud to unscrupulously use previously submitted doctoral and masters dissertations that are not digitised.

Weber-Wulff writes at length about the dangers of relying on anti-plagiarism software; some sources that can be plagiarised may not be available for comparison purposes. She gives reasons for why a source may not be available for comparison: it may not be digitised, or it may be inaccessible because it is not open access.

There are, however, some African countries that have institutional repositories in most of their universities, thus somewhat decreasing chances of dissertation fraud.

Countries such as Algeria, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan and Egypt have well-performing repositories according to research published by Usman Ahmed Adam and Kiran Kaur titled “Institutional Repositories in Africa: Regaining direction”.

The Algerian example

In 2021 Algeria introduced a law that not only outlaws dissertation mills, but encourages universities to have an online database of topics previously studied at the masters and doctoral level so as to prevent plagiarism.

University World News wrote about the development in a story titled “New measures for fighting scourge of academic fraud”.

The recently introduced Algerian law, in theory, makes it easier to cross reference new research with research that has already been published at the masters and doctoral level. As already noted, Algeria is also one of the few African countries with institutional repositories at its universities.

Old software in the age of new dishonesty

Detecting plagiarism is no longer sufficient in determining the credibility of a dissertation. There is a rapid rise in the number of students hiring people to write dissertations on their behalf, something anti-plagiarism software cannot detect.

According to the website Turnitin, “when a student engages a third-party to complete an assignment or thesis it's called contract cheating”.

“With up to 16% of students worldwide admitting to the practice and traditional plagiarism checkers incapable of detecting it, contract cheating presents new risks for schools and universities.”

In response to this new trend in academic fraud, some of the software originally used to combat plagiarism is now also focusing on detecting ghostwriting. For instance, Turnitin recently introduced a new functionality that uses a student’s previous work as some sort of baseline to determine whether a student is, indeed, the author of a specific dissertation.

Turnitin’s products and similar ones from other software companies are still fairly new and their effectiveness is yet to be fully researched and documented. However, according to some student leaders and academics on the African continent, there are other solutions to limit contract writing that are not software related.

Students should defend their work

There should be a rigorous process to eliminate contract writing throughout the dissertation writing process. This is according to Dr Godliver Owomugisha of Busitema University in Uganda.

Speaking to University World News, she said there are mechanisms that can be developed to nip the practice of contract writing in the bud. “There is a need for a process that ensures students go back and forth with their supervisors at various stages of dissertation writing,” said Owomugisha.

“Students should do presentations and defend their academic work.” This, she said, minimises dissertation fraud because students constantly have to defend what they have written and show that they are the authors of their work.

Will better pay for lecturers help?

Alistar Pfunye, the president of the Southern African Students Union (SASU), blamed the rise of dissertation mills on low pay for lecturers. Said Pfunye: “If you look at the issue of ghostwriting in academic circles closely, you will find that a lot of it is being done by lecturers who are trying to supplement measly salaries.”

Pfunye said there was a need to address the root causes of the problem as opposed to tackling symptoms. “I strongly believe if lecturers in African countries get decent salaries we will witness a decrease in the number of people engaging in ghostwriting for students.

“Of course, there are other reasons for dissertation fraud besides low pay among lecturers but it is a huge contributing factor.”

Pfunye said there should be meetings for stakeholders in various localities to discuss the best way to address the problem of dissertation fraud.