Medical science in Africa has a serious plagiarism problem

Don’t lift ideas.
Don’t lift ideas.
Image: REUTERS/Desmond Boylan
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In academic and journalistic circles, plagiarism is a serious offense, yet the problem remains “common” in biomedical research articles published across Africa, a new study shows.

The research, published in November, examined 495 papers published online in 2016 by 100 Africa-based journals. Of those, 313 articles showed evidence of plagiarism, ranging from one or two to over six copied sentences. The authors reached these conclusions by submitting the articles to Turnitin, a software that detects plagiarism by comparing submitted material with content in its archive or those published online.

Considered the first investigation to document plagiarism in African biomedical journals, the paper showed lifting of sentences or complete ideas was more common in the introduction and discussion parts of the paper and less so in the results. Even though the sample was conducted only in English in 30 African countries it skewed towards a few countries—Nigeria and South Africa—moderate plagiarism, three to six sentences, was still rampant across most of the articles.

Another dire problem was that only 26 out of the 100 journals had a policy on plagiarism.

Even though plagiarism is globally common in scientific research, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t constitute a deeper problem that should be swiftly dealt with. This is especially true of for an African continent that woefully lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to generating scientific knowledge. Governments in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, spend less than 0.5% of GDP on backing research, with many scientists working long hours—sometimes for years—researching and publishing papers for free.

But as the paper notes, institutions and researchers in Africa are both waking up to the problematic nature of taking someone else’s words and work without proper accreditation or attribution. Nigerian universities, for instance, have championed rolling out Turnitin countrywide to tackle academic and intellectual theft.

The African Research Integrity Network was also established in 2015 in part to promote academic integrity and to deal with cases of plagiarism and conflict of interest. Other alliances like the African Journals Partnership Project have specifically come up to support the training of authors and reviewers in Africa, thus ensuring the improvement of standards among scientific and medical researchers.

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