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In Nigeria, a battle against academic plagiarism heats up

Six years ago, Emmanuel Unuabonah, a chemist at Redeemer's University in Ede, Nigeria, read a scientific paper that made him feel "betrayed." A colleague from Germany had shown him the study, which was published in a Nigeria-based journal. In it, four Nigerian researchers presented data copied from a paper by the German researcher as their own. Although Unuabonah had nothing to do with the blatant plagiarism, "I felt humiliated," he recalls. "It was not good for the image of Nigerian science."

The experience led Unuabonah to become a leader in a growing movement to combat academic plagiarism in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and home to more than 150 public and private universities and colleges. Since 2012, the Nigerian Young Academy (NYA)—an off-shoot of the Nigerian Academy of Sciences (NAS) for scientists younger than 45 that Unuabonah helped found—has made educating academics about the pitfalls of plagiarism a major focus of its work. The group will hold a session on preventing plagiarism in August at its annual meeting in Ondo City, Nigeria. This past February, a record 350 participants showed up for a daylong, NYA-run plagiarism workshop, and the group soon hopes to arrange at least six more, one in each of Nigeria's six geopolitical regions.

The fledgling group, which has just 36 members, is also encouraging universities to make greater efforts to detect plagiarism—such as by installing software that can detect plagiarized material—and to penalize those who copy. Last year, NYA itself ejected a member for plagiarism, and it has formally made improper copying a dismissible offense.

There's no conclusive evidence that plagiarism is more common in poorer nations like Nigeria than in wealthier countries. But a 2017 survey of attitudes toward research misconduct in low- and middle-income countries found that respondents perceived plagiarism as "common," a team led by researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa reported last year in The BMJ. Similar views emerged from a 2010 survey of 133 Nigerian scientists conducted by physician Patrick Okonta of Delta State University Teaching Hospital in Otefe, Nigeria. The survey, published in 2014 in BMC Medical Ethics, found that 88% believed plagiarism and other forms of misconduct were common at their institutions.

Also fueling concerns about shoddy scholarship in Nigeria is the large number of researchers who publish in low-quality, feebased journals—including a few titles based within the country—that don't peer review manuscripts or screen for plagiarized material. An analysis of 2000 papers appearing in such journals, published in Nature in 2017, found that researchers based in Nigeria made up the third largest group of authors, behind authors from India and the United States. NYA and NAS are now discussing creating a journal index that would help academics identify "which are good and which are a waste of time," says NYA President Temitope Olomola, a chemist at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, who is on a 1-year sabbatical at the University of South Africa in Johannesburg.

Some high-profile plagiarism cases have involved Nigerians: In 2017, publisher Taylor & Francis retracted 10 publications by Oluwaseun Bamidele, who began publishing papers about terrorism as an undergraduate. Bamidele later told Retraction Watch that he didn't learn about plagiarism rules until he enrolled in a master's degree program, and he took responsibility for his missteps. That lack of training is common among Nigerian students, says Olomola, who recalls that he, too, didn't fully learn citation rules until he was a graduate student in South Africa. NYA's workshops, he notes, aim to raise awareness of best practices among students and professors, and provide tips for avoiding improper duplication.

Many Nigerian researchers believe few plagiarists get caught, Okonta's survey suggested. But that may change. In 2013, a group of Nigerian vice-chancellors negotiated discounted subscriptions to the antiplagiarism software Turnitin, which screens documents for borrowed material. And Okonta's university and others have made plagiarism checks a part of faculty promotion reviews.

Campaigners also want to institute stiffer consequences for copying. "We need to do a lot more sensitization, telling people about the awful side of being caught," Unuabonah says. "That will send some fear into their hearts." Recent dismissals of Nigerian academics for plagiarism are helping that cause, says Charles Ayo, former vice-chancellor of Covenant University in Ota, Nigeria.

Nigeria's two-pronged effort to raise awareness about plagiarism and penalize wrongdoers is a good model for change, says malaria researcher Virander Singh Chauhan, who chairs India's National Assessment and Accreditation Council in Bengaluru and helped write that country's new antiplagiarism rules. "This is not an Indian or Nigerian problem," he says. "It is a global issue, and technology has made it so very easy and tempting."

Ultimately, Nigeria's antiplagiarism campaigners hope their efforts will not only prevent problems, but also improve perceptions of Nigerian science. "The whole world is watching," Olomola says. "That still needs to sink into many of our people."