Widespread plagiarism detected in many medical journals based in Africa

Around 63% of articles from 100 sampled journals contained some text copied without attribution.

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A lab technician holds a blood sample up to the light from a window in Tanzania

Efforts are under way in Africa to spread awareness about research integrity.Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

African medical journals have a plagiarism problem. A study that looked at nearly 500 papers in 100 Africa-based journals found that 63% contained some form of plagiarism.

The study, published in BMJ Open on 8 November1 by researchers based in South Africa, Croatia and the United Kingdom, sampled the papers from African Journals Online (AJOL), a database that aims to boost the visibility of journals from the continent.

They randomly selected five papers published in 2016 from each of the 100 journals — fewer for journals that did not publish five articles that year. They ran the final sample of 495 papers through plagiarism-checking software.

A whopping 313 papers, or 63%, had some evidence of plagiarism. They found some plagiarism — copying of one or two sentences, or three to six sentences in the methods section, without attribution — in 134 papers. They found extensive plagiarism, in which more than six sentences were copied, in 83 papers.

The study also found that only 26 of the 100 journals had a policy on plagiarism posted on their website, and a mere 16 stated that they used plagiarism software. The authors say that this points to a “major problem with writing and publishing in medical science in Africa”.

The numbers are higher than those found in comparable studies for other regions. A 2011 study of 754 papers submitted to The Croatian Medical Journal found plagiarism in 11%2. Another study found that of 662 papers submitted to a Chinese journal, 23% had “apparently unreasonable levels of copying or self-plagiarism”3.

Awareness raising

“The message is not that African science is bad,” says Anke Rohwer, a biostatistician at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa and lead author of the BMJ Open study. Rather, she says, it’s that there’s not enough awareness of these issues. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” she says.

Rohwer and her co-authors recommend raising awareness about plagiarism among academics, and improved editorial practices for journals. The use of anti-plagiarism software could solve the problem quickly, they add.

Kate Snow, content and communications manager for AJOL, in Grahamstown, South Africa, says the database encourages all the journals indexed on its website to run plagiarism checks.

In the past few years, AJOL has been assessing its journals according to the Journal Publishing Practices and Standards framework, which helps publications to gauge their quality-control practices, Snow says. “We are hoping that this will encourage our partner journals to improve.”

In 2015, a group of African researchers created the African Research Integrity Network, which aims to combat scientific misconduct by raising awareness.

Francis Kombe, one of the network’s founders, based in Kilifi, Kenya, says the BMJ Open study’s plagiarism data are concerning. “If someone can copy someone’s idea and fail to reference or acknowledge the source, that’s the beginning of a problem that can grow,” he says.

Diverse continent

However, he cautions against interpreting the data as speaking for all of Africa. “We can’t view Africa as if it’s one country. There’s a big difference in terms of culture and practice,” he says.

Tope Olomola, a chemist at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, says the BMJ Open study has merit. “The consciousness of plagiarism is not yet as ingrained as it should be in the minds of most African researchers,” he says.

Olomola is president of the Nigerian Young Academy, which organizes training for students and young academics on publishing standards. He thinks there is a shift happening. “However,” he says, “with our [large] population, we still have to do more before we can expect to see tangible changes.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07462-2
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  1. 1.

    Rohwer, A., Wager, E., Young, T. & Garner, P. BMJ Open 8, e024777 (2018).

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    Zhang, H. Learn. Publ. 23, 9–14 (2010).

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