Better training is key to tackling plagiarism in developing countries

Good research practices begin in the classroom.

  • Gemma Conroy

Credit: erhui1979/Getty

Better training is key to tackling plagiarism in developing countries

Good research practices begin in the classroom.

17 April 2020

Gemma Conroy


Time constraints are the most common reason researchers in developing countries turn to plagiarism, a survey of more than 700 researchers from low- and middle-income countries found.

Most of those surveyed disapproved of plagiarism in theory, and acknowledged that those who do it are not respected by their peers. One in three admitted to plagiarising at some point during their academic career, knowingly or not.

A lack of understanding may be a partial cause. The study, published in Science and Engineering Ethics, revealed that 84% of the respondents did not know the difference between “plagiarism” and “similarity” in texts, though nearly all had said they understood what plagiarism was.

More information needed

“Although students and professionals from developing countries are familiar with the concept of plagiarism, there is need to educate them further about this issue,” write the authors, led by Aamir Raoof Memon from the Peoples University of Medical and Health Sciences for Women in Nawabshah, Pakistan.

Memom says that clearer policies and better training are needed to inform researchers in developing nations on plagiarism and its consequences.

“I’ve been asked by quite senior people about what the different categories of plagiarism are,” he explains. “This is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

Out of time

To find out how developing countries can better tackle plagiarism, Memon and his colleague Martina Mavrinac from the University of Rijeka in Croatia surveyed 746 students and researchers who participated in the AuthorAID MOOC on Research Writing in 2017. The freely available course aimed to improve the writing skills of early career researchers in developing countries.

The most commonly cited reasons in the survey for using someone else’s work without correct references came down to time constraints, including “having to submit assignments over a short period of time”, and “doing things at the last minute”.

Despite this, 83% of respondents said they disapproved of others plagiarising, and another 74% thought that plagiarism was relatively rare in their community.

A growing problem

Plagiarism is on the rise worldwide. In 2018, Retraction Watch reported that the proportion of papers retracted due to plagiarism has more than tripled over the last two decades, with numbers sharply increasing following the launch of iThenticate in 2004.

In a separate analysis of 213 retracted papers, plagiarised papers accounted for 41.8% of those retractions, with higher rates of plagiarism in articles by authors from low-income and non-English speaking countries.

In Pakistan, the national Higher Education Commission has taken steps to discourage plagiarism, including offering training sessions, publishing a regularly updated blacklist of plagiarism offenders, and introducing a policy outlining penalties and how institutions can enforce them.

Complacent behaviour

While such measures are a good step, strict disciplinary action against plagiarism is rarely enforced, says Arslaan Javaeed, who studies research ethics and pathology at Poonch Medical College in Pakistan.

“It has become so prevalent that it isn’t considered as an offence,” says Javaeed, who wasn’t involved in Memon’s study. “The teachers themselves are unaware of the consequences of such a practice and indirectly promote it through their complacent behaviour.”

While the sample size of this survey is too small to be an accurate representation of practices across the developing world, Memon says that improved access to detection software could help students and researchers become more aware of plagiarism and create an incentive to avoid it.

Many of the respondents also reported that they did not have access to plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin and iThenticate, at their universities.

But such tools are not a substitute for adequate training, he warns. “Training needs to start at the bottom and go to the top. Research and publishing ethics should be a part of the curriculum.”

Saqib Saeed, a computer scientist who has also written papers on plagiarism at Imam Abdul Rahman bin Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, says that a lack of financial and human resources in developing countries is a barrier to helping researchers develop good research practices.

He adds that policies requiring researchers to publish papers in order to earn their degree or be promoted can tempt them to cut corners, particularly when they are weighed down by teaching and administrative duties.

“As a result, researchers and academics use these negative practices to satisfy promotion requirements and others,” says Saeed, who was not involved in the study.