University students are plagiarising? Say it ain’t so

A highly popular news story last week was about the plight of five university students under investigation by a disciplinary committee in one of our universities. The crime: plagiarism. However, a closer reading of the piece points to a number of questions about the state of our higher education and, in fact, careful research on these issues would produce some interesting undergraduate or graduate thesis. But there is one problem: it may also be plagiarised. 

The subject of plagiarism can be complex. Defined broadly as academic dishonesty, plagiarism is a global phenomenon. Plagiarism, it appears, can happen to anyone. Indeed, the culprits have been from diverse sources.

In recent years, seasoned professors and award-winning journalists, among other professionals, have had to resign due to plagiarism. Perhaps most prominent of plagiarism scandals in recent times happened in 2012 and involved the famed Harvard trained journalist Fareed Zakaria who was found to, and had to apologise for, having lifted entire sections of other writers’ work and appropriating them as if they were his own ideas.

Students are the usual suspects, however. And for good reason. That is because the whole idea of being in school is to acquire and to develop the skills and confidence to place them well on their way to becoming independent thinkers and actors.

And now this story about five students under disciplinary action at one of the universities here in Rwanda. But one would have to be naïve to believe that only these five are the ones involved in academic dishonesty at this particular university. They were simply the unlucky ones that got caught.

Which leads to questions. Who isn’t being honest, the university administration or the students? Look, we know that our universities are very good at producing excellent test-takers. Students, for the most part, are expected to take a lot of notes and handouts from the lecturer, memorise them, and prepare to reproduce them on exam day, after which the students must flush all this material out of their brain in order to make enough memory room for the next exam.

The same universities are not very good at creating excellent thinkers. Yet, research can be a tedious and cumbersome exercise that involves thinking, allowing the mind to create, with knowledge being the product of these processes.

This is also why plagiarism persists: knowledge is a regurgitative exercise. It is a creative, constructive, regurgitation that cannot be confused with mimicry, a fine line that also explains why at times the offense of plagiarism may not be premeditated. Grasping where this line is drawn often takes time, and one course in research methods simply won’t cut it.

Test-taking creates nothing. Yet, these same students who have been taught how to pass exams are expected to produce research as a prerequisite for graduation. If research was so important then why weren’t the students taught the tools to do just that during the course of their education, with the same emphasis as that placed on exams, and not have to wait so as to hold them at ransom leading up to graduation? By expecting them to conduct research without plagiarising, isn’t the university trying to reap where it did not sow?

What is more perplexing about our universities is that graduate students are also spending a great deal of time cramming for tests. This is time they could put to good use to conduct research on a plethora of topics right here in our environs that require deeper understanding.

Fine, one could sell me on the importance of tests for undergraduate students. However, the vast amount of time during graduate education ought to be spent on developing skills for research, writing, and thinking. But alas!

It’s about honesty, right? But who is investigating the investigators? Or –if we were to really step on some psychological toes – could it be that the reason there is low research output in our universities is because even our lecturers and professors aren’t able to produce original work.

Please do not shoot the messenger. I’m merely making the point that the students being paraded for having committed the ‘crime’ of plagiarism are victims, too. Moreover, the idea that those found guilty would have to be banished from all universities in the country is cruel and unusual punishment.

I am not advocating in favour of the conduct of those students. Far from it. However, imagine just for a second that you traded places with them. You need to produce a thesis but are not equipped to do so. Your life depends on it. Would you do any differently? Let’s be honest.

If we we’re being honest we would know that disciplinary measures meted out against these students and their isolation for ridicule are nothing but an attention-seeking distraction so that the university administration is seen to be doing something about the problem. This band-aid approach simply won’t do. Let’s get to the root of the rot.