/ 13 February 2015

The millions we spend on stolen ideas

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann


Unlike student plagiarism, plagiarism by academics is a relatively unexplored problem, with research being largely anecdotal and speculative.

But more than 68% of the journal articles we surveyed in our recently published article in the South African Journal of Science showed enough evidence to qualify as plagiarised. And, because 21% of the 371 articles our study examined contained a degree of plagiarism we defined as “excessive”, we estimated that the government paid a subsidy of almost R7-million for these questionable publications.

Plagiarism is intellectual theft and transgresses the fundamental values of the academy, preventing learning, the dissemination of new knowledge and the integrity of the scientific record.

Strictly defined, plagiarism is the representation of the work of another, or of one’s own work, without acknowledgment of such work. It can include careless paraphrasing, the copying of identical text or providing incomplete references that mislead the reader into believing that the ideas expressed belong to the author of the text. Self-plagiarism, which portrays previous work as new, is also considered a form of plagiarism.

The objective of our study was to investigate the degree of plagiarism in articles published in 2011, in 19 South African management journals spanning the major fields of management that attract subsidies from the department of higher education and training.

The department pays about R120 000 to a university for each academic article a staff member publishes in any of the local or international journals that appear on a list it compiles every year. This funding is an essential income stream for universities. Accordingly, academics are under pressure to publish in these recognised, or “accredited”, journals, and these publications are linked to financial and promotional rewards for the authors.

The similarity index
We submitted 371 peer-reviewed articles to the Turnitin software program to identify similarities with other published material. Once a manuscript is submitted to the programme, it is compared against billions of internet pages, online publications, journals and student papers. The programme then generates a report that highlights any text that has been copied and indicates the percentage of similarity – called “the similarity index” – between the submitted manuscript and documents in the Turnitin database.

Our study included only South African journals that appeared in 2011 on the Institute of Science Index or the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences lists, or on the local list of journals the higher education department compiles – and that therefore met the department’s conditions for earning its subsidy. We checked the results for each article twice, and we adopted a conservative approach in the interpretation of the similarity indices, so that the benefit of doubt favoured the authors.

For each article, we excluded the following content from qualifying as “similar material”: bibliography/list of references, quotations, strings of less than 10 words, student papers on which the article was based, conference proceedings and abstracts detailing the main features of the article, specific methodological terms and statistical or mathematical formulae. The Turnitin™ software program itself generates conservative results.

Across the 371 submissions the similarity index ranged from one (indicating almost no similarity) to 91 (indicating almost complete similarity). The latter pertained to a single article published in exactly the same form in two journals under different titles.

To obtain an overview of the relative frequency of plagiarism, we categorised the similarity indices as follows: 1 to 9 – “low”; 10 to 14 –“moderate”; 15 to 24 – “high”; and more than 24 – “excessive”.

Submissions that fell into the high category constituted 27.2% of the articles; and 21.3% of submissions fell into the excessive category. Taking a 9% similarity index as our cut-off point, 68.2% of the submissions showed enough similarity to qualify as plagiarised.

Intense pressure
We suggest that the intense pressure on universities and their academics, to increase their research output within short time periods, plays a role in this problem. In addition, academics are rewarded in a variety of ways for these outputs, and this can contribute to a culture of expedience and opportunism.

An additional problem is one of governance. This emerges when one considers the R120 000 government subsidy per article to universities. Each institution decides on its own how to split the subsidy between itself and the authors. When we excluded the 47 articles by authors who were not in any way affiliated to a South African university, we estimated that the government paid R32.4-million in subsidies for articles published in the 19 journals our study examined during the period under review.

Given that 21.3% of these articles contained excessive plagiarism, we deduced that the government paid a subsidy of almost R7-million for questionable publications.

The culture of research expediency that may be emerging in academic institutions to increase subsidised research output could have long-term implications for the reputation of universities. Their contribution to society might well also become compromised regarding the dissemination of new knowledge and the upholding of moral values transmitted to, and then through, the students who graduate from these institutions and who, research has shown, will be influenced by unethical role models.

It is critical that the department of higher education works with universities to devise measures for subsidising research output without inadvertently promoting the sacrificing of quality and encouraging short cuts involving plagiarism.

Similarly, internal university rewards to academics should not involve rewarding only the quantity of research output without also considering the contribution researchers make who publish fewer articles but in highly cited journals that, moreover, have far greater stringency in their quality requirements.

We also recommend that, to preserve the reputation of journals, their editors subject manuscripts to a plagiarism-detection program and that the penalties to authors for detected plagiarism be severe.

Adèle Thomas and Gideon P de Bruin are professors in the department of industrial psychology and people management at the University of Johannesburg. This is an edited version of their article in the South African Journal of Science (2015), 111(1/2). Go to mg.co.za/plagiarism1302 for the full article.