Plagiarism: The rising threat to academic integrity

(Photo: Courtesy)

Last month, Flora Awino, a student at Mount Kenya University, lost a case in the High Court in which she was challenging her suspension from the university over exam cheating.

Judge George Odunga dismissed the suit after he found that the disciplinary process the university followed in suspending Ms Awino for one semester was a fair administrative action. According to the case, Awino, a fourth year student, was allegedly in possession of ‘mwakenya’ -- unauthorised material in form of notes -- which she chewed and swallowed when caught by an invigilator.

Nonetheless, Awino had gone to court to seek redress, arguing that the yardstick used by the university’s disciplinary committee to arrive at its verdict was unfair, excessive and in violation of the Constitution and her right to a fair hearing.

So far, cheating in examinations in universities is widespread not just in Kenya but in most parts of the world.

Old tradition

But whereas most examination cheating students as Awino are still rooted in the old tradition of smuggling raw notes into examination rooms, some high-tech savvy students have developed novel ways to improve their grades unfairly.

Some of the new methods include concealed headphones linked to gadgets with recorded information, as well as holding information on calculators, smart-watches and micro video cameras concealed in glasses. Students also smuggle into exam rooms ultra-violet light gadgets hidden in smart-watches to enable them to read unauthorised notes written in invisible ink that is commonly marketed on the internet as a toy.

Even then, academic misconduct goes beyond taking unauthorised notes into the examination room. The new kid on the block in academic fraud is plagiarism in term papers, dissertations and theses. According to Dr Muriel Poisson, plagiarism and the overall academic corruption in higher education implies distorted selection processes, the overall devaluation of degrees and under-qualified professionals.

“It also has detrimental effects on ethics and values,” says Muriel, who is the task manager on ethics and corruption in education at the International Institute for Educational Planning at the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

But such lofty ideals are often discarded by students when it comes down to intense competition towards acquiring credentials for educational, occupational and social advancement. According to Max Eckstein, a professor of comparative education at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York, plagiarism has become a major tool to steal academic achievement. In most instances, global plagiarism is fuelled by websites such as Evil House of Cheat (, UK Essays ( and other online sites where finished term papers and dissertations could be bought cheaply by students.

Undoubtedly, few people outside academia could believe that it would take less than just 10 minutes to order for a dissertation in any subject. Currently, a final degree dissertation at the UK Essays is going for about Sh1 million, depending on the length and subject. However, term papers of 1,500-2,000 words are much cheaper in comparison to dissertations that usually require to be custom-written. In this regard canned term or semester papers that have no personalised requirements are going for an equivalent of Sh100 to Sh200 per page. That means a student can buy a term paper for as little as Sh1,000.

In this regard, academic paper mills are doing brisk business. On their website, executives at the Evil Cheat House confirm that they have about 10,000 term papers on offer. They also promise students that one can order for a custom-written paper in any subject and topic of choice.

UK Essays says it sold more than 16,000 assignments last year, up from 10,000 five years earlier. The London-based mill says it has a network of 3,500 researchers located in different countries. Besides, at a small fee, most academic cheating houses also offer services in answering questions that a lecturer might want students to hand in in a couple of days.

The new fraud is giving academic staff sleepless nights as they are not able to tell whether the grades or the degrees that are finally awarded reflect the actual academic achievement. According to Prof Phil Newton, the director of learning and teaching at Swansea University, the problem is moving very fast.

“Research suggests that there are over 1,000 academic paper mills globally,” says Newton who is a leading expert on academic plagiarism.

Personalised academic paper

However, amid efforts to detect customers of online cheat houses in Kenya’s universities, the Commission for University Education has directed universities to use Turnitin, intelligent computer software that can spot similarities of any document and its embedded database. Unfortunately, whereas Turnitin can in a matter of minutes detect the old-fashioned cut-and-paste plagiarism and flag up passages in a document already existing in other sources, it cannot detect a personalised academic paper that had been custom-written by someone else.

Even when lecturers suspect foul play, it can be hard to know how to act or to punish the culprit. The issue is that in most circumstances, after receiving a ready-made academic paper or a dissertation from a cheat house, students edit the document and relatively reduce the level of language fluency and sophistication of thought. According to someone familiar with the fraud, some students just insert a few sheng words to domesticate the document as their own.

Nonetheless, most university undergraduate students in Kenya are not customers of an aggressive ring of academic paper mills in the cyberspace although a good number pay local student-help enterprises for similar services. This sort of academic fraud is commonly perpetrated by students who pursue project-based master’s degree in non-specific fields such as business management, strategic management, human resources, procurement, education, project management, women studies, leadership, communication, development studies and other related areas. In the last few years, almost all universities in the country have recorded high graduation rates in academic fields where it had been easier to outsource writing of project proposals and dissertations.

Hard to detect

But unlike Awino’s mwakenya, this type of shadow academic fraud is hard to detect. Still, while universities do not condone it, it is not illegal in Kenya to have someone ‘help’ in writing a higher degree proposal, dissertation, or even a term paper. The reality of the matter is that it is hard to catch someone engaged in contract plagiarism which has increasingly become a growing threat to academic integrity in Kenya and so many other parts of the world.

So far, the demand for student help mills in Kenya are expected to increase as more people seek higher degrees and availability of under-employed graduates willing to moonlight in writing papers for mediocre or lazy students. No doubt one wonders whether in order to avert the crisis of academic fraud in all its forms, universities should result to giving oral examinations.