INTELLECTUAL TRAFFICKING: How librarians of top Nigerian varsities exchange student theses for money [part 1]
A thesis―what many Nigerians refer to as a ‘project’—is defined as “a dissertation on a particular subject in which one has done original research, as one presented by a candidate for a diploma or degree”. “Original research”, or sometimes “personal research”, is a phrase that comes up regardless of what dictionary is consulted. Yet, it is a common practice for students to pass off the exact opposite. They obtain theses one way or another, change the author’s names and other details, and submit as theirs. Worse still, such students are often aided by university librarians employed to safeguard these documents.
Between Monday, June 11, 2018, and Tuesday, June 26, 2018, the ICIR’s ‘KUNLE ADEBAJO paid visits to 41 faculty and departmental libraries in four prominent federal universities in Nigeria and posed as one interested in buying or duplicating a thesis for a friend in his final-year. The universities were Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria; Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife; University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka; and University of Abuja (UniAbuja), Gwagwalada. He shares his findings in this two-part report.
AHMADU BELLO UNIVERSITY: IT IS NOT ALLOWED BUT…
ADJACENT the central library at the Ahmadu Bello University’s Kongo campus—known as President Kennedy Library—is the Law Library. It is a magnificent two-storey structure, dazzling in a bright paint of yellowish beige. Behind a large, wooden table at the reception area was Ibrahim, who identified himself as the librarian and a “lawyer also”.
The ICIR reporter explained his mission to him: to get about three topics for his friend, a law student at Ambrose Alli University, and to come back for the thesis as soon as his supervisor approves one of those topics.
“Number one, the issue is that it is not allowed to photocopy projects,” said Ibrahim, leaving the reporter to wonder what number two would be. “There is what we call copyright. If you photocopy somebody’s work, you know you are converting all his work to yours.”
“But, yet I may help you,” he added. “I will collect your number and get some topics for you. I will text you some of the topics for you to select. For any of them that is approved, I promise you I will get the material for you complete. You understand ba? I will text at least ten, so that he can select three and forward that other people may also select.”
He gave his MTN phone number and promised to send the topics the following day. His only prior requirement was that the reporter gives him money to recharge his mobile account. When he was handed a N500 note, he declined and suggested it is doubled.
“I will text all the thing for you. I will see wonder, wallahi,” he maintained. “Anyone they approve, there is no problem. If you want complete work, whether hard or soft copy, I will get for you. There is no problem.”
True to his words, the following day, this reporter received a series of texts from Ibrahim, containing up to eight project topics: 1. An Appraisal on the Activities of Boko Haram Sect in the Light of Freedom of Religion, 2. Legal and Institutional Arbitration under International Law: A Case Study of Nigeria, 3. An Analysis of the Theories of Implementation of Treaties under the Abuja Geographic Information System, …, 8. Challenges on the Prosecution of Serving Heads of States by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
He also called to confirm receipt. Again on June 18, 2018, he called to emphasise that this reporter’s friend should share the topics with his colleagues, with each person taking about three, “so that the remaining topics will not be in vain”. Asked how much it will cost to buy the materials, he replied that it depends on the topics chosen, because some of the documents have more than 100 pages. The reporter has missed numerous calls from Ibrahim since that conversation.
N3000: THE PRICE OF ANOTHER’S HARD WORK
In charge of the Library of the Department of Public Administration is a gentleman who, in writing, identified himself simply as Bayero. As this reporter introduced his plan, he quickly interjected with the word “alright”, repeated thrice, to indicate he understands. He allowed access to the thesis catalogue, where the reporter copied details of 2011 submissions by Mohammed Murtala, Mohemmed Musa, and Musa Garba Hadija.
Asked how much it would cost to buy the document once a topic is approved, he quickly signaled the reporter to keep mum, as his eyes darted across the room, where a library user sat. Stuttering, he asked when the reporter would return for the document, as he signalled for writing materials. He afterwards penned down 3000 and, upon request, his name and phone number.
CHIEF LIBRARIANS ARE NOT LEFT OUT
The library of the Department of Accounting was deserted at the time of visit. Moses Shatusen, the Chief Librarian, who was about to head out, was however available. “I know it is project you want to collect… come back tomorrow,” he said, as he questioned why the reporter was coming “at the late hours”. Notably, the time was 2:50pm.
After he was told the reporter arrived from and is returning to Abuja that day, he eventually budged. He then requested for a student ID card, which the reporter did not provide. This led to another round of pleading. He has, in fact, instructed his staff not to give out any materials without identification, he informed.
From the catalogue which he eventually handed over, the reporter copied topics of theses submitted by Muhammad Sani Ashiru and Ibrahim Shaffi Bello in 2014, and Comfort Amos Jatau in 2010. Shatusen further gave his phone number, confirmed that the materials are available for collection, and tactfully said it is left to the reporter’s discretion whether or not he comes with a gift.
NO DIFFERENCE AT THE ABU SAMARU CAMPUS
One of the numerous departments at the university’s main campus is Biochemistry, with its library situated on the top floor of the departmental building. At the time of visit, a good measure of activity was ongoing and two librarians were seated opposite the entrance. This reporter approached the male librarian and tabled his demand for a thesis.
He handed over the library catalogue, but permitted the copying of only five topics from recent years because, according to him, “if we give more, that is how they will start distributing and they will start coming to disturb”. He also recommended that the reporter’s friend who needed the thesis return personally for the material once a topic is approved.
Also on the main campus is the Department of Mass Communication, whose library is named after Ben Uchegbu. The librarian, after a brief introduction, allowed direct access to the shelves and did not bother providing a catalogue. There, the reporter took notes of theses submitted in 2016 by Areh Osigbodi Simeon, Salihu Samira, and Atinuke A. Keku.
Afterwards, he instructed the reporter to note the serial numbers taped to the theses. Asked what the cost of getting the thesis would be, the librarian said that will be determined at the second visit. While later giving his contact, he identified himself simply as ‘Pastor’. TruCaller, a mobile caller identification app, however gave his name as “Pastor Olorungbami”.
A FEW GOOD EGGS
While majority of the librarians visited by the ICIR, particularly those without company at the time, yielded easily to the unlawful request, there are a number of exceptions. One of them is Abubakar Aliyu, who is librarian at the university’s Arabic Department.
He started by requesting for the reporter’s identification card and suggested getting possible topics for a thesis does not necessarily need the consulting of previous publications. He showed the reporter two samples from the shelves and allowed topics to be copied from the catalogue. However, when the reporter informed him he would be returning to duplicate after a topic is settled for, he immediately replied that it is not allowed.
“We don’t allow people to photocopy theses, unless if you come and jot what you want,” he said.
This reporter had a more embarrassing encounter at the library of the university’s History Department, which faces that of the English Department. After introducing the purpose of his visit, the middle-aged librarian donning a light brown-coloured hijab did not attempt to hide her scorn.
“You want to get topics so that you will go and give your supervisor and he will approve and you will come and make photocopy… We don’t do that,” she said.
“Are you no longer getting the topics?” she asked as the reporter made to leave, then immediately added with a wry grin: “Oh, there’s no need? Okay.”
Likewise, at the Department of Economics, the ICIR’s request to get a thesis met a brick wall. In the poorly lit room was a middle-aged man and woman, who later gave her name as Kafewo and informed the reporter she hails from the Basange tribe in Kogi state.
“We don’t give out our undergraduate materials,” Kafewo said, politely. “We don’t give out projects generally.”
Asked whether the materials can be duplicated if not allowed to be borrowed, the male librarian replied that would be piracy.
“Definitely you can’t do your work without making reference to another person’s work,” he added. “The essence of research is you do your own research and then somebody will build on it. But some, instead of building on it, they will just do copy and paste, and change only the title page. You have done nothing. It is plagiarism.”
He said many departments, including Economics, have started acquiring anti-plagiarism software and requesting that students submit soft copies of their works. He narrated a story of how a student of the university had his certificate withdrawn, after years of graduation, following a complaint lodged by the author of a thesis which he plagiarised. He further said, in the past, students of the department have had to spend an extra year because they plagiarised their thesis.
“But the students feel they are smart and they can do it this way,” he said. “The truth is you are not helping the student if you do it that way. You will think you are, but by the time it backfires you will realise you are not. It is better for him to do the right thing.”
The reporter faced similar resistance at the Faculty of Education library. The Chief Librarian requested that the reporter’s friend come with an introductory letter from his institution as a requirement for collection. However, when he thereafter instructed the junior library worker to grant access to the library catalogue, this reporter discovered not all the theses are available.
“These are the topics, but don’t write this and this, we don’t have this one,” the library worker said, pointing to topics of theses submitted in 1988. “You can start with this one from 1994.”
* * * * *
UNIVERSITY OF NIGERIA: ‘N500 FINE’―FROM ONE LAWBREAKER TO ANOTHER
When this reporter was told by Chioma Ozioko, the librarian of the UNN Mass Communication Department, that there are processes that must be followed to gain access to library materials, he expected an instruction to provide an ID card or letter of introduction. But what he heard afterwards shocked him.
“You must pay a fine of N500,” said Ozioko, with a straight face as she feasted casually on a cucumber tightly secured in her right grip, while occasionally supporting it with groundnut.
She added: “Whether or not you see anything useful to you, that N500 is gone. Now for the material, if you eventually see any of topic of your choice and you want to go and photocopy, it is N1000. So, that is the process. It’s up to you.”
Asked if there is a catalogue, she replied in the negative, admitting the materials are not well arranged. Her words: “We don’t have a catalogue; everything is upside down… there is no specific place for specific subjects.” The reporter then paid the “fine” of N500 and proceeded to the shelves to copy topics of 2012 submissions by Ajibade Aderonke Olubukola; Eke Joseph, Enemanna Chinakasi and Eze Uchechukwu J; and Ezuwu Patrick, Ezerim Adaobi and Iweha Chioma.
When he was done, Ozioko directed him to where more recent topics are, and then he copied two more (2017 theses by Ike Chidera Daisy and Aningo Genevieve Ezinne). She further suggested “another way of making it easy”. “Select those books and put them aside, because you may come next time and you will not see them again. But it depends on how soon.” To avoid the extra work, the reporter promised to return in one or two weeks.
THE SMOKE SCREEN OF REGISTRATION
At the first floor of the Faculty of Social Sciences building is the library of Department of Religion, and alone in the inner room at the time the ICIR visited was Tony Martins, a soft-spoken young man who confirmed to be the librarian. In front of him was a laptop abutting a bulky thesis that had been flipped open.
“Okay,” he said, after this reporter tabled his demand. “But the issue is that you have to register.” This reporter told him he is not a student, but it doesn’t matter he replied.
He continued: “Normally, if you are a student, it would have been N500. But coming from outside, it is N1000.”
He brought out a notebook with a list of names and other details such as matriculation number, department, hall of residence, amount, date, and signature. As he drew the table on a fresh page, he hesitated, apparently unsure whether to omit or include some of the headings. He eventually decided to write them all so as not to raise suspicion, but said the reporter could leave out matriculation number.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he said. “Just write N1000 here… Do you have the money now?”
Martins gave out eight catalogues, including the Old Testament Diploma Catalogue, New Testament Diploma Catalogue, Old Testament Degree Catalogue, New Testament Degree Catalogue, Religion and Society Degree Catalogue, Church History Diploma Catalogue, African Traditional Religion Diploma Catalogue, and African Traditional Religion Degree Catalogue. They contained only serially numbers and thesis topics.
After this reporter randomly copied one topic from six of the catalogues, he informed Martins his friend would be returning to duplicate the thesis eventually selected by his supervisor.
“Of course, no problem,” he replied. “Even if the ones you have there [in the catalogues] are not current, there are more current ones that are here and the topics are similar.”
“Anytime he comes around, whoever he meets here, he should just tell him he has registered. Let him inform the person that is here that someone registered on his behalf. Just give him the name. I don’t have any card that I can actually issue to you now.”
LIBRARY PERMIT FOR A NON-STUDENT?
Unlike Martins at the Department of Religion, the librarians in charge of the UNN Institute of Education―a young man and middle-aged woman―had no problem issuing an actual library permit to this reporter after he paid a “required” sum of N500. He was told he could come at any time to affix a passport photograph.
When the reporter told the male librarian, who was filling the register, that he is not a student of the university, he said it was not a problem and proceeded to write the department and matriculation number provided by the reporter―though the card issued eventually says it is a “library permit for student”.
Asked if the reporter could come back for the thesis, the male librarian said that it is fine since “you are now registered with us”. Further asked if the thesis could be duplicated, he chuckled and said students are not allowed to go out with the materials. He, however, added: “but you can use your phone to take pictures of all what you need”.
N300…SORRY, I MEANT N500
When this reporter arrived at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology’s library and observed a crowd of students pawing at academic resources, he had expected to be turned back. The young male librarian who first attended to him was not alone. Closely by his left was a female student who made it obvious she was listening in on the conversation. He, however, directed the reporter to an elderly woman whose table was closer to the entrance.
“First of all, you will register with N300,” said the woman, as both parties conversed in hushed tones.
“Oh, it is even N500,” she chuckled a minute later, using her index finger to trace previous haphazardly written financial records which ranged from N300 to N500.
With the exchange of cash taken care of, the reporter was allowed to copy topics and he noted theses submitted by Ekpo Emmanuel Ekpo and Ewa Emmanuel Ajayi in 2016, Odo Chekwube Angella in 2015, and Ubani Precious Ezinne in 2011. Afterwards, she assured the reporter he could always return to duplicate the materials needed. All he had to do, she said, was give her prior notice through a phone call, and tell anyone he meets he is asking for the librarian. She explained she is not always around as she has a separate office on the first floor.
OF LOCKED LIBRARIES AND LOST LIBRARIANS
A number of UNN libraries visited by the ICIR were under lock and key, though the university was in session and semester examinations are only weeks away. One of such libraries was that of the Political Science Department. Twice on June 22—first at 9:51am and then again at 10:54am―this reporter checked but the library remained locked and the librarian nowhere to be found. A student who spoke to the ICIR said trading thesis is not an unusual practice among librarians in the department.
Previous day at 2:41pm, the library of Soil Science and Land Resources Management, with the tag “Dr Mrs Uzoh” on its door, was also not open. The same observation was made with respect to the Food Science and Technology department; however, the reporter was informed the librarian was invigilating at the time of visit.
The library of the Faculty of Pharmacy, which has just been relocated to an intimidating four-storey structure, was also inaccessible. The library is placed on the left wing of the top floor. “I don’t think they are at work,” said a female student dressed in tee-shirt and jeans, as her pregnant friend who held an office file banged the door. The time was 1:07pm.
GO TO SSRN IF YOU NEED TOPICS
The situation at the University of Nigeria was not all doom and gloom as there were librarians who did not jump at the unethical opportunity of making extra cash. One who stands out is the librarian―a woman appearing to be in her mid or late thirties—stationed at the Department of Crop Science. For five seconds, she kept silent after the reporter made his request for topics. Then she made a unique suggestion.
“Why doesn’t he look for a topic?” she asks. “Look for a topic now.”
“Okay, I’ll give you a topic,” she continued after a few questions. “I’ll give you something. I’ll give you where you can go to get a topic. Write SSRN. SSRN website. Google it; then you can form topics. Tell the student to choose any topic from there. If it is on pineapple or cassava he wants to write, he will find it there. And from there, he can get a lot of papers. He can also go to your school library for additional materials.”
“You won’t say thank you?” she asked sarcastically, as the reporter closed his notebook in mock disappointment.
Likewise, at the Department of Foreign Languages’ library—located a floor below that of Mass Communication at the Faculty of Arts―the librarian requested for a student ID. In the absence of that, she said, the reporter’s friend has to present “a letter from somebody who can identify him from the university”.
- This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.
PS: Some of the names written in this report were extracted from phone numbers provided through the use of TruCaller, a mobile caller identification app. It is, therefore, highly probable not all are completely accurate.