Understanding plagiarism as a complex phenomenon is essential for institutions to develop an effective approach to tackle academic dishonesty.
In 2016, an investigation by The Times newspaper revealed that almost 50,000 students from 129 British universities had been caught plagiarizing in the prior three years.1 This “plagiarism epidemic” brought several ethical questions to surface, including “contract cheating” – when students pay for individuals or companies to write assignments on their behalf. In fact, student behavior studies show that academic cheating is prevalent and that some forms of plagiarism have increased over the past decades.
The percentage of undergraduate students who admitted to having cheated on written assignments and tests has reached 68%, according to surveys conducted from 2012 to 2015 by Donald McCabe and the International Center for Academic Integrity.2 For graduate students, the number is somewhat lower, at 43%. McCabe, former professor at the Rutgers University Business School and a leading researcher on the subject of cheating, collected data from 71,300 undergraduate and 17,000 graduate students.
In the article Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research, McCabe and Linda Klebe Treviño, a professor from Penn State University, review ten years of research on plagiarism in academic institutions. The authors stress that “universities cannot assume that its students will take the time to familiarize themselves with campus rules about academic integrity on their own, and even if they did, an institution’s failure to emphasize for its students the high value it places on academic integrity sends the message that it is not a high priority.” Therefore, “such institutions should not be surprised if they experience above-average levels of academic dishonesty.” 3
In fact, a high percentage of students claim that they have not received any training in techniques for academic writing or plagiarism issues. According to the paper Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education Across Europe: Results of the Project, research conducted in 25 European countries shows that, whilst more than 75% of students said they received training in Austria, Greece, United Kingdom and Finland, less than 35% of students from Italy, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland received such instruction.4
The implementation of programs and policies promoting academic integrity, such as honor codes, has been proven to positively influence students’ behavior. According to McCabe and Treviño, honor codes can be quite successful; however, “a truly effective honor code must be well implemented and strongly embedded in the student culture,” meaning that merely the existence of a code is not enough to prevent cheating.3
“Many stakeholders are convinced that plagiarism is a serious academic problem and institutions will have to demonstrate that they are tackling it,” say researchers Fintan Culwin and Thomas Lancaster, from South Bank University. In the article Plagiarism Issues for Higher Education, the authors point out that there is a lack of consistency across the higher education sector. “Some institutions have a pro-active anti-plagiarism policy, some a reactive policy and a few still claim, but cannot prove, that none of their students cheat.” From their point of view, “the standards across the sector need to be equal, so that students cannot assume that they can cheat by moving to a more lenient institution.” 5
To cheat or not to cheat: why students plagiarize
Plagiarism is not a new phenomenon, as recalls Chris Park, Professor Emeritus at Lancaster University. In the article In Other (People’s) Words: Plagiarism by University Students—Literature and Lessons, he highlights that “copying from other writers is probably as old as writing itself, but until the advent of mass-produced writing, it remained hidden from the public gaze.” According to Park, “opportunities to plagiarize have expanded greatly since the advent and increased accessibility of the internet.” 6
Amongst the most popular forms of plagiarism by students, according to Park, there are: stealing material from another source and passing it off as their own; submitting a paper written by someone else; copying sections of material from one or more source texts and supplying proper documentation but leaving out quotation marks, thus giving the impression that the material has been paraphrased rather than directly quoted; and paraphrasing material from one or more source texts without supplying appropriate documentation.
McCabe and Treviño3 mention a few reasons why students cheat: pressure to get high grades, parental pressures, desire to excel, pressure to get a job, laziness, lack of responsibility, poor self-image, and lack of personal integrity. They stress that “contextual factors, such as students’ perceptions of peers’ behavior, are the most powerful influence.” Therefore, students may cheat because they do not want to be at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Studies have also shown that men tend to cheat more than women and young students cheat more than mature students. Additionally, when students know that they are at risk of being caught or punished, they tend to cheat less.
Park explains that “some students plagiarize unintentionally, when they are not familiar with proper ways of quoting, paraphrasing, citing and referencing and/or when they are unclear about the meaning of ‘common knowledge’ and the expression ‘in their own words’.” These difficulties in understanding proper citation caused a new cheating resource to emerge: online paraphrasing tools that help students modify original texts in order to write “in their own words.” 6
In the article Using Internet Based Paraphrasing Tools: Original Work, Patchwriting or Facilitated Plagiarism?, Ann M. Rogerson and Grace McCarthy, from the University of Wollongong, Australia, say that “the case of a student submitting work generated by an online tool without appropriate acknowledgement could be considered as a form of plagiarism, and the case of academics trying to reframe texts for alternate publications could be considered as a form of self-plagiarism.” According to the authors, both scenarios could be considered as ‘facilitated plagiarism.’7
“Plagiarism represents an opportunity for teaching students about integrity and originality in a world where being original is increasingly difficult.”
Cheating in online learning
It may be surprising for some, but evidence shows that online students are not more likely to cheat. Researchers George Watson and James Sottile, from Marshall University in West Virginia, United States, interviewed 635 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in online and live courses.8 “The most important finding from this analysis was that there were no significant differences in the students’ admission of cheating for live (face to face) and online courses,” the authors wrote. In fact, the results showed higher rates of academic dishonesty in live courses. “One possible explanation is that classroom social interaction in live classes plays some part in whether students decide to cheat,” say Watson and Sottile. “Familiarity with fellow students may lessen moral objections to cheating as they work through assignments and assessments together over the course of a school term.”
Nevertheless, the study shows that one type of dishonest behavior does deserve to be discussed by online course developers. “The data showed that students were significantly more likely to obtain answers from others during an online test or quiz. This ability to receive answers without the monitoring of a professor presents problems for the standard lecture-based, test-driven course,” say the authors. They suggest instructors should “change the assessment from objective measures (multiple choice and true-false) to more subjective (essays and research papers) that require more in-depth understanding of a topic and more personal expression.”
Universities all over the world have been dealing with the growing business of plagiarism, specially with essay mills, or “contract cheating” – when a student pays a company or person to write an assignment that they will pass off as their own, generally through a website. Many of these websites announce “plagiarism-free guarantees,” or papers tested against plagiarism detection tools.
According to recent information from the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), there are currently more than 100 essay mill websites in operation. In the report Plagiarism in Higher Education, published by QAA in 2016, the agency states that “there is no single solution” and that universities need “a multi-faceted approach that builds on published research and the steps that universities and colleges are already taking to promote good academic practice by students, to ‘design out’ opportunities for plagiarism in their assessments, and to identify and penalize academic misconduct.” 9
Although plagiarism is not a crime in itself, helping a student to cheat has become a crime in some countries, showing that governments could also play a part in reinforcing integrity. In New Zealand, since 2011 it is illegal to advertise or provide third-party assistance to cheat, and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) has the power to prosecute anyone providing or advertising such services. In the United States, 17 states have some form of law addressing custom essay writing services (data from October 2014). 9 In the United Kingdom, the QAA recommended the development of “new laws to make it illegal to help students ‘commit acts of academic dishonesty for financial gain,’ punishable with fines,” according to The Guardian newspaper.10
Plagiarism is a major challenge that needs to be considered in the development of institutional strategies. However, it also represents an opportunity for teaching students about the value of integrity and originality, in order for them to thrive in a world where being original is increasingly difficult.
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1 Mostrous, A., & Kenber, B. (2016). Universities face student cheating crisis. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/universities-face-student-cheating-crisis-9jt6ncd9vz7.
2 International Center for Academic Integrity (n.d.). International Center for Academic Integrity – Statistics. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/integrity-3.php.
3McCabe, D. L., Trevino, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. (2001). Cheating in Academic Institutions: A Decade of Research. Ethics & Behavior,11(3), 219-232. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb1103_2. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from http://www.middlebury.edu/media/view/257513/original/Decade_of_Research.pdf.
4 Foltýnek, T., & Glendinning, I. (2015). Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education Across Europe: Results of the Project. Acta Universitatis Agriculturae et Silviculturae Mendelianae Brunensis,63(1), 207-216. doi:10.11118/actaun201563010207. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tomas_Foltynek/publication/276864042_Impact_of_Policies_for_Plagiarism_in_Higher_Education_Across_Europe_Results_of_the_Project/links/587cc82e08ae9a860ff0ad17/Impact-of-Policies-for-Plagiarism-in-Higher-Education-Across-Europe-Results-of-the-Project.pdf.
5Culwin, F., & Lancaster, T. (2001). Plagiarism issues for higher education. Vine,31(2), 36-41. doi:10.1108/03055720010804005. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Thomas_Lancaster/publication/228793273_Plagiarism_issues_for_higher_education/links/02bfe50f689294102d000000/Plagiarism-issues-for-higher-education.pdf.
6Park, C. (2003). In Other (Peoples) Words: Plagiarism by university students–literature and lessons. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education,28(5), 471-488. doi:10.1080/02602930301677. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.198.971&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
7Rogerson, A. M., & McCarthy, G. (2017). Using Internet based paraphrasing tools: Original work, patchwriting or facilitated plagiarism? International Journal for Educational Integrity,13(1). doi:10.1007/s40979-016-0013-y. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from https://edintegrity.springeropen.com/articles/10.1007/s40979-016-0013-y.
8Watson, G. R., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Students Cheat More in Online Courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 13(1). Retrieved May 23, 2017, from http://mds.marshall.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=eft_faculty&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bing.com%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dmarshall%2Buniversity%2Bcheating%26qs%3Dn%26form%3DQBRE%26sp%3D-1%26pq%3Dmarshall%2Buniversity%2Bcheating%26sc%3D0-28%26sk%3D%26cvid%3D49F9AF9DDC034ED688D80819CBD63C21#search=%22marshall%20university%20cheating%22.
9QAA. (2016). Plagiarism in Higher Education – The Quality Assurance … Retrieved May 22, 2017, from http://www.bing.com/cr?IG=F007BA6CC0C546E8AF40DD64E5ECB056&CID=28464D277D226BA50D6447AC7C246AD0&rd=1&h=iiV57MtKA4n9vzqyi0Kx4HjNMF4hKM39DJcgpCFkrAE&v=1&r=http%3a%2f%2fwww.qaa.ac.uk%2fen%2fPublications%2fDocuments%2fPlagiarism-in-Higher-Education-2016.pdf&p=DevEx,5087.1.
10Khomami, N. (2017, February 20). Plan to crack down on websites selling essays to students announced. Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/21/plan-to-crack-down-on-websites-selling-essays-to-students-announced.