Is the rise of the internet, along with easily-accessible digital resources, causing a rise in student plagiarism? The Pew Research Center found in a recent study that 55 percent of university presidents believed student plagiarism had increased over the past ten years. A full 89 percent of those placed the blame on the increase of technology.
But Teddi Fishman, the director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, disagrees. She points to studies which have shown that incidents of plagiarism have been fairly consistent over time – only changing by 3-4 percent over time. Rather than an increase in cheating, she notes that computerized plagiarism filters like Turnitin.com are helping instructors catch copied, incorrectly cited material more easily. These sites archive and scan millions of academic papers, which are then compared to a student’s paper to see if any passages were lifted from an uncited source.
She also notes that students who want to cheat will – and that students are already finding ways to circumvent the algorithms used by Turnitin.com and similar sites. Some students will run text through a translation program, into another language and then back into English, to produce different wording. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that text will be readable or make sense – a sure tip-off for teachers.) In an interview with the Denver Post, Fishman, says, “I do worry that we’re teaching people to evade plagiarism detection rather than to cite sources and build upon other people’s ideas.”
That’s not the only issue at hand. Many students many be confused about what constitutes “common knowledge.” They may not realize that some information requires attribution or citation, especially if it’s something they found on Wikipedia or a blog. Some institutions recognize that much of the plagiarism on their campus may be unintentional, so they make efforts to educate, rather than punish, first-time offenders.
In the end, Fishman believes that teachers simply knowing their students and being familiar with their writing style is the best way to combat plagiarism. While most students will make a good faith effort to write original material, there will always be some who just aren’t willing to make the effort.
I’m just going to close with this anecdote from Steve Schriener, an English teacher at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, who gave his students a poetry assignment:
It was a beautiful piece. But with a stunning lack of originality, the student titled it “Imagine.”
“It was the song by John Lennon,” Schriener recalls. “I said, ‘Honestly, I was born in 1957; do you think I don’t know the Beatles?’
“He just said, ‘I was hoping you didn’t.’ “
Photo credit: Pete O'Shea