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College Kids Plagiarize A LOT! Blame the Internet?

College Kids Plagiarize A LOT!  Blame the Internet?

40 percent of undergraduates in the US admitted to copying at least a few sentences on written assignments.

When asked whether copying from the Internet is ‘serious cheating,’ only 29 percent of students answered yes. A few years ago, 34 percent said such copying—plagiarizing—was ‘serious cheating.’ 

Plagiarism On the Rise at US Colleges and Universities

These figures are taken from surveys completed from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University. No doubt about it: Plagiarism—copying the words of someone else and claiming them as your own, without referencing the original source—is on the rise among college students in America. 

And while legions of professors (myself included) are shaking their heads, an August 1st New York Times article further complicates the picture by asking if, in this digital age rife with Wikipedia articles with no author attributed and the ease of cut-’n'-paste-a-passage-with-a-few-words-changed-here-’n'-there, students no longer even realize that they are plagiarizing.  When rap music and so many other artistic creations regularly borrow from and mix samples of others’ work, is the very notion of original authorship going the way of the dodo?

Combatting Cheating

I’ve taught writing (including freshman composition) at colleges and universities since the early 1990s. I’ve caught (sadly) more than a few students who’s plagiarized parts of papers (and sometimes entire papers). Every semester, I’ve talked about ‘what plagiarism is’ to my students; we review the part of the course syllabus that refers to my college’s policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. 

An instructor has to do this, but it’s the kind of advice that (le sigh) goes in one ear and out the other. 

So I’ve tried a few other things.

I’ve used anti-plagiarism resources like Turnitin.com. I’ve become reasonably adept at trolling the Internet when I suspect what a student has turned in just may not be all of his or her original work’. I’ve also also gone back to more ‘old-fashioned’ methods and given students in-class writing assignments that they have to write by hand and submit before they leave. I also teach Latin and ancient Greek languages classes, and make up quizzes, tests and exams anew every year, so students can’t pass on copies of such. When I do assign papers, I try to craft topics that aren’t the sort you can find essays for at the many ‘CollegeEssays.com’ sites that the Internet is rife with.

Writing is Difficult, But Worth It To Learn To Do Well

In the time it takes a student to surf the Internet and patch together some paragraphs here and a sentence or two there, he or she could have been writing, painstaking sentence by sentence, their own analysis and interpretation of some literary work or historical topic. I have to admit that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the topic of plagiarism. I’m far more glad to get a paper with some grammatical errors or an awkwardly worded, but original, thesis statement that is my student’s own work.  Writing an essay requires a lot more than just typing whatever thoughts one has about a short story into a word processor; it calls for careful reading, research and, most of all, a lot of thinking and reflecting. I guess I’m old-fashioned enough (well, I do teach the ancient Greeks and Romans) to think that everyone does have original ideas and an original way of articulating these. Certainly I’d much rather read exactly what my students write than the words of who knows who from some website.

As Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of the University of California at Davis (where there were 196 plagiarism cases reported last year—there are most likely many more that went undetected), told the New York Times:

‘Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice.’

It is, and it’s a skill that’s well worth acquiring. Writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper or onto your laptop screen and students do themselves no favor by plagiarizing. Indeed, they hurt themselves most of all, by depriving themselves of the chance to actually work on their writing and thinking—skills that, if you ask me, we all need to communicate across the Internet.

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Photo by Digirebelle.

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92 comments

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9:33AM PDT on Sep 9, 2012

This is from my own 43 year experience teaching university. Though Dr. Chew doesn't say so, putting someone else's ideas into your own words without attribution is ALSO plagiarism. I've discovered through talking to high school teachers that most of them don't know that, so they teach their students that it is OK--ijn fact, that it is what they are supposed to do. As a result, many students don't bother to keep a record of where they got their ideas because they think they are going to put them in their own words. Then they change a few words & think they have actually validly paraphrased the information, so they don't give a source. However, in many cases, the professor catches it anyway (probably because they didn't change the wording enough), and they get dinged for plagiarism. Please, Schools of Education, teach your students better, or I'll be turning their students into the Dean, & they won't know what hit them!

4:47AM PDT on Mar 23, 2011

I blame over anxious mothers with sheep skin psychosis as much as anything else. School is supposed to be a fail-safe place to practice skills likely to be useful in later life. Putting overly high stakes on school work, so school is no longer a fail-safe place to practice skills, defeats much of the purpose of school.

3:06AM PDT on Mar 23, 2011

I am presently studying in a University program in Costa Rica where plagiarism is treated like it is in the US. However, at local universities it is completely different. I recently read a graduate course research paper that cited NO sources - helping others is the norm and expected so plagiarism is rampant as is regular old cheating - cultural differences can be interesting. Intellectual property is simply not valued.

8:33AM PST on Feb 4, 2011

I agree that college students cheat too often. I always arrived to my chemistry labs at the last minute because I had worked hard on my pre-lab assignments and didn't want to deal with the peer pressure from some of the more lazy students who were hoping to get all the answers off someone else before class. However, I think the statistic that this article uses to say that plagiarism is more accepted among students is misleading at best, and possibly incorrect. Wow a whole five percent decrease in people who think that copying from the internet is serious cheating. The margin of error on each of those studies is probably +/- 3% so you can't conclude that there is significant difference between the two surveys since the margin of error between the two overlap. Sorry, its one of my pet peeves when people misuse statistics. http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1271

7:31AM PST on Feb 3, 2011

Blame, blame, blame. It is not the "fault" of the internet availability but the lack of one's own effort, ability, core values of responsibility, etc. that comes into play here. And we see the outcome ... dimwitted graduates who can't hold water.

1:09PM PST on Jan 8, 2011

APA certainly has guidelines and format for citing web pages. I have used them in my own graduate work many times, always properly cited.

There is NO excuse for this. NONE. It is theft of copyrighted material.

5:00PM PDT on Aug 12, 2010

Wow. Just wow.

7:27PM PDT on Aug 10, 2010

This is not at all suprising seeing the level of education that our students achieve before entering college. When students are taught to pass a test and not how to think in order to arrive at the correct conclusions this is the logical result. To paraphrase Bette Davis's character in "All About Eve"- "Get ready for a bumpy ride."

9:35AM PDT on Aug 9, 2010

40% admit to cheating,, that means the % is much higher. wow is all i can say

5:39AM PDT on Aug 8, 2010

Thanks for the post.

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