Free Online Courses Plagued By Plagiarism

Over a million people have registered to take the start-up Coursera‘s online courses taught by professors from the likes of Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, Caltech and the University of Pennsylvania. Free courses taught by faculty from prestigious institutions: People have been saying that Coursera and other online “universities” (Udacity, Khan Academy) are the wave of the future for higher ed, providing access to university courses, to knowledge, to the masses and for free.

But a bit of reality has dimmed things for Coursera. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, students taking the start-up’s courses have discovered dozens of instances of plagiarism.

Peer Grading and Dozens of Accusations of Plagiarism

Coursera courses use peer grading, in which students are asked to read and comment on other students’ work. Said students in online fora for the courses:

“I just graded my second batch of peer essays and was saddened to find one of them was lifted from Wikipedia.”

“This cheating hurts everyone who is trying to take part in this class and learn with integrity.”

University of Michigan professor Eric S. Rabkin, who teaches the “Fantasy and Science Fiction” course in which 39,000 students are enrolled, has had to issue a plea to students. “An accusation of plagiarism is a deeply serious act and should be made only with concrete evidence behind it,” wrote Rabkin in a message posted on Monday.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera and a professor at Stanford University, says that the plagiarism issue is under review but that she doesn’t “have a sense of whether it’s more frequent than in regular classroom environments.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that at least one student says that she or he was erroneously accused of plagiarizing and that “professors teaching the courses say they are worried that some students are being overly zealous in hunting for plagiarism.” Koller notes that students who enroll in the courses — for which they do not receive academic credit but a certificate — must “agree to uphold an honor code” and “in the future, assignments will include reminders that all answers must be the students’ original work.”  Coursera is considering adding software that can detect plagiarism.

Plagiarism in College Students’ Writing

Having dealt with issue of plagiarism among college students in twenty years of teaching, I was not surprised to hear about the dozens of plagiarism cases reported in Coursera courses and suspect that there may be more. “Patchwork plagiarism,” in which students take a passage from here and another from there and tweak it just a bit is not at all uncommon and just too easy, and too tempting, in an internet era.

The reasons my students have plagiarized are complicated. Of course they are concerned about their grades and too often a student runs out of time and cutting and pasting from websites seems preferable to submitting a late assignment, or no assignment at all. Some students genuinely struggle to write (if English is not their first language, for instance) and, panicking, turn to the cut and paste business.

I now always have students submit assignments that they write, by hand, in class. There is software that enables students to use computers without accessing the internet but we don’t have it at the institution where I teach. I’m curious what students can produce the “old-fashioned” way, writing with pen on paper. Doing so means their essays are not as long as they might be and some students simply have a hard time writing by hand, but I know that the pages they submit are their own.

Recent High-Profile Cases of Plagiarism

Plagiarism has recently made headlines. Writer Fareed Zakaria was suspended from Time magazine and CNN after he was found to have plagiarized a New Yorker article on gun control by historian Jill Lepore. Science writer Jonah Lehrer was forced to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker, after he was found to have made up quotes by Bob Dylan in his best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works; the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has said that it will recall print copies of the book.

Certainly teachers go to great lengths to enjoin students to submit original work. I’m usually able to detect plagiarism in a student paper as a passage simply does not sound similar to students’ written-by-hand work students. But no human being could read all the writing assignments of the 39,000 students enrolled in Coursera’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction” course; hence the use of peer grading. Since students are not receiving college credits for the course, you could argue that there is not enough motivation for some (for many) to make the effort to produce original work.

Perhaps the plagiarism in Coursera courses points to a larger, yet to be addressed, issue with such Massive Open Online Courses. Is it not possible that some percentage of participants really just want to be able to gain the information from the course, and writing papers is an extra effort that seems too much to do for an uncredited, free course? Many “bricks and mortar” universities have honor codes that students are supposed to agree to, but (let’s be realistic) that does not mean that everyone follows them.

We can bring online education to the masses but still need to figure out how to evaluate the real vs. the fake work produced by students in the virtual classroom.

Related Care2 Coverage

Are Digital Resources Causing a Rise in Student Plagiarism?

Can Wikipedia Be A Legitimate Resource For Student Research?

Teachers With Online Degrees: Ready For Real-World Classrooms?

Photo by hoill


Fiona T.
Past Member 5 years ago

We've got to choose wisely

Maureen Hawkins
Maureen Hawkins5 years ago

I teach university & require my students to submit all essays through Turnitin (the largest plagiarism-detecting service; there are others). I'd recommend the author of this article do the same & that, if MOOCs want their courses counted for university credit, they do the same. I'd also recommend it to high schools.

I find that many students who plagiarize do so unknowlingly; their high school teachers told them it was OK to use a source without giving credit as long as they "put it in their own words," so they grab a thesaurus, change a few words, & think they've done the right thing. Others have lifted material from on-line sources, & their teachers never told them it was wrong, so they thought it was OK. Yet others take notes verbatim from on-line sources, then, forgetting where they got the information, reproduce it in their essays without giving credit. Turnitin allows me to set up the account so that students can turn in their essays early & see their own "originality reports." That way, if they've accidentally plagiarized, they can fix it. I find I have far fewer cases of plagiarism than I had before I used this service, in part because students, knowing they will have to submit their essays to the service, are more careful in their first place.

As the author of this article knows, there are other ways of detecting plagiarism; for example, if I suspect it, but Turnitin cannot match it to a source, I google a suspect phrase. I u

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Seda A.
Seda A5 years ago


Terry V.
Terry V5 years ago


Randi Levin
Randi Levin5 years ago

No Shit really!

Wow imagine that---especially with the advent of EBOOKS with or without copyrights.
And no one catches them and if by some chance they get caught breaking the law and copyright laws what will happen a slap on the wrist-----the author and publisher may never know that their work was plagerized.

Personally I shall never publish or purchase an ebook. I don't find them worthy, educational or safe in the respect that cost more than necessary and gosh forbid if coffee, wine, oils or anything is spilled onto it---for then it tis broken and all your purchases become obsolete!

Besides the fact they are putting people out of work--bookstores, printers, press factories, etc. I must be connected to technology for part of the day for work related stuff, but when I wish to read a good book, story I will always go for that Book---the kind that can be dog tagged, scotched taped and and bent to just the right angle per the sunshine or light!

Robert Ludwig
Robert Ludwig5 years ago

As with anything educational, you get out of it what you put into it. I am very interested in Coursea as it offers some subjects that I could not afford the time or money to drag myself to a college to obtain. As I am doing this for my on interest and not for actual college credit, it doesn't matter to me that Coursea is not accredited.

If, on the other hand, this model is adopted for an accredited educational system, then the standards and checks will have to be tightened.

I happen to like the model. It's convenient and offers a chance to expand skills where tutelage is not feasible. A similar site, that I have been using to relearn calculus, is It provides short video lectures and practice problems that help a student refine their skills. It too is not accredited. But it makes a great way to enhance classroom studies or just brush up on areas in which you might be weak.

Arild Warud

Thanks for the info.

Michael L.
Michael Lee5 years ago

"If it seems to good too be true, then it is too good to be true...!" this is usually the case with ridiculous returns on investment opportunities. Applies to many other internet scams as well....

Jane Warren
Jane Warren5 years ago

thnx for this