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Plagiarism: The Problem

This is the first part of an article on plagiarism and what to do about it. This week I present the problem; next week I’ll discuss some strategies to address it.

It is the end of another term, and that means keyboards and printers will be working double time to churn out term papers and other final writing assignments. For many students, writing is something to be endured, a hurdle to leap over on the way to the course finish line (I need not comment in detail that, according to many instructors, reading student writing is also something to be endured, a track littered with false starts and stumbles…). As in sports, to keep our metaphor going, one has to practice at writing to become good at it.  Yet, again as in sports, performance-enhancing options for immediate gain in one’s writing “ability” are also available if one wants to take a short cut. Just one injection of “juiced” words from the easily available syringe of Google can enliven a paper, not to mention passing off a surrogate – an entire paper lifted from the internet or purchased from any one of dozens of paper writing “services.”  But as in sports, short cuts like plagiarism in academia entail serious consequences if one is caught.

Prevention of harm is often the best medicine in most things, and plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct are no exceptions. The standard approach is to include an academic misconduct statement (sample here) on the course syllabus and mention something on the first day of class. In effect, this is not really a prevention strategy, as if students will suddenly “get it” and “just say no” once they encounter such statements enough times. The fact that such statements are ineffective as a dose of prevention is obvious, especially given the evidence of plagiarism rates and the escalating sophistication of the paper writing services (see link above) vs. plagiarism checker services battle. Although hard data on plagiarism is difficult to obtain, the following examples indicate the nature of the situation:

  • A Rutgers University study found that 70% of students admitted to engaging in academic misconduct at least once (15% indicated in a separate study that they cheat regularly).
  • A newly released study at the University of Arizona indicates 84% of students feel that those who cheat should be punished, albeit two-thirds admit to cheating themselves.
  •  UCLA began screening MBA application essays for plagiarism this past fall, and 52 applications were rejected as a result.
  •  A study of submissions to a leading scientific journal in China found that 31% of submissions since 2008 have been plagiarized.
  •  A study in the United Kingdom in 2008 revealed 9,229 recorded cases of plagiarism, including 143 expulsions.
  •  A study of 198 medical students in a particular course over two years found a plagiarism rate of 19% (amount of plagiarized text) over two years.  Only 9% of students did not plagiarize, and only 34% plagiarized less than 10% of their text. The study also indicated that the students who plagiarized less scored higher on exams. In addition, warnings not to plagiarize were “not enough to deter students from plagiarism.” 

Additional examples could be given, but these suffice to indicate that plagiarism is common, frequent, and undeterred by warnings on syllabi or the use of plagiarism detection software.

The problem with statements on syllabi or warnings in class is that they don’t ascertain if a student actually understands what plagiarism is or how to avoid it. Screening services, such as SafeAssign on Blackboard, have the same problem (though in part two I’ll discuss some positive ways to use such programs). Obviously, students need to be given notice about academic misconduct. Also, given the fact that plagiarism happens, it behooves instructors to use available means to detect it. But we can do better, and part two will outline some potential strategies for preventing the problem in the first place.

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