Posted by: Ellie Kutz | October 19, 2010

Why Do Students Plagiarize?

Why do students plagiarize?  Are there “honest” reasons for such violations?  There are many answers: some cultural (as when students’ home cultures value the public, expected language over individual voices), some personal (as when students themselves fear that their own words and thoughts are inadequate), some based in a lack of knowledge (about how to paraphrase or cite appropriately), some based in confusion about documenting collaborative activity.  But also some because (as we often fear) an individual student has made a conscious decision to present the words and work of others as his or her own, to get through an assignment without doing the work it requires.
With the internet making vast amounts of material available online to cut and paste, the problem has new dimensions, not only because it’s easy (and writing is hard), but because website material typically doesn’t offer a clear sense of authorship—the material there seems to be free-floating with links to other sites that seem equally un-authored and all part of a public domain, and, some would argue, because borrowing, appropriating, and remixing (sampling) are part of a new set of cultural norms for creativity (a perspective we’ll discuss later in this issue.)

Plagiarism as Academic Dishonesty

The UMass Boston code of academic conduct doesn’t actually use the word plagiarism but refers instead to “academic honesty” and “dishonesty.”  Honesty violations include the following:  1. Submitting as one’s own an author’s published or unpublished work (e.g. material from a journal, Internet site, newspaper, encyclopedia), in whole, in part, or in paraphrase, without fully and properly crediting the author; 2. Submitting as one’s own work or materials obtained from another student, individual, or agency without full and proper attribution; 3. Submitting as one’s own work material that has been produced through unacknowledged or unauthorized collaboration with others” (Code).

Yet recent studies suggest that students don’t recognize such copying, when it comes from the internet, to constitute such an honesty violation. One large survey of university students over a five-year period showed that:  “the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.”  (Gabriel).  The results of other surveys suggest that the decision to use unattributed material from internet reflects not only “a poor understanding of academic integrity” but also “the perception that the probabilities of detection and severe punishment are low”  (Dee and Jacob).

Exploring Possible Solutions

Solutions tend to fall into three camps.  One focuses on better detection of instances of plagiarism, either to catch the culprits (in the case of intentional cheating) or to make students more aware of the issue and the extent to which their borrowings might be inappropriate—and new software tools such as Turn-it-in and SafeAssign are perceived as a way of fighting fire with fire (like Google searches for suspect segments of text, but more efficient). A second focuses on better educating students about both what constitutes academic dishonesty and how to use the internet appropriately for their writing and research.  (In a large study of students at Rutgers, Dee and Jacob found that the amount of plagiarism was reduced by two thirds among students who took a required tutorial). And a third calls for changing how we conceptualize both the work students do and our own teaching—the assignments we give and how we guide students through them.  Faculty at UMass Boston are working with each of these approaches (which are, of course, not mutually exclusive), and we’ll go on to explore them.

Code of Academic Conduct, UMass Boston.  <http://www.umb.edu/academics/undergraduate/office/students/CodeofStudentConduct.html>.

Dee, Thomas and Brian Jacob. Rational Ignorance in Education:  “A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism.”  NBER Working Papers. January 2010  <http://www.nber.org/papers/w15672.pdf>.

Gabriel, Trip.  “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age.”  NYTimes August 1, 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/education/02cheat.html?emc=eta1>.

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