Plagiarism is nothing new. Students have been plagiarizing far before the Internet was widely available — whether it was copying from the encyclopedia or hiring professionals. But the Internet and the explosion of online resources has made it easier for students to get to those resources. You’ll find a number of websites geared specifically to cheating — sites where you can buy papers, for example. But even if students opt not to pay-to-cheat, the Internet does seem to make it easier to lift content. It’s as easy as copy-and-paste.

But by those very same standards, it also means that plagiarism is much easier to identify. Even without purchasing expensive plagiarism-tracking software, instructors can Google suspicious-sounding sentences from students’ work and determine whether or not they’ve lifted content from online resources.

Even though plagiarism is often easily identifiable via a simple Web search, many schools have opted to purchase one of the many plagiarism-checking software programs currently on the market. One of the best known options is TurnItIn, which has just released an interesting white paper, based on the 40 million some-odd papers that have been submitted and analyzed by the site.

Some of the key finds from the paper include:

  • Plagiarism is going social: One-third of all content matched in the study is from social networks, content sharing or question-and-answer sites where users contribute and share content.
  • Legitimate educational sites are more popular than cheat sites: One-quarter of all matched material is from legitimate educational web sites, almost double the number that comes from paper mills or cheat sites.
  • 15% of content matches come directly from sites that promote and benefit from academic dishonesty: Paper mills and cheat sites are the third most popular category for matched content.
  • Wikipedia is the most popular site for matched content: It remains the single most used source for student-matched content on the Web, comprising 7% of matches in the months examined.

The TurnItIn research suggests that students really are trying to “do the right thing.” Noting the decrease in the number of students turning to sites that are clearly identified as “cheating,” the white paper asks if our new digital culture — one that promotes sharing, openness, and re-use — is running counter to some of the “fundamental tenets of education — the ability to develop, organize, and express original thoughts.” The paper suggests that many students really aren’t clear about what is legitimate re-use compared to plagiarism.

The white paper urges teachers to continue to teach proper citation methods and to discuss with students what constitutes fair use and what’s considered stealing. And no surprise, TurnItIn contends that adopting its tools means a reduction in students using “unoriginal content,” by as much as 30 – 35% in the first year.

Whether or not institutions opt to pay for plagiarism checking services like TurnItIn, the white paper does echo what many teachers already know from their day-to-day grading habits: Students turn to online sources to help them write their papers. But it’s important to note that these sources aren’t necessarily associated with cheating.

For educators and parents, the question is, how can we better equip students to take advantage of the vast resources online without succumbing to plagiarizing?

  • I find it interesting that the whitepaper says one of the “fundamental tenets of education” is “the ability to develop, organize, and express original thoughts.” As a graduate student and researcher, 80% of what I do is not expressing original thoughts, but accurately understanding, coherently organizing, and properly attributing other people’s thoughts. I realize TurnItIn focuses on essays and term papers, not research, but perhaps what we really need is better education on how to attribute and use sources.

  • Paisley

    We are entering an age where ownership of information is becoming increasingly shared or indeterminate. Therefore, it’s time to re-think the concept of plagiarism.

    This young generation of thinkers sees intellectual property very differently than my older generation does. I believe we are not far from an era where most information is considered public property and one’s intellectual value is measured by what one can do with information rather than by how much one knows. In this new world, plagiarism will become irrelevant. Of course, those who reject my hypothesis can always use technological solutions to address this fundamentally technological problem

    Teachers can avoid much of the plagiarism trap entirely by assigning written work that narrowly targets very specific, individualized topics for which little or no information exists on the internet. When students are challenged to write about highly personalized topics with hyper-local implications, they have no choice but to think and write for themselves.

    Personally, I’d rather cultivate a paradigm shift in my own thinking about what I truly value in student writing. Changing my old attitudes is preferable to wrestling with out-dated notions of plagiarism that are doomed to become irrelevant by the middle of the 21st century. Like it or not, this new generation is going to re-define much of what us old timers take for granted.

  • Refgirl

    As a reference librarian, I often help students (or their parents!) who are researching papers. One of the first things they tell me is “My teacher says I’m not allowed to use Wikipedia.” or “The teacher said not to use an encyclopedia.” Such statements tell me two things: One, the teacher is trying to prevent plagiarism; two, the teacher doesn’t understand how to conduct real research. I explain that it is perfectly okay to use Wikipedia to start your research, because it can guide you to more specific sources. It is also okay to copy ideas from other sources, as long as you understand those ideas and can put them in your own words. After all, it is not reasonable to ask a sixteen year old to come up with an original insight into Shakespeare, the Civil Rights movement or the use of antibiotics. But we can certainly do a better job in helping those students understand what might constitute legitimate information sharing from legitimate sources as opposed to short-cuts that amount to cheating.

    • Another refgirl

      @refgirl, it is NOT ok to copy ideas if you put them in your own words. That’s called “paraphrasing” and in higher ed you still have to cite the source. The whole point of plagiarism (which many confuse with copyright which punishes copying exact words) is that you’re copying someone else’s *idea* without attribution, not just their exact words.

      • She didn’t say NOT to cite the source for paraphrasing. She’s a reference librarian, aferall. I think it is safe to say that her patrons cite their sources.

    • @Refgirl, here is a third thing this statement might tell you: The teacher said, “do not cite Wikipedia/encyclopedia as a source, but it is fine to consult it for locating sources” and the student heard, “don’t use Wikipedia.” Here is a fourth: The teacher has tried to explain this concept to the students and received so many essays regurgitating the Wikipedia entry that he/she has found it simpler simply to forbid the use of Wikipedia.

  • As an academic librarian I think Wikipedia could be a start point for research. However, citing and referencing Wikipedia is not accepted: it is not a peer reviewed source. I try to explain students this academic rule: peer-reviewed OR not?

  • Anna T

    Since internet sources are everywhere, it is difficult to find and cite the original source. I think students should be able to use sites like Wikipedia as part of their information for the paper. Students should be able to paraphrase and analyze the information and not directly copy the sentences.  We are in a world that we can search pretty much anything on the web and it would be a challenge not to “plagiarizing” or “paraphrasing”. “. 

  • With well-practiced paraphrasing skills, students are ready to work on
    summarizing. Similar pedagogy can be used for this exercise. How long
    and challenging the source text is will depend on the level of students’
    education, but students should be guided through identifying key terms
    and major ideas, with the goal of being able not just to restate an idea
    but to understand a text so well that they can compress it by at least
    50 percent.

    • Sure, well educated students plagiarize less than those who have low grades. Students should be
      Guided through the hard work of engaging with and understanding their sources, so students don’t conclude that creating a technically perfect bibliography is enough. Intellectual property should be discussed in class as well in order to prevent rephrase online

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