Beyond “Copy-Paste” : students' perception of the plagiarism within learning activities

Two years ago, there was a large debate started in Romania when the actual Romanian Prime-Minister was accused of plagiarism on his PhD thesis by media. He is young and he graduated his PhD when he was a very young politician. There were scholars and professors frustrated and incriminating their colleagues for this situation. Several universities’ commissions and Ministry of Education Commissions were conducted to analyze where, if and how much of the thesis was copied (plagiarism). Their conclusion was irrelevant and ambiguous formulated. The issue has remained open. Few months ago, a State Secretary of Ministry of Education was accused, again, of using plagiarism on her Master thesis. She was asked to resign by the media. Perhaps, there were to be established other commissions and other conclusions to be ambiguous formulated for the public opinion. She resigned few weeks ago for political reasons as her political party left the Government.

In this context I was interested in conducted a research of a local level with minimum resources. As a sociologist and as a scholar, I was interested in the matter of how students use plagiarism within their learning activities. I will present some important aspects of this research and its main findings.

My research forwards a quantitative survey conducted in a Romanian state university regarding the use of the Internet by the students in their learning activities. In this analysis context, we monitored the degree in which students admit to plagiarism from on-line sources, starting from the hypothesis that a teacher’s low control degree leads to an increased use of plagiarism in the learning activity and in completing learning tasks. What are the causes of plagiarism? How is plagiarism perceived by teachers? We investigated if this practice exists in close connection with the degree of Internet use or if it is triggered by a lack of control / competency from the part of the teacher.

The main research technique was the questionnaire. The final instrument was elaborated with a number of 14 items containing mixed and pre-coded questions. The type of self-administration of the survey was written and it was applied for 10 to 15 minutes during the course activity. The research investigation was performed in the period February – May 2013.

The results are the following: the students use the “copy-paste” command often (score 4) whenever they have the opportunity, in proportion of 44%; when they do not understand the assignment to solve– 52%; when they have no other resources besides the on-line ones- 56%; when they do not have time – 52% and when they are aware that the homework is not checked by the teacher – 56%. The lack of teacher control and the lack of resources appear to be the principal causes for the use of the „copy-paste” command. The other possible causes did not registered high scores (5 – always) or 1 (never).

The main result indicates that the most important role in fighting against this pathology was the teacher. If we correlate the students’ answers, we may observe that the teacher’s profile is clearly determined and it does not matter his/her major (Engineering, Social Sciences and Economics). We argue furthermore that is a duty above a competency, a duty that involves ethics and general human values. This fact can be caused also by the professional competency of the teacher, the professional ethics and the relation teacher-student in the process of fulfilling the learning tasks.

Plagiarism, under all its forms, is admitted by the students as being used in the learning activity. The fact that it exists as such, irrespective of the frequency, form and degree of use, represents a line of the education system reform, both individually, and institutionally.  It requires ampler intervention strategies and at the same time focused on concrete situations. We think that the positive reforming vision may trigger more efficient results in the long run, so that it can reach the creative dimension of the human nature.

From the methodological point of view, the research presents certain limits due to the local context, the subjects sample and the complex correlations among different variables. The purpose of the research was only to open this line of research in a Romanian state university, in the context of intense debates on the topic of plagiarism when it comes to ensuring quality in the Romanian higher education. From the perspective of the sample size, the research is exhaustive and has an exploratory character. Further investigations may open new directions of analysis by interpreting the correlations among certain independent variables and the use of the Internet in the learning process both locally, in the education institution, and globally, on a macro level.

From the epistemic viewpoint, the originality of research resided in the initiation of an investigation about the issues of plagiarism as a negative consequence of the inappropriate use of the Internet in the student’s learning activity.  The research however raises some questions regarding the necessity of the teacher’s media competency. The dangers the student is exposed to due to the poor exercise of youth competencies  regard first of all the scarcity of the means and procedures of performing self-assessment and sufficiently fine and accurate evaluation of personal necessities; second, the necessity of a hyper-knowledge for the identification of the necessary resources  (it is necessary to provide at least general orientation frames, and this role is preponderantly assigned to the teacher); and also the loss of motivation and interest for learning in the context of the teacher’s “replacement” by the new technologies or over saturation in the context of the excess of media and informational consumption.

Image on front page by Esther Vargas and available on flickr


Thank you for sharing your study, and I think it's a valuable one for teachers as they work to prevent plagiarism among their students. I found it particularly interesting that one of the main causes behind plagiarism was the level of teacher control. If students felt their teacher wasn't checking their work, they took the opportunity to plagiarize. It makes me wonder whether this was true of students in non-digital teaching contexts (which are rare anymore), or among students before the digital age. Was student plagiarism caused by teacher control in an era when the copy/paste function wasn't available? Teacher control seems to be a variable that isn't entirely connected to digital texts, and I'd be interested to see a comparative study in order to track the impact of digital access to information and the ease of copying.

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