Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age: Inferences for Instruction

This post is co-written by Gary Moorman and Carla Meyer

There can be little doubt that plagiarism is common among American students. In a survey of 2,294 high school juniors, McCabe (2005) found that 34% submitted work that was copied nearly word for word from written sources, and 34% copied a few sentences without citation. For Internet related plagiarism, 16% of the students reported turning in a paper secured on the Internet and 52% admitted to copying a few sentences without citing the source. However, research on current frequency levels of plagiarism is equivocal. Scanlon and Neumann’s (2002) survey of 698 students in nine colleges found that only 8% reported frequently copying text without citation, 3% copying a paper without citation, and 2% purchasing a paper online. Interestingly, respondents believed 50% of others frequently copied text without citation, 28% copied a paper without citation, and 21% purchased a paper online. It appears that there is a common perception that others plagiarize more frequently than evidence would support. And importantly, we could find no research that indicates today’s students plagiarize more than students from other generations.

Most honor codes outline consequences for plagiarism. Yet, students are seldom engaged in instruction or discussion about what plagiarism is, why it is a problem, and how it can be avoided. When an incident of plagiarism occurs, consequences can vary greatly, ranging from severe punishment to a verbal warning. There seems to be little correlation between the degree of punishment and the degree of plagiarism.

A review of the research on plagiarism suggests a number of factors may contribute to acts of plagiarism including an underdeveloped sense of integrity, lack of maturity, lack of experience with a particular genre of writing, lack of interest in the assignment, observation of peers’ behaviors and attitudes toward plagiarism, and the pressure to earn or maintain high grades (Ma, Turner & Wan, 2007; McCabe, 2005). In particular, a lack of interest in assignments that they see as irrelevant may entice today’s students to plagiarize just to get it done. Or, if the assignment is vague, their lack of understanding may cause them to turn to plagiarism in order to maintain their grade point average. Plagiarism is viewed as an act of self-preservation rather than an act of dishonesty. Paradoxically, students feel forced to steal something that they don’t really value.

We have two suggestions for confronting the issue of plagiarism. First, today’s educators need to engage students in extended, explicit discussions about plagiarism. Examples ranging from egregious to trivial should be examined. Second, educators can discourage plagiarism by developing meaningful assignments in which they mentor students in the inquiry process. We need to realize that times have changed, students have changed, and ways of accessing, reading, writing, communicating, and assessing information have changed. Direct instruction and modeling should be used to demonstrate how to engage in effective research and writing without the need to plagiarize.

In conclusion, we offer these questions for discussion:

o   In your experience, what is the frequency of plagiarism?

o   How should incidents of plagiarism be dealt with?

o   What tactics do you use to discourage plagiarism?



Ma, H., Lu, E., Turner, S., & Wan, G. (2007). An empirical investigation of digital

            cheating and plagiarism among middle school students. American Secondary

            Education, 35(2), 72-84.

McCabe, D. (2005b). It takes a village: Academic integrity. Liberal Education,


Scanlon, P., & Neumann, D. (2002). Internet plagiarism among college students. Journal of College Student Development,43, 374-385.

Image on front page by woodleywonderworks and available on Flickr.


Thanks for this post. It is interesting to see how plagiarism in the US compares to that in Romania (from Monday's post) by the numbers.

I don't find a great deal of plagiarism in my classes. As you have discussed above, I usually encourage students to build projects that cater to their individual academic interests. For instance, in my introductory writing courses, I assign students to research the kinds of writing they will do in their disciplines or future careers. This includes interviewing someone in their field so that that have a variety of sources. I look over drafts of major writing assignments before they are due so that I can see how they are doing and know that they are not writing the whole paper the night before. I think both of these help students create original work that will be relevant to them after my class.

Anecdotally, when I have caught students plagiarizing, I generally ask them what happened. Most students are honest about what they have done. They usually say that they are over-committed (work, sports, or family commitments got in the way of writing) or they confess that the class is a little beyond what they feel they are capable of. I try to turn these into discussions on budgeting time and seeking out resources. As a grad student, I mostly teach introductory courses. I wonder if plagiarism decreases once students get into advanced course work and graduate work. 

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