Views on Plagiarism Often Depend on the Circumstances - Can Digital Culture keep us Honest?

My first teaching assignment as an Assistant Professor was at a large public university teaching research methods, a course that covered writing papers in APA style. One of the challenges of teaching the course was curbing plagiarism. An informal department investigation had found that as many as 40% of students’ papers contained plagiarism. To help address the program, the college purchased turnitinsoftware, a computer service that scans student papers to determine how much of the writing is original. Adopting the software was controversial because it was expensive, and because the legality of the system was in question (see Barakat, 2008). Still, many faculty characterized turnitin as a powerful deterrent against plagiarism. As one faculty member put it, the system might become a ‘silver bullet’ to eliminate plagiarism. What student would plagiarize if they knew turnitin was being used?

The hypothesis that increasing the chance of detecting plagiarism would prevent it was interesting to me, and I designed some studies to test it. At the beginning of the semester, I told students a cover story that the university had purchased a trial version of turnitin that allowed only some student papers to be submitted. The rest would be graded traditionally, but I emphasized that the penalty for plagiarizing was a failing course grade regardless of how they were graded. In reality, all the students’ papers were scanned by the system, which revealed that, regardless of whether or not students were aware their paper would be scanned, both groups still plagiarized at very similar rates (see Youmans, 2011). I had to fail three students, all of whom knew their papers would go through the turnitin system – so much for a silver bullet.

A few months ago, I was peer-reviewing a paper for a prestigious journal (now somewhat less so in my eyes), and I realized that the submitting authors had plagiarized from an online version of my own PhD dissertation. I notified the editors, and they allowed the authors to remove the plagiarized material from their work and resubmit the paper. The decision was generous; it allowed the authors a second chance to report, in their own words, the prior work that provided the content validity for their current research. I agreed to re-review a new version of the paper, but I was disappointed.  The authors had replaced the plagiarized sections of their paper with vacuous, general statements, and then had cited literally dozens of articles in reference to those statements. It was a lazy fix, and I objected, but the editors argued that reporting the original research was important and accepted the paper anyway.

In talking with students who plagiarize, many report doing it because they are trying to save time, often on parts of a paper that, they feel, are not very important. The editors who accepted the plagiarized journal article might agree – after the plagiarism had been expunged from the article being reviewed, they felt it was more important to publish the results of the research than to punish the plagiarism with a rejection. How has, and how will, our digital culture affect plagiarism in the future? I am not convinced that these changes have made individuals more or less likely to condone plagiarism, but it has made it easier to commit and detect. And while some people will continue to plagiarize, my hope is that technology will facilitate conversations, such as this one, about what people believe is right and wrong when it comes to plagiarism, the value of original ideas, and scholarship.


Barakat, M. (2008). Students appeal ruling favoring plagiarism detection service.

Youmans, R. J. (2011). Does the adoption of plagiarism-detection software in higher education reduce plagiarism?. Studies in Higher Education, 36(7), 749-761.

Image on front page by Joseph Kent via Flickr. 

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