Plagiarism Differences in High School and College Students

| November 3, 2011 | 28 Comments
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B. Gilliard

A report released today by the plagiarism-detection tool TurnItIn confirms what a lot of teachers already know: that students are copying content from online sources. According to the report, for both high school and college students, Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers were the top two most popular sources of lifted copy.

But another interesting fact emerged from the report about the difference between high school and college students. While 31% of content matches for high school students came from social and “content-sharing” sites (like Facebook or Yahoo Answers), just 26% of the matches for college students originated there.

College students were more likely to use content from cheat sites and paper mills, the report finds: 19.6% of content matches in college students’ papers came from those sites, whereas just 14.1% of matches to high school students’ papers. College students were also more likely to turn to news sites — 16.6% versus 12.3% of college students. And even though Wikipedia was the most popular source for copied content, encyclopedias in general constituted roughly 11-12% of content for both populations.

The data from this report comes from TurnItIn’s own business: some 128 million content matches from 33 million student papers (24 million from higher education and nine million from high school) over a one-year period. That is, when students’ papers were submitted to TurnItIn, its system found passages from those papers matched content available on the open Web.

The report doesn’t indicate whether or not students cited these sources (it’s likely that many did). And TurnItIn doesn’t always catch plagiarized material from behind paywalls — sites that require subscriptions, for example, like many academic journals may not be included in what TurnItIn indexes.

TurnItIn’s report backs up a recent Pew Research Center survey, which showed that more than half of college presidents said that they believe plagiarism has increased among their students over the course of the last decade. None of this is surprising, of course. The “copy-and-paste” functionality  and the massive amount of online material available makes it a lot easier to take whole sections of a Web site and plop it into one’s assignment. As long as the source is cited, of course, it’s not necessarily considered plagiarism.

To help combat plagiarism, TurnItIn makes a number of suggestions for educators: make your assignments plagiarism-proof, the company suggests. Help students better understand citations. And — of course — the company recommends schools use a service like TurnItIn.

Recently we looked at some of the factors that may be behind our “culture of academic dishonesty.” Is it simply that students are taking advantage of easier copy-and-paste technology and online resources, or are there other issues at play? For example, what are the pressures on college students that make them far more likely to turn to cheating sites than high school students? What are the reasons why high schoolers turn more to social sites? How can we take advantage of their interest in working with their peers while helping them learn not to simply copy from them?

How can we address these factors, while creating better assignments — ones that reward creative thinking — and offering better instruction about citation?

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  • http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org Scott McLeod

    Here’s another factor not mentioned above. We’re assigning work that’s meaningless to kids. Since they don’t care about it – we do, but they don’t – they think in their heads, “Just get it over with…”

    We always say, “They’re not just cheating us, they’re cheating themselves.” But are they really cheating themselves if they never cared about it in the first place?

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AU4CWIFQ453NFQF3QRUKIKWJ5M LISA G

      HI Scott,

      That is a strong statement…. but I do like the idea of making the assignments PLAGIARISM proof.  My recipe would be to require original thought.  One way would be to ask them to make unusual connections that could not be GOOGLED.  Another approach might be to insist that students design the topic, on the spot in class, rather than providing canned topics.
      Cheers.  Lisa

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AU4CWIFQ453NFQF3QRUKIKWJ5M LISA G

      HI Scott,

      That is a strong statement…. but I do like the idea of making the assignments PLAGIARISM proof.  My recipe would be to require original thought.  One way would be to ask them to make unusual connections that could not be GOOGLED.  Another approach might be to insist that students design the topic, on the spot in class, rather than providing canned topics.
      Cheers.  Lisa

      • Greg Salwitz

        If you ask students to make up topics on the spot, you will end up with the least plagiarism proof type of topic, the superficial one that most often is selected at first glance. The topic selected on the spot is surely replicated by others on a variety of sources online.

        Services like turnitin also only respond to the plagiarism of actual content taken verbatim or nearly so via copy paste. It does nothing to respond to the plagiarism of ideas, removing analysis and primary source research as elements of the educational process.

        Scott McLeod really touched on the most critical point, the fact that the driving force behind this burgeoning trend is the continued rise of disengagement in the classroom. The goal of education is to craft students into productive, informed members of society. That long term goal cannot be efficiently accomplished when educators focus their energy on policing for plagiarism and teaching for standardized tests. Well put Scott.

        • Lisa

          Yes!  You said it..inspire, create critical original thinkers, give them time to process their own ideas….  but lets not hurt the feelings of all the teachers that work so hard and think they are doing everything they can…  propose the professional development that you see fit to get the job done.  Here is your goal: “to craft students into productive, informed members of society.”  Post a couple concrete ideas for helping teachers get away from policing and into reaching your stated goal.  :)
          Lisa

  • http://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/ Kate (Music for Deckchairs)

    There’s a separate issue that might be to do with how schools teach computer literacy in the K-6 years.  Early learners learn the basic craft computer skills of selecting, cutting and pasting to make projects, assemble talks etc long before they learn the culture of citation. This isn’t so much the Facebook generation as the Google generation; they’re googling as soon as they can spell. So is a question of thinking about how and when they learned to cut and paste before deciding that it’s a purposeful practice of cheating?

  • http://profiles.google.com/wattervilleh Henry Waterville

    Question:
    How often do teachers copy, (steal) images from the Internet to use in classroom worksheets?

    Teachers are quick to cry “Fair Use”. The teacher just wants to put together a classroom assignment. The teacher is not selling it. No harm comes to the creator of the original work, but those are the same excuses that students give when asked why they plagiarize, (steal) work.

    My colleagues at school know that I am just joking with them when I bring up the subject, but I remind them that deep down, Fair Use IS stealing; I call it stealing in moderation.

    • Harold

      Fair Use is by definition not stealing. Abuse of fair use could be called stealing. 

    • Mb06bps

      “ No harm comes to the creator of the original work, but those are the same excuses that students give when asked why they plagiarize, (steal) work.”

      What about the context in which each occurs?  Educators are not self-serving when using items from the internet.  Children who choose to plagiarize are.  Also, with resources such as Creative Commons, and the licensing that comes with it, educators I know stay within those parameters and give credit (I think that we call this good modeling for students?!?)
      “Fair Use is stealing” sounds biased and opinionated, but not very factually based.  

    • Mb06bps

      “ No harm comes to the creator of the original work, but those are the same excuses that students give when asked why they plagiarize, (steal) work.”

      What about the context in which each occurs?  Educators are not self-serving when using items from the internet.  Children who choose to plagiarize are.  Also, with resources such as Creative Commons, and the licensing that comes with it, educators I know stay within those parameters and give credit (I think that we call this good modeling for students?!?)
      “Fair Use is stealing” sounds biased and opinionated, but not very factually based.  

  • http://profiles.google.com/wattervilleh Henry Waterville

    Question:
    How often do teachers copy, (steal) images from the Internet to use in classroom worksheets?

    Teachers are quick to cry “Fair Use”. The teacher just wants to put together a classroom assignment. The teacher is not selling it. No harm comes to the creator of the original work, but those are the same excuses that students give when asked why they plagiarize, (steal) work.

    My colleagues at school know that I am just joking with them when I bring up the subject, but I remind them that deep down, Fair Use IS stealing; I call it stealing in moderation.

  • Harold

    I believe that a huge part of the problem is students not being properly educated on two things– one, that it’s OK to rewrite other people’s content, as long as you phrase it uniquely, and two that there is no shame in using large parts of other texts, as long as you cite your sources. Teachers often neglect to explain both how useful these techniques are, and how pervasive they are outside of schools. 

  • Thomas

    Turnitin claims to have data on plagiarism, but their work does not discriminate between cited phrases/quotes and plagiarism.  This seems like it invalidates their results.  I do not deny that plagiarism is a serious problem in secondary and post-secondary education, but I do think that if we are going to look at data it should be accurate.

  • Thomas

    Turnitin claims to have data on plagiarism, but their work does not discriminate between cited phrases/quotes and plagiarism.  This seems like it invalidates their results.  I do not deny that plagiarism is a serious problem in secondary and post-secondary education, but I do think that if we are going to look at data it should be accurate.

    • http://twitter.com/ianmcnaught Ian McNaught

      They actually do. When viewing reports you can choose to excluded
      bibliographic and quoted materials from the similarity index. If it’s
      possible to exclude this, you would imagine they could also do the same
      when preparing this data.

    • http://twitter.com/ianmcnaught Ian McNaught

      They actually do. When viewing reports you can choose to excluded
      bibliographic and quoted materials from the similarity index. If it’s
      possible to exclude this, you would imagine they could also do the same
      when preparing this data.

      • Thomas

        They could have, but it sounds like they didn’t:  

        “The report doesn’t indicate whether or not students cited these sources (it’s likely that many did). ”

        If I’m misreading, please correct me.

      • Thomas

        They could have, but it sounds like they didn’t:  

        “The report doesn’t indicate whether or not students cited these sources (it’s likely that many did). ”

        If I’m misreading, please correct me.

  • Rubystarlite

    Plagarism is not just a problem of the Google/Facebook generation… Before world-wide Internet use, students could just ”copy” reference materials available at your local library and pass it off as their own work. That being said, even with websites that are about catching plagarism, students can be highly resourceful about finding other ways to cheat on assignments (having answers on electronic devices, hidden “cheat sheets”, or just the old-fashioned “Can I see your paper?”). Whether copied from the Internet or from a smart classmate’s paper, stealing ideas and information is still stealing.

  • Rubystarlite

    Plagarism is not just a problem of the Google/Facebook generation… Before world-wide Internet use, students could just ”copy” reference materials available at your local library and pass it off as their own work. That being said, even with websites that are about catching plagarism, students can be highly resourceful about finding other ways to cheat on assignments (having answers on electronic devices, hidden “cheat sheets”, or just the old-fashioned “Can I see your paper?”). Whether copied from the Internet or from a smart classmate’s paper, stealing ideas and information is still stealing.

  • http://twitter.com/ArtemisMS Bridget

    Everyone making excuses for cheating students here is just sad.  Students cheat because they don’t want to do the work.  Maybe they have a lot of math homework, and they think that’s more important.  Maybe they have football practice.  Maybe they’d rather just go out tonight instead of work on their English paper.  All of this is, of course, regardless of the fact that they’ve had 2-3 weeks to complete a 750 word paper.

    I teach students the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing; we have multiple classroom lectures, discussions, and presentations that are designed to show students how to research professionally.  

    So when a student turns in his paper, the majority of which is a word-for-word copy of a Wikipedia article?  It’s not his high school teacher’s fault.  It’s not my fault.  It’s not society’s fault.  It’s not his parents’ fault.

    It’s his fault, and he knows it, and that’s why he’s not surprised when I hand his paper back and it has a big, fat “F” on it.

  • http://twitter.com/ArtemisMS Bridget

    Everyone making excuses for cheating students here is just sad.  Students cheat because they don’t want to do the work.  Maybe they have a lot of math homework, and they think that’s more important.  Maybe they have football practice.  Maybe they’d rather just go out tonight instead of work on their English paper.  All of this is, of course, regardless of the fact that they’ve had 2-3 weeks to complete a 750 word paper.

    I teach students the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing; we have multiple classroom lectures, discussions, and presentations that are designed to show students how to research professionally.  

    So when a student turns in his paper, the majority of which is a word-for-word copy of a Wikipedia article?  It’s not his high school teacher’s fault.  It’s not my fault.  It’s not society’s fault.  It’s not his parents’ fault.

    It’s his fault, and he knows it, and that’s why he’s not surprised when I hand his paper back and it has a big, fat “F” on it.

  • Debbie Abilock

    Superficial assignments, lack of scaffolding for reading comprehension, writing, and citation – all contribute to plagiarism.  When we assign rather than teach, some kids go home and get help from parents which ” invites anxious parents to hover, help, and contribute in varying degrees. The polished results give teachers an inflated sense of their students’ capabilities and phony confirmation of their own effectiveness. The final product (which, at the very least, should include a citation for the hard-working parents) is a flawless game
    plan for future plagiarized essays in which help and ideas will be disguised and unattributed.”  From Duke: http://www.tip.duke.edu/node/911

  • Debbie Abilock

    Superficial assignments, lack of scaffolding for reading comprehension, writing, and citation – all contribute to plagiarism.  When we assign rather than teach, some kids go home and get help from parents which ” invites anxious parents to hover, help, and contribute in varying degrees. The polished results give teachers an inflated sense of their students’ capabilities and phony confirmation of their own effectiveness. The final product (which, at the very least, should include a citation for the hard-working parents) is a flawless game
    plan for future plagiarized essays in which help and ideas will be disguised and unattributed.”  From Duke: http://www.tip.duke.edu/node/911

  • Shamaka Schumake

    Ok I am both a student
    and an educator. Most students are not lazy, the teachers are. What exactly is
    it that you want accomplished by having the student write the paper? When there
    is a clear purpose, and I am engaged in the subject I have no problem writing a
    7-20 page research paper; especially if I am given sufficient time. However
    some teachers just assign papers for random reasons. IDK maybe they need more
    graded items…If I don’t care about it I will just do what it takes to get it
    over with. I don’t plagiarize, but I over citate and I am aware that I am doing
    just that. If I don’t care about the subject, I am just technically getting the
    assignment done. When I assign my students a paper I explain to them what I
    want them to learn during the process. I even grade different parts of the
    process that target whatever the lesson is. If your students are giving you
    minimal effort perhaps you should look at yourself. We are after all the
    professionals….they are just students.

    • lmswrites

      except when the state dictates to the high school what standards must be taught, then I have to assign numerous research papers, and I get really tired of being told it’s my problem because I’m not making it more fun. When they are working at a job that requires them to write, will they be able to claim they’re too bored and didn’t really care to do it?

  • Shamaka Schumake

    Ok I am both a student
    and an educator. Most students are not lazy, the teachers are. What exactly is
    it that you want accomplished by having the student write the paper? When there
    is a clear purpose, and I am engaged in the subject I have no problem writing a
    7-20 page research paper; especially if I am given sufficient time. However
    some teachers just assign papers for random reasons. IDK maybe they need more
    graded items…If I don’t care about it I will just do what it takes to get it
    over with. I don’t plagiarize, but I over citate and I am aware that I am doing
    just that. If I don’t care about the subject, I am just technically getting the
    assignment done. When I assign my students a paper I explain to them what I
    want them to learn during the process. I even grade different parts of the
    process that target whatever the lesson is. If your students are giving you
    minimal effort perhaps you should look at yourself. We are after all the
    professionals….they are just students.

  • G