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Plagiarism – Technology Issues

The Question
Not Just Tech
Defining the Problem
A Closer Look
Next Steps
Works Cited

The Question:

The question as to whether technology is contributing to plagiarism in college classes seems simple. From a purely technical standpoint, sure, it’s easier to copy-and-paste chunks of text from one window on a computer to another than it is to re-type entire passages, or even papers. There are even web companies willing to supply would-be plagiarists with canned or customized papers for a fee.

It’s also easier to track these practices. Researching a possible plagiarism case used to (and still can, of course) involve closely analyzing a paper for consistency with past patterns, and trying to piece together a reasoned conclusion as to whether it might have originated with someone else — whether a published source that’s perhaps trackable through available library resources, or a file paper that would be virtually untrackable. More often than not these days, it’s possible to keypunch a short phrase into a web search engine (or a web database specifically for this purpose) and chances of discovering a match are really pretty good.

None of this information is new to someone who works or studies at a university. As Rebecca Moore Howard (a compositionist and leading researcher in the area of plagiarism in college classes) puts it, “If you are a professor in the United States and you have a pulse, you have heard about the problems of Internet plagiarism” (Howard, “Forget”).

But debates about whether technology makes plagiarism — or policing plagiarism — easier seem to miss the heart of the academic community’s real concern: what can we as a community of teachers and learners do for each other in an age that demands that we think differently about how information is shared, borrowed, and used?

Not Just Tech:

The only thing that seems clear is that things are getting more blurry. Even definitions of what constitutes plagiarism are difficult to pin down — for faculty as well as students. And certainly perceptions about how serious a problem plagiarism is becoming — particularly some types of “Internet plagiarism” — is a matter of much debate.

The problems may be bigger than the Internet. For one thing, students clearly need help with understanding plagiarism, and not just when the Web is involved:

  • Psychological Reports study found that “students will use writing strategies that result in potential plagiarism when they face the task of paraphrasing advanced technical text for which they may lack the proper cognitive resources” (Roig 979). More than 60 percent of students cannot tell the difference between paraphrased and plagiarized text (Roig 974).
  • In the Internet realm, as the University of Alberta Libraries points out, the complexity of choosing among and deciphering the many available style guides is further compounded by the difficulty of citing online sources. There is little agreement among the various guides for how one should go about citing an Internet source, and these sources change so rapidly that a cited source may not even exist in the same form the next day (Univ. of Alberta Libraries).
  • What’s more, there’s a common perception among Web users that information on the web is in the public domain (Univ. of Alberta Libraries). (More on this in the next section.)

Data on plagiarism trends among students certainly reflects uncertainty:

  • A Center for Academic Integrity study found that, “from the 1999-2000 academic year to 2001-’02, the number of college students who said they had cut and pasted from the Internet without attribution rose to 41 percent, from 10 percent” (Zernike 10).
  • But these students did not seem to believe they were cheating — at least not at the same level of severity: “Students who thought cutting and pasting was ‘serious cheating’ declined to 27 percent from 68 percent in those two years” (Zernike 10).
  • Interestingly, the faculty teaching these students also seemed less concerned. Teachers “who said cutting and pasting from the Internet was serious cheating dipped to 51 percent from 91 percent” in that same time frame (Zernike 10).

So students are using the Internet to plagiarize, and there also seems to be some disagreement out there about what constitutes a serious academic offense. What’s more, others are articulating serious questions as to whether the Internet actually encourages dishonesty:

  • A Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study found that “online plagiarism is not nearly as widespread as has frequently been suggested” (Scanlon and Neumann 381). While eight percent of the study’s respondents reported having plagiarized by cut-and-paste ‘often’ or ‘very frequently,’ 50.4 percent of them reported that their peers fell into this category, suggesting that students suspected much more plagiarism than was actually taking place (Scanlon and Neumann 379).
  • In addition, “the [RIT] study also found that the amount of online plagiarism students reported engaging in is comparable to the amount of conventional plagiarism — from books or other printed sources — that’s been reported for years” (Scanlon and Neumann 382).
  • The Center for Academic Integrity has found convincing evidence that, although the Internet may simplify cut-and-paste plagiarism, it doesn’t create cheaters out of otherwise honest people. In a study of 25 high schools, 54 percent of students said they plagiarized from the Internet, but only a small fraction plagiarized only from the Internet. In other words, most plagiarizers would have done so with or without the technology. “It appears the Internet is merely the means not the primary motivation for those students who copy text from the web and pass it off as their own,” according to Cara Branigan, Assistant Editor of eSchool News. “Most of the cheaters said they would have plagiarized anyway” (Branigan).

So it’s not just the technology, according to these studies — something else is going on here. If we pay attention to it, we might find that it’s something that we, as educators and academics, might be able to do something about.

Defining The Problem:

First of all, whatever the problem is, it’s looking like we’re all in it together — university students, faculty, and administrators — and we all could use some definition. Since technology is looking less and less like an instigator of the problem, too much focus on it might very well distract us from recognizing that the uncertainty surrounding Internet sources, and indeed plagiarism in general, is very much a part of academic culture right now. “Encouraged by digital dualisms,” suggests Howard, “we forget that plagiarism means many different things: downloading a term paper, failing to give proper credit to the source of an idea, copying extensive passages, without attribution, inserting someone else’s phrases or sentences — perhaps with small changes — into your own prose, and forgetting to supply a set of quotation marks” (Howard “Forget”).

“If we ignore those distinctions,” Howard continues, “we fail to see that most of us have violated the plagiarism injunctions in one way or another, large or small, intentionally or inadvertently, at one time or another. The distinctions are just not that crisp” (Howard “Forget”).

Robert Boynton, in a Washington Post& article titled “Is Honor Up for Grabs?” attributed the confusion for students, at least in part, to what he called the “Napsterization of knowledge — the notion that ideas (like music) are little more than disembodied entities, ‘out there’ in the ether, available to be appropriated electronically in any way users wish” (Boynton B01).

“What now constitutes honorable behavior,” he suggests, “is an open question” (Boynton B01).

His suggestion is to stay focused on the principles rather than on the technology: “…for all the added efficiency, … copying is still copying. Cheating is still cheating. The words you present as your own either come from you or from someone else. All the technology in the world will never change that” (Boynton B01).

But other researchers and scholars are complicating things even further by pointing out that the Internet, with the free exchange of ideas and information that it suggests, might be exposing a constructed and somewhat artificial basis for plagiarism rules and intellectual property in general. Through this lens, the truly collaborative nature of all writing and ideas is surfacing, making plagiarism rules seem a bit outdated. contributor Victoria Olsen refers to compositionist Andrea Lunsford’s work when she suggests that “the very nature of these controversies over student plagiarism may change as certain notions of authorship and what constitutes intellectual property continue to evolve.” Part of this evolution, in Olsen’s interpretation, hinges on understanding the inherently collaborative nature of writing: “By making it difficult to trace the origins of a text or idea,” she explains, “the Internet reminds us that writing is a collaborative process” (Olsen).

“If these ideas gain ground,” Olsen continues, “crediting someone with ‘ownership’ of intellectual property may begin to seem absurd, and plagiarism may become obsolete — through its sheer acceptance” (Olsen).

In the work on which Olsen’s article is based, Andrea Lunsford and her collaborators ask us to consider that the notion of intellectual property is central to current understandings of academia. In light of the more open system of information sharing suggested by the Internet, though, she poses a series of interesting questions raised by the electronic age: “What happens if the knowledge products educational institutions have reserved as their prerogative are now readily accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime? What happens if the producers of that knowledge, the romantic ‘authors’ … are so widely dispersed as to be invisible, parcelled out in so many ways and through so many different hands that ‘ownership’ cannot be fixed to a person or persons? What happens if the electronic revolution effectively destroys old systems of the ‘right’ to copy, to copyright? What then?” (Lunsford et al., 11).

That’s food for thought, anyway. We’re not there yet, obviously — we have policies and responsibilities as scholars and educators who must recognize current standards of ethical scholarship. And we need to think about how to be scholars in a digital age in the academic culture that exists now. But as Lunsford asserts, “if we do not get in on this discussion, we are going to be written and shaped by it — in ways we may not like” (Lunsford et al., 8).

“The information genie is out of the bottle,” Boynton exclaims, “and even the grown-ups can’t decide whether to try to put it back in, or to live with the anarchy it has created” (Boynton). For Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity, the choice here is clear: “The challenge for educators is we need to come to some agreement on what the rules are, because students are not accepting the rules that have been out there for years” (Zernike 10).

So maybe there’s something we can do in our classrooms to help each other explore what’s behind these constructs, to look ahead a little, and to participate in shaping the shift that’s already taking place, with or without us.

A Closer Look:

If rules about plagiarism are becoming fuzzy, and if many uses of the Internet seem to contradict academic understandings of intellectual property, perhaps one place to start would be to spend more, rather than less, time working with the Internet and talking about the role of technology in honest, interesting scholarship.

It also seems important, given the level of shared confusion among all members of the academic community over what constitutes plagiarism, to recognize that plagiarism does not (necessarily) equal cheating. In fact, many forms of plagiarism seem to be more an indicator of learning waiting to happen than an attempt at fraud.


Internet technology provides an opportunity to more closely examine a practice that Rebecca Moore Howard has termed “patchwriting.” This practice of copying, or cutting-and-pasting, small amounts of text from the Internet (or elsewhere) and claiming it for one’s own is often, at worst, just a misunderstanding on the writer’s part of the conventions associated with using others’ ideas. At best, it’s often “a move toward membership in a discourse community, a means of learning unfamiliar language and ideas,” Howard explains. “Far from indicating a lack of respect for a source text,” she continues, “…patchwriting is a gesture of reverence” (Howard, Standing, 7).

Howard suggests teaching with patchwriting in mind. For example, to help writers become at once more cognizant of how such practices are often viewed in academic culture, and also to help them practice the process of interpreting and summarizing difficult material, she’ll conduct a class session in which the class summarizes particularly difficult passages together (Howard, Standing, 141-145).

Taking this a step further, she even suggests that writers new to the discourse of their disciplines might benefit from deliberatepatchwriting — albeit on a temporary basis — in order to pay attention to the language and patterns those writers use and to ways those practices might influence their own writing (Howard, Standing, 145-149).

And finally, Howard urges writers to spend time on the context in which notions of plagiarism, and patchwriting as plagiarism, developed and are sustained. Examining the theories out of which these issues developed, she explains, can “acquaint students with the history of and current theoretical work in authorship, so that they come to realize that the autonomous, originary, proprietary, moral author is not a foundational fact, but a cultural arbitrary, one that still governs the expectations for their own writing but that is nevertheless ceaselessly undergoing change” (Howard, Standing, 151). In doing so, a writer will not only come to understand what is acceptable and what is not, and will not only learn how to use their sources accordingly, but will better understand what they are able to do as authors, thereby gaining greater facility with expressing their own ideas.

Examples for practice and critique

Because the Internet offers open exchange of information, it’s not difficult to think of other ways in which writers could use its resources while simultaneously examining its role in academic scholarship. It provides a wealth of examples, for example:

  • Critiquing web sites can help groups of writers come to consensus about what good writing and good scholarship is.
  • Examples can also be chosen for their ability to helphone critical thinking skills (what constitutes well thought-out argument? what holes can be poked in an argument that seems sound on the surface? how would a comparison of two different perspectives raise additional questions?).
  • And of course, it’s not difficult to find opportunities on the web to discuss evaluating sources.

All of these practices can help think about not only web resources but also about broader issues of finding, evaluating, synthesizing, and presenting one’s own work in ways that are appreciated by the broader academic community.

-Audiences and colleagues

The Internet not only offers writers countless sources that we can go out and get, but a (theoretically) vast audience for our own work. Web pages that writers might produce are one way of accessing this audience. But listservs, chat rooms, news groups, discussion boards, and other communications opportunities that the Internet provides can put us in touch with others who share our interests and who can help us develop our thinking. By engaging consciously in this process, it’s also possible to think more deeply about how knowledge is formed through the exchange of ideas.

Next Steps:

The Internet is not a panacea, of course. But neither does it seem to be the instigator of the problems we’re seeing with academic dishonesty. By looking away from the technology and toward the culture shaping its use scholars are bound to find some fascinating and extremely challenging questions to grapple with.

The problems are real, of course: students are having more and more trouble making choices about how to use sources, and are less and less inclined to understand that some of the practices they sometimes resort to are considered dishonest and are (or should be) taken seriously (a confusion that faculty seem to share, at least to a certain extent).

In short, the question of whether or not technology makes plagiarism easier doesn’t seem to matter. What constitutes responsible scholarship given the changing landscape of information exchange, and how we can help each other engage in the practices that responsible scholars engage in, seems the more critical question, and one that we, as a community of educators and students, are better equipped to address.

Works Cited:

Boynton, Robert S. “Is Honor Up for Grabs? Education Isn’t About Surveillance.” Washington Post. May 27, 2001: B01.

Branigan, Cara. “Rutgers Study Confirms that Web Makes Cheating Easier.” eSchool News Online (May 11, 2001)

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Forget About Policing Plagiarism. JustTeach.” Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 16, 2001): B24.

——-. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1999.

Lunsford, Andrea, Rebecca Rickly, Michael Salvo, Susan West. “What Matters Who Writes? What Matters Who Responds?” Kairos1.1 (Spring 1996)  (Apr. 18, 2003).

Olsen, Victoria. “Jane Eyre, To Go.” (Nov. 13, 1998)

Roig, Miguel. “When College Students’ Attempts at Paraphrasing Become Instances of Potential Plagiarism.” Psychological Reports 84 (1999): 973-82.

Scanlon, Patrick M. and David R. Neumann. “Internet Plagiarism Among College Students.” Journal of College Student Development43.3 (May/June 2002): 374-85.

University of Alberta Libraries. “Why Students Plagiarize.” Guide to Plagiarism and Cyber-Plagiarism. 2002.  (April 18, 2003).

Zernike, Kate. “With Cheating on the Rise, More Colleges Are Turning to Honor Codes.” The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2002): Sec. A, Pg. 10, Col. 1.

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