Why Plagiarism is on the Rise

Image of Student DisciplineThe research, sadly, is pretty clear. Academic plagiarism is on the rise. Even back in 2000, well over half of all students in one survey admitted to having plagiarized at least some content from the Web and the numbers are not getting any better.

The problem is bad and it’s getting worse. But the question many teachers, professors and administrators are asking is simple: Why?

Though there’s a tendency to talk about “kids these days” or blame it on some cultural disconnect between the generations, the ethics of plagiarism are largely unchanged from previous generations and previous studies showed children see the right and wrong of plagiarism as early as 5.

So why is plagiarism on the rise? The answer is surprisingly simple: Because it’s easier.

How Plagiarism Became Easy

If you go back just 25 years ago, plagiarism was hard work. One had to go to the library, find sources to copy from, retype those sources and then turn them in as their own. By the time one does all of that, they are a large part of the way to doing a non-plagiarized assignment so there was little benefit to risking punishment and shame.

But with the Web making finding content easy and copy/paste making it take only seconds to bring it into your word processor. Plagiarism is now incredibly easy and a tremendous time/effort saver.

For example, pre-Web and pre-computers, plagiarism might save 35%-45% of the time it would take to actually write an assignment. Now, plagiarism saves more than 95% in many cases.

As any marketer will tell you, the easier you make an action, the more likely it is people will do it. People are much more likely to go to the store down the street than one across town, for example.

In short, the ethics haven’t changed (at least not as significantly as the numbers would seem) but the ease of the technology makes it so that plagiarists feel the benefits of plagiarism outweigh the risks and the ethical concerns.

That, in turn, is a big part of why students are increasingly turning to plagiarism to solve their academic problems. However, there are still other reasons that may play a role.

Other Factors to Weigh

Of course, it isn’t entirely that simple. there are several other potential causes including:

  1. Improved Plagiarism Detection: Advancements in plagiarism detection mean more plagiarists are caught and that means we know about more plagiarists. This is similar to how improved crime reporting can actually raise crime statistics.
  2. Changes in Attitude: There has definitely been at least some change in attitude in how students approach content. Though these changes are likely overstated, they do play a role.
  3. Changes in the Education Environment: Larger classes, more standardization and less emphasis on creativity help create an environment where students feel that cheating is acceptable and that they can get away with it.

These factors, and others, definitely play a role but, almost certainly, the advancements in technology alone would cause plagiarism to rise, even without the other shifts.

However, this doesn’t mean that teachers can or should attempt to remove technology from the equation. The benefits of the Web and computers in general still far outweigh the drawbacks, it’s just a matter of bringing them in a way that’s productive and appropriate.

Combating the Trend

Battling this trend is not going to be easy. Removing computers is not the answer and it is unlikely such an attempt would be successful, especially on take home assignments.

Instead, it’s important to put some of the difficulty back into plagiarism and this is going to require teachers put forth extra effort, especially in crafting assignments.

Consider the following ideas:

  1. Choose Plagiarism-Proof Topics: Pick topics that test student’s knowledge but can’t be easily Googled or written by someone not in the course, such as odd comparisons or something personal to the student.
  2. Require Multiple Drafts: Require that students submit multiple drafts and show their progress between them.
  3. Handwritten Portions: In some cases, you can have students submit portions of the assignment in handwritten form.
  4. Use In-Class Portions: In-class segments of an assignment, such as presentations, quizzes and even in-class writing are nearly impossible to plagiarize.
  5. Require Paper-Only Sources: Force students to have at least a certain number of print-only sources and specify they must be from your school’s library. Makes copying a paper online much more difficult.

These are just a few suggestions, there are many more out there, but the basic idea is to add speedbumps to the process of plagiarism, making it less tempting (or even impossible) to do. That will do more to discourage plagiarism than any threat of punishment you can levy.

Bottom Line

Psychology shows us that the threat of punishment doesn’t work unless the punishing agent is there or the punishment is so severe that it is debilitating (and only after the punishment).

Since the teacher can’t be there when the student is writing their paper in their room (at least I’d hope not), many schools have adopted a “more punishment” approach. However, that does little good as most students don’t believe they’ll get caught and feel the risk is worth the gains.

In short, the only way to really impact plagiarism is to make it more difficult. While plagiarism should still be a punishable offense, if we’re going to talk about changing behaviors and reducing plagiarism, the emphasis has to be put on making it harder to plagiarize and skewing the gains one gets from cheating.

Without that, all of the detection and enforcement isn’t going to make any difference in the bigger picture.