Today, Turnitin, which is owned by iParadigms, announced a follow up to a November 2011 study (PDF) that looked at the sources students copy from in the papers they submit. The new study found that homework and academic sites have become significantly more popular in the past year among both secondary and higher education students and that, while all students struggled to identify academically acceptable sources, higher education students were better at it.
The new report paints a very mixed picture about the changes in student sourcing over the past year. While there are some reasons to be optimistic, there are also a lot of reasons to be deeply worried.
In short, the data doesn’t paint a particularly clear picture one way or another, but certainly gives us a great deal to think about.
The Background on the Studies
Turnitin is a popular plagiarism-detection service that works by scanning submitted student papers and detecting any copied content. Since it doesn’t detect plagiarism directly only copying, only a human can determine if plagiarism has taken place, Turnitin is in a position to analyze where students are copying their content from and make determinations both on the legitimacy and the quality of such sources.
With that in mind, the November 2011 study looked at over 128 million content matches from 33.5 million papers submitted between June 2010 and June 2011. The goal was to analyze where students were copying their content from and understand both the source of the material and its quality.
In an update to that report, Turnitin has performed a similar study, looking at some 156 million content matches across some 37 million student papers (28 million higher education and 9 million secondary) that were submitted to the service between July 2011 and June 2012.
The studies not only provide an interesting chance to compare higher education vs. secondary education in this area, but also to look at any changes that have taken place over the last year and determine if they are good news or bad.
However, in the end, the results were a classic case of one step forward, one step back.
The Most Popular Sites
Both studies broke out the top 10 sites that students were copying content from. Here’s a look at the top 5 sites from both reports, separating out secondary and higher ed in both cases.
[table id=1 /]
Across the board, Wikipedia remains the most popular site for students to copy from, something that should come as little surprise. However, the former second place site, Yahoo! Answers fell to 6th among higher education students in 2012, being replaced there by essay mill site OPPapers.com. However, on the upside, Course Hero, a legitimate homework assistance site, rose to number four in the rankings.
For secondary education, little changed though OPPapers.com managed to come in at number five, giving educators another reason to worry.
However, other than the meteoric rise of an essay mill site in the rankings, there were few surprises or major changes in this list, instead, the bigger surprises were in the types of sites students were copying from.
The Popular Site Categories
After looking at the specific sites, the study also attempted to categorize the domains the best it could and determine, overall, which site types were the most popular. Once again, here are the results from both studies broken up between secondary and higher education.
[table id=2 /]
The results here were fairly striking and, for the most part, good news.
Homework and academic sites saw a sharp increase in use in both secondary and higher education, becoming the most popular type of site in both categories and unseating social networking sites.
The only bad news is that cheat sites also saw a rise in secondary education and remained relatively flat among higher education students.
Overall, according to Turnitin, higher education students did better in selecting high quality sources with 57% of their matches from high-quality sources and only 50% of secondary education matches coming from them.
However, that distinction may be somewhat dubious as Turnitin lists Wikipedia, widely regarded as a non-trustworthy source by educators, as an encyclopedia, putting it in the “High Quality” list.
Eliminating Wikipedia, both secondary and higher ed students pull less than half of their matches from high quality sites.
Either way though, the number is far too low and there is clearly a great deal of room for improvement.
In the end, the news is mixed. While it’s good that legitimate academic sites are now the most popular source for both secondary and higher education students, the continued rise and relevance of cheating sites is disconcerting.
While it’s clear that good progress has been made, it’s important for instructors to continue to work with students to educate them both on the types of sources that are acceptable in an academic environment and how to properly cite them.
Academic sourcing and citation are not things students are born knowing and they need to be taught it, ideally, the earlier the better. However, students that didn’t learn earlier should be given an opportunity to do so, regardless of where they are in their education.
As this study shows, we have a long way to go in this area and shutting doors on students isn’t going to help solve the problem.
Disclosure: I am a paid consultant for iThenticate, a sister service to Turnitin that is also owned by iParadigms.