The year is 2014. We live in the age of Google, advanced plagiarism detection tools, image matching services, audio recognition and even video identification. Every word, every sound, every image can be parsed, analyzed and compared with just the click of a mouse.
There is literally no reason that anyone should think that they can plagiarize and get away with it. Even if the plagiarism can’t be detected with technology, with the global audience of the Internet, there are always humans with good memories and sneaking suspicions to bring down any unsuspecting plagiarist.
So why do so many people try to get away with plagiarism when both the risk and the likelihood of getting caught are so high? This seems especially strange considering all that is usually saved by plagiarizing is a little bit of time and energy creating something original or citing sources correctly.
The answer is complex and it depends heavily upon the individual. But if we’re ever going to deter people from plagiarizing, we have to convince potential plagiarists that plagiarism is wrong and not worth the risk. Part of that means looking at why they think there is no risk at all.
Reason 1: Needle in a Haystack
Many plagiarists feel that there is simply no way that they will be noticed or that anyone else will discover their sources. With the vastness of the Internet comes a sense of anonymity and invisibility, both for ourselves and others.
However, even with just search engines, it’s easy to find the needle in the haystack online. The same as a search query can lead a plagiarist to a source to rip off, it can lead an investigator from the plagiarized work back to the uncredited source.
Still, one of the most common things plagiarists say when caught is, “How did you find that?” Proof that many still don’t understand just how easy it is to find any one or anything thing online.
Reason 2: No One’s Looking
This one is particularly popular in academia but it’s true elsewhere too. Many plagiarists feel that they can get away with their deeds simply because the other party, whether a teacher or the original creator, won’t be searching for them.
In many cases this is actually true. Many content creators don’t look for their work online and many schools don’t adequately check incoming essays and assignments for plagiarism.
But as more and more schools implement mandatory plagiarism checking as part of their curriculum and checking for duplicative content gets both easier and more important online, the frequency of checks are increasing and so is the risk of getting caught.
Still, it’s easy to see why some plagiarists think no one is looking and are very surprised when they find out someone was.
Reason 3: A Flaw in the System
For as long as there has been plagiarism and people interested in stopping it, there have been stupid plagiarist tricks.
In short, many plagiarists feel that the system is flawed and can be gamed by using some simple trick that enable them to escape detection.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. While flaws have been found in the past in plagiarism detection systems, they have almost all be quickly patched. The result is that most “tricks” are easily detected and can actually increase suspicion.
Despite the long history of failure, many plagiarists still espouse faith in techniques that either never worked or haven’t worked in a very long time.
Reason 4: It’s Not Plagiarism If…
Where some try to game the technology and tools that detect plagiarism, others try to the game very notion of plagiarism itself.
The idea is very simple, many plagiarists feel that they can get away with plagiarism by not plagiarizing. However, rather than citing sources and using quotes correctly, it often means trying to find ways of providing grossly inadequate citation, such as ignoring quote marks and citing incorrect sources.
Much of this stems from confusion about exactly what is and is not plagiarism. Many students, in particular, fall into this trap of doing something that they think is adequate to avoid a plagiarism allegation but, in reality, is an unethical shortcut.
Often times though, it stems form a desire to gain all of the benefits of committing a plagiarism without risking the repercussions. This, in turn, involves going as close to the perceived line of what is plagiarism without crossing it, even if they are wrong about where that line is.
Either way, it’s clear that more people, in and out of the classroom, need to get a handle on exactly what plagiarism is, so they won’t make mistakes that cost them dearly.
Reason 5: Pure Hubris
Some plagiarists just feel that they are beyond questioning and above being challenged. They feel that they are too smart, too talented or too powerful to really be accused of plagiarism and have the allegations stick.
They feel that they can’t get caught and, if they do, because the consequences don’t apply to them. However, as we’ve seen time and time again, plagiarists in the upper echelons of power have had promising careers brought down by plagiarism allegation. Plagiarism is still widely frowned upon and is something that the general public takes seriously when the case is strong enough.
Whether the hubris is due to a feeling that they can’t be caught or that, if they are caught, they are certain it doesn’t matter, that hubris is often proved very wrong.
There are, of course, many other reasons plagiarists feel that they can’t get caught. Every plagiarists’ reason is as unique as they are. But most, in the broad sense, fall into one or more of these categories.
For schools and copyright holders, what this means is that there needs to be better education on plagiarism. That education can’t just be what is or is not plagiarism. Those lessons have to include instructions on how to use and cite works correctly, how to comply with common licenses and how the technology to track plagiarism works.
The goal of plagiarism education and detection should never be to catch the cheaters, but to prevent them from cheating in the first place. Every expelled student or shamed creative is another promising career likely cut short. Proper deterrence keeps them in school and in the creative community, where they can do far more good.
However, getting to that point is going to mean addressing why people choose to plagiarize in the first place and, equally important, why they think they can get away with it.
Only then can you hope to provide real deterrence and a real benefit.