A study published by the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain has found that, on the whole, male students are more likely to plagiarize than their female counterparts when it comes to their college courses.
The study didn’t attribute it to an ethical difference between the sexes, but rather, that male students are more likely to procrastinate and then turn to plagiarism in the rush to complete the assignment.
The study, which looked at nearly 2,800 students at the college, found that 81.3% of those queries had copied fragments from websites and 72.5% had copied from encyclopedias and other printed sources.
But is this actually true? Do men and boys plagiarize more than women and girls? While the study has a large sample, it’s limited to one university and given the impact of culture, educational history and other factors on plagiarism, it’s tough to extrapolate to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. Not only do other studies paint a very different picture, but the causes of plagiarism are much more complicated than any one study alone can cover.
The Procrastination Problem
The University of the Balearic Islands study was right that procrastination is a definite risk factor when it comes to academic plagiarism. However, when looking at student sex and procrastination, the studies are inconclusive, though most seem to point to the lack of a relationship between sex and procrastination.
One Turkish study found that male students do procrastinate more than female ones. However, another study from the same country found the exact opposite (PDF), that there was no significant difference.
Another study, this one from India, looking at the presence of academic stressors and procrastination among adolescents, mirrored the second Turkish study and found no significant difference (PDF) between men and women on matters of procrastination. Finally, an Iranian study also found no significant difference between male and female students (PDF) when it comes o procrastination.
To be clear, procrastination is just one risk factor for plagiarism but it is one of the more important ones, especially academia. However, the studies do point to some differences between the sexes in areas such as fear of failure and motivations, which can also have an impact on whether a student plagiarizes or not.
But, if we assume (as the majority of studies I located have found) that the rate of procrastination is not significantly different between male and female students, then the top reasons for plagiarism, as reported by this study from Turkey (PDF), all would likely strike male and female students about equally. They include:
- Foreign Language Issues (32.40%)
- Time Constraints (31.10%)
- Lack of Knowledge about Plagiarism (25.70%)
- Overloaded Course Requirements (18.90%)
- Lack of Ideas/Knowledge About Assignment (17.60%)
That study found that there was also no significant difference between the sexes in plagiarism knowledge and understanding of the issues around attribution.
In short, while it is possible that male students plagiarize more often, especially if they are more likely to overload their courses or are taught less about plagiarism than their female counterparts, the research is at best inconclusive at this time.
My Personal Experience
Though there is nothing scientific or mathematical about my personal experience, especially since it has to come from my recollection, I realize many will be curious what I’ve seen in talking with teachers and dealing with plagiarists in the wild.
In my experience over the past 10 years, plagiarists have largely represented the population they are pulled from in almost every regard. This has included both academia and the professional world.
For example, while most of journalism’s plagiarists have been male, that’s because women are severely underrepresented in the field. The same is true for researchers and other science/tech oriented fields.
That being said, there are factors that I have observed as having an impact on the likelihood of plagiarism. English as a second language (ESL) students definitely plagiarize with higher frequency as do researchers and students from parts of the world with difficult cultural norms on attribution.
However, those are literally items 1 and 3 on the list above, showing that at least some research has backed up those observations.
Still, on the list of indicators that a student is likely to plagiarize, sex is nowhere to be found in my experience. In my (admittedly limited) experience, men and women plagiarize about the same amount and most of the research seems to point a similar direction.
None of this is meant to knock the University of the Balearic Islands study. It’s an excellent piece of research that provides valuable clues into the motivations and causes of plagiarism. However, one study is not a complete picture and the headlines of “Boys plagiarize more than girls at school” may be a bit premature given the conflicting data.
After all, when two studies in the same country paint a very different picture about procrastination and the sexes, it’s clear more research is needed.
So what are instructors to do in the meantime? Well, the study did have some great advice. Procrastination and time management are serious factors for plagiarism. As such, working with students along the course of a project will help reduce plagiarism.
Other research has shown that helping out ESL students or any student struggling with their writing can also help tremendously.
Because, even if there is a difference between male and female students on matters of plagiarism, the difference is likely very small compared to other factors, ones that have a more direct relationship with academic dishonesty.
By looking at those factors, we can do a lot more to stop plagiarism than trying to define what a “typical” plagiarist might look like. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned over the past 10 years, it’s that there is no “typical” plagiarist as bad decisions know no boundaries.