The Impact of Social Media on Plagiarism

Twitter_logo_blueThirty years ago, most students did little writing or content creation outside of the the classroom (including related assignments) and their own personal creative endeavors.

Today though, students write far more than ever. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, messaging, texting, blogging and so much more. The Internet has been a renaissance of writing, sharing and communicating.

However, that renaissance has come at a cost. Though one would expect an increase in the amount of writing to result in better academic work, most college presidents believe that plagiarism has increased over the past ten years and nearly 90% of those pen the rise to the increased use of computers and the Internet.

Most of this is due to the increased ease with which a student can plagiarize and be caught plagiarizing. With computers it is easier than ever to find, copy and submit unoriginal work. For teachers, it’s easier than ever to scan student works and detect duplicative text. That alone would cause a tremendous increase in plagiarism even without outside variable.

However, the presence of social media adds another element to the mix. Not because social media is evil or horrible, but because it has different standards and different accountability than academic works.

Instructors, however, have not always adapted to these new realities and are continuing to work with students as if the work the do in the classroom is the only writing they see and do.

No Attribution, No Accountability

As we discussed in 2011, attribution and accountability are two things severely lacking in Facebook. However, it’s not just an issue with Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are also homes to widespread plagiarized content.

However, all of this plagiarism rarely comes with any consequences. Unless the plagiarism rises to the level of copyright infringement, it’s rare for anyone to be called on it or to have any repercussion. Even if creator does take the copyright route, the usual outcome is to just remove the post, nothing else.

In the classroom though, plagiarism can have much more dire consequences, ranging from failing the assignment to, in some cases, expulsion. These consequences may not be consistent or evenly-applied, but they are possible and many students, especially early on in their careers, are surprised to learn just how much is at stake when they plagiarize.

Likewise, on social media, attribution, when provided, is often built in. A share and a retweet instantly provides credit to the original source. Beyond that, a link or a brief mention is often enough to complete all moral and social obligations.

In an academic paper, attribution is far from automatic and has to be deliberately added including quotes, in-text citations and footnotes depending upon the nature of the work. Attribution isn’t an after thought, it is a critical piece of the writing process.

In short, students are spending more and more time writing and working in environments with different rules and standards than that of academia. However, instructors, in many cases, have not caught on to the change.

Teaching the Rules

The issue isn’t simply that students are spending more time in an environment with more lax attribution standards. Attribution standards have always varied from medium to medium and work to work, that will never change.

The big problem that, while many students do deliberately plagiarize in order to cheat, some genuinely don’t see the problem with using unattributed text. While they might be aware of what the rules are, they sometimes don’t agree with them and much prefer the rules they are more familiar with.

While that doesn’t excuse their actions nor does it get them out of punishment, it creates a serious problem. When students don’t agree with the rules, they’re more likely to break them regardless of whether they’ve been taught them or not.

In short, teachers are spending a great deal of effort teaching about the perils of plagiarism and importance of attribution while students are spending more and more of their time in environments where, rightly or wrongly, that isn’t true.

If instructors are going to prevent plagiarism, it’s not enough to teach the rules of plagiarism, one has to teach why they are important, specifically why they are important in academic writing.

It’s important to distinguish academic writing from more casual works. In short, one has to highlight not only the rules of attribution, but also whey they are there and why academic writing, in particular, has them.

It may seem odd justifying standards that most instructors already hold sacred because of their profession, but one has to see this not through the eyes of an academic holding one or more degrees, but of a student still trying to understand how to become an academic (or simply pass a class).

That, in turn, is the problem, teaching students about the importance of attribution and the harm of plagiarism when they have daily evidence that neither are true is going to, at the very least, create a dissonance.

That makes it critical for instructors, when talking about plagiarism, to keep this dissonance in mind and approach it head on. Discussing

Bottom Line

It’s easy to see why instructors don’t always understand this issue. To them, the rules of attribution and citation are already sacred and have been for centuries. They understand, inherently, that a paper for a class is not a blog post on Tumblr and that different rules apply for the two.

It might seem silly to have to teach this or even mention it, but many students are spending the bulk of their writing time outside of the classroom and in environments with very different rules.

If you don’t want those rules leaking into the classroom, you need to create a wall that highlights why writing for academia is different and why the rules of social media don’t apply.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue for plagiarism. It’s also about grammar, word choice and writing style in general. However, students aren’t expelled for improper writing style, though some are for not following the rules of attribution.

If we want less student plagiarism, we can’t simply turn to zero tolerance policies and tougher plagiarism enforcement, we need to highlight the reasons for the rules, not just to make them more agreeable, but to make them easier to understand.

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