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By now, most students know that plagiarism is wrong. Though many still lack the necessary skills to incorporate the works of others and cite them, most understand you shouldn’t hire an essay mill or copy and paste wholesale from the internet.

So why do so many students do it?

Even as the punishments for plagiarism get more and more strict and the tools for spotting it keep improving. In short, the risks in committing plagiarism keep rising, the theoretical rewards stay the same but there is little change in behavior.

It can seem odd, but the truth is that we know why students plagiarize. Over the past decades study after study have highlighted the reasons students have given for plagiarism and, though the specific order may change, the same causes remain at the top.

If we set aside accidental plagiarism and students that lack the skills to cite properly (that is a completely separate topic for another day), there are really three core reasons that students commit plagiarism. In no particular order, those reasons are as follows:

1: Apathy

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Simply put, students may not feel motivated to actually complete an assignment. This could be because they don’t believe their education is valuable, that the course is worthwhile or that the assignment is meaningful. It could even be as deep as not believing that citation itself is important due to the commodification of information.

In studies, this often presented as laziness or wanting to take the most efficient route through an assignment. However, it really comes down to student apathy. If students believe that the thing they are working for is valuable and that the process is meaningful, they will at least want to put in the work.

Apathy is a difficult problem to crack because we can’t control the attitude that students have when they come into the classroom. If they were forced to go to school or the course is one they aren’t interested in but are required to take, it’s difficult to motivate them to care.

Teachers are limited here. They can give more interesting and less generic assignments, but making someone care about something they aren’t interested in is nearly impossible. For many students, apathy is their biggest enemy.

Ultimately though, these are the students most targeted by increased plagiarism enforcement. The hope is that by increasing the risk, schools can motivate them to care. However, that doesn’t seem to work as few students still expect to be caught.

2: Fear

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At the other end of the spectrum is fear.

Students are under ever-increasing pressure to do more. They are under intense pressure to keep up their grades as their scholarships, jobs and even their standing in school are all tied to them. However, not all students are strong writers and, even those that are may lack confidence in their skills.

When a student needs a certain grade but doesn’t feel confident that they can do it honestly, cheating becomes much more tempting.

While it sounds crazy, there’s a logic to it. If the student feels that they’re going to fail they are, in their mind, already dead. Plagiarism, though seriously risky, makes them less dead by giving them at least a chance of passing and slipping by undetected.

These students typically don’t want to cheat. They feel forced into it through external factors.

Here, schools and instructions need to find ways to mitigate fears. This can take a wide variety of forms including offering remedial writing courses, promoting student success centers that teach the needed skills and even offering ways for students that are struggling to get remedial help without harming their grade point averages.

The problem is that the students most in need may not ask for help simply because it can be difficult to admit you need it. As such, schools need to be as proactive as possible in seeking these students out.

3: Lack of Resources

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Finally, there are times plagiarism isn’t caused by fear or apathy, but by a lack of the needed resources. However, unlike accidental plagiarism, which is caused by a lack of study skills or knowledge about attribution rules, this looks other kinds of resources students need to complete an assignment.

This includes personal elements such as the needed time and energy and focus as well as access to physical things such as libraries, computer labs and the internet.

Students who do actually believe in the importance of the assignment and are confident they can pass may lose that confidence if they find themselves up against a wall when trying to complete it. If there is inadequate time, mental energy or they are missing the physical resources that they need to complete it, they may feel forced into cheating.

Often times, this is very much the student’s fault. In nearly every study on why students plagiarize lack of time management is one of the top causes. Other times, it might be more complicated. If a student is working full time and/or raising children, there may simply not be enough hours in the day to complete some assignments. Even if there is enough time, there may not be enough energy or focus without risking their mental or physical health.

Likewise, students may be missing another resource. As much of the world moves to distance learning due to COVID-19, students with limited internet access are going to struggle with research. Even students who are on campus may not be able to go to the library or computer labs during opening hours.

Even if students believe in the assignment and are confident they have the needed skills, they may still be tempted to plagiarize if they don’t feel they have the needed resources.

Bottom Line

If you want to make a student that almost never plagiarizes, you simply need a student that’s passionate about the assignments, is confident in their skills and has the resources to complete the tasks they are given.

It sounds like a simple formula but it is far from it. We can’t force students to care, identifying students that lack confidence can be difficult and the resources a student needs are often well outside the school’s control.

Still, this points to a strategy that goes beyond just ramping up enforcement. Working on reducing apathy and fear while improving access to resources can do as much to reduce plagiarism as any honor code or any strict disciplinary approach to plagiarism.

Teachers are there to teach students, not threaten and punish them. If there are ways teachers can reduce plagiarism and help students improve, that is a true win-win for everyone involved.

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