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Solving the Problem of Internet Plagiarism? The Technological Expediency of Online Plagiarism-Checkers

by Patrick Scanlon - October 18, 2006

The notion that Internet-assisted student plagiarism is on the rise has become part of the conventional wisdom about education in the 21st century. Although empirical studies suggest the case may be overstated, many schools and universities are using online plagiarism-detection services to sniff out cribbing. This solution is an instance of what Paul M. Dombrowski has termed “technologism,” which includes attempts to “operationalize ethics in a decision algorithm” or to otherwise shift the burden of ethical decision making onto a system. By using these services, we may appear to take a tough stand against academic dishonesty without actually addressing the important pedagogical and—perhaps more crucially—ethical questions.

In 1999, a US News & World Report cover story announced that “a new epidemic of fraud is sweeping through our schools” and placed much of the blame on the Internet.  At least since then, horror stories in the popular press, regular columns in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and mounds of anecdotal evidence have led to the conclusion that every kid with a keyboard is downloading term papers or cutting and pasting his way to graduation.  The notion that Internet-assisted student plagiarism is on the rise has become part of the conventional wisdom about education in the 21st century.

But the results of empirical studies have been less clear-cut.  Surveys based on student self-reports—the method of nearly all such research—have consistently uncovered significant levels of plagiarism.  My own study of student cyber-cribbing, which surveyed nearly 700 undergraduates on nine campuses, revealed that about 25 percent went online to cut-and-paste other’s work into their class assignments without citation (Scanlon & Neumann, 2002).  Notably, however, these findings are similar to those cited in research completed over the past 40 years.  Moreover, only a small fraction of students in our survey, just 2.3 percent, reported purchasing papers from online term paper mills.  Another large multi-campus study, by Don McCabe (2001), turned up similar numbers: five percent of 2,200 students surveyed said they had turned in a term paper bought on the Web.  No one likes seeing these numbers, but do they constitute an epidemic, and is this behavior truly something new?

The legitimate, if speculative, concern of McCabe and others is that we may be on the cusp of a generational change.  Having also surveyed large numbers of high school students, he found Internet plagiarism “dramatically higher” in that population as compared with undergraduates, although he qualified this finding by noting that high school students are still learning about plagiarism and principles and methods of citation.  

In any case, the hard evidence is inconclusive:  we simply do not know for sure the extent of cyber-plagiarism, and, more to the point, whether the Internet itself creates new plagiarists.  However, the near hysteria surrounding Internet plagiarism is real, even if the statistics are open to question—or perhaps because they are open to question.  As Rebecca Moore Howard wrote in her groundbreaking monograph on student plagiarism, Standing in the shadow of giants: Plagiarists, authors, collaborators: “Not only the difficulty in defining plagiarism but also the difficulty in adducing reliable statistics about its incidence raise the anxiety level of those who regard plagiarism as a threat” (1999, p. 24).

The commonsense view is that online cutting and pasting is just too easy for students to pass up.  And the Internet, like television before it, is a convenient villain and a handy explanation for reported increases in bad behavior.  But when people blame television for something—say, violence—the proposed solution is seldom more television.  With Internet plagiarism, however, this has been precisely the case:  the online environment is viewed as both tempter and savior.  Lost inside a technological maze, we look to the same technology to lead us out.  Enter Turnitin.com.

At least as reported by Turnitin, the “recognized standard in online plagiarism,” according to the company’s website, colleges and universities in increasing numbers are turning to this cyber-detective service to sniff out Internet plagiarism. The software compares texts with those in a huge database and offers a color-coded report showing where passages have been lifted.  Although the software’s efficacy is often questioned, most likely merely threatening to use Turnitin or other plagiarism-detection services will deter many would-be plagiarists, just as posting home-security signs around your house might scare off burglars whether there’s an alarm system or not.  And these services will no doubt catch egregious copiers, who deserve to be caught.  Moreover, online plagiarism-checkers could be used to identify inappropriate copying during the drafting process, and thus provide an opportunity to teach correct citation and discuss the proper handling of sources.  I suspect, though, that when teachers turn to Turnitin, they do so because it is a quick fix—a matter of technological expediency in solving a problem that is not technological at all, but is instead, an ethical one.

The bias toward efficiently systemized solutions to ethical dilemmas is a feature of what Paul M. Dombrowski—in his (1995) analysis of disastrously failed decision making during the Challenger disaster—has named “technologism.” According to Dombrowski, technologism includes attempts to “operationalize ethics in a decision algorithm” or to otherwise shift the burden of ethical decision making onto a technology, broadly defined (1995, p. 146).  The technologizing impulse is to rely on systems in order to eliminate uncertainty when confronted with ethical choices or when identifying ethical lapses.  Technologism favors data over principles, objectivity over personal engagement, and expediency over the messy and difficult work of moral reasoning.

Similarly, plagiarism-detection services expediently eliminate any criteria for spotting plagiarism other than the brute fact of a textual match—no small consideration, certainly, but only one of many that we might take into account such as authorial intention and interpretation, for instance.  Services such as Turnitin can effectively short circuit students’ and educators’ necessary engagement with the ethical questions involved and the pedagogical responses required.  What they receive, instead, is a kind of technical data.  And, as Dombrowski (1995) argues, “[W]e cannot expect technical data to tell their own story as though from their own autonomous authority.  And so collecting more and more data, as technologism seems to direct us to do, cannot be expected always to guide us out of ethical dilemmas” (p. 147).

When schools and universities hand over responsibility for rooting out plagiarism to online plagiarism-checkers, they appear to take a tough stand against academic dishonesty without actually addressing the causes.  The technologically expedient process of uncovering cyber-copying keeps the focus on the technology rather than on the ethics of cheating, let alone legitimate and thorny questions of imitation and originality.  Technologism bypasses such questions, making them irrelevant.

Of course, not everyone using online plagiarism-checkers is avoiding these questions.  A service such as Turnitin may have its legitimate uses.  But we should beware of allowing the easy technological fix—and the technologizing mind-set that pulls us in its direction—to divert us from our principal work as educators or to tempt us to shrug off the ethical burden so central to teaching.


Dombrowski, P. M. (1995). Can ethics be technologized? Lessons from Challenger, philosophy, and rhetoric. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 38(3), 146-150.

Howard, R. M. (1999). Standing in the shadow of giants:Plagiarists, authors, collaborators. Stanford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

McCabe, D. L. (2001). Cheating: Why students do it and how we can help them stop. American Educator, 25(4), 38-43.

Scanlon, P. M.,& Neumann, D. R. (2002). Internet plagiarism among college students. Journal of College Student Development, 43(3), 374-385.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 18, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12797, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:46:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Patrick Scanlon
    Rochester Institute of Technology
    E-mail Author
    PATRICK M. SCANLON is a professor and coordinator of undergraduate degree programs in the Department of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he has also served as Institute Writing Director and Chairman of Humanities. Scanlon has presented papers and published articles on English Renaissance literature, fiction, literacy, technical writing, technical communication education, the teaching of writing in distance learning programs, technical graphics, and Internet plagiarism among college students. As a technical communication consultant, he has written extensively on fiber optics and data communication networks, and has authored speeches, presentations, technical papers and scores of articles for trade journals, corporate newsletters, and company magazines.
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