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“Epidemic” as Opportunity: Internet Plagiarism as a Lever for Cultural Change


by Donald L. McCabe & Jason M. Stephens - November 30, 2006

Has the Internet really lead to the dramatic increases in Internet plagiarism heralded by the media or is it simply a new way to engage in old behaviors? What can schools do to address Internet plagiarism and issues of student cheating in general? The authors suggest community-centered approaches are likely to be the most effective.


ep•i•dem•ic: 1) affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time; 2) excessively prevalent. (Webster’s Dictionary)


Reports in the popular press suggest that the Internet has led to a dramatic increase in plagiarism over the past decade.  Although anecdotal accounts abound and make for nice storytelling, has the problem truly reached “epidemic” proportions as many in the media suggest?  More specifically, is there any evidence that the Internet has caused an increase in the overall rate of student plagiarism? And, perhaps most importantly, what has been or can be done to address the underlying causes of plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty? We believe Internet plagiarism, and cheating more broadly defined, is largely a symptom of a greater malaise afflicting our culture—a shift in educational and ethical values that has transpired over the past several decades (e.g., Callahan, 2004).  This malaise is not likely to pass soon and the academic world must do more than simply find better ways to detect plagiarism if it wants to ameliorate the problem.  We believe a more fundamental response is needed, and that Internet plagiarism offers educational institutions—not just colleges and universities but middle and high schools as well—a lever for cultural change.  


An “Epidemic”? Internet Plagiarism Today


So, what does the research tell us?  Data from large-scale, multi-campus investigations of academic dishonesty indicates that one-quarter to somewhat more than one-third of undergraduates report “cutting and pasting” a few sentences from the Internet without providing attribution (McCabe, 2001; Scanlon & Neuman, 2002: Stephens, Young, & Calabrese, 2006). These same studies reveal that less than 5 percent of these students admit to copying or purchasing an entire paper online and claiming it as their own. McCabe has also conducted multi-campus surveys of faculty over the last four years that support these differences.  Just under one-third (32 percent) of faculty surveyed reported receiving a paper downloaded from the Internet or obtained from a term paper mill while over two-thirds (69 percent) suspected Internet “cut and paste” plagiarism in their classes. In short, while cut-and-paste plagiarism is reaching epidemic proportions, relatively few students admit purchasing and plagiarizing entire papers, and only a modest number of faculty believe students have submitted such papers.


Cause or Conduit? The Role of the Internet in Plagiarism


The conventional wisdom of the day, created and conveyed by the media, is that the Internet has caused significantly more plagiarism. This “wisdom” is predicated on the assumption that plagiarism has, in fact, grown rapidly since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s.  But an examination of historical trends does not necessarily support this assumption.  As summarized by Hansen (2003), 43 percent of undergraduates admitted to one or more acts of conventional plagiarism in 1964, while in 2003, 40 percent of a similar sample of undergraduates admitted to one or more acts of conventional plagiarism and 38 percent admitted to one or more acts of Internet plagiarism. The problem with such data, or Hansen’s summary of them, is that it is not clear what percentage of students in the 2003 cohort engaged in both conventional and Internet plagiarism.  Without knowing that, we cannot determine if the Internet is causing more plagiarism or if it’s just a conduit, offering a more expedient means of engaging in a behavior that one is already doing.  


Results from more recent research suggest the latter might be a more accurate interpretation.  In their study of digital technologies and academic dishonesty among college undergraduates, Stephens and his colleagues (Stephens et al., 2006) found that most students who plagiarize report using both conventional and digital means to do so. Specifically, among those who admitted to copying a few sentences without attributing the source (38 percent of the total sample), 65 percent reported using both means while 19 percent were Internet-only plagiarists and 16 percent conventional-only plagiarists. In an earlier study, Lester and Diekhoff (2002) found a similar pattern among undergraduates, and McCabe has found similar patterns in his ongoing studies of academic dishonesty among high school and college students.


It is, of course, not clear (and near impossible to determine) if the Internet-only plagiarists in these studies would have plagiarized (using conventional means) if the Internet had not been available. But it is clear that most students who report plagiarizing use both conventional and digital means. This suggests that the Internet might best be described as primarily a conduit for, not a cause of, plagiarism. The Internet, after all, is a very powerful tool that makes plagiarism quick, easy, and tempting, as the vast majority of students now have 24/7 access to it—often in the privacy of their own dorm rooms. It is important to note, however, that even if Internet hasn’t created a new generation of plagiarists, it may still be exacerbating  the problem by further obfuscating already abstract concepts such as intellectual property and copyright, and by enabling late-night, last-minute (i.e., unplanned and desperate) “cut-and-paste” plagiarism.


What’s a school to do?


Believing that the Internet is the primary issue, many schools seem to be focusing on technical solutions to reduce Internet plagiarism—the “build a better mouse-trap” approach.  They believe if they can increase the chances of catching plagiarism, this will serve as an effective deterrent to students. Others advocate pedagogical strategies believing that the use of more creative assignments, requiring outlines and first drafts, etc., will reduce the level of student plagiarism.  While we see value in both approaches if our primary objective is to reduce plagiarism, we strongly believe such approaches fall short if we aspire to the loftier goal of creating cultures in our schools which not only reduce cheating but also promote students’ intellectual and moral development.  


Like McCabe, Butterfield, and Trevino (2006), we believe community-centered approaches to building campus cultures of integrity, which give students a central role, are the key to long-term success.  Although Internet plagiarism is a problem, it is not the problem.  As we have argued, we believe it is only a symptom of the larger problem and the facilitator du jour for plagiarism and student cheating.  Tomorrow’s facilitator is probably beyond our imagination and if we focus on eradicating Internet plagiarism, the result may well be that we simply “force” students to find that new facilitator.  In other words, unless we address the underlying problems, the next “epidemic” may be just around the corner.  


People may disagree over what that next “epidemic” will be, but we are convinced that the best way to find out, and to combat it, is to listen more carefully to what students are telling us about cheating.  While that message may vary slightly from campus to campus, student comments in surveys of academic dishonesty suggest the problem has some common characteristics on most campuses—including, but certainly not limited to, the failure of faculty to take appropriate precautions to prevent cheating, the failure of many schools to adequately orient students on issues of academic integrity, and administrators who fail to strongly support campus integrity policies.


To achieve any lasting success, we believe schools must focus on changing their cultures, not catching more plagiarism.  Creating a genuine cultural transformation centered around an understanding and concern for core academic values, such as honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility, as promulgated by the Center for Academic Integrity, makes much more sense to us than catching and punishing a few more “cut-and-paste” plagiarists.  While catching and sanctioning cheaters certainly must be part of any holistic approach, we are concerned that this has become the primary strategy on some campuses.  In contrast, we think the goal should be to help students understand the meaning and importance of scholarship, intellectual property, and integrity as well as developing the will and skill to participate in academic life in a fair, honest, and responsible manner.  While a small, but growing, number of institutions are pursuing such goals through the use of academic honor codes or councils, this is not happening on many, probably most, of our campuses!  We believe it could if schools stopped worrying about the “epidemic” of Internet cheating and focused instead on creating cultures of integrity.



References


Callahan, D. (2004). The cheating culture: Why more Americans are doing wrong to get ahead. New York: Harcourt.


Hansen, B. (2003). Combating plagiarism: Is the Internet causing more students to copy? The CQ Researcher, 13(32), 773-796.


Lester, M. C., & Diekhoff, G. M. (2002). A comparison of traditional and Internet cheaters. Journal of College Student Development, 43(6), 906-911.


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


McCabe, D.L., Butterfield, K.D, & Trevino, L.K. (2006). Academic dishonesty in graduate business programs: Prevalence, causes, and proposed action. Academy of Management Learning and Executive 5(3), 294-305.


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


Stephens, J. M., Young, M. F., & Calabrese, T. (2006). Digital technology and academic integrity: Does moral judgment go offline when students are online?  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. San Francisco.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12860, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 10:38:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Donald McCabe
    Rutgers Business School
    E-mail Author
    DONALD L. MCCABE is a Professor of Management & Global Business at Rutgers Business School. Over the last sixteen years he has done extensive research with both high school and college students on issues of academic integrity. He is founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University and has authored numerous articles in the education and business literature.
  • Jason Stephens
    University of Connecticut
    JASON M. STEPHENS is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut, where he teaches classes on cognition, motivation, instruction, and research methods. Prior to joining the faculty at UConn in 2004, Dr. Stephens was a research assistant at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for six years, where he worked on the Political Engagement Project and the Project on Higher Education and the Development of Moral and Civic Responsibility. His research interests include academic motivation, achievement and dishonesty among secondary and postsecondary students.
 
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