Just how widespread is plagiarism, anyway?

There was an article by Kelly Heyboer of the Newhouse News Service in the Ann Arbor News August 28, 2003 (page A4) about trends in plagiarism, with an alarming headline that “Poll: Nearly 40% of college students admit to copying text off Internet.” This article (and there are similar ones out there, of course) cites a survey from Donald McCabe of 18,000 anonymous students, and the article says the study reached conclusions like:

* “Thirty-eight percent of undergraduates say they engaged in one or more instances of “cut-and-paste” plagiarism in the past year.”


* “Forty percent of undergraduates admitted to lifting parts of books and other written sources for their papers.”

Pretty alarming stuff. But is it really that bad? Even this article notes that the “Researchers are careful not to blame the Internet for the cheating rate. If students did not have computers, they would find some other way to cheat, McCabe said.”

Another curious feature of this article is that it doesn’t provide very clear information about this McCabe study– as in when it took place, where the results were published, and so forth. When I tried to do a quick search for it on the Internet, I turned up empty. So in a curious way, it’s arguable that this article about plagiarism is a form of, well, plagiarism.

I just don’t think plagiarism is as big of a deal as a lot of professors seem to think it is; at least it hasn’t been as big of a deal for me. First off, even the McCabe study (if read from a different point of view) suggests that the trends in plagiarism have been pretty steady for at least 30 years– this according to this module I found for ideas about teaching basic writing written by a couple of folks I know and/or work with.

Second, there are even some folks who suggest that the occurrences plagiarism is actually declining. This article from the free part of the The Chronicle of Higher Education argues (basically) that online plagiarism isn’t as wide spread as been reported and “hyped” in the media.

Third and most important to me, plagiarism can be prevented or reduced easily enough by making assignments that are difficult to plagiarize. I mean, if an instructor gives a lazy writing assignment like “write an essay about Shakespeare,” they are most certainly going to get a lazy student cutting and pasting something from the Internet. If, on the other hand, an instructor gives an assignment that demands some evidence of pre-writing and examples of citations and if the assignment is tailored to the specific demands of the class, then plagiarism becomes just about as much work as actually doing the work. And when all is said and done, I think students would rather do their own work.

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