The Search for a Cure:
Understanding the "Plagiarism Epidemic"

Rebecca Moore Howard
Syracuse University

The whole world, it seems, is worried about what is often regarded as "the plagiarism epidemic." Reporting for the New York Daily News, journalist Brian Kates explains, "In numbers growing by the thousands, students have found a quick-fix cure for their academic headaches—on the Internet.  In the wonderful world of Web sites, scores of online companies are eager and able to provide slackers with whatever they need—for a price."  A general sense of alarm can be detected in the number of self-sponsored informational websites such as those of Ronald B. Standler and Heyward Ehrlich.  And the number of teachers and universities signing up for plagiarism-detecting services increases annually.  The concern is most acute for composition teachers, who regularly assign writing and who are, at many institutions, expected to teach students how to avoid plagiarism.  Given the sense of shared urgency about the topic, it is especially important that educators not unthinkingly apply traditional remedies to what may be new phenomena. 

Understanding the "epidemic"
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1. Is plagiarism more widespread than it used to be?
A current study in Canada indicates that one in three college undergraduates plagiarizes (Sokoloff). But no reliable longitudinal research is available to demonstrate whether this constitutes a rise in the incidence of plagiarism.

Clearly, people are more concerned about plagiarism than in previous years, but that does not necessarily signal an increase in plagiarism. It may be instead that because of the availability of text on the Internet, readers are more aware of plagiarism when it occurs. It may also be that the ways in which the Internet is complicating the notion of original, individual authorship is inciting greater cultural anxiety about individually authored, original texts.

2. Are online term paper sites causing an increase in student plagiarism?
Online term paper sites are plentiful and active; two years ago, over 200 sites were available (Atkins and Nelson 101). One term-paper-mill proprietor claims that they are one of the few profitable online businesses after the dot.com meltdown (see Glasner). But student plagiarism is a longstanding phenomenon, as Sue Carter Simmons' historical research demonstrates. It may be that the Internet term paper sites are a now-obvious, now-visible part of an always-thriving term-paper industry that was previously conducted in much-rumored fraternity files and by mail-order ghostwriting companies (see, for example, Witherspoon).

3. How should plagiarism be defined?
Institutional practices vary widely on the matter of defining plagiarism. Some say that close adherence to the wording of a text, even when the source is cited, is plagiarism. Others say only that entire texts written by others are plagiarized. And some institutions have no plagiarism policy at all. Instructors need to follow whatever guidelines their institutions provide; otherwise, instructors' decisions will necessarily be overturned if the student should appeal.

For those who are in a position to set or revise policy, the Council of Writing Program Administrators offers this useful definition: "In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else's language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source" (1).

Notice that this definition does not include patchwriting-closely following the wording of a source-as plagiarism. Careful scholarship (see, for example, Hull & Rose; Kraus) suggests that students' patchwriting usually derives from an effort to understand unfamiliar ideas, not from a wish to deliberately use someone else's language without acknowledgement. Many college policies-and many writers' handbooks-nevertheless include patchwriting in the scope of plagiarism.

Teachers' roles and responses in Internet plagiarism
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1. How useful is plagiarism-checking software?
Atkins and Nelson offer an enthusiastic endorsement of Turnitin.com, the most popular software. Turnitin.com was developed by John Barrie, an alumnus of the high school where Atkins and Nelson teach. "This service is not designed to be punitive; it is meant to be preventive," Atkins and Nelson say. "The main goal of TurnItIn.com is to help students maintain their ethics and academic integrity, while learning the skills that will help them communicate effectively" (104). The website for Turnitin.com emphasizes the dangers from which the software will protect both students and teachers: "Turnitin products and services help educators and students maximize the Internet's educational potential by making it a safe place for research and learning" (Turnitin.com). Atkins and Nelson offer a dramatic portrait of how the software works: "Late at night, TurnItIn.com's 'cyber-robots' access the students' digitized work and, using complicated mathematical machinations, convert the papers into a digital algorithm. The program sends this algorithm to the Internet and quickly searches servers online all over the world" (102).

Some educators and government officials, however, believe that teachers may be violating students' intellectual property rights when they donate students' papers to the plagiarism-checking service-as they are required to do by Turnitin.com (Foster). Another problem with plagiarism-checking software is its complicity in a cycle of exchange that is motivated more by economic profit than by educational ideals. Barrie, the founder of Turnitin.com, accused two of his competitors of being involved not only in plagiarism-catching services but also in term-paper mills-profiting from both poles of the cycle (Young). Still other commentators point out the shortcomings of these services in differentiating plagiarism from quotation, even while the services act as "hanging judges" (Dehnart).

The most important concern is that a reliance on plagiarism-checking software will prevent needed revisions of pedagogy (Howard, "Forget"). Joe Krauss suggests that extensive student plagiarism is a phenomenon that teachers should listen to and learn from. Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity (http://www.academicintegrity.org/), is "lukewarm" about plagiarism-detecting software. Interviewed by a journalist, McCabe explains, "'I'm not a big supporter [of plagiarism-checking software]. I think faculty should look at things that promote integrity, and then look to catch people'" (qtd. in Sokoloff).

2. How might assignments be crafted and pedagogy revised?
Canadian researcher Lynn Taylor specifies the need for assignments that engage students in meaningful rather than ceremonial tasks, and McCabe asserts that students "rarely cheat when they believe their professors are working hard at engaging them in the class" (qtd. in Sokoloff). Deidre Mahoney adds that writing assignments should be multi-staged and that instructors should stay involved in the writing process throughout those stages. In an earlier entry in the McGraw-Hill Teaching Composition service, Gail Hapke offers detailed suggestions for teaching writing from sources. And the Council of Writing Program Administrators provides a list of "best practices" that include direct instruction in textual practices; syllabus statements; assignment design; and student-teacher interaction (4-5).

3. What if students still plagiarize?
Many definitions of plagiarism focus on issues of morality and property, enjoining students to be "honest" and not to "steal." Maurice Isserman, however, explains what is for educators the most compelling issue: "Plagiarism substitutes someone else's prowess as explanation for your own efforts. As Julia Schult, a reference-department librarian at the college, has pointed out to me in an ongoing conversation we have had on the problem, plagiarism isn't a bad thing simply because it's an act of intellectual theft-although it is that. It's a bad thing because it takes the place of and prevents learning."

Instructors must apply sound definitions of plagiarism and must craft pedagogy that engages their students and that teaches writing from sources. But they must also apply and enforce their institution's policies on plagiarism. To fail to do so would not only send the message to the instructor's students that plagiarism really isn't a big deal, but it would also enable the incorrigible "serial plagiarist" who, until stopped by the application of institutional sanctions, will continue to plagiarize in one class after another.

Recommended Reading

Additional Resources

Teaching Composition


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