The Internet Age: The Culprit for a Rise in Plagiarism?

Amanda Carpenter is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The New York Times has recently published an interesting article about academic plagiarism. Within the article, a couple of examples of plagiarism are provided. The first example involves a freshman student who copied and pasted from a Web site’s frequently asked questions page, and did not think he needed to credit this Web site as a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.  The second example involves a student who was reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia without crediting it as a source. This student said that he thought what he had copied from Wikipedia did not need to be credited since it counted, essentially, as common knowledge.

The article then goes on to discuss how educators who study plagiarism believe that these examples suggest that students do not understand how using words they did not write without crediting the source is a serious misdeed.  These educators then blame this problem on a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property and copyright are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information. That is, the Internet may be redefining how students “understand the concept of authorship”. Not only does it lead students to believe that information on the web is “just out there for anyone to take”, it fools them into believing that everything on the Internet belongs to them.

I would personally disagree with these educators who blame plagiarism on the Internet age. In fact, I agree with the views of Ms. Wilensky that are presented in the article. She thinks that the main reason plagiarism at colleges and universities occurs is that students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing. She writes: “If you’re taught how to closely read sources and synthesize them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you’re not going to be tempted to plagiarize in college, and you certainly won’t do so unknowingly.”  This view is further supported by statistics included in the article. Apparently, at the University of California, Davis, those that oversaw the 196 plagiarism cases that occurred that year stated that the students were “unwilling to engage the writing process” and that “writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice”.

Teaching how to properly write and credit sources takes more time than simply having professors deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations. In regards to the first example of plagiarism provided by the article, perhaps the style guide for citations that the professors told students to follow did not include a section for how to deal with Internet sources that didn’t include author information? As for the second student who was reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia without crediting the authors, shouldn’t the student have instead been reprimanded for relying on Wikipedia as a source? Even Wikipedia cautions users about using Wikipedia as a research source.

Although I agree with the views of Ms. Wilensky who thinks that the rise in plagiarism may be linked to students not fully understanding how to write properly (including how to cite sources), there may be other reasons behind the rise in plagiarism, as listed in articles on this topic by the BBC. In England, plagiarism has been on the rise as well, but instead of blaming the problem on the Internet age, other reasons are cited. These include the rise of sites online that sell essays to student (such as this site here), increasing pressures on students to get good grades in order to secure a job after graduation, and larger class sizes at colleges and universities where the professors may not have enough time to teach each student how to write properly (and instead simply telling them to follow the style guide for citations).

So, instead of educators blaming the Internet age for the rise in plagiarism due to a redefined the “concept of ownership”, perhaps other culprits are the cause such as larger class sizes where the professors may not have time to engage with students more closely. Teaching how to cite sources properly takes a fair bit of time and may even be a course in itself (and certainly wasn’t taught in my high school or at my undergraduate institution for that matter). The rise in plagiarism might also be blamed at least partly on increasing pressures on students to perform well in order to get a good job after graduation, or even unrealistic demands being placed on students. It’s now entirely clear why a student would risk being caught by a professor for plagiarism, when the penalties can be very severe. For example, Simon Fraser University has introduced a grade lower than an F, called FD (failed for academic dishonesty). Receiving this grade means that the student has been caught in a serious act of plagiarism, and it is a grade that will remain with a student for the rest of their academic career.