Plagiarism, or taking other people’s words and ideas and passing them off as one’s own, has burst into the news in the past week. While many universities around the world consider it a silent epidemic, the very public transgressions of Mr Benny Johnson, a high-profile editor of popular Internet site Buzzfeed, and United States Senator John Walsh have cast a bright light on the issue of the proper attribution of source material and brought it into the open.
As unfortunate as these instances are, they act as a reminder that plagiarism can have severe and career-damaging consequences. In the case of the editor, his bosses fired him after finding more than 40 instances of plagiarism in his recent posts, while revelations that the Senator copied parts of his 2007 Master’s thesis at the prestigious US Army War College has put both his degree and re-election into jeopardy.
In higher education, faculty and administrators grapple with the issue of plagiarism which, while less headline grabbing, is commonly viewed as an endemic and growing problem on college campuses across the globe. Intellectual fraud does not occur only in the classroom — top universities now routinely check their admissions essays for pilfered paragraphs.
WHAT DRIVES STUDENTS TO COPY?
Many explanations for the rise in plagiarism are offered. They suggest a downward spiral that is hard to stop: Compared with the past, there is less social stigma, punishments are less harsh, detection is more difficult and pressures on students to excel are greater. In short, the risk and reward calculus has shifted and, as more people cheat and roughly get away with it, the numbers continue to rise.
Certainly, colleges and universities are fighting back. Commercial anti-plagiarism software, such as Turnitin or Viper, is now commonly used to detect the percentage of overlap between a student’s work and other works that are published or available online. In Singapore, all the national universities adopted Turnitin five years ago to try to decrease the incidence of plagiarism.
While such software is a useful tool, it is not a panacea. Not only do the programs fall far short of complete accuracy, but when we rely only on detection rather than prevention, it is an imperfect way to root out the problem and sends the wrong message to students. The most common question from students when told they must use the software is: What percentage of overlap is acceptable?
This sort of pre-emptive plea bargaining misses the point entirely. We need to ask what drives students to appropriate the work of others. Researchers say that typically, when students turn to plagiarism, it is because they run short of time, they feel overwhelmed by work, they feel pressure to succeed at all costs or they do not fully understand how to use source material.