The Great Plagiarism Debate: Why Students, Politicians, Writers Still Do It?

access_timeMarch 29, 2018

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The great Plagiarism Debate: why students, politicians, writers still do it?

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Plagiarism is known as copying others text of ideas without attribution. ‘Word-for-word’ plagiarism (cut and paste) is by far the most common case in the college settings. Institutionalized plagiarism implies relations between parties (weaker and stronger) where the stronger one takes the work of a weaker without credit in the situation where plagiarism looks normal or legitimate course of conduct (Martin 1994).

Ghostwriting is regarded as an institutionalized plagiarism and is form of business transaction where there is an exchange of text for money without attribution of a ghost as a creator. Institutionalized plagiarism is usually hard to detect as the weaker party is deterred from taking actions by power relations (intimidation, money, etc.)

The great Plagiarism Debate: why students, politicians, writers still do it?

Plagiarism is a hot story for journalists because it often raises the question of equality and justice. Likewise, if, for example, a professor can take away with by plagiarizing from his assistants, why should students be penalized?

Plagiarism has been rendered as unethical in the universities and is regarded as a form of cheating. If exposed, moral stigma makes students frame stories and reinterpret their practice. Often times moral stigma makes it hard to understand the actual motivation behind student plagiarism.

Why students do it?

Hiding and explaining away

Arguably, plagiarism is more widespread among students than most of us think. Let’s try analyze why plagiarism is so popular. Without going much further into motivation, we hold that plagiarism is so widespread among students because:

1) it is hard to detect plagiarists,
2) it is hard to prove it was intentional, and
3) the consequences of plagiarism for students are mostly light.

Plagiarism detection software (TurnitIn, etc) that is being widely adopted in US and UK colleges was aimed at prevention of copying from a peer — another student. The software would check the text against the database of papers and detects similarity. It can be said that detection tools may protect the education system from students copying their works from peers and a magic circle of free paper databases. Yet, it can’t detect whether or not an original (clean) text was actually written by a student. Likewise, ghostwriting or institutional plagiarism is especially hard to detect because it is a business transaction: ghosts write original content and voluntary resign their authorship.

Consequences of plagiarism depend on whether or not it was intentional. Yet, in most cases, if plagiarism is detected, students may use a variety of tactics to defend themselves, main of which is lack of understanding.

To expose plagiarism a college instructor must identify, document and authenticate it.  If accused, student is asked what he/she actually done. Accused students might be skilled liars or actually slow to understand this issue. College policies for plagiarism make proving it difficult since it is hard to obtain evidences showing intent where students use ‘lack of understanding’ defense.

As Brian Martin put it, there are 3 ways to establish if student actually understands:

  • Easy of detection
  • Repetition
  • Direct Testing

Ease of detection suggests innocence Paradoxically enough, the more blatant copying is, the less likelihood instructor will deem it intentional — easy detection suggests innocence. Likewise, who would think that copying from an open source is done intentionally and by a person who fully understands how to credit works cited?
Applying theory of games principles, students may use mixed strategies combining ‘easy to detect’ moves (on minor assignments) with ‘hard-to-detect’ moves (on most important essays). In most cases, this mixed strategy will yield the maximum effectiveness: if caught, they may use ‘lack of understanding’ defense suggesting unintentional plagiarism, ie innocence.

Repetition is no conclusive evidence of intention either If plagiarised is done repetitively, it may mean intentional activity, ie suggests students intention to cheat. Yet, as previously said, repetition may suggestion persistent failure to understand what plagiarism is. Therefore, even repetition can’t be a definite test of intention to cheat.

Direct Testing Students may be given training / exercises on how to properly quote other’s texts, who to paraphrase, acknowledge ideas, cite sources and more. If done before writing assignments and completed satisfactory, this may constitute a prove that students understand plagiarism.

In whole, 3 tests for intention to plagiarize are rather weak to real authenticate plagiarism. It is relatively easy for students to explain themselves away — their dominant strategy will be to deny plagiarism and suggest the lack of intention to cheat.
Unintentional plagiarism entails light penalties if at all.

How to tackle plagiarism?

Statistically expected penalty has to be adequate to the infringement taking into account the probability of being caught. Likewise, if the chances of uncovering so called ghostwritten assignment (institutionalized plagiarism) are slight, the penalty has to be more sever than the infringement.

Disproportional punishment looks like the best solution here. Using the analogy of car park fines, if the park rate is $1/hour the fine of $1,01 works fine only where the probability of being caught is 100%. The best strategy is to set a fine at $25 and reduce the monitoring cost — the probability of being caught of 1/25 will suffice to make drivers adhere.

In college settings, the cumbersome intention test makes up to the relatively high cost of monitoring. It means that documented and authenticated have to entail high penalty. If there is a cap on penalties, there have to be assessment tasks that will bring the chances of plagiarism to minimum and / or a reward for good practice.

Importantly, students see that plagiarism is common in larger social environment: politics use copied interviews, CEOs use ghostwritten books, corporates steal ideas, etc. It may lead them to think that credit (acknowledgment) is scarce and one’s gain is another’s uncompensated loss — competitive plagiarism.

Therefore, if plagiarism gives a dollar edge than punishment for plagiarism shall be monetary. This may prepare students for the real life.

Moral stigma might not be the right response to plagiarism. Obviously, it won’t serve as an effective hurdle against plagiarism. Instead, it will increase the cost of monitoring as it will make students invest more resources in story-frame and making interpretations. 

Meet our interviewees: Mark Barnes, Barry L. Davis

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes

I’m a former 23-year classroom teacher and publisher of the popular Hack Learning Series — books that provide right now solutions for teachers and learners.

Connect with Mark on Twitter @markbarnes19.

Barry L. Davis

Barry L. Davis

I have Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and designated as a Master Career Development Professional by the National Career Development Association. I’m the Professor, Speaker & Blogger.


Connect with Barry on LinkedIn.

Bobbi Johnson

Bobbi Johnson

I teach K-2 Special Education in a PBIS/Alternative school and I am a Graduate Student in the Master’s Degree program at Ball State University in Applied Behavior Analysis with an Emphasis in Autism. I have a special interest in creating educational materials.

Connect with Bobbi on LinkedIn.

What are the main reasons for plagiarism in college?

Mark Barnes: Plagiarism happens at all levels because students see no value in the assignment and they don’t understand the impact and consequences of plagiarizing.

Barry L. Davis: I suspect to some degree it is a function of the class load of students and their decision to take action to reduce the time involved in completing assignments. The pressure for superior grades could factor into this as well.

Bobbi Johnson: I think one reason is it’s just so easy now to plagiarize. When I was in college, we had to go to the library and do research in actual books and journals to get our info. We learned in high school how to paraphrase those sources. Now it’s so easy to look for your sources on your couch and just copy and paste the info into your paper. I don’t know that kids are taught in depth how to accurately paraphrase or maybe if they are, they aren’t told how serious it is to plagiarize, like we were.

Do you think plagiarism education is adequate?

Mark Barnes: Plagiarism education in the K-12 world should be improved. It is only an ancillary piece of the research unit, which is almost universally taught in isolation. Research should be taught across subjects and plagiarism education should be emphasized in all grades, beginning in elementary school.

Barry L. Davis: In the universities where I teach, each course syllabus includes a comprehensive overview of plagiarism. The university’s stand on such practice is clearly outlined there as well as on the primary website.

Bobbi Johnson: I don’t think kids are educated well on the adequate on plagiarism.

High profile Plagiarism: how does it affect student cheating perception?

Mark Barnes: Most kids don’t understand it, so I don’t think it affects their perception at all. Kids need to hear the consequences more than once. It needs to be an ongoing discussion. I knew a student in college who was forced to repeat his entire senior year because he plagiarized a major paper. That’s a monumental consequence in many ways, including lost tuition dollars, lost job experience, and integrity damage that could have cost the person numerous job opportunities. I would like to think that it is a discouragement to the practice, although the media often overstates the incidents. This could cause students to feel it is not really the problem it purports to be, and thus practice it to some degree.

Barry L. Davis: Not really. If we are talking about TRUE plagiarism (verbatim use of another’s words without attribution) I believe it should be made public, However, I have seen and heard of “juicy” stories that were merely use of similar phrases or concepts that were framed as plagiarism due to the high visibility of the individuals involved.

Bobbi Johnson: I think the youth today are the “entitlement generation”. Even when they see high profile plagiarism, they may think those people were just stupid to be caught. And that they are entitled to do the bare minimum on their papers.

Essay Experts that may help

What are the best ways to fight plagiarism?

Mark Barnes: Plagiarism is certainly sensationalized, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We need to do a better job as educators sharing these “juicy” stories and discussing the consequences of plagiarism. This ongoing conversation, coupled with improved assignments will cut down on story opportunities for journalists.

Barry L. Davis: A clear, concise definition of the process published in all appropriate arenas, which is upheld and treated appropriately when discovered.

Bobbi Johnson: it goes back to education again. I teach special education K-3. I can only hope my students can write a research paper someday. But in order for them to correctly site their sources and to correctly paraphrase, it has to be taught. It has to be taught at an early age and they have to know how to do it way before they are asked to write a research paper. I work with my students on simply retelling a story in their own words. I think this is a basic skill that can lead to high skills of paraphrasing in research papers.

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