November 14, 2011

Plagiarism and the Web

Educators have been complaining about student plagiarism since books came to be printed. Since we have moved from an analog to a digital culture, it has become much harder for teachers to keep up with student use of online sources.

We have tried to use technology to fight technology. I know a lot of teachers at all grade levels who rely on trying to “Google” a key phrase or sentence of student writing that they suspect is plagiarized. It's not a great method. It doesn't tell you how much of the overall paper is borrowed, and it doesn't compare it to the "hidden Web" that is behind logins and walls. And it doesn't compare it to papers by your other students this semester or from last year or from other teachers at your school or any school.

I got to thinking about this topic again because of a query from a faculty member about PCCC using a service like I had downloaded a white paper awhile ago on "Plagiarism and the Web: Myths and Realities" from

A few findings:
  • Plagiarism is going social.  One-third of all content matched in the study is from social networks, content sharing or question-and-answer sites where users contribute and share content.
  • Legitimate educational sites are more popular than cheat sites. 25% of all matched material is from legitimate educational web sites - 15% of content matches come directly from sites that promote and benefit from academic dishonesty.
  • Wikipedia remains the most popular single source for student-matched content on the Web, comprising 7% of matches in the months examined.

Want to know where students are most likely to look, copy and paste?  The top 8 matched sites, along with their corresponding category in Turnitin's database, are:
1) - Encyclopedia
2) – News & Portal
3) - Social & Content Sharing
4) - Social & Content Sharing
5) - Cheat Sites & Paper Mills
6) - Social & Content Sharing
7) - Homework & Academic
8) - Homework & Academic

Of the 25 most popular sites, 14 are legitimate student resources for learning. It is a bit encouraging that more students are frequenting legitimate academic or educational web sites than cheat sites.

But before I get to using a service like Turnitin, I want to share some of my own thoughts and observations from 35 years of teaching and more than a decade in educational technology.
  1. The majority of instances of plagiarism can be prevented by creating good assignments and by not using the same assignments semester after semester. Yes, I blame teachers for a lot of plagiarism. Assigning topics that abound in online answers encourages using the material online. For example, just crossing a topic with a contemporary issue makes it much harder for students to "find the answer" and promotes some original thought.
    Asking for an essay on the symbols of evil in Lord of the Flies will send a student to Google and turn up any number of answers. Asking students to compare the hierarchy of leadership on the island to our current Washington administration and Congress, or to the people who control our financial institutions will be a lot harder to plagiarize.
  2. Don't rely on English teachers to be the only source of instruction on research and citation. Don't blame whatever level of teachers comes before you for the problems. Now that I am in a college setting, I hear, "They should have learned this in high school."  When I taught high school, I heard, "They should have had this middle school." And yet I know from watching and helping my own sons that they DID have this in elementary school - but it's a process of learning and sophistication, not a one-time lesson.
  3. Teach and give smaller assignments in how to take what is found in sources and either summarize, paraphrase or quote it.
  4. Teach the art of careful note taking. I wouldn't assume students know how to do it well unless I saw them do it. I have used exercises in having students just highlight new information in an article and been amazed that most of the article ends up highlighted when there were only 4 instances of new information. This does not come naturally. I am amazed at how many of my college students expect me to give them notes, slides, and study guides.
  5. Have students do an annotated bibliography as a standalone exercise.
  6. Model academic integrity. Do you credit and cite things that you use and photocopy for class?
  7. Address plagiarism before it occurs. Show examples. Tell them what you consider plagiarism to be. What are the penalties in your class and in your school?
  8. If you just tell students, "I don't allow you to use Wikipedia," you might as well stick your head in the sand. They will use it. They will not cite it for you. Better that you teach them how and when to use Wikipedia. It does have a place in starting research. Most teachers use it themselves. It has pretty extensive source information in the history behind an entry and includes sources for the vast majority of information. Wikipedians are very careful to note when articles are incomplete or questionable. Show your students good and bad entries in your field. Let them know that you know how it works.
    You do know how Wikipedia works, right? One of my favorite lessons that I have used with graduate students and undergrads is to have them read How Wikipedia Works and then create an original article in Wikipedia and have it grow and survive until the end of the semester. Do you know how challenging it is to just find a topic of value that is not on Wikipedia?
  9. Use examples from the "real world" of writers who have been caught plagiarizing or violating copyrights and what the punishments can be. Students who have grown up in a digital culture have had sharing, openness and re-use (good things) mixed in with sharing music, retweeting thoughts and downloading free software. I'm not sure that their ideas about originality fit at all into the world of academic research and writing. 
  10. When you have a student who clearly plagiarized, don't make it only a disciplinary action. Make it a teachable opportunity. Require the student to redo the work and fully document the research. The worst use of a service like Turnitin is as a "gotcha" tool.
  11. Much plagiarism comes from laziness, but a lot also comes from students who don't know how to do the research, and are not good (or confident) writers.
  12. Students are poor at time management. If you give 3 weeks for a research paper but don't do anything during those 3 weeks in class concerning it, many students will not begin until day 20. Break the paper down into smaller sections with milestones that are checked. This doesn't need to require a lot of "grading" by the teacher. Have them bring in one book they will be using and put bookmarks/Post-Its on 3 passages they plan to use and cite. Show the citation format.
  13. Students know that without some software like to do the checking, the teacher is not going to check many or any of the sources they cite. If no one is monitoring the speed limit on the highway, people will exceed the limit with impunity. is designed to assist educators in identifying potential instances of plagiarism but also to give students feedback during the writing process.

Turnitin's database compares papers submitted to against three main repositories of information: 14 billion current and archived web pages; 150 million student papers; and 110 million content items from academic publishers.

You might not think about user-generated content (on sites such as Facebook, Scribd, SlideShare, Yahoo Answers and as a source, and some of these "walled gardens" don't show up fully in a search query.

Turnitin also queries academic, educational and homework help sites (such as and the National Institute ofHealth, and popular homework help sites like and

Another legitimate category for research is News and Portals like The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Associated Content.

The bad guys are the "paper mills" that are made for cheating and academic dishonesty. They profit from students by selling, exchanging or placing advertising around offers of "original student papers." Teachers should be aware of these sites (like and Turnitin spots many of these usages not only because they index those sites but also because the papers have already been submitted to the Turnitin database in someone else's name! The student papers in their database and the most controversial aspect of their service and also what makes it far more powerful than using a search engine.

Encyclopedia web sites are as popular as the paper encyclopedia were in the 50s, 60s and 70s were with people who are now teaching. Wikipedia, Brittanica. com and fall into this category.

According to the Turnitin white paper, "...institutions with widespread adoption of Turnitin see a reduction in unoriginal content of 30 to 35 percent in the first year. By the fourth year, many institutions see levels of unoriginality fall by up to 70 percent."

As I noted in #7 above, demonstrating how you use technology like Turnitin, Google, and sites like to your students BEFORE they do research writing has a chance of deterring them from improper research, citation and writing practices.

When I was on the Academic Integrity committee at NJIT (where I introduced Turnitin to the university), I never saw a case of a student being confronted with a detailed and even color-coded Turnitin "Originality Report" of their written work next to the original sources when the student didn't admit to using those or similar sources.

In every case, was it plagiarism? Was it grounds for disciplinary action? Those are questions that institutions and instructors need to decide. But each instance was certainly an important “teachable moment” if we want to change students' approach to using information in the proper way.

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