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«Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 13, No. 5, December 2013, pp. 33 – 45. Students’ perceptions of plagiarism Reva Fish1 ...»

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Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 13, No. 5, December 2013, pp. 33 – 45.

Students’ perceptions of plagiarism

Reva Fish1 and Gerri Hura2

Abstract: While plagiarism by college students is a serious problem that must be

addressed, students generally overestimate the frequency of plagiarism at their

schools and blame students they do not know for the majority of incidents. This

study looked at students’ estimations of the frequency of plagiarism at a large urban college and explored how that varied over the full range of types of plagiarism, from using another author’s ideas to submitting an entire document copied verbatim from another author’s work. Analysis of student responses to survey items revealed they believe other students are far more likely than them to commit each type of plagiarism and they recognize that some types of plagiarism are more serious than others. The opportunity to reduce incidents of plagiarism by providing students with accurate information about plagiarism at their schools is discussed in the context of social norms theory.

Keywords: plagiarism, cheating, college, higher education, social norms theory I. Introduction.

While plagiarism is a widespread problem, college instructors tend to overestimate its frequency (Hard, Conway, & Moran, 2006). Students also believe plagiarism occurs more often than it does, to an even greater extent than faculty, and they generally attribute the high rate of incidents to strangers rather than people they know or themselves (Engler, Landau, & Epstein, 2008).

It is important to understand students’ beliefs about the frequency and nature of incidents of plagiarism at their schools. Even though students expect faculty to impose consequencesfor academic misconduct (Kuther, 2003; Brown, 2012), they also look to other students’ behavior to determine how far they can push the boundaries of a professor’s course policies (Feldman, 2001;

McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2001; Hard et al., 2006; Rettinger & Kramer, 2009). Their opinion that some unidentified group of students at their school regularly submits work they did not do themselves can distort students’ understandings of acceptable strategies they should use to complete assignments. Students who see some forms of plagiarism as less serious than others and who believe other students plagiarize frequently may become more likely to plagiarize themselves.

This study looked at students’ estimations of the frequency of plagiarism at a large urban college and explored how that varied over the full range of types of plagiarism, from using another author’s ideas to submitting an entire document copied verbatim from another author’s work. It also looked at whether students believe some types of plagiarism are more serious than others. The consequences of students’ beliefs that plagiarism is a common practice and how institutions should address that are discussed.

Social and Psychological Foundations of Education Department, SUNY Buffalo State, 1300 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222, fishrm@buffalostate.edu Adult Education Department, SUNY Buffalo State Fish, R., & Hura, G.

A. Research Perspectives.

Plagiarism is a complex issue which has been studied using a variety of frameworks. Some research has focused on student characteristics that predict a greater likelihood of committing plagiarism, including levels of moral reasoning and self-esteem as well as achievement and motivation orientations (Angell, 2006; Rettinger & Kramer, 2009; Williams, Nathanson, & Paulhus, 2010). This perspective attributes the decision to plagiarize to characteristics of the students, discounting outside factors that might contribute to the choice to plagiarize.

Other research has regarded incidents of plagiarism as being the result of teaching style (Barnas, 2000) or classroom culture (Brown, 2012; Feldman, 2001) indicating the cause of plagiarism originates outside the student. From these perspectives, instructors are seen as contributing to students’ beliefs that they can submit another author’s work as their own by not providing an adequate level of rigor in their classrooms or by not checking student work for plagiarism.

Unintentional plagiarism has also been used as a framework for research (Belter & Du Pre, 2009; Blum, 2009; Colnerud & Rosander, 2009). This viewpoint often raises the question of whether students should be penalized when they are unaware they have plagiarized. While proof of intent to plagiarize is typically not believed to be necessary to support an accusation, whether students who are still learning to write academic papers should be expected to fully understand how to avoid plagiarism has been addressed in these studies.

Ethics, and in particular integrity, is another focus of the research on plagiarism (Conway & Groshek, 2009; Feldman, 2001; Kuther, 2003; McCabe et al., 2001; Hart & Morgan, 2010; Hudd, Apgar, Bronson, & Lee, 2009; Kwong, Ng, Mark, & Wong, 2010). That body of work examines plagiarism at the student, instructor, and institution levels, and emphasizes the need for institutions to convey the importance of honesty to students and for faculty to model ethical behavior for them.

More recently the focus of plagiarism research has been on technology-facilitated electronic access to text as a primary cause of the increase in the number of incidents of plagiarism (Jones, 2011; Trushell, Byrne, & Simpson, 2012; Wang, 2008). This method of plagiarism has become increasingly widespread through the effortless process of copying and pasting electronic text. Some studies have found that students may believe information on the internet does not belong to a particular author and, therefore, can legitimately be used by them in course assignments.





Engler et al. (2008), Hard et al. (2006), and the present study looked at plagiarism from the perspective of social/peer norms. According to social norms theory, individuals learn which behaviors are appropriate by observing the generally accepted behavior of others. For example, young adults have been found to overestimate the frequency of negative behaviors such as substance abuse by their peers, resulting in an inaccurate understanding of what is considered socially acceptable and an increase in those negative behaviors on their part (Berkowitz, 2004;

Perkins, 2003; Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986). Based on this theory, if students have the misperception that acts of plagiarism are common among their classmates, and that consequences, if any, are minor, they are more likely to commit plagiarism themselves.

Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 13, No. 5, December 2013. 34 josotl.indiana.edu Fish, R., & Hura, G.

B. What is Plagiarism?

Many studies of plagiarism do not provide an operational definition of it, seeming to assume there is a one common understanding that does not need explication. Powers (2009) points out that this can affect research findings because students’ self-reports of plagiarism are affected by an individual understanding of the practices that could be considered plagiarism. Further, faculty and students often disagree about exactly what constitutes plagiarism (Kwong et al., 2010).

Definitions of plagiarism from several of the studies that provided one are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Definitions of plagiarism.

Belter & DuPre (2009): “One or more passages that was word-for-word the same as another source without appropriate citation and quotation marks.” p. 259 Colnerud & Rosander (2009): “Using parts, or the whole, of a text written by another person without acknowledgement; submitting the same paper or parts of it, for credit in more than one course, falsification of information.” p. 506 Hard, Conway, & Moran (2006): “Presenting, as one's own, the ideas or words of another person or persons for academic evaluation without proper acknowledgement.” p. 1059 Park (2003): “Plagiarism involves literary theft, stealing (by copying) the words or ideas of someone else and passing them off as one’s own without crediting the source.” p. 472 Wang (2008): “Us[ing] somebody else’s work (words and thoughts) without attribution.” p. 743 Williams, Nathanson, & Paulhus (2010): “Any nonzero percentage detected by Turn-It-In (after screening).” p. 294 A common element across definitions is that plagiarism is the act of using another author’s work without citation, thus portraying it as one’s own work. Other common elements of definitions include descriptions of the length of the copied text, whether taking solely ideas from other authors is plagiarism, and the extent that the copied words were taken verbatim.

For the present study a definition of plagiarism was developed that addressed these elements:

Plagiarism is representing another author’s ideas or words as your own in course documents or electronic postings. This would include submitting an entire document by another author as well as using a portion of text or ideas from another author’s work and not citing the source. This would include information obtained from the internet, from other students, and from published and unpublished documents. This definition was provided to the students on the survey they completed.

C. Plagiarism along a Continuum.

Incidents of plagiarism are viewed along a continuum, with some incidents regarded as more serious than others (Blum, 2009; Hudd et al., 2009; Jones, 2011; Kwong et al., 2010, Salmons, 2007). Studies of faculty and student understandings of plagiarism have found that faculty view most types of plagiarism as more serious than students view them (Kwong et al., 2010). Jones (2011) found that while all students recognized submitting an entire document written by another author as plagiarism, students saw copying a limited amount of text as less serious. Seventy-five percent of students saw purchasing a paper online as plagiarism, 67% thought copying text Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 13, No. 5, December 2013. 35 josotl.indiana.edu Fish, R., & Hura, G.

verbatim without quotation marks was plagiarism, 50% saw paraphrasing text without citation as plagiarism, and 17% stated that students should not self-plagiarize by submitting the same work for assignments in different classes.

D. Student and Faculty Perceptions of Plagiarism Frequency.

Faculty and students tend to overestimate the frequency of student plagiarism (Engler et al., 2008; Hard et al., 2006; Wang, 2008). Students, in particular, see plagiarism as a common practice even though they report they have never plagiarized themselves (Wang, 2008). Students believe their friends are more likely to plagiarize than they are, but their friends are less likely to plagiarize than students they do not know (Engler et al., 2008; Kwong et al., 2010).

It is important to consider student overestimates of plagiarism by others because students’ perceptions of peer behavior have a powerful effect on their own behavior (Hard et al., 2006;

McCabe et al., 2001; Rettinger & Kramer, 2009). Both McCabe et al. (2001) and Rettinger and Kramer (2009) found that while there are a number of factors that predict cheating, knowing that other students have cheated has the greatest influence on a student’s decision to cheat.

Even faculty, whose role it is to discover and address incidents of plagiarism, overestimate its occurrence, although to a lesser degree than students (Hard et al., 2006). An advantage to faculty overestimations of plagiarism is that it may make them more vigilant, benefitting students who do not plagiarize and who want it addressed (Kuther, 2003). Students generally appreciate instructors who can effectively monitor classroom learning and provide an appropriate level of rigor (Barnas, 2000). They want faculty to show respect for all students’ efforts by not tolerating any form of cheating, including plagiarism – the most common form of cheating in higher education (Trost, 2009). Faculty can specifically mention in the course syllabus that submitting another author’s work will not be tolerated, and the consequences if this happens, so students do not mistakenly believe that cheating will be ignored (Brown, 2012;

Feldman, 2001). When incidents of plagiarism are uncovered, if faculty discuss the circumstances with the class, without disclosing the name of the student who plagiarized, they can show their vigilance when reviewing assignments and prevent additional incidents of plagiarism by students who thought it would be ignored (Feldman, 2001).

The research reported here is a part of a larger study that explored the scope and nature of plagiarism by students at a large urban college in order to determine the current extent of plagiarism there and how past institutional efforts to curb plagiarism were faring. These included implementation of an academic misconduct policy and use of plagiarism detection software.

The questions addressed in this report of the study are:

1. What is the frequency and nature of plagiarism admitted to by students?

2. What do students believe is the frequency and nature of plagiarism committed by other students?

3. Do students view some types of plagiarism as more serious than others?

4. Do students believe that the types of plagiarism they view as more serious are more likely to be committed by other students?

Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 13, No. 5, December 2013. 36 josotl.indiana.edu Fish, R., & Hura, G.

II. Method.

A. Participants.

A survey was conducted at a large urban public comprehensive college with over ten thousand students, undergraduate and graduate, enrolled each year. An email was sent to all students, inviting them to complete the anonymous electronic survey and providing them with an internet link to it. The number of emails sent varied by department, but all students received at least one email. Information about the survey was also posted on the home page of the campus library website and on the webpage students use to access email, check grades, register for courses, and so forth. The data collection process was reviewed and approved by the college’s institutional review board.



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