Internet Plagiarism—Is Everyone Doing It?

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An RIT Professor Studies Online Cheating on College Campuses

Media stories suggest an explosion of cheating on college campuses attributed to access to the Internet. But is the Internet really the land of plenty for would-be plagiarists?

Patrick Scanlon, associate professor of communication at Rochester Institute of Technology, says the situation is not as bleak as reported. In his recent study, "Internet Plagiarism Among College Students," Scanlon examined student academic dishonesty exacerbated by the Internet, where text can be easily appropriated and where research papers can be bought, sold or borrowed.

Scanlon based his study on surveys completed by 698 undergraduates from eight colleges and universities in the United States, and one American university in the Middle East. David Neumann, professor of communication at RIT, helped create the survey and conducted the statistical analysis for Scanlon’s study, which will appear this year in the Journal of College Student Development.

Debunking the media hype, Scanlon found little evidence to support the supposed boom in cheating or, for that matter, anything that significantly distinguishes Internet plagiarism from the old-fashioned variety. In fact, Scanlon determined that only a "substantial minority" of students surveyed appropriated text from the Internet into their term papers without citation.

"Those cutting and pasting were typically in the 25 percent range," he says. "The news is not as bad as some in the media would have it, but the numbers are still troubling, of course."

"In our study, approximately 89 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that handing in someone else’s writing as one’s own or purchasing a paper to turn in as one’s own is wrong, whether done conventionally or online."

One finding Scanlon describes as "intriguing, yet troubling" reveals that approximately 50 percent of the students surveyed assumed that plagiarism was widespread and that their peers were cheating, although they themselves were not.

For instance, students do not report using online term paper mills regularly, but believe that their peers use them often.

"Six percent of those surveyed indicated they bought papers online sometimes, while only 2.3 percent specified they did so often or very frequently, " Scanlon says. "However, 62.2 percent of students estimated that their peers patronize those sites at that rate."

While Scanlon’s study deflates some of the sensationalism surrounding Internet plagiarism, his optimism is tempered by future challenges. He foresees a new breed of college student, one reared completely on the World Wide Web. The next generation of students will likely bring to campus a different perspective on ownership of text and ideas available on the Internet. The recent Napster controversy highlights an early example of the struggle to establish and enforce electronic copyright protection.

"The generation who grew up with the Internet doesn’t go to libraries; they are used to cutting and pasting from different Web sites. This upcoming generation will have an impact on the changing concepts of ownership of text."

At the present, most academic conduct policies leave the onus of punishing transgressors to the faculty. Scanlon notes that honor codes have a minimal effect on conduct and that most faculty members are reluctant to issue harsh penalties.

"Faculty aren’t used to being cops," Scanlon says. "Faculty are educators and not used to being punishers. They’re not good at it or avoid it."

What professors are good at, however, is educating. Scanlon would like to address plagiarism as a learning opportunity by raising awareness of ethics and cheating, and creating a dialogue among students and faculty.

Scanlon hopes to impress upon students the ethical and educational reasons for using their own words.

"It’s important to find your voice as a writer," Scanlon says. "Making our ideas our own and creating our own writing is an important part of an education. Writing can be an important part of finding out who you are."

NOTE: To arrange an interview with Pat Scanlon, contact Susan Murphy, at RIT’s University News Services, at 585-475-5061 or