Online Plagiarism and Cybercheating Still Strong – 61.9% | Thoughts of a Neo-Academic

I found a link on Slashdot.org this morning here to a blog post by Richard N. Landers titled Online Plagiarism and Cybercheating Still Strong – 61.9%. Landers does an admirable job discussing some of the recent findings by Neil Selwyn in his article “‘Not necessarily a bad thing . . .’: a study of online plagiarism amongst undergraduate students.” Landers notes the evidence in the article of undergraduate cheating facilitated by the Internet while raising some questions about the definitions used in the study. Nevertheless, Selwyn’s study appears to have produced useful information regarding the way students use the Internet to cheat as well as pointing to student attitudes about cheating.

Landers summarizes some of the results by the type of offense and then cheating by students in the major disciplines:

So how bad was it in Selwyn’s sample?  61.9% (757 students) admitted to engaging in online plagiarism.  59% copied a few sentences, 30% copied a few paragraphs, 12% copies a few pages, 4% copied entire documents, and 3% purchased essays.  22.3% admitted to engaging in such behaviors regularly.

Cybercheating rates were higher for males and for poor students.  Contrary to prior research, rates were higher for more experienced students.  Perhaps most interesting to me was the rate breakdown by field of study.  Here they are in rank order of prevalence of at least a few sentences copied:

  1. Engineering and technology (72%)
  2. Computer sciences and mathematical sciences (71%)
  3. Social studies (64%)
  4. Business and administrative studies (63%)
  5. Law (62%)
  6. Creative arts and design (61%)
  7. Architecture, Building and Planning (60%)
  8. Medicine (58%)
  9. Natural sciences (57%)
  10. Humanities (46%)

The amount of undocumented and uncredited copying is alarming to me as a teacher in the humanities. According to some of the anecdotal remarks by students in the survey, there appears to be little concern that those students who cheat are doing anything substantially wrong and that there is little chance of their getting caught.

I am not only concerned about the results of Selwyn’s study. I am also concerned about the discussion about his study on Slashdot.org. If you read the comments on slashdot.org linked above, many commenters do not see a problem with copying the work of others–particularly in classes that are not in their major. I would assume that most readers of slashdot.org would fall into the first two groups of the study with the greatest prevalence of cheating: engineering and technology and computer sciences and mathematical sciences. Furthermore, their comments seem to be anti-interdisciplinarity: i.e., there does not appear for many commenters any benefit from their work in non-major courses. They do not realize that all of these classes do in some way contribute to their overall development as a professional. All of our experiences do things to our brain, but only if we engage those experiences directly. If some subjects are largely ignored thanks to cheating in one form or another, then the student isn’t getting the developmental benefits derived from that course. Perhaps the meta-work done by non-major courses isn’t always directly addressed by all teachers, but those things take place regardless. Simply knowing how to code or design an IC does not make someone an ideal candidate as a programmer or electrical engineer. This is even more true for those students at Research I institutions that primarily produce candidates aiming for management and upper-level management positions. There are a variety of skills that are needed by these students, and their major coursework is only one aspect of the total package that their future employers will be looking for. In addition to raw skill development, the translateability of skills and experiential development on the brain may lead to unquantifiable changes in the individual’s brain that gives her or him an edge in their field of work and life in general.

I believe that Selwyn’s article and the discussion on Lander’s website and Slashdot.org are pointing to larger issues than just cheating facilitated by the Internet. Perhaps there are systemic issues in the University that need to be addressed, and perhaps the interdisciplinarity of the humanities needs to be more fully developed and discussed so that students are more aware of why they need those extra classes and why it is important for those who cheat to participate in them rather than offload their responsibility through theft.

7 responses to “Online Plagiarism and Cybercheating Still Strong – 61.9% | Thoughts of a Neo-Academic

  1. Thanks for the review. I have also been watching the discussion on Slashdot with interest – frankly, I am finding it a fascinating real-world confirmation of their results. After all, we’d expect about 70% of the folks commenting to have cheated themselves!

    I agree though that there are larger issues at play here. The perceived lack of value of anything “non-science” by most technical folks is pretty common; I wonder to what extent it drives these findings.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I was walking out of the house to teach when you replied to my post earlier. After arriving in my office, I had a chance to read the comments on your original blog post, too. Your discussion of the Selwyn article on your blog has generated a lot of dialog in a wider community (and different places) than may have been done by the Selwyn article alone. I wish that I had the time and resources to map out the course of the conversation over time through cyberspace.

    I am having my college writing students read your post this afternoon and write a response to it in our class. I have spent more time talking about plagiarism this semester than in the past, because I have had a string of unfortunate plagiarism cases and I want to do everything that I can to avoid that this semester by continually addressing this issue throughout the semester. I believe that your post will lead to a fruitful discussion in today’s class. Thanks for writing about the Selwyn article, because it may have slipped completely under my radar otherwise.

  3. I am completely shocked by the rank order of the fields of study of these cheating students! I would have figured it would have been quite the opposite, to be honest. Why do you think the instances of cheating were so high in the Engineering and Technology disciplines?

    I’m impressed that 61.9% of the students actually admitted to cheating, but I am curious as to how many others have cheated but were too afraid to admit it.

    This was a very interesting post, indeed!

  4. Thanks for your comment! After reading the comments on slashdot.org that led me to the article to begin with, I believe that there are two reasons that science professions topped the list while the humanities are at the bottom. First, I know from my experience at Georgia Tech that the science and tech disciplines require a lot out of their students which diverts attention away from non-major courses. Some of those students in those majors perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide to take the easiest path to pass non-major courses while giving the bulk of their time to major-related classes. One way those students can skirt their responsibilities in writing-intensive non-major classes is to use Internet sources without attribution. It is easy to find materials that they can quickly incorporate into their work. This seems reinforced by the disdain that I read in many commenters on slashdot as well as comments that I have received from my own writing students–coincidentally, I have never had an English major as a student in my classes at Kent State. Second, I believe that the humanities, particularly writing and literature classes, put an emphasis on the ownership of ideas and writing. Plagiarism and cheating is a serious offense for any university class, but I have primarily heard lectures on plagiarism in my English/cultural studies classes with one notable exception: my computer science intro class at Tech which I took the semester after a huge fiasco erupted on campus when it was found that a majority of students cheated on assignments (this was done by a new institution-made assignment submission system that checked for cheating).

  5. Well, speaking as one who majored in English Literature whilst in university, I tend to agree with you in regards to your statement that writing and literature classes stress the importance of writing only on one’s own ideas. In almost every class that I enrolled in, we were told (in no uncertain terms) that cheating in any way shape or form would result in the failure of the assignment and/or the class itself. I can honestly say that I never once even thought of cheating, not only because it would defeat the purpose of my education, but also due to the fear factor…lol.

    Upon reading your response, I have gained a better understanding as to why the Engineering students tended to cheat more than most other students. These students are put through the ringer, so to speak, and do not have an abundance of spare time, and (most likely) do not take an interest in the mandatory elective courses pertaining to Humanities or Social Studies. I can see where the temptation to cheat may lie as they may not view the courses as imperative to their discipline, and, so, are willing to take a chance.

  6. I think you frame the issue perfectly when you write: “cheating . . . would defeat the purpose of my education.” I believe that I think like you do on this point. An education is something that we must do rather than something that we are given. Higher education is a complex assemblage of learning, thinking, and solving that can only be accomplished by our involvement in the process. If a student cheats they remove themselves from the education equation, and they do not receive the real benefit of that part of their education. Sometimes it is difficult for a student to see, or for that matter anyone to quantify, everything that is taking place in the brain of the student in a class, but there are things going on besides the rote learning of tables or definitions. This is the fun of school–the pleasure of finding things out, which I believe is something largely done by the self-motivated student.

    As you wrote recently on your blog about MBAs, I and others believe that there are larger problems with higher education that involve the system as well as the student. What I mean by that first is that the system, namely universities, are producing more degree holding graduates than there is demand for in the marketplace (this extends across nearly all disciplines). Second, universities and some advisors push or convince some students, usually the best, to pursue graduate degrees despite the overwhelming evidence that a graduate degree may not guarantee that student work much less a higher salary (The Economist article, “The disposable academic” is a must read: http://www.economist.com/node/17723223?story_id=17723223). Coupled with the drive of the university system to extend itself through larger numbers of graduate students for one reason or another is the fact that students pursue higher degrees thinking that the degree will provide them with the job and salary that they desire. I admittedly worked to this point in a circuitous manner, but this last point underlies another aspect of cheating I believe: pursuit of a degree rather than an education. When a student frames education in terms of a bar to pass for a job rather than considering how that education can enable them to do the work that they want to do and live the kind of life that they want to live, then it seems like an easy choice to cheat if that helps further their goal of obtaining a degree for the job.

    I try my best to steer my students away from this kind of thinking, because I hear it from so many of them again and again. One way that I try to accomplish this is to raise these very concerns with them regarding the supply-demand curve of degree holders and jobs. Simply having a degree will not be enough to land their dream job. They will be fighting for lower wages among a larger pool of same-degree-holding graduates. I encourage them to think of their writing and their other work as only the beginning of their development as individuals and professionals. They need to extend what they learn in class with their own self-motivated learning and demonstrate that learning through appropriate means of professionalization in their field. They cannot accomplish these things if they cheat or plagiarize. I want them to succeed with their own efforts, because even if things don’t work out as they hope, they will be more prepared to develop a new plan or draw on those things that they have learned to get a different job.

  7. “…another aspect of cheating I believe: pursuit of a degree rather than an education”. Brilliantly stated. I believe that is the core reason behind why anyone cheats. It is not simply for the thrill of it, rather it is simply a means to an end. From the viewpoint of a cheater, as long as one graduates with a degree, then all of one’s efforts to obtain that degree are justified. Those are the students that I most fear for; the ones who just want the qualification as opposed to the education; the ones who pursue a degree simply to gain employment; the ones who want a piece of paper to hang on their office wall. These students seem to miss the point of higher education as they seem to believe that their education within their chosen programme ends upon graduation; it extends far beyond, whether within the school’s walls or outside of them.

    As for graduate degrees, I am glad that someone else is viewing things the way that I do. I have seen so many students intent on pursuing further education in order to land the “perfect job”, in which they’ll make enough money to pay off their extraordinary amounts of debt. These students are encouraged to continue their higher education from the institutions in which they study (for obvious reasons, of course), only to graduate saddled with debt in a graduate student-saturated market.

    Unfortunately, these graduate students have also been told that the salaries that they should expect upon graduation are far more than what is truly available. Since there are so many unemployed graduates to choose from, companies need not worry about filling a lower paying position as these students are also anxious to pay off their exorbitant amount of debt.

    It is sad because you would think that more of these graduate students would do a little bit of research before deciding upon which programme to enroll in, and figure out the statistics for themselves so as to make a wiser and more informed choice.

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