Plagiarism in Online Schools: What Students Need to Know

Plagiarism in Online Schools: What Students Need to Know

Plagiarism is on the rise. The articles and reports about academic honesty are a concern for online schools and students. The question is who’s to blame? You would think that it a matter of common sense – if you turn in a paper or submit a discussion question response you haven’t written, you should know it is a dishonest act. The Internet offers easy access to information; however, aren’t you concerned that you may get caught? Plagiarism is addressed at the school level through policies and procedures that are enforced by your instructors – but the real answer to this issue needs to be a shift in the mindset of students concerning their approach to academic work.

Plagiarism Defined

In my post What Academic Honesty Means for Online Students, I discussed the two forms of plagiarism, accidental and intentional. Accidental plagiarism generally occurs when a student has provided a reference list but forgot to include an in-text citation for information used from one or more of the sources. Intentional plagiarism is a matter of taking information from an existing source and using it without providing an acknowledgement of any type. Accidental plagiarism may be considered a teachable moment by many instructors, especially for undergraduate students who are new to formatting rules. Intentional plagiarism is never acceptable and instructors are expected to enforce the procedures outlined by the school, which may include a reduced letter grade or failed assignment, and a report filed with the school.

Plagiarism – Alarming Trends

There is bad news for online schools. In October 2011 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report, Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges. The investigation consisted of a random sample of 15 for-profit colleges and the following statements from the report are related to academic dishonesty:
•    “GAO observed that 8 of the 15 colleges appeared to follow existing policies related to academic dishonesty, exit counseling, and course grading standards. At the 7 remaining colleges, GAO found mixed results. For example, one or more staff at these colleges appeared to act in conflict with school policies regarding academic dishonesty.”
•    “At 6 colleges, instructors acted in a manner consistent with school policies in this area, and in some cases attempted to contact students to provide help outside of class. One or more instructors at 2 colleges repeatedly noted that the students were submitting plagiarized work, but no action was taken to remove the student.”

Tracy Jan of the Boston Globe Staff noted that the GAO report “did not identify the colleges investigated by name,” and “a call to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, which represents for-profit colleges, for comment on the report was not immediately returned.”

The GAO report has been frequently cited and utilized as an indicator about the state of online (especially for-profit) schools. This is a very small sample size when you consider only 15 colleges out of a population of hundreds of online schools were investigated. The report mentions removing students who have plagiarized their work. From my experience, students may first receive a warning and a point or letter grade reduction. Suspension and/or removal from the school are generally the outcome of repeated incidents.

Prior to the GAO report, the Pew Research Center presented the results of a survey in The Digital Revolution and Higher Education and concluded that “plagiarism in college is on the rise.” The participants of the survey consisted of over 1,000 college presidents, representing public and private schools. When asked about the impact of digital technology over half indicated that the issue of plagiarism has continued to increase over the past 10 years. In addition, “89 percent say computers and the Internet have played a major role in the rise in stealing others work and claiming it as their own.” This survey confirms that plagiarism is a growing trend for all schools.

Easy Access to Information

How easy is it for students to access information on the Internet? Not only do students have access to articles, websites, and information repositories such as Wikipedia, there are websites that offer papers for students to access and/or buy. Before you use any of these essay websites, be sure to read the disclaimers and warnings provided. Here are some examples:

EssaysFree: This website reminds students that “turning in an essay or research paper that isn't your own will get you in serious trouble at your college. Use our free essays for ideas for your paper or coursework.” Within the FAQ section the following is stated: “Can I turn in an essay downloaded from your site as my own works in my School / College/ University? No, all essay materials from the site can be used for research, reference, and revision aid only. Note, that our essay data base is submitted to the plagiarism detection software. Each work must be properly cited as a source in anything that you write.”

I conducted another search and utilized the name and course number of a class I have taught before and the website was at the top of the results list – for answers to a discussion board question. As I reviewed the website, I found questions that students are asked to consider prior to utilizing these resources: “Do I have my instructor's permission to use this resource? For instance, you wouldn't open your textbook during a closed-book exam, right? Do I have an honest desire to learn, or am I just trying to get someone to do my homework for me?” also provided justification for use of the essays and discussion question responses that are available: “We think that the University of Southern California's Director of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards, Raquel Torres-Retana, sums this all up nicely in a article in USC's Daily Trojan about Student of Fortune: If (students') purpose was having someone else do their work, that would be viewed as a violation. But if people are using it as a tutor, then it's a tutor. It's the same online as it would be getting help at your neighbors apartment.”

Your instructors will never encourage you to utilize these essay websites. If you are in need of tutoring services, please contact your instructor and the school to find out what resources are available to you. The discussion question responses and papers found on these sites may likely be recycled from prior students and show up on a plagiarism report if you use them, which can result in a plagiarism incident if the original source of the information has not been acknowledged.
Your Instructor’s Responsibility

In his post Plagiarism: Don’t Whip the Messenger: Part I, Michael Keathley asked instructors to consider “plagiarism as a symptom of a weakness in a course,” and one that “is perhaps exacerbated a bit by the online environment where students must intently focus on reading and following directions often without a faculty member standing near them to interpret as needed.” This is a reminder for instructors to provide clarification for assignments and bridge the virtual gap.

I follow this approach with my online classes by posting a message at the start of the week with additional notes and resources for the assignments, along with a copy of the grading rubric that will be utilized. Even though I provide this information I still encourage students to make an attempt at following the directions and ask questions throughout the process. You should also ask your instructor for assistance with the directions.

In Detection and Deterrence of Plagiarism in Online Learning Environments, author Alan McCord states that “a student submitting a plagiarized hard-copy essay in a traditional class may have less chance of being detected than a student submitting the same essay in an online class using an integrated plagiarism detection service.” This is a very good point because online instructors are usually encouraged to monitor students’ papers for originality. One of the most popular plagiarism checkers utilized by online schools is TurnItIn.

According to Eric Wignall, author of How to Stop Cheating in Online Courses, Turnitin contains “over 150 million student papers, and the whole of Wikipedia, is in the system,” and more importantly he notes that “simply explaining how this system will be used, and providing details about the penalties for plagiarism, will prevent many students from going that route.” As I provide feedback for assignments, I’ll include a copy of the plagiarism report, even if there is a zero percentage match, to let students know that their work has been reviewed.

What you need to know as a student is that a plagiarism checker has a powerful search process and extensive capability to find existing sources that have been included in your paper without being properly acknowledged.

A New Mindset for Students

Online students, like their traditional on campus counterparts, are expected to submit work that is their own. If sources are used for the development of your assignment, they must be properly acknowledged according to your school’s preferred formatting guidelines (e.g., APA Manual 6th edition). Students often acquire information by using a search engine when they are pressed for time or need to develop ideas. In a moment of feeling frustrated or rushed, it may be tempting to directly copy any information found without providing a proper acknowledgement – as a means of completing your work. And it seems that this is a common trend among college students, even knowing that your instructor is likely to catch it and more importantly, this will likely be a violation of the school’s academic honesty policies. So what’s the answer? A new approach.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue provides a resource titled Intellectual Challenges in American Academic Writing that I believe offers techniques you can implement to create a new mindset about assignments. Instead of thinking about an assignment as something to “research,” consider your assignments as something you create. Here are some examples from OWL at Purdue:
•    Develop a topic based on what has already been said and written BUT write something new and original.
•    Rely on experts' and authorities' opinions BUT improve upon and/or disagree with those same opinions.
•    Give credit to previous researchers BUT make your own significant contribution.
•    Improve your English to fit into a discourse community by building upon what you hear and read BUT use your own words and your own voice.

Perhaps if you consider your assignments as an opportunity to craft something new and meaningful, you will be less likely to submit a paper that consists only of information from your sources. In addition, if you are unfamiliar with formatting guidelines, ask your instructor for assistance. But more importantly, never take a chance with your academic integrity and copy information from an existing source and claim it as your own. The pressure is on for online schools to address this issue and there are powerful resources available for instructors to check your work. Don’t risk your academic progress or miss out on an opportunity to learn by plagiarizing your work.  

What is your opinion of plagiarism and how do you develop original responses? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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