Plagiarism Differences in High School and College Students

A report released today by the plagiarism-detection tool TurnItIn confirms what a lot of teachers already know: that students are copying content from online sources. According to the report, for both high school and college students, Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers were the top two most popular sources of lifted copy.

But another interesting fact emerged from the report about the difference between high school and college students. While 31% of content matches for high school students came from social and "content-sharing" sites (like Facebook or Yahoo Answers), just 26% of the matches for college students originated there.

College students were more likely to use content from cheat sites and paper mills, the report finds: 19.6% of content matches in college students' papers came from those sites, whereas just 14.1% of matches to high school students' papers. College students were also more likely to turn to news sites -- 16.6% versus 12.3% of college students. And even though Wikipedia was the most popular source for copied content, encyclopedias in general constituted roughly 11-12% of content for both populations.

The data from this report comes from TurnItIn's own business: some 128 million content matches from 33 million student papers (24 million from higher education and nine million from high school) over a one-year period. That is, when students' papers were submitted to TurnItIn, its system found passages from those papers matched content available on the open Web.

The report doesn't indicate whether or not students cited these sources (it's likely that many did). And TurnItIn doesn't always catch plagiarized material from behind paywalls -- sites that require subscriptions, for example, like many academic journals may not be included in what TurnItIn indexes.

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TurnItIn's report backs up a recent Pew Research Center survey, which showed that more than half of college presidents said that they believe plagiarism has increased among their students over the course of the last decade. None of this is surprising, of course. The "copy-and-paste" functionality  and the massive amount of online material available makes it a lot easier to take whole sections of a Web site and plop it into one's assignment. As long as the source is cited, of course, it's not necessarily considered plagiarism.

To help combat plagiarism, TurnItIn makes a number of suggestions for educators: make your assignments plagiarism-proof, the company suggests. Help students better understand citations. And -- of course -- the company recommends schools use a service like TurnItIn.

Recently we looked at some of the factors that may be behind our "culture of academic dishonesty." Is it simply that students are taking advantage of easier copy-and-paste technology and online resources, or are there other issues at play? For example, what are the pressures on college students that make them far more likely to turn to cheating sites than high school students? What are the reasons why high schoolers turn more to social sites? How can we take advantage of their interest in working with their peers while helping them learn not to simply copy from them?

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How can we address these factors, while creating better assignments -- ones that reward creative thinking -- and offering better instruction about citation?

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