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Plagiarism, Cheating, and Getting Ahead

Lynnette Crane explores the reasons today's university students plagiarize and suggests what you can do about it. See Lee Altschuler's review of the filmCheaters, Essential Teacher, March 2007, p. 41.

Classroom discussion about plagiarism often seems to focus on its prevalence, causes, and ethics and on methods to reduce its incidence. Less frequently discussed, however, is the fact that rates of plagiarism have exploded in the Internet age. Even less explored is the profile of today's university students and how current models of institutional writing assignments have contributed immensely to the increased incidents of plagiarism on U.S. university campuses.

Cheating among college students appears to have become the norm in U.S. society. Research indicates that more than 70 percent of U.S. college students plagiarize writing assignments (Tyre 2001). Cheating on exams and plagiarism are nothing new, but educators today are alarmed by their prevalence. Three factors underlie any kind of cheating: motive, method, and opportunity.

What Today's University Students Believe

To find out the motives of today's university and college students, I surveyed my classes of first-year English students. They reported their main concerns to be grades on papers, fear of failing the course or of not graduating, and time constraints caused by taking too many courses.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg. When asked why they thought cheating had become the behavioral norm, the composite answer of my students was that it was "necessary to get good grades and to pass the course; otherwise we can't graduate and get good jobs, and there is a lot of competition in the job market." Interestingly, students did not mention lack of skill or lack of knowledge as motives.

While the motives for cheating may not be surprising, U.S. students' perceptions of plagiarism are. Their perceptions range from "It is totally wrong," to "Students shouldn't plagiarize, but sometimes it is necessary," to "I only do it when I feel really stressed" or "Sometimes I need a little extra help." Thus, students do not generally perceive plagiarism as cheating or as an ethical issue. They rationalize it as necessary due to the pressure of competition in today's job market. When some students plagiarize and get away with it, other students are tempted to do so in order to compete with those who are getting the better grades. In this time of fierce competition, the temptations are huge since students can easily access well-written conclusions or entire term papers. The rationalization of ethics gives rise to their belief that passing off plagiarized work as their own does nothing more than give them a competitive edge.

A Cat-and-Mouse Game

It is common for students to "collaborate" with each other in the "writing" of research papers, often simply cutting and pasting from the Internet. Electronic access to information is easy, and commercial sites will write papers for students for a fee. But instructors may also employ computer programs to detect plagiarism if the institution is willing to purchase them and if the instructors have time to use them. However, most instructors say they rarely feel compelled to use these programs, as it is not difficult to notice an extreme or even moderate change in a student's writing skill level when evaluating research papers.

One of my most memorable examples in this regard concerned a student whose writing on a research paper was markedly different from his in-class writing. When I questioned him, he adamantly denied plagiarizing. However, one of the sources he cited was a commercial Internet site for writing papers.

The Business of Higher Education

The competitive, technological environment of today's universities is not the same as the intellectual campus environment of twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. This change has occurred not by chance but by design. Before the 1990s, certain students in U.S. high schools were categorized as academic-track students and took specific courses to prepare for the rigors of university study. In contrast, many of today's first-year university students are barely able to meet minimum standards in literacy and writing skills. High school graduates today can qualify for admission to any number of colleges and universities with a grade point average of 2.0 (on a scale of 1-4).

Additionally, most U.S. colleges and universities today have taken a commercial approach to higher education, vying for students through aggressive advertising campaigns. They compete for tuition--thousands of dollars per term per student--with students increasingly cast as clients. If today's university students are clients, then what are today's university instructors and professors?

Perhaps it's worth reconsidering the postsecondary tracks of an earlier era, when some high school graduates went to trade schools or business colleges and others entered university because they were academically inclined. Obviously, not all high school graduates will benefit from a university education. Unfortunately, today's colleges and universities promote themselves in ways that make students believe otherwise.

What Can Educators Do?

In an effort to find remedies for the plagiarism epidemic, perhaps we as educators would do better not to focus on the behavior of the students, which makes sense to them in today's academic environment, but rather to focus on what we are doing that promotes plagiarism. We specifically need to look at the institutional rhetorical writing models--the research paper, the expository essay, and the term paper--and ask ourselves if spoon-feeding the steps in these processes teaches students anything about critical thinking. The point is made clear by Hunt (2002):

The assumption that a student's learning is accurately and readily tested by her ability to produce, in a completely arhetorical situation, an artificial form that she'll never have to write again once she's survived formal education . . . is questionable on the face of it, and is increasingly untenable. . . . Many other equivalent arguments that assignments can be refigured to make plagiarism more difficult--and offer more authentic rhetorical contexts for student writing--have been offered in recent years. (p. 1)

In other words, given the current academic environment, if writing assignments have no clear purpose, no clear audience, and no clear context, plagiarism simply makes sense to students as a means to an end.

One way to halt the runaway violations of academic integrity is to emphasize local contexts--that is, to require students to come up with research questions that are applicable to their own lives and fields of study. The result may be topics that are so specific that packaged term papers are not as readily available. In addition, teachers can insist that no two students address the same topic. In-class writing assignments can be linked to individual research questions. If teachers assign papers of reasonable length, students are not as likely to feel overwhelmed and might better be able to resist the temptation to plagiarize. In this way, learning will become more personalized and instruction increasingly one-on-one.

If we as teachers begin to shift our focus from measures designed to punish acts of plagiarism to helping students think for themselves by focusing by focusing on critical reading, critical thinking, and authentic research, perhaps we can achieve some breakthrough. Students need to realize, even in the face of their rationalized, competitive-edge view, that by plagiarizing they are only limiting their own abilities as well as damaging their integrity.


Hunt, R. 2002. Four reasons to be happy about Internet plagiarism. Teaching Perspectives [St. Thomas University] 5 (December): 1-5.

Tyre, T. 2001. Their cheatin' hearts: High numbers for Web-assisted plagiarism are disquieting, and so are the reasons, but remedies do exist. District Administration 37 (10): 32-35.

Lynnette Crane is an assistant professor of English at The American University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.