The top 10 ways college students plagiarize

Data reveals the ten most common forms of plagiarism in higher education


When it comes to plagiarizing, students who use the unethical shortcut seem to be all in: Copying and pasting a research paper word for word is now the most common form of plagiarism.

Those findings, along with the ten most common forms of plagiarism in higher education, were detailed in a national ranking of plagiarism incidents released this month by Turnitin, an online company that makes software designed to detect cheating in homework assignments and research papers.

Myriad more subtle forms of plagiarizing made the list—carefully replacing key words and phrases, for instance—but turning in completely plagiarized work is the most common and most troubling form of cheating, according to respondents to Turnitin’s survey.

And the barefaced plagiarism has persisted in higher education despite campus-wide policies that explicitly tell students what constitutes cheating and the range of consequences for breaking the school’s rules.

(Next page: The other most common forms of plagiarism)

“Nearly every school has an academic integrity policy, yet instructors tell us that blatant, intentional plagiarism is still frequently encountered,” said Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing at Turnitin.

The second most common form of plagiarism among the 879 survey respondents was dubbed, “CTL-C,” because it involves copying large portions of text from the web and inserting those excerpts into a research paper.

“Find-replace” is the act of changing phrases in an attempt to avoid the watchful eye of plagiarism detection programs common on college campuses. “Recycling” is another popular approach: Borrowing from previous work, or self-plagiarizing, as described by Turnitin.

The “hybrid” method is defined as a paper that includes cited sources and copied passages without any citation. And the “404 error” is when a student includes citations to sources that don’t exist in print or on the internet.

“Educators take a kinder view” of the recycling and “remix” method—paraphrasing from various sources and combining it without proper citation”—because it could be a “reflection of [a student’s] inexperience with doing research papers or with writing academic papers in general,” according to the Turnitin whitepaper.

“Problematic scores” given to each kind of plagiarism in Turnitin’s top-10 list show that all cheating isn’t equal for many educators. The “CTL-C” approach, for example, was awarded a problematic score of 7.4 out of 10. The “remix” form of cheating received a problematic score of .5.

Campus academic integrity policies should reflect the severity of plagiarism, avoiding a too-common blanket approach, Turnitin suggested.

“Academic policies too often take the approach of adopting a one-size-fits-all response to plagiarism,” Turnitin said. “This has led to policies that tend to be too extreme and bureaucratic.”

Reviewing the most common ways students plagiarize—and specifying how to avoid those tactics—could help decrease instances of cheating detailed in Turnitin’s top-10 list, the company said.

“Educators would do well to provide students with information and guidance around the types, not only to help curb instances of unintentional plagiarism, but to also let students know that their instructors are wise to the ways in which they might inappropriately include information in their written work,” the whitepaper said.

Advances in academic integrity enforcement have been met with a host of inventive methods for plagiarizing without being caught by professors and instructors.

YouTube and similar sites have dozens—possibly hundreds—of instructional videos detailing how students can tweak their homework and papers to avoid being flagged by anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin.

And research conducted at California State University (CSU) in January charged that college students who know their work will be checked by Turnitin software are just as likely to cheat as students who are unaware that the system will review their work.

Robert J. Youmans, a CSU psychologist and researcher, wrote in the journal Studies in Higher Education that he warned 37 students that their work would be examined by the anti-plagiarism software. Almost half of those students turned in papers that contained at least 10 percent unoriginal material.

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