Cross-institutional study aims to determine if online institutions have higher levels of plagiarism than brick-and-mortar colleges and universities.

plagiarism-online-learningAccording to a new study, there is no significant difference between levels of plagiarism between traditional brick-and-mortar institutions and online institutions. However, that doesn’t mean plagiarism isn’t rampant in higher education.

Using a sample 368 dissertations between 2009 and 2013 (184 from traditional institutions and 184 from online institutions), mined from an online database and uploaded to Turnitin for analysis, David Ison, associate professor and program chair of the Department of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, aimed to determine whether or not several studies were correct in purporting that online learning spurs more plagiarism.

“Much of this discussion has been based upon anecdotal evidence or self-report studies of faculty and students, rather than empirical data,” notes Ison. “Moreover, the few quantitative studies that have been conducted comparing cheating in online to traditional courses have shown mixed results.”

Ison’s research extensively details these numerous studies, as well as their basis for investigation: The Internet, and the extensive use of the Internet part of online learning, leads more students to plagiarize their work.

But as Ison found (just one of many surprising findings of his study), online students do not plagiarize more than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

(Next page: Conducting the study; Ison’s findings)

Ison used the Mann-Whitney U test—a nonparametric test of the null hypothesis that two samples come from the same population against an alternative hypothesis, especially that a particular population tends to have larger values than the other—to conduct the study, which was aimed at comparing dissertations produced by students attending a virtual doctorate education program with those attending a traditional, brick-and-mortar institution.

As Ison explains, Turnitin was used as the plagiarism software as studies have shown that the software is not susceptible to self-report bias, has been used successfully in numerous plagiarism research studies, and was rated the highest in plagiarism detection technology among 11 other similar software solutions. [Full citations of these studies are available in Ison’s report.]

According to the study’s results [of the dissertations analyzed]:

  • Of the dissertations from traditional schools, 43 percent contained little or no evidence of plagiarism. For online institution dissertations, it’s 39 percent.
  • 39 percent of students from traditional schools had low-level instances of plagiarism. For online schools, this jumped to 51 percent. [For information on levels of plagiarism, see the report.]
  • In traditional schools, slightly more than 17 percent of dissertations had mid-level instances of plagiarism; 10 percent for online institutions.
  • Less than 1 percent of traditional dissertations showed high-levels of plagiarism; only one dissertation from online schools can be considered in the high-level category.
  • Overall, the Mann-Whitney U test indicated that there was no significant difference between the originality indices of dissertations by students at online institutions and those of dissertations by students at traditional institutions.
  • Traditional institution dissertations have a lower likelihood of academic indiscretions in terms of whether or not they may be considered to contain plagiarized material, while there is a higher likelihood of authors of online dissertations to be considered to have plagiarized.

Ison says that there are several take-aways from the study’s findings, including “the notion that the Internet and online work are more likely to contribute to the instance of plagiarism appears to be unfounded. An alternative explanation could be that students at both traditional and online institutions utilize the same types of sources—that is, online databases and literature—thus plagiarism should be expected to be comparable across institution types.”

Also, traditional dissertations were more likely to contain medium levels of plagiarism than online counterparts. Among traditional dissertations, 17 percent had medium to high levels and online dissertations had 10 percent at the same levels.

“From this perspective, it appears that online learners either are more competent at citing and paraphrasing or simply are less likely to try and borrow text from sources. Although no demographic data was collected, previous research has indicated that online education generally attracts older, more mature learners that are less prone to commit plagiarism,” he says.

However, Ison emphasized that what’s most concerning about the study’s findings, and what should ultimately be a “wake-up call for academia” is that more than half of dissertations, regardless of institution type, contain plagiarized material.

“One would assume doctoral students would be the last individuals who need more education on these procedures however, this is clearly not the case.”

Specifically, high levels of self-plagiarism occurred when authors reused their previous papers, conference proceedings, et cetera, without citation.

“These dissertations were published after the appearance of the material in academic journals and did not include the appropriate citations…there is no reason [for this],” he states. “Better instruction on proper citation and paraphrasing is evidently necessary…[as well as] tighter oversight by faculty mentors.”

Ison concludes by noting that the sample size for this study is lower than he hoped, and further investigation should include larger sample sizes; wider time frames; how doctoral faculty address plagiarism, citations, and ethics in graduate students; and how doctoral committee member faculty address plagiarism.

To read the full study in detail, click here.

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