The Truth About College Plagiarism

Despite all the concern over increased plagiarism in the Internet age, concrete figures on the trend are hard to come by. In a new working paper, Brian Jacob (an occasional Levitt co-author) and Thomas Dee conducted a natural field experiment at a “selective post-secondary institution” to shed light on the determinants of student plagiarism. Five hundred seventy-three students wrote 1,256 papers, and approximately half of those students were also required to complete an anti-plagiarism tutorial before submitting their papers. Jacob and Dee then analyzed all 1,256 papers. Students who participated in the tutorial were less likely to plagiarize; the effect was particularly strong for students with lower SAT scores. The authors conclude that their results support “a model of student behavior in which the decision to plagiarize reflects both a poor understanding of academic integrity and the perception that the probabilities of detection and severe punishment are low.” [%comments]


The cheats I knew just paid someone else to write the paper. It's better for your grades than simple plagarism. Profs who pay attention will probably catch the frauds, but honestly, a lot of profs barely notice the students at all.


I cheated whenever possible in college (graduated in 2007), but I never plagiarized. It seemed too easy to detect. I did once pay somebody to write a paper for me.

Like my football coach used to tell me, if you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough. Thanks, coach!


A lot of the "plagiarism" that is going on is simply students not knowing how to properly cite sources or even when the sources need to be cited.


My computer science profs at Michigan State used to claim that they had a program that they ran on every student homework submission that could detect plagarism. I often wondered if the program could really do that or they just said it could to ensure we didn't copy too often.


In my experience, students' confusion or laziness about plagiarizing is mirrored in society in general. I've been an English teacher and an editor for for more than 20 years, and the so-called professionals aren't appreciably better than the students when it comes to using other people's words and ideas without citing their source.


Eric: have a look for yourself! When I worked at the University in Aberdeen we used moss to detect plagiarism:

It worked, in several cases plagiarism was detected, confirmed by hand (of course) and the students failed.

I wonder how the authors of the paper above went through 1,200 papers though. I assume by picking random lines and searching wikipedia...

N Wang

To Eric #4: Yes, there is software that detects plagiarism. I've used it. In fact, Google can even catch plagiarism by simply entering the suspected portion of text into the search field. As an editor, I've used this method to ferret out plagiarism in research papers intended for submission to high level journals.

science minded

Dear Marsha and George ;

I think that you are partly right. What do I mean? Men naturally cheat by virtue of doing the expedient thing. The trouble is in what they have lost. Students who don't know how to cite sources make the mistake of not asking and thus not getting what they need to write such a paper. But that takes alot of time and working students do not always have the time or are not always willing to take the time when given the opportunity. One single mother just wrote a paper for me on Marx. It took her a semester to finish it and it was great. She has moved on to graduate school. The problem is that the internet makes real research seem easy when it is not. So college these days perhaps has become more like high school for many- a place to learn the basics (if they are given the opportunity). Some never get the opportunity or take the opportunity even in college. What does this say about the real inequities in our educational system?


Janet V

My experience working in teams in a university setting geared toward working adults is that most of the plagiarism was based on ignorance and not spending enough time on the assignment, whether due to overscheduled lives or time mismanagement.

This was at a school where we were required to take classwork on plagiarism, had plagiarism checkers, given instruction in research skills and for the time excellent, easy access to credible resources. And still, people would turn in information pulled word for word from the most easily accessed sources with nary a quote mark or parenthetical citation in sight. They weren't trying to pass off someone else's thoughts as their own, but they weren't willing to take a few minutes to cite the works they did use. Some never grasped the concept of the reference list and would send over what amounted to a bibliography (not acceptable for our projects). Most of these were church-going, tax-paying citizens who'd never willingly violate the law. But get them to recognize what needs citing and what doesn't was a skill they simply refused or could not acquire.



It's pretty easy to get around plagiarism on the web. At least for term papers if you start early enough.

What I found is if I took my paper and put it online several weeks advance using various free web hosting accounts, it would turn up on various plagiarism scanning services schools employ. Brilliant! Now a teacher/professor scanning my paper will find 50 sources if they test my paper.

Unfortunately all 50 sources of plagiarism had my name on it. I didn't do anything wrong.

Seems like you can take advantage of signal:noise ratio and just pollute the web so it's hard to tell which is the original.


At my university in the Netherlands (VU university) ALL assignments, papers, essays etc. are handed in digitally and checked for plagiarism.

Jonathon K.

My film professor in college once said:

If you borrow from one, it's plagerism. If you borrow from many, it's research.

As long something is properly cited, he didn't have a problem with it. And yes, he used the software to check for plagerism too.


My professors were required to use plagiarism-checking software - a couple of them even demonstrated it to us on the first day of class. One of the interesting things about it was that the university's license agreement said that the software company would have the right to use anything submitted under the software in perpetuity.

someone I know taught a general science requirement at a large state school. she once had a paper come back 100% plagiarized, the student had turned it in for another class the previous semester.


I attended a top-tier business school, where we spoke about ethics and plagiarism on a somewhat regular basis -- you could even get expelled for any sort of cheating. But I saw it frequently in group projects, and several times had to instruct my fellow classmates how to use someone else's words without stealing them. Their dishonesty was mostly due to what I would call laziness, combined with a sense of entitlement and competitive nature. They just "had to" get something turned in that the professor would like to see, without stopping to ask whether they were cheating someone else for fair credit. Not surprisingly, I see the same behavior in business all the time.

Ann T. Hathaway

i went to a school that was overt in their expectations of no plagiarism. It made me paranoid in the extreme.

I tend to agree that a lot of plagiarism comes from people not knowing how to cite references or not understanding the importance. This can be socioeconomic or a product of a different culture altogether. Or it can be lying, cheating, free-rider burdens on the scholastic community.

However, when an entire industry tends to say the same thing about a prevailing practice, standard, or opinion, (and they do) it is hard to review that literature and attempt a new way of saying what is accepted.

Other papers, however scholarly their journal , tell us the obvious (e.g.,, people with balance problems tend to fall down). Are we to cite these jerk papers if we read them, find them useless, and are researching inner-ear infections?

Plagiarism does not exist as a separate condition to the rest of scholarly or less-scholarly work. I have found plenty of rogues who came to the right conclusion with a very poor argument. I don't like to cite them because it gives them an authority they do not deserve and that I do not concede. However, it's very clear that they could make a case of plagiarism.

Footnote-my example of inner ear infections is not my own, but comes from Dr. Grumpy's blog. How far must i go to assert my intellectual integrity? When does the act of choosing a sentence, opinion, or example become mine, and not that of someone on my large reading list?


Sam S.

Most undergraduate papers are taking other people's work and re-summarizing it. Some students are better than others at re-wording other's work. But unless the professor is asking for personal opinions or data analysis, why would the professor assume that the writing was the student's own to begin with?


The MOSS program mentioned checks computer code, so the input is already in a manageable form. For essays, you would probably have to run the papers through an OCR program first.


Slightly OT-I had a lazy medical school professor who liked to use the same questions year after year on his tests. Not knowing this, the day before one of his tests, I had gotten a hold of last years test and went to his office to ask him about some of the answers. He shifted very uncomfortably in his seat and was very noncommittal in his responses to my questions. I wound up having to postulate why the answer was correct and he'd respond with "Hmm. That seems reasonable."
Then I took the test the next day only to see the same questions. Ha!


especially for undergraduate research it is actually often feasible (though often also more work) to design papers in a way that makes plagiarizing extremely hard or extremely obvious - if the tasks are specific enough it's hard to copy a paper from the web.

Also, as a TA (and thus both student and teacher) it is my experience that most students don't want to chear. Some are awkward with sources (which is what people note here and what the findings from the paper by Dee and Jacob seem to support) but relatively few people are willfully plagiarizing large parts of their work.

Plagiarism software - which I do use for "generic" assignments, is moderately effective, but I think its more important function is that it signals to students that we take plagiarism seriously and that there is a good chance they get caught. In my class of 120, with two papers per student (at a very good school) we did not find a single case of plagiarism with the software. But I felt it was still useful for students to be reminded of the topic - and the research seems to support that.



Academia is largely a charade. It should be treated as such. At the elite university I attend, I cheat when the risks of detection are low (lazy profs and graders) and the rewards are high. These old guard professors in a soon-to-be technologically mooted profession couldn't care less and the cheating couldn't be easier for me.