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]


Ostensibly, there was plagiarism detection software at my school and most papers (at least near the end) were required to be emailed to the teacher or otherwise handed in digitally, so I assumed they were being run through the scanner.

My school had a policy of expulsion from your major and academic leave from the University (as well as automatic Fail for the class) if you were caught plagiarizing. Although I heard of one person being expelled, I did not witness or hear of any plagiarism.

Maybe the threats were enough, but it seemed to me that it was a fine example of the risks outweighing the rewards - talking to the professor for an extension or taking a grade hit for a later paper was better than being possibly caught and expelled.

ravi dvr

As an undergraduate student in an Indian university , submitting papers isn't actually compulsory till the final semester - and plagiarism isn't much of an issue unless it's a thesis by a graduate student or a professor.

However, if I ever DO plan to write a paper, I will cite sources wherever needed.It just makes logical sense to do so.Shedding a new perspective on a current idea is justified,amirite?

We can't expect everyone to have the next big idea.


As a professor in Asia, what I have come to understand is that plagiarism can come from many sources, some systemic in so far as the rote memorization curriculum employed by the major Asian Economics actively encourage "plagiarism".

There is a single source, i.e. the professor, and he/ she has everything you need. The more you remember of their content, the better you do.

There is no need for multiple data point analysis until university, and more likely graduate schools.

A situation that requires a lot of training.

However, I think this largely misses the point as "plagiarism" is wrong for two reasons. First, it is the theft of other's work, but more importantly it is the failure of doing the work. which for myself is more important at the end of the day.


I once caught a Chinese student I worked with copying text straight from wikipedia and another site into a report. I confronted him on it, and he said that he didn't think it was plagiarism because "it was fact". From the look on his face, I could tell that he was 100% sincere and he really didn't know that what he was doing was considered plagiarism in the US.

On another note, I have found that stricter penalties for plagiarism mean less students are punished. Professors don't want to be responsible for the expulsion of individuals and will tend to make side deals if there are strict punishments.

Silence Dogood

What about plagiarism in graduate school theses and dissertations?

Ohio University Plagiarism


Having spent a long career teaching at an excellent undergraduate instution, I have two comments on this issue of plagiraism:

1. Professors can avoid most student plagiarism simply by defining the assignment carefully and complexly enough that it will be nearly impossible for the student to cheat (and, of course, not using the same assignments year after year).

2. I also wonder if this isn't really a non-issue. After all, the student who plagiarizes or otherwise cheats is, in the long run, only hurting him/herself by losing out on an educational experience that will better prepare him/her for life after college.


In one Econ class I took in college, the professor told us that one student in the class (he wouldn't tell us who) would be getting a 0 on the paper we handed in last week. Apparently, this student plagiarized off of a published paper that was written by the professor himself.

Sean O'Donnell

I just don't understand why kids plagiarize. Just switch the words around and use the Thesaurus on MS Word - that's why I did in college. Do that and you'll be alright and it's not plagiarism.


I suspect you have a few schools - 1) who do not yet know the ins-and-outs of proper citation, 2) who may not be aware of how their thoughts are influenced by what they read/hear and 3) those who do not care.

For example - in various news media (here I am thinking more of Fox, MSNBC, etc), how often are ideas mentioned without appropriate attribution (to the primary rather than secondary sources.) Most universities stress primary sources, yet much of our lives revolves about secondary sources (note internet use).


First, to Sean O'Donnell -- Yes, that absolutely is plagiarism. Plagiarism isn't just using the exact words of another person without attribution, but also using someone's ides without attribution. Why don't you just save yourself all that time using the thesaurus, and put the original in quotation marks and cite the author.

In general -- I agree with most comments that plagiarism can be avoided by coming up with narrow assignments. If the topic is narrow enough you can tell your undergraduates what I do: "The chances that you can find a book or article on this topic that I haven't read are extremely slim."

Or, if you really want to prevent plagiarism, have the students hand in rough drafts (or even better their notes) for you to comment on. Sure, they could still steal a paper from the internet, but who would want to waste all that time reverse engineering rough drafts?

Lawrence Linn

Plagiarism is always a hot topic in our faculty lounge, however every time it comes up it makes me wonder whether part of the problem is what we're teaching.

Teaching critical thinking and original thought was a rational approach 30 years ago, when information was scarce and many of our students might go on to be researchers.

Today there is no lack of information, and most students won't become researchers. Should we still emphasize original thought over the ability to find, categorize, and synthesize information from the ocean of data we have available?

Our students come to us having grown up with re-mixes, mash-ups, memes and all manner of works cobbled together from existing media.

The very definition of original is shifting underneath our feet, it's worth thinking about whether we should be fighting it or encouraging it.


I was a computer science student at a major state university, and our senior project was a plagiarism detector for the university's Math Department. The code we wrote (not plagiarized, I swear!) was very simple, and the software caught about 10 students cheating in the first semester of use. The software worked by converting everyone's submitted texts into small 4 word snippets, and then compared the strings to all of the other documents in the database (new and old documents). Any similar strings beyond 3 or 4 flagged the document for manual review. It was remarkably effective.

What's interesting is that the students were all warned that the software would be checking for plagiarism, but they chose to cheat anyway. They must have thought the software was either ineffective, it was an empty threat, or they didn't care if they were caught.