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Is plagiarism really an epidemic?

November 9, 2010

One major concern about the mass volume of material available online is that students are more likely than ever to cheat and plagiarize.  Plagiarism is often described as a growing problem or an epidemic.  There is some cause for alarm.  Besides simple copy-pasting from websites and articles, there is also a booming industry of essay mills like where students can purchase papers for “collaborative” purposes.  There is also a common and troubling misconception that everything published on the web is free to use and republish, an issue that came back to bite the editor of a Massachusetts magazine called Cooks Source last week.

I’m unconvinced that plagiarism is an epidemic partly because the data cited tend to be enforcement numbers.   An increase in enforcement isn’t evidence of a change in the number of infractions.  This is the same fallacy the DEA often uses, citing the number of drug arrests as evidence that drug use is on the rise.  Survey data of students are arguably a better metric for instances of plagiarism as opposed to data from teacher surveys, which the British Association of Teachers and Lecturers used in 2008.   Teachers have a strong bias around plagiarism numbers because of the increase in enforcement and the greater availability of tools to catch plagiarists, including sites like or simple Google search verification of suspicious passages in student assignments.  Catching a plagiarist was considerably more labor-intensive before the Internet, so it makes sense that teachers were more likely to let suspicious passages slide rather than do the many hours of library digging it could take to confirm a suspicion.

Another factor to consider is that while students have more tools to enable plagiarism, their incentives to cheat are arguably lower than they were before the Internet.  The potential gain must be weighed against the risk and consequences of getting caught.  Napster, for example, allowed people to easily download the equivalent of thousands of dollars worth of music purchases with little or no risk of repercussions.  When combined with the general social acceptance of file-sharing, it’s  no wonder the site took off in popularity.  “Epidemic” is a fair label for file-sharing, especially as it was practiced in the early 2000s.  The incentives for plagiarists just don’t line up as well.  A one-second Google search by an instructor is often all it takes to catch an offender, and the punitive measures are serious – often an automatic F for a course or even expulsion.

As for the essay mills, Dan Ariely conducted an informal study with another Duke professor where they ordered 12-15 page research papers on the topic of cheating from four different sites at a cost of $150-216 per paper.   All four papers they received were chock full of citation errors and incoherent sentences.  None would have received a passing grade in a university course, and two of the four were 35-39% copied from other works according to  Ariely requested a refund from the two essay mills at fault, which he didn’t get.

As of this writing, anyway, teachers have a considerable upper-hand.

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