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Plagiarism: What's really going on?

Jeanne Dawson
Curtin University of Technology

This paper describes preliminary research into what motivates students to plagiarise. Its hypothesis is that most cases of what is identified as plagiarism - faulty referencing, poor paraphrasing, and excessive cut and pasting - are symptoms of students' difficulty in engaging with academic discourse and finding an authentic scholarly voice. The paper presents an analysis and discussion of data from a survey and focus groups. On the basis of this preliminary research, it suggests that what is needed to address plagiarism is not better detection and punishment but teaching that stimulates engagement and helps students develop an appropriate scholarly voice.


The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word 'plagiarism' derives from the Latin plagiarius, meaning 'kidnapper'; the plagiarist is the kidnapper of others' ideas, writings, and inventions. Kidnapping is always a premeditated crime - always a sin of commission rather than omission. Kidnappers do not accidentally kidnap, nor do they kidnap through sloth, ignorance, or lack of confidence. Can the same be said of student plagiarists? The hypothesis upon which this paper is based is that while some cases of student plagiarism do constitute outright premeditated cheating and should be penalised accordingly, in most cases what is identified as plagiarism might more realistically be identified as a symptom of students' difficulty in engaging with academic discourse and finding an appropriate scholarly 'voice' (Cadman, 1997). This paper describes preliminary research into what motivates students to plagiarise.

The survey

A survey of students canvassing the question 'Why do you think some students plagiarise?' was conducted during three seminars of the StudyPlus Program. StudyPlus is a program of study skills, strategies, and techniques seminars developed at Curtin University by the Student Learning Support Unit to enhance students' academic performance and experiences of learning. A wide diversity of students attend StudyPlus seminars: some attend because they have been identified as 'at risk' and referred by their lecturers or course coordinators; some attend to gain a competitive edge in their studies; for some, attendance at selected StudyPlus seminars is a required component of their course assessment.

Because the survey was aimed at soliciting students' spontaneous rather than conditioned responses, it was decided to ask the survey question at the beginning of seminars that were not themselves related to citing or referencing. The seminars chosen were those addressing exam preparation and exam techniques; these seminars attract a wide diversity of students, and it was felt that their responses might be more generally representative than a group who had identified their need for assistance in plagiarism related areas of study. Eighty-eight out of the ninety students present agreed to participate in the survey. Of these, eighty-three were undergraduate students (fifty-two international and thirty-one local), and five were international postgraduate coursework students. They came from a diversity of discipline areas.

In light of current concern and controversy over plagiarism and of the amount of institutional energy that has been put into warning students of the consequences of failing to acknowledge and reference sources, the difficulty in eliciting students' candid responses had to be factored into the research design. Informality and assured anonymity were considered the key to overcoming students' reticence.

Initially, the students were asked if they understood what is meant by the term 'plagiarism', and all affirmed that they did, commenting that the University's policy on plagiarism is included in Unit Outlines of all academic units being delivered. Each student was given a plain sheet of paper on which they were asked to write the main reason for student plagiarism. Two students chose to abstain, but the remaining eighty-eight responded, and, while some written responses commented on the motivation of other students, many made disclosures that clearly came from personal experience.

These eighty-eight comments were coded under seven headings as in Table 1.

Table 1

Difficulty with the topic18
Poor time management18
Ignorance/inadequate referencing skills15
Language deficit11
Fear of failure8

Focus groups

In twenty minute focus group discussions, students in three subsequent StudyPlus classes and in a Regional Centre weekend workshop were given a copy of Table 1 and asked to discuss the extent to which they thought it accurately represents student motivations to plagiarise. The groups recognised Table 1 as a comprehensive list of motivation, with several giving examples of category overlap where, for instance, language deficit or poor time management might compound difficulty with the topic. A further category was suggested: 'the challenge of beating the system'. This was a particularly revealing suggestion because, although challenging the system appears not to be a common motive, the assumption that there is a 'system' and that it is repressive, impenetrable, and intimidating does seem to underlie many comments in the survey. Whenever students are penalised for plagiarising out of ignorance, misunderstanding, or misapplication of the conventions for acknowledging sources, for them this assumption appears to be confirmed. It is further reinforced by inconsistencies between different lecturers' own understanding of the term and their interpretation of University policies (Dawson, 2001A) - what may be permissible practice in one class may be penalised in another.

Interpreting the data

The data were interpreted not only from the perspective of identifying why students plagiarise but also from the perspective of identifying factors within learning contexts (Biggs, 1999) that might contribute towards the motivation to plagiarise. With this perspective in mind, this paper discusses the factors in the following order:

Cheating (3)

Given the blanket exposure of students to the University's policy on plagiarism, it was surprising that only three mentions were made of 'cheating' or 'stealing'. This suggests that while students understand that plagiarism is unacceptable, and that cases of detected plagiarism will attract penalties, only a minority think of it in terms of personal morality (Newstead et al, 1996). The indication here is that the majority of students differentiate between cheating, which they perceive in terms of a premeditated attempt to deceive, and plagiarism, which they perceive more as a failure to follow required institutional procedures. The focus group discussions revealed that some students rationalise plagiarism in utilitarian terms of fairness and that if an assignment is seen to be unreasonably difficult or insufficiently explained by the lecturer, then students are justified in doing 'whatever it takes' to get through.

Fear of failure (8)

This category refers typically to the behaviour of extrinsically motivated learners (Entwhistle, 1998) within a learning context that they experience as psychologically threatening (APA, 1997). Anxiety and lack of self confidence inhibit these students' deep engagement with learning; they often report feeling overwhelmed by particular assignment tasks that are actually within their intellectual capacity (Dawson, 2001B). These students may use some level of plagiarism as a strategy for meeting assignment requirements without exposing their lack of deep understanding of a topic. As one survey respondent wrote,
They are desperate to pass and are unable to come up with their own ideas.
A common factor in students' fear of failure is the fear of falling short of parental expectations. In the focus group discussions, a Malaysian second year Information Systems student explained his own predicament:
I cannot fail a unit because my father cannot send my younger brother to be educated until I graduate. If I stay close to what the textbook says I think I will not be much wrong.
The focus of such students is on their goal of a particular grade to pass a subject or meet quota requirements. From an educational perspective, the fact that they are not sufficiently engaged to interrogate and cognitively reprocess what they read should perhaps be of more concern than their inept textual appropriation. Drilling them in correct referencing techniques does not address the primary source of their difficulty; it does not help them to develop as intrinsically motivated 'deep' learners (Deci et al, 1991).

Difficulty with the topic (18)

The eighteen responses categorised under the heading of 'difficulty with the topic' referred to a range of factors. Students' lack of confidence in their own understanding of the topic and of what they are reading was referred to most frequently in such comments as:
Students plagiarise because they don't have self confidence,

When uncertain, use the expert words.

These comments reveal students' aversion to risk; they fear that using their own words may expose their inadequate understanding of the texts. Like the students in category two, these students tend to approach assignments with the narrowly pragmatic objective of gaining a pass mark, rather than the more authentic educational objective of testing their own understanding and learning from constructive critical feedback.

Other comments suggest that many students struggle to grasp concepts in their reading, and this difficulty is compounded by their lack of cognitive sophistication to re-articulate them in an academically appropriate way. The following two comments are representative:

Unable to explain a topic's content, so they copy it word for word,

Students sometimes have the wrong understanding but the textbook is always correct.

There was also a disturbing prevalence of comments that suggest many students feel they are out of their intellectual depth, and no amount of personal effort will change the situation:
Questions/problems given in the assignment are beyond student's ability,

Another reason is the lecturer/tutor that gave them a lot of pressure to be able to write above their standards/ability.

Since expectation of success is a crucial component of motivation leading to actual success (Feather, 1982; Biggs & Moore, 1993), these students are at a serious disadvantage. In the focus group discussions, a number of students shared with the group their own experiences of panic when faced with assignment briefs they did not understand and could not easily relate to what they had learned in lectures, tutorials, and set readings. The mature age students in the regional focus group, in particular, expressed the difficulty they sometimes experienced in 'getting a handle on what is expected in assignments'. In teasing out this problem further, the group agreed that more guidance through modelling and clear, directive feedback from lecturers would enable them to focus on key concepts in the topic. From their discussion, it was clear that markers' comments on assignments tended to focus on the more easily identified superficial errors rather than on substantive issues. This applied to referencing, too; marks were being deducted for misplaced brackets and italics in bibliographies, but dilemmas about when, how, and how much to quote, paraphrase, or appropriate were not adequately addressed.

Ignorance/inadequate referencing skills (15)

Coming through the comments in this category was the strong impression that although students are very aware of plagiarism and its penalties, they 'don't know', 'don't understand', 'lack knowledge', and 'are not sure of' 'correct' referencing practice and conventions. The most disturbing aspect of the responses was the implication that students see using and acknowledging the words and ideas of others in narrowly mechanistic terms. In the follow up discussions, there seemed little recognition that when students read, think about, reprocess, and use the words and ideas of others in their discipline, they are actually entering into the discourse and becoming part of the disciplinary community. Nor was there any appreciation of the dynamic through which students incorporate new ideas into their understanding and interpret further ideas in terms of this new understanding. In fact, there was obvious confusion over the relationship between originality and scholarship, and there was consensus affirmation from the regional group when a second year Nursing and Midwifery student observed:
It's really confusing. We're told we need to research and not rely on our own ideas and then we're told our essays have to be original and not rely just on what we've read.
At issue here is the process through which students develop their own scholarly authorial voice. It is a complex, organic, cumulative process that requires students to read widely within their disciplines and to have the opportunity to discuss with lecturers and peers the ways in which experienced writers evaluate, discriminate, select, compare, contrast, and integrate existing ideas into writing that offers a new or individually held perspective. In other words, genre modelling and genre analysis have much to offer (Swales, 1990); however, none of the students in the focus groups had been exposed to generic approaches.

Another aspect of the difficulty students experience in producing writing that is simultaneously well-informed and 'in their own words' is paraphrasing. This was highlighted in such survey responses as:

They do not understand how to rearrange the structure of the sentences correctly.

Sometimes authors put the ideas down really well and it is hard to think of a different way.

Focus group discussion confirmed the prevalence of the misconception among students (especially among students whose first language is other than English) that paraphrasing is essentially a process of omitting and changing words in the text, rather than the intellectual assimilation, reprocessing, and rearticulation of source material (Ventola, 1996).

Language deficit(11)

It was anticipated that language deficit as a motivation to plagiarise would be largely restricted to students whose first language is other than English and who might not 'understand the real meaning of the sentence'; however, it became clear that first language English users also experience difficulties both in reading and in writing scholarly texts.

In the focus groups a number of first language English users disclosed that they had most difficulty reading 'boring' and 'abstract' texts, which suggests that interest in and engagement with the text is a significant determinant of effective critical reading and, in turn, scholarly textual appropriation. The survey respondents recognised difficulties for both first and second language users in expressing or re-articulating ideas and concepts in a cognitively as well as linguistically sophisticated way. Typical comments were:

Lack academic vocabulary,

Agree with what the author says but due to lack of English unable to put in your own words,

When they try to put it in their own words they lose the meaning.

It was also noted that students whose first language is other than English require more time to reprocess source material into their 'own words' because they need to consult dictionaries and English grammar books. As one respondent wrote,
English not a first language, much quicker to copy than to work out how to write something.
In the focus groups, a number of students suggested that the trend towards shorter semesters was exacerbating this problem of time pressure:
It's really hard for international students to digest everything covered in such a short period and then have to write it up in a language that isn't their first language. There isn't enough time.

Poor time management (18)

Survey responses in this category related either to students' behaviour or to the pressures of heavy workloads and short time frames. Typical responses were:
Doing assignments on the eve of the due date, not enough time to layout your own thoughts,

Heavy work loads,

Just not enough time to do the assignment at a high level.

In the focus groups, most international students accepted a 'blame the student' perspective (Biggs, 1999), while local students were more likely to be critical of lecturers and the curriculum. Both groups, however, felt that under pressure it was 'Ok to cut and paste as long as you give reference details'. A part time first year Education student's comment summed up what many students had stated more obliquely:
When it comes to assignments all my time is taken up with understanding the concepts and terms and getting them right, so I don't have enough time for proper paraphrasing and things like that. We're given a sheet with referencing requirements, but some things I don't understand and lecturers don't have time to explain.

Laziness (15)

This category has been given the heading of 'laziness', because the words 'lazy' and 'easy' appeared repeatedly in survey responses:
They're just being lazy in thinking,

Because it is easy, simple, no need to think.

In many comments, however, it was clear that respondents perceived 'laziness' in terms less of personal indolence than of taking shortcuts. Typical comments were:
The main reason I think students plagiarise is laziness ... they want information quickly so they find something and copy it,

May be shortcut to finishing the study,

It is a quick and easy way to produce assignments.

A number of students in the focus groups was suggested that although students may be aware of what is required in citing, acknowledging and referencing, many find the process tedious and 'annoying', perceiving it as ancillary rather than integral to academic writing. The analogy was offered that
If you can catch the bus to go from A to B, why walk?


This analysis of the survey and focus group responses suggests that for the majority of students, motivation to plagiarise is a case not of 'kidnapping' the words and ideas of others but, rather, of desperately trying to survive within a learning context characterised by heavy workloads and short timeframes. Plagiarism is above all symptomatic of lack of engagement with learning. This lack of engagement inhibits students from developing linguistic and cognitive sophistication within their disciplinary generic discourse, from finding their own scholarly 'voice', and from taking their place within the academic community. What is needed to address the issue is not better detection and punishment but teaching that stimulates engagement.


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Ventola, E. (1996). Packing and unpacking of information in academic texts. In E. Ventola & A. Mauranen (Eds), Academic writing: Intercultural and Textual Issues. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Author: Dr Jeanne Dawson
Student Learning Support Unit
Learning Support Network
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box 1987 Perth WA 6845

Please cite as: Dawson, J. (2004). Plagiarism: What's really going on? In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/dawson.html

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