WHAT EXACTLY CONSTITUTES PLAGIARISM

WHAT EXACTLY CONSTITUTES PLAGIARISM

Read this article concerning assignment

 

Student Perceptions of Anti Plagiarism Programs

Eloy L. Nuñez, PhD

Abstract

This article examines student perceptions of the institutional use of anti plagiarism software by

universities.  A thematic analysis of 27 student essays is conducted in an effort to gain insight into

student perceptions of the Turnitin.com approach to prevent plagiarism.  The article concludes that the

respondents accept the use of such software as a necessary aspect of scholastic research, but they also

point out some misgivings about the process.

Introduction

While preparing for this article, I dutifully conducted an initial search on ProQuest and

highlighted the articles that I thought would pertain to my topic.  I briefly reviewed the abstracts and I

kept the ones that I thought provided relevant information and discarded those that did not.  I then read

each of them in detail and highlighted certain areas of the text that I thought provided useful

information.  I then copied and pasted several passages onto a separate Word document so that I could

refer to them later if I thought I would need to.

What I just described is probably repeated thousands of times a day by students conducting

secondary research for courses in both traditional and online scholastic institutions.  Obviously, I do not

consider myself a plagiarist and the approach that I just described is a perfectly legitimate method for

organizing notes on a literature review for a research project.  As I did this, I could not help but think

how easy it is for students to take these same copy-and-pasted passages and use them as part of their

research papers.  The temptation to cross the line into plagiarism has to be great… especially for those

who are not very good writers, or those who have good writing skills but are up against a hard deadline.

In my years as an instructor, both online and in the traditional classroom setting, I have run into

many cases of student plagiarism.  I have noted a variety of possible reasons for students copying other

peoples’ works and claiming them as their own.  The reasons range from benign ignorance to purposeful

and egregious appropriations plagiarism wherein the offender knowingly and habitually takes someone

else’s work and claims it as their own (Lewis, 2008).

What exactly constitutes plagiarism?  Saint Leo University defines academic dishonesty as

“representing another’s work as one’s own, active complicity in such falsification, or violating test

conditions.  Plagiarism is stealing and passing off the ideas and words of another as one’s own or using

the work of another without crediting the source” (SLU, 2010).

Computer Based Technologies as Enablers and Countermeasures of Plagiarism

Plagiarism has long been a major concern for scholastic institutions.  With the proliferation of

online courses and instantaneous access to publications, the opportunity and temptation to plagiarize

other peoples’ works has greatly increased.  But it is not just the easy access to information provided by

modern day online search engines that contributes to plagiarism.  I have to believe that the number one

technical enabler of plagiarism is the copy-and-paste feature that I had mentioned in the introduction of

this article.  As one of my students noted in his essay, “In a world of cutting and pasting paragraphs and

sentences, it seems that it would be quite easy to plagiarize reports, websites and books.”

I cannot say for sure, but I suspect there are several reasons that plagiarism occurs.  Lewis

(2008) identifies three primary antecedents of plagiarism: rationalizing dishonesty, problematic

techniques, and definitional ambiguity.  It has been my experience that most of the cases that I have

observed can be attributed to problematic techniques and definitional ambiguity.  In these cases,

students failed to properly quote or cite a source.  This is usually attributed to sloppiness or laziness, but

there was no obvious intent to plagiarize.

However, every once in a while there comes a case of obvious intentional plagiarism where the

student takes steps to conceal their deeds.  One common technique used by students is to copy large

segments of text and then change a few words here and there to make it look like they were

paraphrasing the cited source.  And yes, even the citations can be plagiarized, and often are.  I like to

point out to students and new professors that just because a source is properly cited does not absolve

the student from plagiarism.   Some students think that the mere act of placing an author’s name and

date in parentheses after a plagiarized passage, absolves them of guilt.  It does not.

Anti Plagiarism Software Programs

Just like the Internet provides a fertile ground for plagiarists, it also provides the tools for

instructors to cross-check the students’ work to ensure that it is not plagiarized.  I am familiar with two

anti-plagiarism software programs.  Saint Leo University uses Turnitin.com and requires students to

submit all major assignments via its web site prior to grading.  Other universities that I am familiar with

use a similar program called SafeAssign.  Both rely on expansive data bases and lightning quick word

matching logarithms.  Interestingly, on several occasions I have submitted the same document to both

programs and have obtained different results.

Another notable difference between Saint Leo University policy and the other university is that

Saint Leo relies on the findings of a Graduate Academic Standards Committee to determine whether a

student is guilty of plagiarism.  In the other university, the individual professor makes the final

determination.  There are advantages to both systems, but I prefer the Saint Leo policy for several

reasons.  While I am not shy about sanctioning students (I have done it over 45 times for the other

university), I like the fact that a committee makes the final determination, because that way, there is

greater uniformity in the level of administered discipline.  Also, the committee acts as a central

depository for all documented cases of plagiarism at the institution.  In the other system, a professor will

likely be unaware of a student’s previous plagiarism in another professor’s class.  In my opinion, the

Saint Leo policy is superior for those reasons.

Student Perceptions About the Turnitin Process

It is clear that Saint Leo University takes the issue of academic dishonesty very seriously.  I

would say more so than other institutions that I am familiar with.  In 2010, my boss Dr. Robert Diemer,

Professor & Director Graduate Criminal Justice at Saint Leo University directed me to incorporate a

student familiarization assignment for the plagiarism web site tool Turnitin.com as part of the redesign

of the CRJ-565 Leadership in Criminal Justice course.  The intent of this new assignment was to

familiarize new graduate students of the Turnitin process, and hopefully to serve as a deterrent for

future plagiarism.  The thinking was, if the students become familiar with the Turnitin process early on in

their studies, they will be less likely to submit a plagiarized assignment.

I took Dr. Diemer’s suggestion and came up with an a two-part assignment in which the students

are directed to explore several online search engines and find articles related to ethics.  The students are

instructed to copy and paste portions of the articles onto a template that is provided to them.  They are

then instructed to submit the purposefully plagiarized assignment onto the Turnitin.com web site.  To

make certain that the students understand that copying and pasting text from other sources is not

acceptable, the instructions for the assignment state the following proviso:

“This is the only time in your scholastic careers that you will be allowed to copy and paste

someone else’s work for an assignment.  We are doing this so that you can become familiar with the anti

plagiarism service provided by Turnitin.com.”

In the second part of the assignment, the students are instructed to write a brief essay on the

entire process.  They are asked to respond to the following questions:

 Discuss and briefly analyze the Turnitin process.

 Did the Turnitin software find all the copied and pasted text?

 What, if any are its limitations, and what are some of the potential pitfalls

associated with its use.

The assignment is given in Module 3 of the course to correspond with the Ethics block.  There is

no grade issued, but the successful completion of the assignment is a requirement for passing the

course.

Methods

Since its inception, the Mandatory Turnitin assignment has been completed by 118 students as a

requirement of the CRJ-565 course.  For this article, I conducted a thematic analysis of student

responses for only the classes in the Spring 2 (2011) term.  A total of 27 student papers from three

different sections were reviewed.  This is strictly a convenience sample and should not be construed as

scholastically viable study.  Nevertheless, I found it to be a fairly revealing view of student perceptions

about the Turnitin process and plagiarism in general.

Results

Of the 27 student essays reviewed, not one had a negative comment about the use of Turnitin.

Asked to comment on Saint Leo University’s practice of mandating submissions of assignment via the

Turnitin web site, students were either supportive, or at a minimum, grudgingly accepting of the

process.  I will share some of the comments that I observed.

One student stated, “Turnitin.com helps provide academia with the ability to police students as

they turn in assignments based upon research conducted on the internet.”  Another acknowledges the

necessity of the web site, “Turnitin.com is a necessary website to assist instructors with plagiarism.”

Other comments were, “I do understand academic honesty and Turnitin is vital to discouraging

plagiarism” and “If I were a teacher, I would use Turnitin.”

Other positive comments about the use of Turnitin are noted below:

“The process is fairly easy and self explanatory. I think it is a great tool for students.”

“The Turnitin process is simply amazing. I had not realized its ability or imagined that so many

universities utilize it. I think this exercise should be conducted for all Saint Leo Students before they

utilize it for the first time.”

“If I were a teacher, I would use Turnitin.  If nothing else, it should discourage students from

cheating.  Although it has flaws, it should point out the obvious.  In addition, I think it is great for

students.  I always feel better about a paper if I can check it with Turnitin or Writecheck before

submitting it to the instructor.”

The next two questions that the students were asked in the assignment have to do with the

accuracy and reliability of Turnitin mechanism for finding matching text.  Although the students mostly

reported similarity scores of 90% and above, a few of them noted that Turnitin did not match all the

copied and pasted text, and some found a possible glitch in the system.  One student noted the failure

of Turnitin to match text that was copied verbatim, “it only found 71% of the plagiarized text, when in

fact the whole document was plagiarized.”

One student noted the following, “After submitting my test paper, it returned with 63%

similarity index.  Interestingly, it found almost 100% of my first two submissions and none of my third.”

Two other students noted this apparent glitch in the Turnitin logarithms, “I did notice in this trial that

some of the text did not go red as it should for whatever reason, and that my overall paper got a 92

percent matching, which is still definitely a problem.  I did expect a 100 percent rating, but that did not

happen for some reason.”

The other student describes the same glitch, “It did highlight every word of my first two choices

but failed to recognize the majority of the final post.”  All three students reported lower similarity scores

on their second and third tries.  Submitting more than one attempt was not part of the assignment, yet

some students did it anyway, either on purpose or by accident.  It seems that in doing so, they may have

discovered a possible flaw with the system.

The next question had to do with the potential pitfalls of the Turnitin mechanism.  Predictably,

several students were concerned over the reporting of “false positives” where Turnitin would show a

match of text where there was no intention of copying.  Most of the concerns were not about the

manner in which the software matches text, as much as how the professors interpret the findings.  One

student stated, “Turnitin generated matches in the reference sections of submitted papers.  This is a

downfall if the instructor does not review the portions of the paper identifying the matched results.”

Another student states his concern that properly referenced material may be held against him if

it is misinterpreted by the professor, “Turnitin might show it as a match, but I properly referenced the

match.”

Echoing the concern of many students that professors should not rely exclusively on the overall

similarity index score, one student puts it this way, “I could envision a situation where narrowly directed

questions could produce similar responses from students, so I think that instructors should be careful in

determining the appropriate use of the software, and carefully examine results to ensure there are no

false positives.”

Another student puts it this way, “In the end the instructor will know a person’s writing style

and key words used by the student over a period of time and could identify differences, where a

computer system wouldn’t.”  The consensus among the students seems to indicate that Turnitin is a

good tool, but that ultimately only the professor can determine whether matching text should be

considered to be plagiarism.  After all, there are several legitimate reasons that text would match word

for word.

The comments of one student seem to summarize the general consensus outlook on the

importance of the professor interpreting the Turnitin results correctly, “I certainly can respect the utility

of this anti-plagiarism tool, especially after reviewing the lecture that articulated the astronomical rate

of plagiarism offenses. That data is extremely compelling.  I do find it somewhat unsettling that higher

education has had to go to these measures which seem to be akin to a polygraph test.  Of course, like a

polygraph, the final determination rests with the reviewer.  I would assume that if a research paper is

found to contain an inordinate amount of previously submitted text that the reviewer would check to

insure that the material is properly cited.”

Finally, one student notes one obvious limitation of the use of Turnitin, “there is only so many

ways to say ‘the sky is blue’ without finding someone else saying it the same way.

Conclusion

Why is this important?  Why has Saint Leo University taken such a proactive approach on the

issue of academic dishonesty?  I think the answer to this lies in the findings of Mills in which she points

out the importance of establishing an institutional culture where “learning is valued, academic integrity

is explained and emphasized, and where faculty model academic and professional ethics” (p. iv , 2008).

I have been in the fortunate position where I can compare the cultures of two different

universities as they relate to academic honesty issues.  One of these universities talks a great deal about

plagiarism, but does very little to prevent it.  Conversely, Saint Leo University goes to great lengths to

prevent it.  It is no accident in my opinion, that plagiarism has become an epidemic in the one university,

as compared to the very small number of plagiarism cases at Saint Leo.  Just to give some perspective on

the matter, in over three years teaching at Saint Leo University, I have had only four cases of plagiarism.

By contrast, in relatively the same time period, I have had over 45 cases of plagiarism in the other

university.  For me, the contrast between the two university cultures is clear and the outcomes resulting

from their different policies are predictable.

That is why I think it is important to make the students aware of the plagiarism issue early on in

their scholastic careers.  The Mandatory Turnitin assignment conceived by Dr. Diemer is a perfect

example of a university taking proactive measures to instill a culture where academic dishonesty is not

tolerated.  The core values of Saint Leo University are clearly stated in the course syllabi that the

students receive at the onset of every class.  These core values are not just idle words.  It is evident that

at Saint Leo, an organizational culture has been established and nurtured that allows these core values

to be practiced on a day to day basis.

 

References

Lewis, N.. (2008). Plagiarism Antecedents and Situational Influences.  Journalism and Mass

Communication Quarterly, 85(2), 353-370. Retrieved April 23, 2011, from ABI/INFORM Global.

(Document ID: 1567127781).

Mills, C.. Graduate students’ perceptions of academic integrity policies, practices, observations,

engagement, and seriousness of behaviors. Ph.D. dissertation, Clemson University, United States

— South Carolina. Retrieved April 23, 2011, from Dissertations & Theses: A&I.(Publication No.

AAT 3355120).

Saint Leo University (2010).  Graduate Academic Catalog 2010 – 2011.  The Trustees

Instruction for Active Learning- In the Active Learning Discussion area, discuss your thoughts on the information that has been posted by your professor and discuss its relevance and implications to the field of Criminal Justice. Your remarks can be opinion, but it must be based on your experience, research, and/or prior learning. Use this exercise to converse with your fellow colleagues about issues that are important to the field of Criminal Justice. Of particular interest is a dialogue of opinions, thoughts, and comments. Be sure to discuss both sides of the issue as noted in the actual question posting

Answer with at least 200 words. (2 references)

This the initial post– The most common forms of academic dishonesty are cheating on tests and plagiarism. The ease of access that the Internet provides has also made it easier for students to plagiarize other peoples’ works. At the same time, online services such as Turnitin.com and SafeAssign have made it easier to catch students who plagiarize other peoples’ works.

Despite all the warnings and admonishments some students will inevitably try to get away with it. Regrettably, sometimes they do, but sooner or later they get caught. These students risk getting an F on the assignment that they plagiarized and an F for the entire course. They can also be expelled from the university.

For this discussion question, first read the section in the Syllabus regarding Academic Dishonesty. Then read the article titled, “Student Perceptions of Anti Plagiarism Programs” (Nuñez, 2011).

In your analysis, consider the pros and cons of the Saint Leo policy whereby students are required to submit their written assignments to the Turnitin.com web site. Consider that some other universities do not require students to submit their works to Turnitin or a comparable plagiarism check web site. These other universities leave it up to the student to check their own work on an optional basis. The course instructors are also given the latitude whether to check the work for plagiarism or not.

Now consider another Saint Leo University procedure as it pertains to plagiarism. Unlike some other universities, Saint Leo does not afford its instructors the discretion to make determinations and take disciplinary actions against students who have been caught plagiarizing. Instead, the Saint Leo procedure is to have the professors forward all the information regarding the plagiarism incident to the Graduate Academic Standards Committee, which in turn makes the final determination as to how the student will be disciplined. By contrast, some other universities allow the individual professor to make the determination as to whether there has been plagiarism and the professors are given the authority to deal with the matter in any way they deem appropriate.

Explain the advantages and disadvantages of these two very different policies. Which one do you think is better and why?

Respond(W)-  All 3 respond to with at least 100 words with Respond with substantive feedback to a minimum of three of your classmates’ posts. Briefly critique their analysis of the Saint Leo University Dishonesty Policy. Substantive feedback requires a well-reasoned critique of the student’s analysis and thought processes. State whether the student provided adequate support for any assertions that they may have made. If you disagree, you must provide facts or a well-reasoned argument to support your dissenting opinion

Respond Active Learning 1 (W)– Having just completed CRJ 565 with Professor Nunez last semester, I am very familiar with his test of the Turnitin tool and how he conducted his experiment. I began using this tool during my undergraduate degree with Saint Leo during my 2008-2009 academic experience and continued using it for every course with Saint Leo including the last two classes I’m taking this semester before preparing to graduate.

There is a misconception the use of this tool will find every instance of plagiarism and create a report identifying specific instances of questionable work. When I completed the Turnitin assignment in CRJ 565, the tool only found 40% of my 100% copied document to be “plagiarized”. So, 60% of the work submitted, was passed as my own work despite the fact not one bit of the assignment was my own.

The pro to using this tool is it is a deterrent to the student who may consider stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as their own. There is no way of knowing before submission how much the tool will identify as previously used work therefore; some students may not use the “cut & paste” method to complete the major parts of their written assignments.

The con appears obvious based on what I wrote in the second paragraph as it pertains to how much the tool didn’t find. For universities such as Saint Leo where they have a large on-line community, there is both a temptation to submit someone else’s work and the ability to pass the work off as your own. Using someone else’s work, especially in a setting such as the Criminal Justice programs, the act is analogous to stealing and not only a violation of Saint Leo’s Core Values but goes against what the Criminal Justice professional or student should stand for.

There are also problems with the “similarity” check found in Turnitin. The tool will identify basic phrases, book titles, popular names etc. and give a score indicating plagiarism when in fact the material is common text.

The use of tools such as Turnitin.com should be used by universities, instructors and students, especially in graduate work and post graduate work, as these higher levels of learning and academia demand submitted work to be that of the student. Saint Leo’s use of a board to investigate allegations of plagiarism is also a better policy than leaving it to one instructor. The use of a panel brings varying perspectives and interpretations of what is or is not plagiarized rather than just one person making all the determinations and disciplinary decisions. This is fairer to the students, especially in light of the short comings of Turnitin.com.

Respond Active Learning 1(B)-Whereas prior to the existence of the internet, detecting plagiarism was very difficult, now with the advent of technology such as Turnitin and SafeAssign, it is much easier. However, it is also easier to plagiarize. Whole companies exist online to do nothing but sell complete essays to college students. The sheer amount of information on websites, blogs, and Wikipedia makes it easy for students to copy and paste information into essays if they are so inclined. Students always seem to be one step ahead of faculty when it comes to creative ways to use technology to get around Academic Dishonesty issues. Sixteen years ago when I was an undergraduate student, the only way to cheat on an exam was to try and smuggle in a cheat sheet or look over at your neighbor’s paper. Now, with Iphones, students can discretely photograph their answers and send it to a friend in the class or who is taking the test at a later date. We did not have the ability to buy papers online. Today, technology has made it easier on both students and colleges and that is why we need policies regarding Academic Dishonesty.

 

The policy requiring students to use Turnitin to submit written assignments is a good one. Sometimes, the mere requirement of using a plagiarism detection site acts as a deterrent. Turnitin is a reputable site that certainly does a good job of coming up with matching phrases. However, Turnitin does not actually detect plagiarism. What it does is show matching words and phrases. It is up to the professor to determine if it is actually plagiarism. For example, if I were to cite an article from on online journal and properly reference it, Turnitin will show it as a match. The instructor must check it to see if the proper citation rules were followed. Still, this is a lot better than trying to pull the original source and check it that way as had to be done prior to web services like this one. Some colleges, including the one I work for, use SafeAssign and that is also a reputable program. There are some differences between the two and I do not know which one is better. I think it is more of a case of which one works best for which college.

I teach for a college that does not require instructors to check for plagiarism by school policy though some departments require it on their own. Mine, History, does not. It is up to the instructor as to whether or not we require online submission of assignments. My papers must be submitted through SafeAssign, though I carefully create assignments that are virtually impossible to plagiarism unless you use one that was submitted by a previous student and in that case, the program would detect it. The reason the school does not require it is because we have a lot of faculty who are computer illiterate and have been teaching for 20 plus years. They do not want to learn how to use Blackboard (our course platform) or SafeAssign. Given that they have a lot of influence in policy making matters, they have managed to successfully block any attempt to mandate this. I feel that the lack of a policy on this matter is out of touch with the times and should be changed, but I am in the minority.

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St. Leo’s policy of requiring an instructor to forward information to a committee to make a determination is a sound one. In face to face classes, professors get to know their students a little better than in online classes and thus might overlook it if they like a particular student or want to take a harsher stance if they catch the disruptive student in an act of plagiarism. Also, this does give continuity across the board so that the sanctions that are handed down are fair and consistent. One student will not be punished more harshly, in theory, than another student. This negates any allegations of favoritism, etc. When colleges allow the instructor to decide or make a recommendation, there is no standard disciplinary process. Some may allow the student to redo the assignment while others push for the student to be suspended from the school for academic dishonesty. This grants too much autonomy to the instructors and can create problems.

Since I teach for a college that is like a Wild West of plagiarism, I see St. Leo’s policy as the better of the two. My college says that if we detect plagiarism we can do the following: allow the student to redo the assignment or give them an F on the assignment. In the past we could send it to a committee and recommend the sanction, but committee members put the faculty on the defensive and treated us like we had done something wrong and were wasting their time. They would not, for example, suspend a student for even the most egregious violation because then they would lose that student’s tuition money. If a college does not have a standard program for dealing with this matter, it opens them up to all sorts of problems. In the end, it also cheapens the degrees they award because there is no way to know who wrote the papers or who took the online tests. It might very well have not been the student registered for the class. Standardization keeps potential problems at a minimum by removing the possibility of allegations of favoritism, providing a uniform and consistent discipline across all subjects, and allowing the faculty hand over the evidence and remove themselves from the equation. Without standardization, a student can purchase a paper off the internet and hand it in for two different classes. In one class, nothing may happen since the instructor doesn’t check for plagiarism. In the other class, they may get an F, they may be allowed to redo the assignment, or they may be suspended from the college. That is an unacceptable lack of uniform discipline. Colleges should all adopt a policy substantially similar to that of St. Leo University.

Respond Active Learning 1(N)-  In regards to plagiarism, I am amazed that students will risk everything that they have worked very hard for academically, for a couple of points. The saint Leo core values and massive amount of documents give students in depth information regarding plagiarism. Students at his level know that they must cite the work that they use that belongs to somebody else. This is college not elementary school. People in college are adults and they know what cheating is. Plagiarism is cheating, because you are giving the reader the impression that the work they are reading is authentically yours and that false perception is cheating.

I have seen other universities accept papers from students without verifying their work. This is a testament to why certain universities do not have a valid accreditation. I am familiar with Turnitin.com and I am pleased that turnitin.com is used to ensure the work of students is legit. The pros of turnitin.com are all students earn their grade rather than receiving credit for something that they did not do. I thought long and hard and I cannot find any cons with turnitin.com or the verification process of Saint Leo University. Students should not be allowed to check their own work. Instructors should check the work to ensure the work meets standards.

Instructors should have 50% of the decision to decide if a student should expelled from the school and also the punishment that should be handed down to the student. Due to the fact that Saint Leo University will allow the Graduate Academic Standards Committee to make a ruling on the student is definitely a pro. It is a pro because students cannot make a complaint and say the professor expelled me because he or she does not like me, due to a conversation we had. The Graduate Academic Standards Committee is a 3rd party that does not have a dog in the fight and can assure checks and balances. The con is I think instructors should have power in the outcome because the instructor may know certain circumstances that the student may be going through, especially if the student has been honest and got caught trying to be sneaky. It also depends if the student knows he or she is being considered plagiarizing something. Having professor decide on the fate is a better policy.

 

 

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