What's Behind Student Plagiarism?


Plagiarism is generally discussed in the context of students’ ethical behavior and respect for their teachers, fellow students, and the academy. Often discussions turn to remembrances of faculty’s youth at college and actions we dared not do. Recently, however, teachers and scholars have viewed plagiarism as resulting from a more complex interaction of changes to a specific socio-historical context, students’ understanding and use of sources, the younger generation’s sense of self, and technology and scholarly communication.

In January 2011, I led a discussion about student behavior and perceptions with several professors from several different departments, from science to fine arts and humanities. Professors in the group made the oft-heard comment, “Everyone cuts and pastes from post to post on the Internet now. They think it’s okay.” According to Mallon (2001), commercial consequences for the writer and a requirement for innovation and originality must exist for the concept of plagiarism to develop as misconduct. In the academy, this is clearly the case, though few students, especially undergraduates, recognize these obligations.

Susan Blum (2010) states that students see borrowing from others as a creative reuse of others’ work. In ordinary life, when students quote movies and songs to each other, they assume that the listener knows where the quote originates. If the listener requires a citation, it only demonstrates that he is outside the group. Since being part of the group is essential to young adults, asking for a citation is social ruin.

Plagiarism may also be an issue of poor writing and little contextual knowledge. Researchers studying students’ use of sources find that students tend to read and cite at the sentence level, rather than attempting to understand the entire source to support their argument. In attempting to paraphrase sentences, students were unable to divorce themselves from the original source text. (Howard, Serviss, & Rodrigue, 2010).

The Citation Project, a national, multi-institution research project devoted to responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism, found in a recent workshop that students appeared to choose one paper that was easy to read, from a popular magazine or website, to use as the basis for their paper. They then found several peer-reviewed articles which they used to pepper their papers with statistics. Rather than the essence of the study, students chose the one statistic that they understood or would support their own point.

Faculty members compare students to students across years. Why do they feel that students today plagiarize more than earlier students? In the discussion with faculty, the conversation centered around the tendency for writers on the Internet to borrow from each other (without attribution), one professor said, “And then when you see your own work! It’s like a stab to the heart.”

The pain that the faculty member felt when she read her words on another person’s blog, according to Blum (2009), reflects her core of an authentic self: an authentic self that she represents on the page by her own words. The current generation of students gathers words from others to represent themselves. Blum states that they are more concerned with a performance self, a self that reverberates with the group they wish to engage at any particular moment. Their selves are more fluid and flexible; their words more ephemeral, even if located on a page (2009).

Is this difference in generations just a difference in developmental stage? Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson suggests that adolescents’ major task is to try on different selves in an effort to find their authentic self. Arnett (2006) believes that currently, identity work occurs during emerging adulthood, the time when students are in college and graduate school. Thus, they have not yet developed an authentic self.
Whatever it is, plagiarism in the academy is different than quoting music lyrics on Facebook. Understanding why students plagiarize can help us help students to understand the difference between life on social media sites and life in the university.


Arnett, J. J. (2006). Emerging adulthood: Understanding the new way of coming of age. In J. J. Arnett & J. L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century (pp. 3-19). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Blum, S . D. (2009). My word! Plagiarism and college culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Howard, R. M., Servicss, and Rodrigue, T. K. (2010). Writing from sources, writing from sentences. Writing & Pedagogy (2)2, pp. 177-192. doi: 10.1558/wap.v2i2.177.

Mallon, T. (2001). Stolen words: The classic book on plagiarism. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Editor's Note: Watch for ideas on how to manage plagiarism in the February issue of Synergia

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