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Modern Plagiarism: Cheating or Just Misunderstanding?

August 3, 2010 | NeW Staff

Before the Internet age travelers had no choice but to use foldable maps for directions, businesses were forced to keep records by hand, and it was required that students frequent the library for information.

These days are long gone.

Maps are accessible in seconds on smart phones, businesses can maintain records with the click of a button, and college students download work created specifically for assignments delegated to them by professors. The information age ushered in an era of easy, instant, and infinite possibilities to students navigating their way through college. Concurrently, the information age also ushered in an era of plagiarism. According to the New York Times, today’s plagiarism differs significantly from past plagiarism… because today’s students don’t even know they’re doing it.

The lines between plagiarism and proper citation are easier to blur then they used to be. Rather then being forced to type out passages from books or paper reports, students can merely access Wikipedia, news articles, or blogs relevant to assignments. Quickly copying and pasting information into word documents, the origin of material is quickly forgotten. Students brush off such acts, and may cite information as “common knowledge.” This is especially true when it comes to work that lists no author, or to work created by many individuals like Wikipedia.

According to Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and business professor at Rutgers University,

“about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.”


While plagiarizing is a serious offense, the lack of knowledge of such an act is even more disturbing. How might an individual or institution prevent students from cheating if s/he believes no wrongdoing has occurred? After all, our generation (generation Y) is one of music and movie downloading, blogging, emailing, facebooking and accessing information that is for the most part all free. Using someone else’s words to supplement a homework assignment appears to be no different.

It is clear through recent studies universities may have a burgeoning issue to face. How may students learn the distinction between acceptable citation and plagiarism? It seems that professors may have another topic to discuss with students on the first day of class (well – at least a more detailed discussion). As circumstances and technology continue to evolve, so will incoming freshman’s perceptions of morality. It is important to remember that it is impossible for anyone to solve a problem if it is not yet recognized as a problem. Recognition must be the first step in curtailing this epidemic.

A product of constantly evolving technology, ethics and norms must constantly be revisited. What was once clear from listening to years of elementary, middle, and high school lectures on the consequences of “copying from your neighbors work,” no longer rings true in an age that consists of cell phones, computers, and ipads.
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