Plagiarism is the "act of taking (ideas, writings, etc.) from (another) and passing them off as one's own" (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language). In a setting where there already exists an author with an original piece of work created specifically for a purpose and audience (i.e. context) and a person who used all or part of that piece of work in another context and consequently mislead (directly, indirectly, by inference or omission) readers that he/she is the original author of that work, plagiarism is deemed to have occurred.
Although one would think that students plagiarise because they want to improve their grades, there have been accounts of plagiarism even for non-graded assignments. This suggests a habitual behaviour and/or more worryingly, academic dishonesty among students. To make matters worse, cyber-plagiarism has been rampant with the proliferation of Internet resources (University of Alberta, 2005).
Common forms of plagiarism
The following is a list of some common forms of plagiarism:
- Students usually claim that the similarity in their work is a natural consequence of their discussion with their peers. This is the most prevalent form of plagiarism. Stealing the work of others refers to the sneaky act of taking another's work without the latter's knowledge or agreement. This could happen with printouts or scripts left unattended at the printer or in the letter tray outside the teacher's office.
- Blatant copying refers to the deliberate act where the author permits his/her work to be shared with others. Non-acknowledgement of open resources would include the lifting of material from the Web without proper citation.
- Hiring someone else to do the work.
To better understand students' attitudes and awareness towards plagiarism, we surveyed 319 students from CS1101 "Programming Methodology" in October 2004. Our main goal is to evaluate whether students understand what is considered plagiarism and what their general experience and attitude towards plagiarism are.
In the three-part survey, students are presented with a number of scenarios and questions (Dennis, 2004; Swales & Freak, 2004). The first part seeks to find out students' understanding of plagiarism in the context of a programming assignment (a common form of assessment in computing and engineering disciplines) and the second part is set in the context of a written assignment. Finally, students are asked if they have ever plagiarise intentionally or unintentionally before. These questions seek to understand the reasons why students commit plagiarism and whether it is perceived to be a widespread phenomenon.
Results and observations (students' understanding of plagiarism in a programming and written assignment)
The first two parts of the survey list some possible scenarios of plagiarism in both a programming and written assignment and students are to indicate 'yes', 'no' or leave the answer blank. The results show that students are not aware of the exact definition of plagiarism. For example, when students are presented with the following scenario in a programming assignment: "Two students discuss the assignment, and submit the same program", only 53.9% of students think it is a case of plagiarism while 44.2% do not. In another scenario: "A student copies several methods from another student but notes in his program that he has done so", only 53% of students could identify it correctly as "not" plagiarism while 44.8% of students think it is. Out of the 12 scenarios, students are only able to correctly identify 7.77 scenarios on average.
In addition, the survey has not found any concrete relationship between awareness of what counts as plagiarism and the act itself. We do not find any correlations between the number of times a student correctly identify a scenario and whether he/she intentionally commits plagiarism or not. In fact, the results show that students who do not plagiarise identify 7.1 out of the 12 scenarios correctly, while those who intentionally plagiarise correctly identify 7.8.
In the third part of the survey, we ask students if they have ever plagiarise intentionally or unintentionally before. Students who have committed plagiarism previously are given eight possible reasons to choose from. We also ask students to give an estimate number of their peers (same faculty, same year of study) who have committed plagiarism. The results are given below in Figure 1, where the x-axis represents the various reasons (i.e. 'I ran out of time', 'I did it before and got away with it', 'I find it difficult to express my ideas in English', 'The assignment is too difficult', 'I am lazy', 'I am under pressure to get high marks', 'I just need to pass the module. I don't care about the course material' and 'I don't think the teaching staff care if I plagiarise or not') why students commit plagiarism.
Figure 1. Reasons students committed plagiarism.
In the same section of the survey, we also found that students who think plagiarism is widespread are more likely to plagiarise. When we ask students to estimate the percentage of their peers who plagiarise, we find that those who have previously plagiarised intentionally or unintentionally before, gave a higher estimation of 34.14% and 33.78% respectively. Students who have never committed plagiarism before gave an average estimation of 15.73%. This phenomenon could arise from the common student mentality: "If my classmate is doing it, so will I."
Through the survey, we also try to map out the profiles of students who plagiarise. There is an interesting correlation between students' awareness of plagiarism and the country they have been studying in for the past five years. The results are given in the table below. We only show the results for three countries-Singapore, China and Vietnam-as there are too few students from other countries to provide any statistically meaningful results.
Table 1. Correlation between student's awareness of plagiarism and the country he/she has been studying in for the past five years.
As observed from Table 1, students who have studied in Singapore for more than five years have a much lower awareness of plagiarism.
We look at the number of students who admitted to intentional plagiarism and unintentional plagiarism, and analyse them by country. From Table 2, we can see that out of the 41 students who admitted to committing plagiarism intentionally, 36 of them have been studying in Singapore for more than five years. One explanation could be that many foreign students are scholars who do well academically. Given that difficulty in completing assignments is one of the reasons for plagiarism, it is not surprising that the better students plagiarise less.
Table 2. Countries in which students studied for the last five years and the incidence of plagiarism.
While the survey results might not be representative, they do help us to get a glimpse of students' attitude and awareness towards plagiarism, and to formulate measures to address issues related to plagiarism. Continual efforts to educate our students about the ills and consequences of plagiarism are desirable. We hope that through these efforts, we could help students uphold academic honesty.
Dennis, L. (2004). 'Student Attitudes to Plagiarism and Collusion within Computer Science', Fourth Learning & Teaching Conference. University of Nottingham.
Swales, J.M. & Freak, C.A. (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students, Second Edition: Essential Tasks and Skills (Michigan Series in English for Academic and Professional Purposes). University of Michigan Press.
University of Alberta (2005). Guide to Cyber-Plagiarism, University of Alberta. Last assessed: September 29, 2005.