How serious is essay plagiarism?

Dec 30, 2017 by

In an age of online referencing and essay mills, it’s easier than ever for students to plagiarise (wittingly or not). How big is the problem – and can it be prevented?

Jessica Johnson* was on the way to a funeral when she received an email from her university saying she’d committed a very serious offence: she’d plagiarised an essay.

“I was completely shocked because I hadn’t realised I’d done it,” she says. She thought students who plagiarised bought essays from dodgy websites, or stole work from their friends – things she’d never do. Instead, the then 18-year-old first year, studying international development, says she’d taken sloppy notes and failed to reference properly. She’d been given a brief online tutorial about plagiarism by the university and hadn’t fully realised what it was, or how easy it is to do by accident.

The following months were a “living hell”, Johnson says. After a series of hearings, where the seriousness of cheating was drilled into her, she was given the most lenient punishment the university could offer, which was to re-write the essay. Her university experience has since been “dominated by anxiety” about unwittingly doing it again, she says.

Reports suggest plagiarism is rife in universities. The internet has provided a “wealth of information that can be plagiarised”, says Wendy Sutherland-Smith, an expert in plagiarism from Deakin University. As a result, a Times investigation two years ago found almost 50,000 students were caught cheating in the previous three years, amounting to a so-called “plagiarism epidemic”. The government and universities are meanwhile desperately trying to crack down on essay-mill websites, which write essays for paying students.

But what can go unacknowledged is that a lot of students who plagiarise claim to do so “accidentally”, like Johnson did. Shame or embarrassment around being called out for cheating can be upsetting, if you had good intentions. “There is definitely a stigma around it,” says Johnson. “When I told people, their reaction made it feel worse, even though it was a genuine mistake.”

Source: How serious is essay plagiarism? | Education | The Guardian

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