Is It Ignorance or a Lack of Ethics?

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Over the past several days, I have had a number of lengthy conversations with both students and alumni. Our students are entering the final two weeks of the semester and they shared their anxiety about the number of papers they have to complete before the end of the semester. While much has changed in both the curriculum and the way we teach, end of semester research papers have been with us forever.

In separate conversations with our alumni, the topic seemed to focus on concerns about the lack of ethics in society. An alumnus shared how the recent graduates who enter the business world have grown up in a world of corporate scandals and individual greed. An alumna bemoaned the continued evidence of the lack of ethics in politics and government.

What do these two threads of conversation have to do with each other? The answer can be found in a recent study published regarding plagiarism in high schools and colleges. A company called iParadigms reviewed 33.5 million papers (9 million from high school students and 24 million from college students) during a one year period (June, 2010 through June, 2011). iParadigms is a web based provider of solutions for plagiarism most known for a program called TurnItIn, used by many colleges and universities to check the work of students for plagiarism.

The study provided data on the originality of these papers. They found 128 million "content matches," which indicate that the paper might contain some degree of plagiarized material. An interesting finding is that while Wikipedia was the most used site, encyclopedia sites as a general category were not the leading source of plagiarized material, in fact, they were among the least used (see below) The leading sources were "social and content sharing" sites. Also note that this study only includes online sources that are readily available to students of all ages.

A description of the sources from the results are as follows:

Web Sites (by Category) High School Students College Students

Social & Content-Sharing 31.1% 26.1%

Homework & Academic 22.3% 22.0%

Cheat Sites & Paper Mills 14.1% 19.6%

News & Portals 12.3% 16.6%

Encyclopedia 11.2% 12.4%

Other 9.0% 3.2%

The Top Ten Most Popular Sites

High School Students College Students

1) Wikipedia (7.99%) Wikipedia (10.74%)

2) Yahoo Answers (7.55%) Yahoo Answers (3.90%)

3) Answers.com (3.37%) Slideshare (3.87%)

4) eNotes (2.90%) Answers.com (3.57%)

5) Slideshare (2.38%) Oppapers.com (3.11%)

6) Scribd (2.38%) Coursehero (3.01%)

7) Oppapers.com (1.93%) Scribd (2.95%)

8) Amazon (1.85%) Justanswer.com (1.60%)

9) Essaymania (1.83%) eNotes (1.58%)

10) 123helpme.com (1.71%) Amazon (1.21%)

Examples of Specific Sites

Social & Content Sharing — Information and material is primarily user-generated and includes Facebook, MySpace, Scribd, SlideShare, Yahoo Answers and Answers.com.

Homework & Academic — Contain educational content and includes nih.gov, medlibrary.org, coursehero.com and bookrags.com.

Cheat Sites & Paper Mills — Contain papers to share or buy and includes oppapers.com and studentoffortune.com.

News & Portals — Contain traditional publisher models and includes The New York Times and Huffington Post.

Encyclopedias — Includes Wikipedia, Brittanica.com and Encyclopedia.com.

Other — Sites that do not fit into any of the other categories like Amazon.com.

So the questions are ... do students cheat by plagiarizing ... evidence of an increasing lack of ethics? Or ... do they plagiarize because they are ignorant of the proper ways to conduct research and cite sources? I will share the conclusions of this study and my own opinions next week.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Thursday, 17 April 2014