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Why Do Students Plagiarize

Many students plagiarize the work of others out of ignorance of the process of appropriate citation and attribution.  This is totally unintentional with no attempt at cheating or deception. Unintentional plagiarism is usually characterized by a student’s attempt to communicate in their paper an idea or concept of a noted researcher but they fail to properly cite the source. 

Why do students plagiarize?

Many students plagiarize the work of others out of ignorance of the process of appropriate citation and attribution.  This is totally unintentional with no attempt at cheating or deception. Unintentional plagiarism is usually characterized by a student’s attempt to communicate in their paper an idea or concept of a noted researcher but they fail to properly cite the source.  This is often due to carelessness in the student’s information gathering process. They forget to write down the source, forget the quotation marks, or paraphrase the work. They assume (wrongly) that this is “what you do when you write a paper.” 

Paraphrasing is a slippery slope that often leads many a student down the road to plagiarism.  Many students change a word here or there, consulting their thesaurus for interesting vocabulary to make the sentence their own. This is still considered “lifting”.  Paraphrasing as stated by Beverly Lyon Clark in “Plagiarism and Documentation: A Self-Instructional Lesson,” is “…more than just changing a word here and there – most of the words and also the sentence structure need to be your own” (Clark 293). A good general practice is to recognize that if one writes three words in a row from a source it must be quoted and cited. Many students feel that the use of quotation marks is indicative of academic attribution. They fail to understand that quoted material cannot replace original academic context for their work. Quotes should serve to support or illustrate the student’s point and not make the point for the reader.

Many students today have very poor research skills due to the ease with which the internet has replaced the university library. Most have no clue that online journal databases exist, some incorrectly think that Wikipedia is a reputable resource, and others have no frame of reference for what constitutes primary or secondary research.  Guidance should be given to teach students how to critically evaluate all sources for their usefulness in an academic setting.  Students who are confused about the differences between plagiarism and paraphrasing also cannot distinguish exposition from an argument or analysis from a discussion.  Instructional guidance and feedback should provide more comprehensive address of the actual writing process as it pertains to the content of the assignment.

Another source of consternation is the internet itself. Touted as the information highway cruising through the public domain, this ubiquitous resource is the bane of educators everywhere.  How does a student determine what is public domain, what is copyrighted, and what is common knowledge? Web addresses are like a moving target. Urls change, style guides are inconsistent in citation documentation, and the web is advertised as “the public domain.”  Very clear guidance must be given to students to provide them with resources and examples of what is appropriate and fair use of information found on the “net”.

With patience, exhaustive feedback and facilitative support, students can be taught how to avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism. Attribution skills are not easy to learn and require customized individual feedback.  

Intentional plagiarism is an act of either intellectual theft or intellectual malpractice.  When a student purposely presents the work of another as their own they are committing intellectual theft. Some students purchase papers from paper mills and unethical writing services and then submit them as their own original work thus committing intellectual malpractice.

So why do students purposefully cheat? What are the underlying reasons for the wholesale theft of words and ideas?  For some it is due to external factors ranging from a lack of confidence in their own writing skills and intellectual abilities. For others it is due to internal factors like poor time management or organizational skills and cultural influences. Then there are the rest…those who just don’t think they will get caught or feel as if they paid their tuition and are entitled to pass.

Lack of confidence in one’s writing and intellectual skills places undue pressure on students to succeed in an academic setting.  Many students must maintain a specific grade point average to keep financial aid and so feel pressured to perform.  They justify the need to plagiarize in order to continue to compete for the money available. 

The perpetual procrastinator puts off their assignment due to work, social and family obligations, or poor time management skills.  They end up in a position where they have to produce “something” or fail.  

Then there are the “entitled” students. They either need to fulfill a course requirement for a  job or they see their education as a commodity. They have paid their tuition and thus they are due a passing grade feeling that they have paid to play.  Somehow, the acquisition of knowledge and new insights critical to intellectual growth are not a part of their personal education plans. 

Whatever the reason, plagiarism is alive and well in academic institutions everywhere. So what can be done to be more vigilant?

1.       Assess the quality of a student’s work for style, vocabulary, and content.  Is the style consistent throughout the work? If the writing is “too good to be true” it is often plagiarized.  Look for jargon and any technical terms beyond the writer’s presumed knowledge base.  If the writing style of the introduction and the conclusion is different from the middle of a document the work is probably “borrowed”.

2.       Dead give-aways - Some students leave embedded links and urls in the page, headings or footers. Some submissions might include a lengthy academic list of references.  Often there are odd frames on the work or the fonts shift in color and format. is good but does not catch everything.  Paste short phrases in quotes in Google or Lycos. Go to or to search online databases for journal articles not regularly posted to Google. The internet is a constantly moving target and can be frustrating to the novice plagiarism sleuth.  Trust your instincts as an educator but remember without evidence to the contraryFeature Articles, the student may just be a budding academic with terrific writing skills.  

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