Plagiarism - A Critical Review of Literature

Plagiarism and Adult Learning Environments

Academic Plagiarism- Plagiarism

In the twenty-first century, plagiarism is pervasive among all generations and within all types of academic institutions. The lack of academic integrity during academic writing and research process is inextricably bound to the low-level of ethics increasingly spotlighted in the business world, and, moreover, younger students look to their older counterparts for guidance in how to embody the values and morals of society. By extension, adult learners have a particular responsibility not only to not engage in plagiarism but to actively counter plagiarism within their learning environments; and yet, the nature of the adult learner, as a non-native of the digital age, may preclude a thorough understanding of what plagiarism is and how it manifests.

The following review of literature explores how plagiarism is defined in the twenty-first century, affording particular respect to the culture of and catalysts for plagiarism. The salient topics of inadvertent plagiarism and recommendations for countering plagiarism are concurrently explored, and the inquiry concludes by synthesizing the literature and asserting crucial areas of future research.

Defining Plagiarism in the 21st Century

Despite the considerable technological innovations that have occurred during recent decades, plagiarism remains what it has always been; a matter of deceiving a reader into believing in the originality of material that is not original (Villano). Hardly exclusive to the academic context, plagiarism is pervasive in the professional world as well. By extension, the widespread assumption that plagiarism occurs only among younger generations is entirely false and devalues the harm done by plagiarism in the adult learning context.

Though the congruency of dishonesty exists between the plagiarism of earlier, less digitized decades and that of the twenty-first century, the digital age has undoubtedly birthed a number of considerable changes to the nature and manifestations of plagiarism. Plagiarism is illegal, regardless of its form or extent, and perpetrators can face legal consequences, particularly if the plagiarized material is copyrighted. Internet material, however, is most often not copyrighted, rendering the legality of copying a blog, for instance, as merely questionable.

An empirical review of the manner in which universities generally defined plagiarism revealed common themes (Collins and Amodeo). The copying of written work without proper citation, use of student work previously completed, translating content from another language and using it as one's own, hiring a ghostwriter, and presentation of collaborative work as the work of one's own were generally, universally recognized as plagiarism. Critical is it to note, however, that not all university's have a clear-cut policy on plagiarism.

All plagiarism is harmful in an academic context for two reasons; primarily, plagiarized work raises the proverbial bar for all students by presumably being of higher, publishable quality, more factually accurate, or done within a small timeframe. Alternatively, plagiarized academic papers diminish the genuine investment of students that did complete their own work. Adult plagiarism may be harmful for an even greater reason, however.

A nationwide survey by the Center for Academic Integrity assessed the nature of and attitudes toward plagiarism in a K-12 environment, finding that of the 18,000 students surveyed, over 70% admitted to "serious cheating" and 60% admitted to outright plagiarism. Of the students that plagiarized, half of them took the copied material directly from the internet and more than half of them did not perceive anything morally or ethically wrong about plagiarism. In an effort to understand why the youngest generation of students was so lackadaisical toward plagiarism's unethical nature, a professor at Rutgers University surveyed student attitudes toward cheating at his own university, concluding the primary reason students do not feel guilty regarding plagiarism was due to adult role models.

The professor cited that students look toward adults to be the "moral compass" of society, and they do not feel that they should be held to a higher standard than their older counterparts. In higher education, the Center for Academic Integrity concluded that nearly 40% of 18,000 students had cut-and-pasted written material directly from the internet. Additionally, online learning, utilized more frequently in adult populations that younger generations, distances the student from the instructor, rendering the guilt associated with plagiarism softened by a lack of interpersonal contact. If adults are meant to be social mentors of sorts, than the use of plagiarism by this population is even more dangerous than that of younger generations.

Graduate students surveyed between 2001 and 2002 cited that falsifying laboratory data for assignments, written tests, and even dissertations happens "very often" on campus (Hulsart and McCarthy). The same survey revealed that 41% of graduate students plagiarize written assignments, while over 60% of students had admitted to collaborating on an assignment when it was meant to be done individually. Over 55% of graduate students cited that it was not considered "serious cheating" if a student would obtain test questions and answers from another student.

Authors Hulsart and McCarthy contend that a salient reason for plagiarism's prevalence is a lack of a universal definition for plagiarism. The authors offer several definitions such as "an intentional act of fraud in which a student seeks to claim credit for the work or efforts of another without authorization" to "neglecting to properly attribute sources in written work." Regardless of the precise definition employed, it remains that perceptions of plagiarism may vary according to the student's characteristics, including his or her age.

The Culture of Plagiarism and Digital Natives

Digital natives were born into a society to which computers and internet are just as integral, if not more so, than pencils and paper (Wright). These individuals were born after 1980, and generally know more than their teachers regarding internet navigation and the technology of information systems. In his article entitled "A New Literacy," Wright contends that ",just 10-15 years ago, the literature was espousing that we teach students to be comfortable on the Web and demonstrate its value... Today this seems quaint - almost laughable - since most students are far more comfortable with computers and the Internet than are many of their teachers."

The contemporary set of standards and essay tests for information literacy, set forth by the American Association of School Librarians and the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, cite the following:

The standards suggest that information literacy demands students be able to use computers as a tool for research; this is not only encouraged but perceived as essential to being literate.

Adult learners are then in a difficult position in the academic arena, as they have had to adopt an entirely new perspective on what it means to be literate. While they may have excelled in school before the advent of the internet, tangible book research has become all but obsolete in the wake of vast, easily searchable online libraries. More importantly, properly using information garnered from the internet is a challenge for adults who are not digital natives, as the ease of copying and pasting information and the perceived improbability of being caught precludes academic integrity.

Discourse in the journalism profession has suggested that if plagiarism among lower education students filters down from adult learners, then plagiarism filters into the adult learner world from the journalism field (Robertson). In his article entitled "Confronting the Culture," Robertson contends that the journalism field fosters a culture of plagiarism: "the not-too-distant past, journalism sages, columnists and otherwise rational old people were quick to condemn the ethically lax, morally inept, not-able-to-handle-the-pressure-of-the-big-time "kids these days" as the root of the plagiarism and fabrication problem." The author continues by positing that the media culture fosters plagiarism through a fundamental lack of ethics in newsrooms. According to a professor at the University of South Florida, the deadline-regulated, high pressure atmosphere that fosters plagiarism in among journalists is the same atmosphere that, in some instances, fosters cheating among students. Empirical evidence suggests that there is rampant confusion among journalists regarding what constitutes plagiarism; if this confusion can exist among an adult population whose livelihood is centered on the act of ethical writing, then it is likely that adult learners may genuinely not be cognizant of how plagiarism manifests.

The culture of plagiarism that exists in the United States, in particular, is indicative of a broader crisis of ethics, in which behaviors traditionally perceived as immoral or unethical are now widely perceived as acceptable, at best, and necessary, at worst (Hulsart and McCarthy). Plagiarism in writing and reserach is closely linked to same manifestations of unethical behavior that birthed the Enron scandal and similarly ignorant behaviors within Corporate America. By extension, the need to address plagiarism among both adult and younger student populations is crucial in preserving the moral fabric of American society. In their article entitled "Educators' Role in Promoting Academic Integrity," authors Hulsart and McCarthy contend that "research shows that a student's likelihood to cheat corresponds to their own self evaluation and perceived ability to succeed academically. Simply put, students with higher levels of self confidence are less likely to cheat or attempt to cheat than those with lower levels of self-confidence." In general, however, students cheat for different reasons.

Catalysts for Plagiarism and Academic Dishonesty

The Center for Academic Integrity has cited that there is a wide-ranging spectrum of excuses offered for undergraduate and graduate paper plagiarizing; these include the academic pressures being overwhelming and the course work being too difficult to reasonably be completed by any means other than plagiarism. Alternatively, students cite that while they realize a degree is necessary in order to work in their chosen field, the actual work involved in obtaining that degree is irrelevant to the so-called real-world; this latter excuse may be particularly pertinent to adult learners who have already been working actively in the professional world and are cognizant of what information is inapplicable to their workplace, consequently failing to see the merit in investing significant time into an assignment not directly relevant to their goals.

The Center for Academic Integrity cited that there are predominantly three reasons student cheat, according to empirical evidence. These reasons are as follows:

"The benefit/cost tradeoff favors cheating. There is an extremely low probability of being caught and faculty are reluctant to report student cheaters; the problem of unobservable behavior can be substantially mitigated by promoting academic integrity as the social norm, combined with better detection and reporting; and the many factors that have contributed to the development of more and stronger relationships between college students have helped to promote cheating by making students more aware of its prevalence and influencing student perceptions of the acceptability of cheating among their peers (Hulsart and McCarthy)."

The same survey suggested that students are able to justify plagiarism because they believe they will not get caught.

In an empirical, qualitative study of university students, the research team identified eleven themes that dominated student perceptions of plagiarism (Power). Power and powerlessness were frequent themes, as were student agency and lack thereof. Power articulates these results as alarming because the students were generally able to externalize plagiarism, even when they had committed it themselves; the author writes "a university education can be a humbling experience for students.... Students must acclimate themselves to the idea that their professors have power over their daily lives and ultimately, their professional lives in a way that their secondary teachers did not." For adult learners, this is particularly salient as they may be the same age as their professors or otherwise on a similar social level with their academic authorities. Being placed in a sudden position of inferiority damages their self-efficacy, lowering self-esteem and increasing the likelihood for plagiarism.

Adult Learners and Accidental Plagiarism in Research and Writing

Empirical evidence suggests that professors generally perceive plagiarism as an intentional act of fraud. However, plagiarism does need to be intentional, and adult populations are particularly at risk for engaging in inadvertent plagiarism (McCabe, Smith, and Parks); this occurs when students believe that the thoughts, words, or ideas used in their written work are their own when they were actually, previously encountered. An example of this behaviour is often evident among students who seek free assistance with their writing assignments.

Memory errors are generally responsible for inadvertent plagiarism, and such errors become more frequent with age. The failure to discriminate between different stimuli or sources of activation negates the fact that the information has been encountered previously. In an empirical study of a group of younger, undergraduate students and another group of older, adult learners, the adult learners were found to be significantly more likely to inadvertently plagiarize when asked to generate new ideas, accidentally referencing exemplars that they had been shown previously.

These results are significant in that adult learners may not be unfailingly cognizant of when they are engaging in acts of plagiarism, due to memory issues as well as the fact they have had significantly more life experiences from which to draw the plagiarized reference than younger students. McCabe, Smith, and Parks concluded that "although the category-generation paradigm used here is obviously not a direct analogy to plagiarism outside the laboratory, we do suggest that it is ecologically valid; that is, the inadvertent-plagiarism paradigm is believed to capture the memory processes involved in inadvertent plagiarism in the real world." The authors recommend that accusations of adults who plagiarize be done with more caution than those directed toward younger populations.

Countering Plagiarism in Adult Learning Populations

Plagiarism is costly for faculty (Liebler); these cause range from the emotional cost of fear to the actual financial cost of plagiarism. Despite the previously cited statistics that suggest over half of all students plagiarize, only 2-3% of students cite that they have ever been caught plagiarizing. While there is no evidence regarding age of students caught cheating, it is likely that adult learners were far less likely to be caught plagiarizing than younger populations.

Strategies for countering plagiarism have been prevalent among universities during recent years, and usually include the submission of written assignments to plagiarism-checking websites and ethics seminars regarding the perils of plagiarism. Traditionally and in the absence of such technology, plagiarism was countered by an examination of the disparity between a student's knowledge and that reflected by his or her work. Distance learning, however, has rendered this strategy nearly obsolete, as instructors rarely know enough about a student's knowledge base to gauge his or her potential.

From the faculty's perspective, prosecuting plagiarizers can be inordinately time-consuming, with several steps in the protocol, all of which require significant paperwork and concrete proof that plagiarism has been committed. Authors Collins and Amodeo posit that "unless the plagiarized document could be located, there would be no solid proof of plagiarism; hence, student denial of the offense [must] be considered as a legitimate possibility." The amount of work involved in prosecuting plagiarizers is likely directly responsible for the gross disparity between students who plagiarize and those who are caught, 50% to 2% respectively.

Other researchers assert that alternative strategies for countering plagiarism are less time-consuming and more effective (Johnson). "LPP Projects," or low-probability of plagiarism projects, are assignments that have a clear purpose and high expectations that offer students choices regarding how to pursue and manifest the criteria. These projects stress higher-order thinking and creativity and generally rely on student narratives; this allows students to effectively personalize their assignments and results in a lower likelihood that they will seek out ideas elsewhere.

If offering LPP assignments is not possible given the constructs of the curriculum, clearly disclosing to students that all work is run through plagiarism software and that no plagiarism will be tolerated is crucial in decreasing the likelihood that students will cheat. In general, the creation of an ethical classroom climate is a formidable obstacle to plagiarism. Authors Hulsart and McCarthy contend that they "believe that the most important determinate of an ethical classroom climate is the day-to-day style of direct leadership. Faculty members play an important role in the process of creating and maintaining academic integrity.... For this reason, it is important for a faculty member to assess one's own level of integrity." The authors conclude that trust is reciprocal, and educators who generate trust among their student populations by being present and consistent in communications are taking the most significant step in countering plagiarism.

Plagiarism - Synthesis

The literature suggests that plagiarism among adult learners may be birthed from a low-level of self-efficacy generated by not belonging to the digital-native generation and consequently having a lower level of digital literacy. More importantly, a lack of digital knowledge can play a role in inadvertent plagiarism, to which adult learning populations are already more predisposed due to poorer memory and greater experience. While there was a dearth of literature regarding the higher likelihood of plagiarism among online learning communities, it is hypothesized that the distance between professor and student in this type of environment would foster plagiarism. Future research should focus on this particular context, affording particular respect to how plagiarism is perceived by adult, distance learners. Overall, plagiarism is indicative of a challenged, moral order in contemporary society, and, because adults are the individuals to whom younger students look for guidance, it is crucial to counter plagiarism among adult learning populations, in particular.


Collins, M. E., & Amodeo, M. Responding to Plagiarism in Schools of Social Work: Considerations and Recommendations. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(3), 527-549.

Hulsart, R., & McCarthy, V. Educators' Role in Promoting Academic Integrity. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 13(4), 49-65.

Johnson, D. Plagiarism-Proofing Assignments. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(7), 549.

Liebler, R. Plagiarism and Costs. College Student Journal, 43(3), 718-735.

McCabe, D. P., Smith, A. D., & Parks, C. M. Inadvertent Plagiarism in Young and Older Adults: the Role of Working Memory Capacity in Reducing Memory Errors. Memory & Cognition, 35(2), 231-253.

Power, L. G. University Students' Perceptions of Plagiarism. Journal of Higher Education, 80(6), 643-660.

Robertson, L. (August/September). Confronting the Culture: The Culprit Behind the Recurring Clusters of Plagiarism and Fabrication Scandals Isn't Just Irresponsible Youth or a Few Bad Apples or the Temptations of the Internet. It May Be the Newsroom Culture Itself. American Journalism Review, 27, 34-58.

Villano, M. Taking the Work out of Homework: With the Rise of the Internet, Schools Are Seeing an Epidemic of Cut-and-Paste Plagiarism. but the Same Technology That's Making Plagiarism Easy Is Being Used by Teachers to Catch Copycats in the Act. T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), 33(15), 24-34.

Wright, A. M. A New Literacy for the Digital Age. Journal of Special Education Technology, 25(2), 62-89.