Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why do they plagiarize?

There is a new paper published by S. Sattler, P. Graeff, and S. Willen on the "Fairuse" survey that is investigating why students plagiarize:  Explaining the Decision to Plagiarize: An Empirical Test of the Interplay Between Rationality, Norms, and Opportunity (in: Deviant Behavior, 34:6, 444-463,  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2012.735909). They interviewed 2806 university students with hopes of determining the rate of plagiarism and gaining some insight into the reasons why student plagiarize and how often plagiarism is discovered.

They use Rational Choice Theory to postulate that students weigh costs (doing the research and writing vs. finding something suitable to plagiarize) and benefits (saving time and good grades vs. chance of being caught and the severity of the probable punishment).
  • They measured the frequency of plagiarism by asking the students to self-report having plagiarized in the past 6 months. Over 17 % reported having plagiarized at least once during that time frame. 
  • They found that the higher the expected utility derived from plagiarism, the more often students plagiarize.
  • The psychological stress that results from breaking rules (internalized norms) reduces the number of incidents of plagiarism. 
  • The more chances there are of plagiarizing, the more plagiarism there is.
  • Students do, however, seem to spend time deliberating about whether to plagiarize or not. 
They derive some recommendations for preventing plagiarism from their findings, and in a nutshell it is simple:
  • diminishing the benefits of plagiarism while
  • increasing the costs and the probability of detection.
This entails
  • training students in scientific writing, preferably at the beginning of their studies;
  • realizing that students under pressure to succeed from their parents are more likely to plagiarize;
  • increasing the benefits of not plagiarizing by providing detailed feedback on the results;
  • publishing information about exposed fraud as a deterrent;
  • increasing the likelihood of detection by using software and Google searches;
  • raising the cost of plagiarism by rescinding credit already earned or suspending students from the course or the university.
Universities should have access to professional detection units to take the burden off of the teachers. They also need to communicate a moral condemnation of plagiarism.

It's an interesting study (Disclaimer: I read and discussed portions of the paper with the authors) - it remains to be seen if German universities will do anything actively and openly in order to combat plagiarism.


  1. Dear Debora,
    very good question indeed. The answer you offer, I disagree.

    It's the heirs of bloody Gary S. Becker again, hillarious.
    Neither is there a rational agent, i. e. homo oeconomicus, that would deserve such labeling in the real world nor were the assumptions that led to this kind of agent tested in any reasonalble way. In other words, this is somehow the odd mind of neoliberal way to see, rate and count social phaenomena. For further reading see: Coleman, James S. (1993): The Impact of Gary Beckers’s Work on Sociology, Acta Sociologica, Jg. 36, S. 169-178.

    I offer another reading of plagiarism, and neither need I mathematic formula, nor do I use untested asumptions on human behavioural nature on rational, conscious rational or whatever action:
    Recurring on Pierre Bourdieu ((1998): Gegenfeuer. Wortmeldungen im Dienste des Widerstandes gegen die neoliberale Invasion. Konstanz. S. 110.) there seems to be the idea among neoliberal thinking people that economy work on behalf of competition and efficiency, while society as a whole works on rules of fairness.
    There is no need for sociological rocket scientists to question, why there should be an active, missionary, somehow aressive (i.e. history of that economic school in south america) and not nessesarily democratic group that should be allowed to follow another code of conduct, than the majority of this planets population or even against them, when this leeds to suffering or pain - its like human rights, they count for all, and every try of bold intepretation why they should not count, lets say on women or girls in africa, is highly questionable.
    Or plain and simple: obviously there is a minority of people with huge egos acting in the belief that the rules counting on others don't count on them, because they are so special, so highly in stress, so smart, so much of talent, etc. it's people with the clear lack of morales and selfcontrol, one could say honor, while this very people suffer the deep feeling they deserve something after all they went through - like the doctorate. Even more so, they gave propably their very best, thou this was'nt enough. So in fact, the did not earned it, but cannot stand this fact. It very well may be a simple question of rejection and the lack to deal with it, narcissismis may vere likely be the keyword here.
    I would even go so far to speak of megalomania. And I would do so for the reason that you may need a very special state of mind for assuming you lie within a circle of professional sceptics (modern science is little else) and get away with this. A very special mindset.

    Just to get it round. From my experience, myopic people, those with little understanding of how things work, people with difficulties to copy with the fact of their powerlessness and the courage to use this lack for learning, tend to feed their belief of them being smart, expecially beeing smarter than others. Usually this leeds them to jail and prosecution. 'reminds me on that saying: morons only learn when they die.


    ps: sorry for spelling- and grammarmistakes, had no time to fix them.

  2. An equally important questionis should be "why academics plagiarize?" Sometimes insitutions and journal editors try to sweep things under the carpet to protect those with leaderships positions. For example, a recent report (http://gumtalk.wordpress.com/) uncovers instances of plagiarism in the work of Dr. Ziwei Huang, Director of Upstate Cancer Institute and Chairman of Pharmacology Department at Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York. It is found that one of his papers published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology "appears to have plagiarized from at least 8 different publications and a course material." It doesn't look like that Upstate Medical University or editors of the journal have done anything about it.


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