Student use of the Internet for research is an ongoing source of academic controversy. Some educators argue that the ease with which one can “copy and paste” information makes it too tempting for students to do just that—rather than developing their own thoughts and ideas.
But has the Internet really caused more incidents of plagiarism? To answer that, we first need to distinguish between plagiarism and copyright infringement.
To plagiarize, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use (another's production) without crediting the source.” For example, because this article lists the dictionary as the source for that definition, this author has not committed plagiarism in this case. Plagiarism is an ethical violation, and is dealt with, if at all, by academic institutions, publishers or Oprah when she de-lists a book from her list of favorites because it contains plagiarized content. A common source of confusion is whether plagiarism is also illegal. The answer? Sometimes. The better answer? When the act of plagiarism is also copyright infringement.
Copyright infringement, on the other hand, occurs when someone uses, reproduces, prepares derivative works from, distributes copies, performs or displays the copyrighted work of another without authorization from the copyright owner. If this sounds just like plagiarism to you, that’s because this is a very fine distinction, and sometimes one act can qualify as both offenses. The difference is that with plagiarism, the offense is the lack of attribution—the use may or may not be illegal, but you’ve committed plagiarism by failing to credit your source. With copyright infringement, it’s a lack of authorization to make the use at all—you can credit the source all day long, but if you’ve infringed a copyright, your attribution won’t keep you out of court…although your paper may still get an “A.”
Now, let’s return to the question of whether the Internet has increased plagiarism in schools. According to a 2011 study titled The Digital Revolution and Higher Education, “Most college presidents (55%) say that plagiarism in students’ papers has increased over the past 10 years.” Of those who say plagiarism is on the rise, the overwhelming majority (89%) believe that computers and the Internet have played a major role in this trend.
Case closed, right? But what if it’s not plagiarism that has increased but, rather, students being caught plagiarizing?
Online tools such as The Plagiarism Checker and Turnitin specifically check for lifted phrases and sentences. Educators simply upload suspicious text and can immediately find out whether it is original.
Before the Internet, teachers would have to look up individual sources (if the student had even provided them) and check them, word-for-word, against students’ writing. More often than not, the decision to check in the first place boiled down to a hunch—not the most scientific method.
Just the same, a student using a hard copy of a book, for example, would have had to type, word for word, any text he or she wanted to reproduce. The Internet has made the actual act of plagiarizing easier and faster—simply copy and paste. On the flipside, the Internet has also made it much easier to catch plagiarists.
So, is the Internet really to blame?
After all, students have been using calculators in classrooms for decades. Although some traditional educators may argue that calculator use weakens students’ basic math skills, there has been no research to back up that claim. In fact, Robert Siegler, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette that “research suggests that [using a calculator] neither helps nor hurts learning of basic arithmetic.” Siegler notes research on this topic ended around 1986, and since calculators are used in many classrooms today, further studies may not even be possible.
Stealing other people’s work and ideas is an age-old concept. While the Internet may have made plagiarism easier, banning the Internet as a research tool would be a step backwards that wouldn't stop the problem. (And how might a teacher ban the Internet? Force students to complete all assignments in the classroom?) In the meantime, here are a few tips to prevent plagiarism in the classroom:
Whether you have a book, photo, painting or song, federally registering a copyright is the best way to protect your original work. LegalZoom can help you apply to register a copyright today.