Crime or confusion - why do students plagiarise?

As schools, libraries and homes connect to the Internet, the range of resources that students can access has grown exponentially. So also has the possibility for students to plagiarise. Di Wilson offers a solution.

The ease with which students can access resources from a multitude of sources, cut and paste the information and present it as their own is a growing concern for teachers. While issues of plagiarism are not new, in this information-rich environment it is the ease with which plagiarism can occur that is worrying teachers.

Defining plagiarism

Simply stated, plagiarism is using other people's words or ideas without clearly acknowledging the source of the information. Within this definition, plagiarism can take many forms:

  • copying an entire source and presenting it as your own
  • copying sections from a source without proper acknowledgement
  • paraphrasing material from a source without proper acknowledgement
  • presenting another person's work with or without the creator's knowledge
  • buying an essay/paper from a research service, another student or online sites ('papermills').

Cases of plagiarism reported in the media use the emotional language of plagiarism - academic honesty, theft, crime, cheating, breach of ethical standards. This reflects the seriousness with which academic institutions view plagiarism. The punitive consequences of detected plagiarism are detailed in the plagiarism guidelines provided for students in all academic institutions.

There is, however, widespread acknowledgement in these same institutions that plagiarism is frequently unintentional.

'Even though there will always be dishonest students, most cases of plagiarism result from honest confusion over the standards of academic discourse and proper citation. We might more successfully combat the problem by spending more time in class helping students learn how to avoid it.'

Wilhoit (1994)

The question for those of us working in schools is: how do we move from emotive language and punitive consequences to help our students avoid plagiarism?

Cases of plagiarism fall into two broad categories - deliberate deception for personal gain and unintentional plagiarism.

Causes of plagiarism

Causes of plagiarism

While students give a number of reasons for deliberate plagiarism, underlying these reasons is a difference in their ethical values from those of the teacher for whom the task has been completed. Tertiary institutions are clearly articulating policy guidelines for students and staff that clarify the relationship between plagiarism and cheating. Schools also need to develop policies and procedures to be followed when cases of deliberate deception are detected.

While deliberate deception clearly occurs in secondary schools, plagiarism - particularly in the junior or middle years - is more often a result of lack of understanding and poorly developed information-processing skills, and should be seen as a teaching and learning issue.

Understanding why students plagiarise

As teachers, we cannot assume that students know what we mean when we tell them not to plagiarise. At what stage in our students' schooling and in what curriculum areas do we take the time to build an understanding of what plagiarism is, how it relates to cheating and how it will be dealt with if discovered?

The notion of 'text ownership' is a Western academic concept. In many cultures, students are encouraged to use the exact words of experts or elders - it is seen to be inappropriate to do otherwise. Teachers need to be aware of these differences and respond accordingly.

Teachers understand citation conventions from experiences at university or college. As former post-secondary students, we know what is expected. Students in secondary schools do not have this background understanding. Many schools now provide bibliography guides for their students, but is it reasonable to assume that the students will naturally refer to these documents without teacher direction?

With so much information to select from, students who are uncertain about the key pieces of information in the resources may copy it all 'just in case'. The choice of relevant material is made more difficult if they have poorly developed time-management skills.

Research tasks require students to organise and manage their time effectively. Many students, for a whole range of reasons, underestimate the time a task will take and leave things to the last minute, allowing no time to synthesise and process the information they find.

Many students have poorly developed note-taking and summarising skills because the importance of such skills is frequently not addressed until the senior years of school.

When learning a new language, copying text plays an important role in developing language skills. Students from non-English speaking backgrounds can lack confidence or understanding of the text they find in resources.

All of these causes of plagiarism should be recognised and addressed by teachers.

Dealing with plagiarism

To deal with plagiarism, we need to understand why it occurs. We need to develop strategies to cater for students with diverse learning styles, levels of skill development, cultural and educational backgrounds. A simple punitive response to plagiarism - a fail or requirement to resubmit work - does little to address underlying issues or provide ongoing strategies and support to prevent its occurrence.

Specific teaching and learning strategies can minimise the chance of plagiarism.

  1. Plan research tasks and essays to minimise plagiarism by designing assignments that move students beyond regurgitation of facts to involve them in higher-order thinking.
  2. Provide students with resource pathfinders that point to a small number of Internet sites and useful print resources. This limits the time students need to spend locating, sifting and choosing resources that are useful.
  3. Include resource evaluation as part of a research task.
  4. Discuss the meaning of plagiarism and the concept of academic honesty with students.
  5. Make expectations clear. Put these expectations in writing and make the consequences of deliberate plagiarism clear to your students.
  6. Teach citation skills and insist on correct citation for research assignments. This is possible without requiring standard referencing and bibliographic style. Resource lists and resource evaluations reinforce the importance of acknowledging resources.
  7. Emphasise, teach and assess note-taking and summarising skills.

It is difficult to single out one particular strategy as the solution to the problem. Complex issues surround plagiarism. Both teachers and students need to be proactive in developing understanding, approaches and strategies to minimise its occurrence.

Di Wilson
Information Research Coordinator
Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne

This article first appeared on page 19 in EQ Australia, issue 2, Winter 2006: The ICT agenda. EQ Australia is a quarterly magazine published by Curriculum Corporation.

Reprinted with permission of author and EQ Australia.


McKenzie, J 1998, The New Plagiarism: Seven antidotes to prevent highway robbery in an electronic age, available at

Morris, A & Stewart-Dore, N 1984, Learning to Learn From Text: Effective reading in the content areas, Addison-Wesley, Australia.

Rosenshine, B1996, Advances in Research on Instruction, available at

Wilhoit, S 1994, 'Helping students avoid plagiarism', College Teaching, vol 42, pp 161-164