The only thing that seems clear is that things are getting more blurry. Even definitions of what constitutes plagiarism are difficult to pin down -- for faculty as well as students. And certainly perceptions about how serious a problem plagiarism is becoming -- particularly some types of "Internet plagiarism" -- is a matter of much debate.

The problems may be bigger than the Internet. For one thing, students clearly need help with understanding plagiarism, and not just when the Web is involved:

  • Psychological Reports study found that "students will use writing strategies that result in potential plagiarism when they face the task of paraphrasing advanced technical text for which they may lack the proper cognitive resources" (Roig 979). More than 60 percent of students cannot tell the difference between paraphrased and plagiarized text (Roig 974).
  • In the Internet realm, as the University of Alberta Libraries points out, the complexity of choosing among and deciphering the many available style guides is further compounded by the difficulty of citing online sources. There is little agreement among the various guides for how one should go about citing an Internet source, and these sources change so rapidly that a cited source may not even exist in the same form the next day (Univ. of Alberta Libraries).
  • What's more, there's a common perception among Web users that information on the web is in the public domain (Univ. of Alberta Libraries). (More on this in the next section.)

Data on plagiarism trends among students certainly reflects uncertainty:

  • A Center for Academic Integrity study found that, "from the 1999-2000 academic year to 2001-'02, the number of college students who said they had cut and pasted from the Internet without attribution rose to 41 percent, from 10 percent" (Zernike 10).
  • But these students did not seem to believe they were cheating -- at least not at the same level of severity: "Students who thought cutting and pasting was 'serious cheating' declined to 27 percent from 68 percent in those two years" (Zernike 10).
  • Interestingly, the faculty teaching these students also seemed less concerned. Teachers "who said cutting and pasting from the Internet was serious cheating dipped to 51 percent from 91 percent" in that same time frame (Zernike 10)).

So students are using the Internet to plagiarize, and there also seems to be some disagreement out there about what constitutes a serious academic offense. What's more, others are articulating serious questions as to whether the Internet actually encourages dishonesty:

  • A Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study found that "online plagiarism is not nearly as widespread as has frequently been suggested" (Scanlon and Neumann 381). While eight percent of the study's respondents reported having plagiarized by cut-and-paste 'often' or 'very frequently,' 50.4 percent of them reported that their peers fell into this category, suggesting that students suspected much more plagiarism than was actually taking place (Scanlon and Neumann 379).
  • In addition, "the [RIT] study also found that the amount of online plagiarism students reported engaging in is comparable to the amount of conventional plagiarism -- from books or other printed sources -- that's been reported for years" (Scanlon and Neumann 382).
  • The Center for Academic Integrity has found convincing evidence that, although the Internet may simplify cut-and-paste plagiarism, it doesn't create cheaters out of otherwise honest people. In a study of 25 high schools, 54 percent of students said they plagiarized from the Internet, but only a small fraction plagiarized only from the Internet. In other words, most plagiarizers would have done so with or without the technology. "It appears the Internet is merely the means not the primary motivation for those students who copy text from the web and pass it off as their own," according to Cara Branigan, Assistant Editor of eSchool News. "Most of the cheaters said they would have plagiarized anyway" (Branigan).

So it's not just the technology, according to these studies -- something else is going on here. If we pay attention to it, we might find that it's something that we, as educators and academics, might be able to do something about.