With its millions of websites, readily available student essays and Wikipedia entries, the internet is often cited as a major reason for the rise in plagiarism.
But its role in encouraging academic fraud may be “unjustified” because levels of plagiarism were actually higher in the pre-internet era, a study suggests.
When a randomly selected 184 doctoral dissertations written before 1994 were compared with 184 written after 2010, about half of each group contained some sort of unattributed material, according to a paper published in the Journal for Academic Ethics.
But the mean similarity index for the older papers, as measured by the Turnitin plagiarism-detection system, was higher (14.5 per cent) than that for the more recent, post-2010 papers (12.3 per cent), it adds.
That result came as the number of internet users rose from 14 per 100 people in the US in 1995 to 85 per 100 in 2012 and as the number of academic journals and papers online ballooned as well, the paper says.
The paper’s author, David Ison, assistant professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, said that his results would help to debunk the myth that the internet was a major cause of academic dishonesty.
This accepted wisdom was often based on “unsubstantiated or perfunctory reports of the internet causing a significant negative influence on student work”, he writes.
“Most of the blame on the internet for a degradation of academic ethics or its subsequent effect of increasing plagiarism is unjustified, relying…on news headlines, student self-report studies and conjecture,” he writes.
In addition, some 3,210 academic papers on the issue of internet-related plagiarism were written between 1999 and 2014, compared with just 30 in existence by 1994; however, Dr Ison says, very little statistical analysis of cheating had been undertaken.
While he admits that his work provides only a “snapshot” of the plagiarism landscape, his findings “do not support assumptions that the internet has had a significant negative effect on the conduct of plagiarism”, he says.
He chose to focus on doctoral theses in his study because the PhD is the “most advanced level of higher education” with “high stakes rewards” for those who are successful, he adds.
His study “indicates that the level of severity of plagiarism has not increased as anticipated” and that the “deleterious effects of the internet on academic honesty” had been exaggerated.
However, “extreme” incidents of academic plagiarism, such as extensive copying of unattributed material, are more common in the dissertations written after 2010, suggesting an “escalation” of such behaviour, he adds.
Dr Ison said he hoped that his work would “provide faculty, administrators, researchers, and the media with relevant empirical evidence to guide discussions and policies about plagiarism in academia” and help to shift the focus away from tackling the problems via electronic detection methods alone.
Guidance should be “provided to all levels of students to better inform them about proper citation methods and academic ethics”, he said.
Dr Ison’s advice follows a report that found that many students are still confused about what constitutes plagiarism. Some 40 per cent of students surveyed by the Impact of Policies for Plagiarism in Higher Education across Europe project in 2013 were unable to identify an obviously plagiarised piece of academic work presented in a test.