Exploring and Preventing Plagiarism in a Digital Age

Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

In today’s digital age, students have instantaneous, easy access to a wealth of information and knowledge via the internet.  While the availability of information is convenient for students, it can also be detrimental.   In recent years, evidence and research seems to indicate that the easy access may negatively impact digital natives’ ability to synthesize research and provide appropriate credit to original sources in their writing.

We often see students who are struggling with perplexing plagiarism issues in our online university’s academic support centers.  Notably, students may seek tutorial assistance because a professor has noticed that they have used outside internet research without appropriate attribution.  More than once, I have assisted students who attest that they used all their own words when a quick internet search easily pulls up the exact sentence or passages that they failed to properly attribute in their writing.  How can students copy and paste passages from the internet in their writing, fail to acknowledge that they had done so, and then perceive that they had not plagiarized, I wondered.

While the answers to this question are undoubtedly very complex, one feasible answer   seems to have its beginnings in the digital revolution.   Trip Gabriel (2010), a New York Times reporter who spoke to a number of educators and students at colleges across the US, suggests that digital natives, those students who have mostly only known easy and dependable internet access, may not take plagiarism as seriously as past generations.  These students may see information accessed via the internet as belonging to all and free for the taking – without attribution (Gabriel, 2010).  As Turnitin (2010), a  plagiarism detection service used by colleges and universities nationwide, notes, “today’s digital culture has blurred the lines of originality and authorship.”

The reasons that these distinctions are often obscured may be the way that students access information online.    Before the internet, to find information on a particular subject, most students had to walk into a library and physically retrieve books which usually had to be perused in the library or officially checked out for a limited amount of time.   For most students, this usually meant taking careful notes from the source material and recording bibliographical data.  Contrast this to students who do the majority of their academic research online.  As, Sarah Brookover, a student and campus library employee  suggests, students who access information online bypass the step of physically  holding the source, a step that Brookover describes as moving them closer to the mentality of “this doesn’t belong to me” (as cited in Gabriel, 2010) . Once they bypass this step, students find it easier to use the information in a way that suggests it belongs to them or that it is their original idea or words, especially since, as Brookover points out, they access academic research on the same computers that they use to stream videos or download music, possibly illegally (as cited in Gabriel, 2010).

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant, author of Academic Integrity in the 21st Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative: ASHE Higher Education Report,   also speaks to this shift in the way society currently perceives the construction and ownership of knowledge and information.  In the digital age, people, especially digital natives, increasingly perceive knowledge as being formed and built through collaboration, while the community maintains ownership of information (Gallant, 2014).   As an example, in her 2014 Turnitin webcast, Dr. Gallant tells of a student who described his belief that the internet is a “mutual brain that we can all tap”, suggesting that, if information is found on the internet, especially through communal sources like Wikipedia, then no attribution or citation is necessary.

How can educators best help students attribute and cite online research and avoid plagiarism issues?  To start, Gallant offers a couple suggestions.  First, she advises that instructors and tutors begin a discussion about plagiarism by first discussing not how students should cite (i.e. teaching APA or MLA) but instead why they should cite.  Gallant asks students to consider examples of real life plagiarism and think about how they would feel if they lost out on a promotion because a co-worker plagiarized their ideas in the workplace.   Gallant also notes that common knowledge should no longer be defined as something that can be verified in a variety of sources.  With so much information available online, students can search for most any fact and find it included in hundreds of web articles.  Instead, as Gallant suggests, students should be told that if they need to look something up online then it is likely not common knowledge.   What are some ways that you teach students, especially digital natives, to use outside research with integrity?


Gabriel, T.  (2010, Aug. 1).  Plagiarism lines blur for students in a digital age.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/education/02cheat.html?_r=0

Gallant, T.B. (2014).  The accidental plagiarist: The myths, the truths, and what it all means for teaching & learning [Webcast].   Retrieved from http://go.turnitin.com/l/45292/2014-06-18/3kb5

Turnitin. (2010). Instructor’s insights into the 10 types of plagiarism [White paper].  Retrieved from http://storage.pardot.com/45292/6694/Turnitin_WhitePaper_PlagiarismSpectrum.pdf

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7 Responses

  1. The serious issue of plagiarism is getting serious, as student know the system like turnitin checking the similarity of their work, they changing their way to hiring ghostwriters to produce ‘original’ work. This causing the system hard to find rather student doing the work themselves. Some tips that can recognise rather a student buying ghostwritten assignment is to notice rather it writing style has changed.
    I think it is also very important to tell students when ever they try to use any ideas of others in their work they have to cite it.

    • kuwcnews says:

      Hi fellowtofellow,
      Ghostwriters are also a serious issue in academia. I agree that instructors can often tell when a student’s writing style is suddenly very different and that this may be an indicator that a student is using such a service. This is also something that we can talk about with students. Thanks for your response.
      ~ Amy

  2. kuwcnews says:

    Hi David,
    I think that social media does impact the way that students sometimes use information. I like your suggestion to students to help them negotiate the meanings of the texts they read. Thanks for your comment.
    ~ Amy

  3. David Healey says:

    This post raised some important issues about the way that we use (and re-use material) found online. Most people don’t think twice about sharing something on Facebook, for example, without worrying about crediting the source. For students, I always suggest that they “look away” from the source and then try to write out the information in their own words because it helps them think about what the information really means. I would agree that the reasons why we don’t just copy and paste are an important first lesson in avoiding plagiarism!

  4. Nancy Feraldi says:

    One strategy I use is to ask the students to imagine how they would feel if they find out later the information they have used in their text is wrong or not true. Citing not only gives credit where credit is due, but blame if information is in error. If students cite the source, they are covered.

    • kuwcnews says:

      Hi Nancy,
      This is a great suggestion! I bet sharing this information with students does help them better understand the need to provide credit. Thanks for sharing this strategy.
      ~ Amy

  1. December 9, 2015

    […] I have not yet implemented any of my findings (other than to publish an article on this blog: Exploring and Preventing Plagiarism in a Digital Age), so I am now thinking about ways that I can use the knowledge I gained from my research  in my […]

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