Student plagiarism inhibits student learning and damages institutional reputations. Online learning provides different opportunities for student plagiarism than in the traditional classroom, and many observers question whether online learning environments can demonstrate the same level of academic integrity found in traditional classrooms. One method of combating plagiarism is the use of plagiarism detection software, which are licensed for individual use or integrated into an institutional course management system (CMS). Understanding the nature of plagiarism and implementing a plagiarism education and detection program can improve the effectiveness of these tools and therefore improve the quality and reputation of online programs. This article focuses on how plagiarism may be reduced in online learning environments. The article begins with a definition of plagiarism and the characteristics of online learning environments that make them vulnerable to student plagiarism. A review of plagiarism detection technologies and the capabilities of popular detection tools are discussed. The article then addresses how plagiarism detection software can be systematically implemented in support of online learning programs: establishing academic integrity policies, improving the design of assignments and assessments, and establishing effective education programs. The article concludes by exploring future developments in online learning environments and plagiarism detection technologies.
Plagiarism is the reproduction or inclusion of another person’s creative work into one’s own work without properly attributing the included work to the original author. Most students understand that submitting another author’s entire work as their own is clearly plagiarism, but are often confused about how to summarize and cite the works of others. Furthermore, students may not understand that submitting their own previously submitted original work, in whole or in part, is considered self-plagiarism as it misrepresents their efforts in a current class.
Educational institutions usually define plagiarism within the context of academic integrity, such as this definition from Lawrence Technological University (Lawrence Technological University, 2007):
The term “PLAGIARISM” includes but is not limited to (a) the use, by paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work or creative and/or intellectual property in print, product, or digital media of another person without full and clear acknowledgment; (b) the unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers, reports, or other academic materials; or (c) the appropriating, buying, receiving as a gift, or obtaining by any other means another person’s work and the unacknowledged submission or incorporation of it in one’s own work. Plagiarism is unethical, since it deprives the true author of his/her rightful credit and then gives that credit to someone to whom it is not due.
Aside from the ethical violation of failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, plagiarism is “materially misleading if it could cause a reasonable reader to be mistaken as to source of the words, ideas, or data in a way that could benefit the author submitting the work” (Brigham Young University Law School, 2007). We will return to the concept of material benefit later in this article.
Numerous researchers have documented the extent of plagiarism and student cheating over the past 60 years (Hart & Friesner, 2004). Plagiarism is acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon, with a majority of students in most disciplines admitting to some form of academic dishonesty during their academic careers. A Web search can identify thousands of Web sites where students may download essays. Coastal Carolina University maintains a Web site listing over 250 “paper mills” and plagiarism sites (Bates & Fain, 2006). The existence of these sites confirms the findings of high levels of student plagiarism and cheating.