Generally, it seems pretty clear what plagiarism is: when a writer uses work created by someone else without acknowledgment or attribution. In other words, plagiarism is when an author claims someone else’s work as his or her own. Although these guidelines seem quite clear, the problem of plagiarism runs rampant. Important to note, here, is that the problem can occur in two different ways. First, an author can knowingly plagiarize a work for their own gain. In another way, though, plagiarism can be accidental, where an author simply doesn’t know how to properly cite source material or attach attribution.
Despite the potential for an honest mistake, however, all plagiarism can lead to serious consequences. According to a study referenced in the New York Times, “40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.” The numbers don’t change much for graduate school students—30 to 33%—or writers outside of academia. Although plagiarism occurs most often in writing, it can occur in photography, filmmaking, advertising, or any other creative media. To hone the focus, however, and group many of these plagiarism cases under the same banner, the biggest challenge in fighting plagiarism is handling it in the digital age.
One of the biggest reasons why plagiarism is so prevalent is that writers don’t fully understand what the problem entails. With so much content on the Internet that is unattributed, written by an anonymous author, or freely shared between sites, many students and writers don’t realize that using another person’s work without giving credit—especially if that person isn’t mentioned on a respective site—is a problem.
Students in both high school and college are often taught that three or more words used exactly as written from a source need to be cited. This doesn’t seem to sink in with many students, though, when they see plagiarism taking place throughout the Internet everyday with the “sharing” of articles, photos, and videos between individual social media sites and blogs.The sharing seen on the Internet easily finds its way into more formal essays, school work, and content developed professionally. In some cases, students and other writers follow the example without thinking twice. Although this might be chalked up to an “honest mistake,” it is plagiarism nonetheless and should be challenged. Because this is such a problem, teachers and supervisors can—and should—do more to educate their students and employees on proper ways to avoid plagiarism, especially in the digital age.
The Digital Age Makes Plagiarism Easy
Students looking to intentionally plagiarize have never had it easier. Essays, articles, videos, and even entire dissertations can be quickly plagiarized in their entireties with the click of a mouse. In other ways, small sections of text can also be “cut and pasted” directly into any writer’s current work with little detection. Although anti-plagiarism programs like Turnitin and Viper exist to help combat the problem—and they do help—detecting plagiarism is difficult.
The vast size of the Web makes it hard to tell if a piece or source material was found online and illegally copied. If someone is paid to write a piece for someone else illegally—which is also facilitated through the Internet—plagiarism might never be discovered. If anti-plagiarism software doesn’t catch the problem, a teacher or supervisor who is familiar with the individual’s work might see disparities with a respective text and challenge it. Other signals such as change in text color, change in font size, change in font, or sudden change in voice might also be signals.
Despite the various ways that plagiarism occurs and reasons behind it, one reality remains true: Plagiarism has never been easier than it is in the digital age. To combat the problem, teachers can better inform their students on what plagiarism is and how to prevent it and supervisors can do the same for their employees. Plagiarism might be an honest mistake or it could be knowingly done; either way, the problem should be prevented, proactively.
As a final note, plagiarism can also be combated from the other side, by writers who might be plagiarized. By making a few key changes to their blogs and websites, to protect their original content, writers might help prevent plagiarism, before it takes place.
Image Credits: Jonathan Kim and Angelo Failla (via Flickr)