Does Plagiarism Exist in Today’s Digital World?

Jun 3, 2010 by Ellen Sampong, JD

My 12-year old son told me the other day that he does not understand why his teacher gave him a first warning for plagiarism when all he did was use “bits and pieces” of ideas he read on the Internet.  “But son,” I said, “you copied something someone else had written without giving them credit!”

Is copying material that’s not attributed to an author plagiarism?  Why do professors admonish students for using material that is out there in cyberspace?  Why is copying Wikipedia plagiarism when a lot of that information is without author attribution?

Why might a student be confused regarding these issues? The following are a few reasons.

First of all, the digital age is such that many students download songs, movies, pictures, and other material legally from the Internet.  It is true that sometimes one has to pay, as in the case of iTunes, however, there are many free sources as well.  Not to mention that the cut-and-paste functionality in modern word-processing software facilitates it even further.  This process may make students feel that copying and pasting words is a continuous use of the Internet with no intention to plagiarize.  Take a look at the case of Helene Hegemann, a 17-year old author who says material copied for her book Axoltl Roadkill is simply “intertextuality” and not plagiarism.

Another consideration is the fact that students may feel that authorship is passé.  Why?  Well, students respond to blogs, write publishable articles, poetry, and songs on the Internet for which they do not request credit.  Often times, they use a pseudonym to remain anonymous.  (Be patient, I am just giving you the theories.)

It is also possible that students are mimicking what society is doing.  As the reputation of colleges, schools, and even the paychecks of some teachers, come to depend upon how well students perform on standardized tests, licensing exams, and similar tests, some teachers and test preparation companies are giving students study aids that have practice questions copied without authorization from past or current exams.  (See and

Do institutions care about plagiarism?  Many do, and educational institutions from middle schools to universities are doing something about plagiarism.  Some have created courses to teach students what plagiarism means, some use technology software such as turnitin to assess the originality of papers, some employ proctors to oversee exams, and others use software such as examsoft to restrict exam takers from accessing data on their computers.

So, is copying material without identifying the source plagiarism?  At California Southern University, the answer is a resounding yes!  Writing is a difficult art, but doing it the hard way helps students assimilate the material faster and it ultimately teaches students how to write well.  With the exception of examsoft, CalSouthern uses all of the above anti-plagiarism methods.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for further discussion on this matter and that you will continue the discourse with your friends and co-workers.



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