More students using social media to plagiarize, report finds

BY SARAH BULMER | MAY 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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It’s 11 p.m., and that pesky project on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is due in an hour. There’s no time to write the paper honestly, and the traditional paper mill costs too much.

With this generation’s boom in social networking, students are using social-media sites to find quick answers to their nagging questions.

One poster on Yahoo! Answers provides an example of such an exchange.

“What is Jane Austen’s concept of an ideal marriage in Pride and Prejudice? I know that she thinks they should have intellectual equality but what else?” the user wrote.

Soon after, “shroomtune” responded.

“[S]he is breaking from tradition by telling us that mutual love is part of an ideal marriage,” the post read.

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According to a recent study conducted by officials at Turnitin.com — the world’s largest and most widely used plagiarism detector — around one-third of plagiarized content in papers submitted to the site was from social and content-sharing websites.

“The fact that those websites made up a third of all content was surprising,” said Chris Harrick, the vice president of marketing for Turnitin.

This finding has drawn concern from some professors.

John Achrazoglou,the director of the University of Iowa Educational Technology Center, said the use of these websites contributes to the problem of plagiarism.

“With those kinds of online societies, people might throw out facts and figures very loosely,” he said, noting that many of these sites are not accountable sources.

The amount of available information can also make it easier for students to plagiarize, Achrazoglou said. But these methods are not effective when piecing together a strong, original paper, he said.

One UI student said regardless of technology and professors’ efforts, others should understand what plagiarism is.

“It really comes down to personal accountability,” said UI senior Brandon Goodman. “And also what you define as plagiarism. You can turn words around and turn them into your own.”

And to UI English Associate Professor Eric Gidal, the definition of plagiarism holds true, regardless of the medium.

“It’s nothing new in terms of the concern about plagiarism,” he said. “Getting things from Yahoo! Answers is no more of a problem than getting something from the Encyclopedia Britannica.”

According to the study, the most popularly plagiarized site is Wikipedia, followed by Yahoo! Answers.

Harrick said the popularity of social-network sites and Turnitin are somewhat correlated.

“It’s definitely not getting easier [to detect plagiarism],” he said. “We have to stay on our toes and be very in tuned to make sure our technology keeps pace.”

But Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist and expert witness, said though the expansion of social technology is a definite factor in the plagiarism spike, the competitive job market and economic recession should also be considered.

“Plagiarism and cheating in general increased tremendously over the last decade because people have become more desperate to get ahead,” said Lieberman.

But Gidal said plagiarism takes away from the main points of education: experience and learning.

“It’s just like learning to play piano,” he said. “You’re not learning much if you ask someone else to practice piano for you.”

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