Thursday, June 22, 2006

How Common is Plagiarism?

The L.A. Times is reporting that "about 30% of papers are plagiarized, either totally or in part." As far as I can tell (the writing is poor, but hey, it's the LA Times), they are claiming to have gotten that figure from I'm calling BS on that.

Regular readers of this site will know that 1.) I hate plagiarism, and 2.) I think it is far too common. But there is no way that 30% of papers are plagiarized. I would guess that about 10% of the papers I see contain some form of plagiarism.

Not that the L.A. Times would just make up a figure (*cough*), but by attributing that figure to "Those programs" that elsewhere in the article are identified as "software such as [Turnitin] that scans work for plagiarism," the reporter makes me rather suspiciousabout the figure. That weaselly separation of the source from the statistic is the kind of things students do when they are are making stuff up, or at least playing fast-and-loose with the figures.

Indeed, that figure is apparently contradicted by other statistics in the same article, such as a "2003 study by Rutgers University found that more than a third of college undergraduates had cut and pasted passages from the Internet without attribution. " OK, let's do the math here: if 30% of all papers are plagiarized, and over 1/3 of all college undergrads had plagiarized at one time or another, that is going to require that nearly every plagiarist is plagiarizing every single time. This doesn't say all "freshmen," this says "college undergraduates." While you do have the hardcore plagiarists who will simply plagiarize every paper, those folks tend to flunk out by the end of their college careers. I think the 1/3 of undergrads figure makes sense if we include the desperation plagiarists ["I've got three papers due in the morning, and there's no way I can get them done in time. Of course, if I just go on the internet, just this once..."].

Since I use Turnitin, and my plagiarism percentage is far, far lower than that presented in the article, I'm left with one of three conclusions: Either Troy students are far, far less likely to plagiarize than those in the rest of the country, that Turnitin just made up the figure, or that the L.A. Times just made it up.

By the way, in case anyone is wondering, I fed the L.A. Times article into Turnitin to check for plagiarism. It came up only 3% non-original material, one of which was a quote and the other of which was the phrase "said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet use," a phase likely to reoccur naturally. At least insofar as this article runs, Terril Yue Jones is not a plagiarist. Hooray!

h/t Bourgeois Nerd


  1. Maybe the writer thought "1/3 of all undergraduates" meant "30% of all papers." In that case, it's just a testament to the need for basic "math and statistics for the educated life" kind of classes in college gen. ed. curriculum.

  2. Brendan5:03 AM

    How common is plagiarism?

    Frightfully common, old chap.

  3. Anonymous11:12 PM

    I like how you said, "...those folks tend to flunk out by the end of their college careers," since to flunk out is, effectively, to end one's college career.

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