Does the Online Environment Promote Plagiarism?

Executive summary: no.

Thanks to Terry Anderson for alerting me to Ison’s interesting and informative paper, which suggests there is no significant difference  between levels of plagiarism in doctoral dissertations/theses whether students are online or not. There are slightly different distributions – notably, students at physical institutions appear to be somewhat more prone to severe cases of plagiarism. I’d hazard a guess that this small variation has more to do with the demographic differences between online and face-to-face doctoral students rather than anything directly to do with modality. Distance learners tend to be a little older and a little more intrinsically motivated, on average, than their physically collocated counterparts. 

While it is, on the face of it, disturbing that more than half of the examined dissertations at a doctoral level (where most studies have shown that by far the least amount of cheating is normally to be found) appeared to have some level of plagiarism, the results should be treated with a generous pinch of salt. A lot of this revolves around:

  1. definitions. The authors note that the greyer area of self-plagiarism affects these results. It is worth remembering that, in many countries, it is not just accepted but positively required that doctoral students use their published work as part of their theses. Indeed, in many countries, such publications often make up by far the majority of the thesis. Even where that is not the case, it is normal to include published papers in appendices and it would be extremely unusual for a student not to at least partially re-use their doctoral work as a basis for papers and vice versa. It is a widespread and accepted practice that I think should be encouraged, not damned. There is not much better proof of research competency than publication in peer-reviewed journals and, as that competence is what a doctorate is supposed to show, it is churlish to exclude such evidence. It is also worth remembering that there are very few fully online doctoral programs. Even at Athabasca, which is about as extreme as it gets, almost all doctoral students get to spend a little face-to-face time with one another and their supervisors. Equally, there are very few fully face-to-face programs. Way back in the 1990s much of my supervisors’ help came to me online, even though they were only a minute down the hall. It’s just a matter of degree and perception.
  2. the effectiveness of TurnItIn as a plagiarism detector. Having used TurnItIn over many years, I have always found it necessary to look really closely at the passages that it identifies and never to take its scoring at face value, especially for those passages in the ‘yellow’ zone. It often fails to notice that verbatim or paraphrased passages have been correctly cited (or at least an honest attempt has been made), for instance. It can provide a useful alert to help narrow down the papers to be concerned about, it is usually pretty reliable when a lot falls into the red zone, and it can make preparation of evidence in a plagiarism case a great deal easier, but it is very far from infallible, producing many false positives and missing some quite blatant examples that have been lightly obfuscated. 

Whether or not the results are reliable at an individual or overall scale, the relative proportions are what is interesting here. The fact that there is little difference between levels of plagiarism for online and face to face learners is both unsurprising and heartening. 


Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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