Is plagiarism more common online? The idea is 'unfounded,' says one researcher

Most dissertations studied contained plagiarized material

Doctoral students completing their programs online are not significantly more likely than their peers taking traditional courses to commit plagiarism, according to a new report in the MERLOT's Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.

David Ison, program chair and an associate professor in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's aeronautics department, examined 368 dissertations written between 2009 and 2013—half were from traditional institutions and half were from online programs.

The dissertations were then run through plagiarism-check program Turnitin for analysis and sorted into four levels:

  • No plagiarism;
  • Low-level plagiarism;
  • Medium-level plagiarism; or
  • High-level plagiarism.

Comparing the virtual doctoral students' dissertations with those from traditional programs, Ison found that—despite common notions that online students plagiarize more often—there was no significant difference in rates of plagiarism.

"The notion that the Internet and online work are more likely to contribute to the instance of plagiarism appears to be unfounded... plagiarism should be expected to be comparable across institution types," Ison says.

At traditional programs:

  • 43% of dissertations had little to no evidence of plagiarism,
  • Just over 17% had mid-level instances; and
  • Less than 1% had high-levels.

Meanwhile, in online programs:

  • 39% of dissertations had little to no evidence of plagiarism,
  • 10% had mid-level instances; and
  • Just one dissertation had high levels.

Online programs' lower rates of mid-level plagiarism suggest that their typically older student population have a better grasp of citation practices, although no demographic data was collected as part of this study.

But Ison says one of his major takeaways from this study is that more than 50% of the dissertations contained plagiarized material—regardless of institution type.

"One would assume doctoral students would be the last individuals who need more education on these procedures however, this is clearly not the case," Ison says.

Many of the instances involved self-plagiarism, and Ison says programs need more faculty oversight and better instruction on paraphrasing and proper citation processes.

Future studies should use a larger sample size, cover longer periods of time, and explore how doctoral committees and faculty members address plagiarism, ethics, and citations, Ison says (Stansbury, eCampus News, 5/12).

The takeaway: Instances of plagiarism are no more common in online doctoral programs than in traditional ones, according to a new study. But findings suggest all students need more training in citations and paraphrasing.

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