Ethics and Plagiarism

Closely associated with intellectual property – but slightly different – is plagiarism.

It can be hard for kids who have grown up in an online “copy and paste” culture to see plagiarism as an ethical issue.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not only struggling students who plagiarize: indeed, it may be students who are under pressure to achieve who are more likely to engage in the subtler (and harder to detect) forms of plagiarism [1]. Researchers have identified three situations where this is most likely: when students are under pressure (such as when work must be done with a tight deadline, or a work is particularly important for their grades); when students are not interested in the work; and when students feel that the assignment is unfair to the point where they have no hope of success without cheating [2].

One 2009 study found a wide range in how serious teens identified different kinds of cheating: while two-thirds of teens considered copying a whole assignment to be “entirely wrong,” just over half felt the same way about plagiarizing part of an assignment, and only a third felt it was entirely wrong to copy homework questions directly from the Internet. It’s also interesting to note how many teens felt, in each case, that the activity was “against the rules but not wrong” – which suggests that they knew their teachers would find it unacceptable but saw no moral problems with it themselves [3].

In addition to not seeing some types of plagiarism as being dishonest, some kids may be genuinely confused. For example, even though most agree that blatantly copying and pasting whole assignments is cheating, they may not realize that paraphrasing material and stitching it together to look original is also considered plagiarism.

This may be in part because youth have grown up in a “copy and paste” culture where collaboration and sharing are the norm and many of their main sources of information, such as Wikipedia, are seen as not having authors. Some researchers have argued that young people have an entirely different attitude towards authorship and ownership than previous generations. Others, however, feel the issue is more that students are not being taught to respect academic honesty or the technical skills necessary to synthesize and properly cite sources [5].

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

The study “The Plagiarism Spectrum” identifies ten distinct forms of plagiarism.

Cloning, where the student submits work entirely copied from (or written by) someone else, is the most common and most severe, but also often the easiest to detect.

Control-C is similar except that it contains a mix of copied and original material.

Find and Replace is where material is copied but some words or phrases are altered to avoid detection.

Remixing is paraphrasing other material and stitching it together so as to look original.

Recycling is re-using one’s own work and presenting it as new.

Hybrid plagiarism mixes cited and uncited material.

Mashup is where several different sources are copied without being cited.

The final three forms do not fit precisely into the traditional definition of plagiarism, but are relatively common forms of academic dishonesty:

404 Error is when a student cites non-existent sources.

Aggregating is using properly cited sources in a student’s work that adds no additional material.

Re-tweeting is when a work is cited and presented as being paraphrased, but the paraphrase is too similar to the original text.

The Plagiarism Spectrum: Instructor Insights into the 10 Types of Plagiarism. Turnitin, May 2012. <>


[1] Richard Perez-Pena. Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception. New York Times, September 7, 2012. <>
[2] Jason Stephens. Why Students Plagiarize (webcast). <>
[3] HiTech Cheating. Common Sense Media, June 18, 2009. <>
[4] Trip Gabriel. Plagiarism Lines Blur For Students in the Digital Age. New York Times, August 1, 2010. <>

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

Learn More