Journal of Academic Ethics

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 217–232

Academic Plagiarism: Explanatory Factors from Students’ Perspective

Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10805-010-9121-0

Cite this article as:
Comas-Forgas, R. & Sureda-Negre, J. J Acad Ethics (2010) 8: 217. doi:10.1007/s10805-010-9121-0

Abstract

The study of academic plagiarism among university students is at an embryonic stage in Spain and in the other Spanish-speaking countries. This article reports the results of a research, carried out in a medium-sized Spanish university, based on a double method approach—quantitative and qualitative—concerning the factors associated with academic plagiarism from the students’ perspective. The main explanatory factors of the phenomenon, according to the results obtained, are: a) aspects and behaviour of students (bad time management, personal shortcomings when preparing assignments, the elevated number of assignments to be handed in, etc.); b) the opportunities conferred by information and communication technologies to locate, copy and paste information; and, finally, c) aspects related to professors-lecturers and/or the characteristics of the subject-course (lecturers who show no interest in their work, eminently theoretical subjects and assignments, etc.).

Keywords

Academic plagiarismHigher educationUniversity studentsAcademic honesty

Introduction

The Internet’s widespread availability and use in academic settings, its potential as a documentary source and its potential to facilitate the copying, pasting and editing of great quantities of written content—using word processors—have brought about a spectacular yet worrisome rise in cases of student plagiarism (Campbell 2006; Comas and Sureda 2008; Rimer 2003; Scanlon 2003; Sunderland-Smith 2008; Underwood and Szabo 2003). It is therefore no coincidence that in recent years, plagiarism has become the focus of studies concerning academic integrity (Comas 2009). As Bertram-Gallant (2006) states, empirical analysis in this field has become consolidated since the 1990s, despite the previous existence of singular, noteworthy, empirical approaches such as Bowers (1964), Singhal (1982) and Haines et al. (1986).

Studies on academic plagiarism committed by students can be synthesized and classified into four categories: a) analysis of its prevalence; b) description of the different types and nature of plagiarism; c) analysis of the causes and explanatory factors; and d) analysis and prescriptions of measures to prevent and detect plagiarism (Comas and Sureda 2007).

The existing literature on the factors and causes of plagiarism falls into three basic areas: a) studies that empirically analyse the factors associated with committing academic plagiarism among students; b) studies that research academic plagiarism in the more general framework of academic integrity; and c) studies that analyse the state of the art or the contributions, ideas, beliefs, reflections, and experiences of lecturers, researchers or institutions. Some of the main contributions with respect to each of the three areas are presented below.

One set of studies examines factors associated with plagiarism among students. The Australian Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) conducted an analysis of the causes associated with academic plagiarism, whether intentional and inadvertent, by undergraduates in 2002 (James et al. 2002). Introna et al. (2003) studied language skills and culture in relation to committing academic plagiarism. In a qualitative study carried out at the University of Canberra among engineering students, Alam (2004) correlated academic plagiarism with the difficulty and nature of students’ tasks. Dawson’s research (2004), also carried out in Australia, analysed the relationship between the type and difficulty of the task set and the likelihood of committing plagiarism, based on in-depth interviews of undergraduate students. Benett’s (2005) work dealt with the issue using a quantitative study developed in the United Kingdom among students of economics, while Bamford and Sergiou (2005) analysed the differences between foreign and native students at British universities. Devlin and Gray’s (2007) frequently referenced study in Australia described the main causes of academic plagiarism based on qualitative methodologies. Likewise, Rocha (2009) studied the causes of academic plagiarism among Turkish university students, and the work of Sureda et al. (2009) took a dual approach (qualitative and quantitative) to analyse the causes of academic plagiarism among university students from the perspective of Spanish university lecturers.

The second major body of literature contains the general studies on academic integrity that analyse plagiarism and its explanatory factors. McCabe and Trevino (1997) analysed how peer behaviour influenced students’ decisions about acting in accordance with or against academic norms. Loviscky (2000), tried to calibrate the potential differences among university students when committing academically dishonest acts, emphasising cultural factors and ethnicity. Dordoy’s (2002) work studied the causes of academic plagiarism and dishonest practices in the development of written texts from the perspective of students and teaching staff at the British University of Northumbria. Carrell et al. (2008) studied the effect of group pressure on academic integrity among students at American military schools. Wotring (2007) longitudinal analysis examined differences in the prevalence and understanding of academic integrity between three generational cohorts: baby boomers (born between 1943 and 1960), Generation X (born between 1961 and 1981) and Millennials (born after 1982). A qualitative study by Rakovski and Levy (2007) correlated age with the frequency of acts against academic integrity by university students. Rettinger and Kramer (2009) based their analysis on how different levels and intensities of peer pressure are related to the decision to act contrary to the principles of academic integrity. In Spain, Comas (2009) specified the main causes of academic plagiarism among university students from the perspective of teaching staff and students. Finally, Wilkinson (2009) researched the reasons why nursing students at Charles Sturt University in Australia committed acts that went against the principles of academic integrity.

Among the meta-analytical contributions based on an examination of the state of the art, three studies are especially noteworthy. Park (2003) made an in-depth analysis of the existing literature in the field and listed the main factors associated with academic plagiarism among students. The work of Bertram-Gallant (2008) systematised the literature around the causes of academic dishonesty and plagiarism into the areas of internal or personal, organisational, institutional and social. Finally, Comas and Sureda (2008) developed a detailed description of the main causes of academic plagiarism among university students according to the existent literature.

In this paper the main explanatory factors of plagiarism1 from the perspective of students are analyzed, with the aim of improving knowledge of the causes of academic plagiarism among university students. We propose to resolve several key issues. To what factors do Spanish university students ascribe the phenomenon of plagiarism? Are there differences in how these factors are ascribed depending on students’ gender and academic standing? To answer these questions, we administered a questionnaire to a representative sample of university students at an average Spanish university (the University of the Balearic Islands UIB). Additionally, we organised four focus groups with students from four knowledge areas (Social and Legal Sciences, Health Sciences, Experimental Sciences and the Humanities) at the same university. Students were given no prior information that might influence their opinions. With the adoption of this double analytical perspective, we aimed to reduce, as much as possible, the potential limitations of a univocal study based on a singular research methodology. As Devlin and Gray (2007) point out, most of the empirical approaches developed in studies of the factors associated with academic plagiarism among students suffer from these limitations.

Methodology

To determine and describe the factors to which university undergraduates ascribe the practise of submitting plagiarised assignments and to analyse the issue in relation to gender and course year, we adopted a dual approach to the methodology in this study: a) quantitative, operationalised through a survey, and b) qualitative, based on conducting discussion groups.
  1. a)

    Quantitative approach

    The data for this work come from the “Survey on academic integrity among students at the University of the Balearic Islands”, which consisted of 41 items. The validation of the instrument was performed using the assessments by seven international university experts on research methodological aspects and academic integrity. A pilot version of the questionnaire was given to 53 students at the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB). After introducing modifications to the questionnaire to comply with the appropriate reliability and rigour criteria, the revised instrument was given to 727 undergraduate UIB students (with an average age of 21.2 years), selected at random by stratifying the sample with respect to cycle and scientific area of the study from the population of 11.797 students enrolled in Degrees, General Degrees, Honours Degrees and Engineering Degrees at the UIB. Data collection was carried out using an individual, anonymous application of the questionnaire by four people with prior training on the task. The questionnaire was administrated in classroom settings with the presence of the four members of the research group after being given clear instructions to participants. A total of 12 questionnaires were invalidated because of being incomplete and a total of 7 students refused participating in the study. The sample size had a sample error of ±3.52% for the total data, estimated at a confidence level of 95% under the least favourable condition of p = q = 0.05. In the questionnaire, students were asked to ascribe importance to 16 possible causes or factors associated with academic plagiarism. The causes presented in the questionnaire are the ones that have been repeatedly mentioned in the literature on the subject (Table 1). Eight referred to characteristics or behaviours ascribed to teaching staff, seven referred to the characteristics, behaviours or beliefs of students, and one focused on the opportunities provided by the development of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).
    Table 1

    Causes of plagiarism presented in the questionnaire, classified according to area

    Causes of plagiarism ascribable to characteristics or behaviours of the teaching staff and methodological aspects of the teaching-learning process

    Causes of plagiarism ascribable to characteristics, behaviours and beliefs of students

    Causes of plagiarism ascribable to the ease of access offered by the Internet and TIC

    Setting too many assignments over a short period of time (lack of lecturer coordination)

    Due to a lack of time.

    Due to the ease of access offered by the Internet and ICT to find, process and edit information.

    Due to the belief that the lecturer will find it hard to find out the work has been copied.

    Doing things last minute.

     

    Due to the suspicion or knowledge that the lecturer is not very skilled at using the Internet.

    Out of mimicking: because the other students copy.

     

    Due to the suspicion or knowledge that the lecturer does not read the assignments carefully.

    Out of the belief that copying and downloading things from the Internet is right.

     

    Setting assignments of an eminently theoretical nature.

    For comfort and ease.

     

    Awarding a reduced weight of the assignment in the final grade.

    Due to a lack of knowledge as to how to do the assignments.

     

    Setting very complicated assignments.

    Out of the belief that they will get a better grade by copying than by doing it themselves (lack of confidence in their abilities )

     

    Setting assignments students feel they are learning nothing from.

      
    We calculated the frequency and percentage of each of the category variables, whereas in the scale variables, we calculated the frequency, mean and standard deviation. To establish a possible association between the variables associated with the 16 causes of academic plagiarism and the students’ characteristics (Tables 2 and 3), contingency tables were designed for each of the variables and the chi-square test and the Pearson correlation coefficient were carried out, thus determining the level of significance of the associations generated (Table 4). To construct the contingency tables, we subdivided the sample into the variables analysed. The sample was grouped into the following categories: “Students who confer a low relevance to the cause posed” (cases in which the appraisal was “Not at all relevant” or “Not very important”); “Students who confer a medium relevance to the cause posed” (cases in which the appraisal was “Relevant”); and “Students who confer a high relevance to the cause posed” (cases in which the appraisal was “Quite relevant” or “Very relevant”). The threshold of statistical significance for the associations was set in the cases in which p < 0.05. The Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS version 15.0) was used for all the analyses of the quantitative data generated in this study.
    Table 2

    Characteristics of the sample (n = 727)

    Variable

    n

    Percentage

    Sex

    Female

    466

    64.4%

    Male

    258

    35.6%

    Years studying at university

    Between 1 and 2 years

    326

    44.9%

    Between 3 and 4 years

    264

    36.4%

    5 or more years

    136

    18.7%

    Cycle of studies

    First

    576

    79.4%

    Second

    149

    20.6%

    In the Spanish university context, first cycle corresponds to years 1st, 2nd and 3rd and second cycle corresponds to years 4th and 5th

    Table 3

    Causes of plagiarism presented in the questionnaire and the response percentages (the highest percentages for each cause are shown in bold)

    Reasons for plagiarism

    Low relevance

    Medium relevance

    High relevance

    Don’t know/No answer

    Ease of access offered by the Internet to find information

    11%%

    30.8%

    52%

    6.2%

    A lack of time

    8.9%

    26.8%

    58%

    6.2%

    A feeling that it would be hard for the lecturer to find out they had copied

    56%

    25.2%

    12.4%

    6.5%

    The knowledge or feeling that the lecturer to whom the assignment is to be submitted is not very skilled at using the Internet

    70.7%

    15.3%

    7.6%

    6.5%

    Due to the knowledge or feeling that the lecturer to whom the assignment is to be submitted does not thoroughly read the assignments

    34.4%

    35.4%

    23.5%

    6.7%

    The habit of doing things at the last minute

    14.7%

    25.4%

    53.4%

    6.5%

    The fact that the assignment set is eminently theoretical

    27%

    35.5%

    30.4%

    7.2%

    The fact that the assignment has a reduced weight in the final grade of the subject

    35.6%

    27.9%

    29.6%

    6.9%

    The assignment to be done is very complicated

    30.1%

    35.5%

    27.4%

    7%

    Because other classmates do it

    66.6%

    16.4%

    9.1%

    8%

    A belief that copying something from the Internet is not bad, because everything on the Internet is public

    55.8%

    19.9%

    17.1%

    7.2%

    A feeling that you do not learn anything from the assignments

    53.9%

    25.2%

    14%

    6.9%

    You get a higher grade than by doing the assignment yourself

    57.1%

    20.5%

    15.3%

    7.2%

    It’s easier, simpler and more comfortable than doing the work yourself

    21.3%

    31.5%

    39.8%

    7.4%

    Many assignments have to be submitted over a short period of time

    12%

    27.9%

    53.1%

    7%

    Students do not know how to do academic assignments

    34.8%

    27.5%

    29.7%

    8%

    Table 4

    Causes associated with plagiarism, according to gender and students’ cycle of studies

    Causes

    Gender

    Cycle of studies

    χ2

    p

    g.l.

    n

    χ2

    p

    g.l.

    n

    The ease of access afforded by the Internet to find information

    11.394

    0.003*

    2

    681

    0.359

    0.836

    2

    680

    A lack of time

    10.726

    0.005*

    2

    681

    9.468

    0.009*

    2

    680

    The feeling that it will be very hard for the lecturer to find out they have copied

    1.313

    0.519

    2

    679

    1.066

    0.587

    2

    678

    The knowledge or feeling that the lecturer to whom the work will be submitted is not very skilled at using the Internet

    1.114

    0.573

    2

    679

    3.970

    0.137

    2

    678

    The knowledge or feeling that the lecturer to whom the work must be submitted does not thoroughly read the assignments submitted

    0.581

    0.748

    2

    677

    1.401

    0.496

    2

    676

    The habit of doing things at the last minute

    0.510

    0.775

    2

    679

    2.835

    0.242

    2

    678

    The fact that the assignment set is eminently theoretical

    3.013

    0.222

    2

    674

    0.696

    0.706

    2

    673

    The fact that the assignment has a reduced weight in the final grade for the subject

    3.627

    0.163

    2

    676

    3.870

    0.144

    2

    675

    The work to be done is very complicated

    7.278

    0.026*

    2

    675

    3.557

    0.169

    2

    674

    Because other classmates do it

    1.214

    0.538

    2

    668

    3.475

    0.176

    2

    667

    A belief that copying something from the Internet is not wrong, because everything on the Internet can be used because it is public

    2.390

    0.303

    2

    674

    4.227

    0.121

    2

    673

    A feeling that students do not learn anything through the assignments

    4.220

    0.121

    2

    676

    0.116

    0.944

    2

    675

    You get a better grade than by doing the work yourself

    0.422

    0.810

    2

    674

    4.731

    0.094

    2

    673

    It is easier, simpler and more comfortable than doing the work yourself

    3.211

    0.201

    2

    672

    1.704

    0.426

    2

    671

    Many assignments have to be submitted over a short period of time

    12.859

    0.002*

    2

    675

    4.849

    0.089

    2

    674

    Students do not really know how to do academic assignments

    0.393

    0.822

    2

    668

    0.569

    0.753

    2

    667

    χ2 Pearson’s Chi-square, p Significance, g.l. Degrees of freedom, * Significant at 0.05 (bilateral), n N° students in sample

     
  2. b)

    Qualitative approach

    In addition to the survey, four discussion groups were held with undergraduate students at the UIB from four disciplines: Social and Legal Sciences, Health Sciences, Experimental Sciences and the Humanities. Each group was made up of between seven and ten students who met in two sessions of between 60 and 90 min, held on different days. The protocol of the discussion group eased the possibility to bring up open issues that would enable participants to decide the orientation and bias of their answers. This made it easy to introduce unforeseen aspects in the discussion. The sessions were audio recorded in their entirety and later transcribed. The data from the discussion groups, which comprise part of this study, were analysed according to the procedure for qualitative data analysis used by Kember and Kwan (2000) and Devlin and Gray (2007). Once the discussion groups were completed and transcribed, their content was analysed and searched for general categories related to the reasons for plagiarism from the perspective of the students participating in the sessions. In addition to examining the answers to the direct issues and questions in the discussion groups (such as: “Based on your experience and to your knowledge, why do you think there are students who plagiarise assignments and hand them in as if they had written them themselves?”), the responses arising in the conversations that bore a direct relationship to the explanatory factors for academic plagiarism were also analysed, categorised and systematised. The initial topics and categories were refined until the final categories for the content analysis were established. We proceeded to analyse the transcriptions, grouping and classifying the information into three large areas: a) factors related to the teaching staff and teaching-learning methodologies, b) factors related to students and c) factors associated with the development of the Internet and ICT.

     

Results

The Most Relevant Causes of Plagiarism, from the Survey Data

The three factors considered by students to have the greatest relevance as causes of plagiarism (see Table 3) refer to questions of time management and personal organisation. The first factor is a lack of time to carry out academic assignments (58% of students place high relevance on this, while only 8.9% claim this factor is not very relevant). The second factor noted by students is organisation and personal time management (53.4% place high relevance on the habit of completing assignments at the last minute, while 14.7% place low relevance on this factor). Next, students cite the effect of having to hand in many assignments over a short period (53.1% place very high relevance on this and 12% place low relevance on this factor). The ease of information access offered by the Internet is the fourth factor cited by a significant percentage of students to explain plagiarism: 52% of the students surveyed consider it a highly relevant cause, and only 11% consider it to have low relevance. The fifth factor to which a greater percentage of students ascribe a high relevance is the fact that plagiarism “is easier, simpler and more comfortable than doing the work yourself”. Finally, there is a sixth factor to which a greater percentage of students ascribe high relevance (30.4%) than low relevance (27%): the fact that the assignments set by lecturers are eminently theoretical.

In contrast, the six causes of plagiarism to which a majority of students ascribe low relevance are the following, in ascending importance: the feeling or knowledge that the lecturer to whom the work will be submitted is not very skilled at using the Internet (70.7% low relevance); the fact that other equals do it (66.6% low relevance); the idea that plagiarism results in a higher grade than doing the work yourself (57.1% low relevance); a feeling of impunity (56%); the belief that copying something from the Internet is not wrong (55.8% low relevance); and, finally, the feeling that students do not learn anything by doing assignments (53.9% of low relevance).

The association between the causes of plagiarism and the gender variable (see Table 4) shows significant differences in four of the characteristics of the sample. Women place greater relevance than men on causes related to the ease of access offered by the Internet to find information, and they also confer greater explanatory importance on the factors related to lack of time, difficulty of the task and the large number of assignments (Figs. 1, 2, 3 and 4).
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10805-010-9121-0/MediaObjects/10805_2010_9121_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Attribution of relevance to the explicative factor of committing plagiarism due to the ease of access afforded by the Internet to find information per gender (%)

https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10805-010-9121-0/MediaObjects/10805_2010_9121_Fig2_HTML.gif
Fig. 2

Attribution of relevance to the explicative factor of committing plagiarism due to lack of time per gender (%)

https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10805-010-9121-0/MediaObjects/10805_2010_9121_Fig3_HTML.gif
Fig. 3

Attribution of relevance to the explicative factor of committing plagiarism due to having to submit many assignments over a short period of time per gender (%)

https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10805-010-9121-0/MediaObjects/10805_2010_9121_Fig4_HTML.gif
Fig. 4

Attribution of relevance to the explicative factor of committing plagiarism due to the fact that the work to be done is very complicated per gender (%)

Regarding the association between the causes of plagiarism and the cycle of studies variable (illustrated in Table 4), a statistically significant difference can only be determined for one of the causes: lack of time, which is appraised as more important among second-cycle (4th and 5th years) students than among first-cycle (1st to 3rd year) ones (Fig. 5).
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10805-010-9121-0/MediaObjects/10805_2010_9121_Fig5_HTML.gif
Fig. 5

Attribution of relevance to the explicative factor of committing plagiarism due to lack of time per cycle (%)

Causes of Plagiarism among Students from the Data Obtained through the Discussion Groups

Students’ reasons for plagiarising academic assignments revealed during discussion groups were transcribed and analysed. These factors were organised into three large groups: causes ascribable to teaching staff, including teaching-learning styles and methodologies and the characteristics of the assignments; causes ascribable to students; and causes ascribable to the development, potential and resources of the Internet and ICT. Quantification of students’ ascriptions for each of the causal dimensions suggested that students tend to focus on lecturers, teaching styles and the type of task as the main reasons why university students commit academic plagiarism (87 ascriptions), rather than on their own characteristics or behaviour (33 ascriptions) or the development of the ICT (12 ascriptions)—see Table 5.
Table 5

Number of ascriptions for the three large groups of causes to which students ascribe the fact of plagiarism

Causes

Number of ascriptions

1. Causes ascribable to the characteristics and behaviour of students

33

2. Causes ascribable to teaching staff

87

3. Causes ascribable to the developments of the internet

12

An analysis of the content of the causal ascriptions made it possible to refine and outline up to eleven characteristics of lecturers and other factors associated with teaching styles and assignments by which students explain the decision to plagiarise, whether willingly or unconsciously, when doing an assignment (Table 6). Of these characteristics, four stand out: 1) the belief that lecturers do not thoroughly correct the assignments (16 ascriptions); 2) the idea that lecturers set too many assignments that are often poorly-timed (13 ascriptions); 3) the idea that lecturers set assignments that are not very interesting (13 ascriptions); and 4) the belief that lecturers are not committed to their subject (14 ascriptions). In Table 6, the most significant reasons for these four factors are given, grouped according to students’ knowledge area.
Table 6

Causes students ascribe to academic plagiarism. For each cause, the number of ascriptions made in the four discussion groups is pointed out

Causes

Student discussion groups

Totals

Experimental sciences

Humanities

Social sciences

Health sciences

1. Causes ascribed to the characteristics and behaviour of students

1.1. Lack of motivation, laziness, lack of interest

3

6

4

2

15

1.2. Disorganisation and poor personal time management

3

0

6

5

14

1.3. Lack of training in academic assignments

0

3

0

1

4

2. Causes ascribed to teaching staff, teaching styles and characteristics of the assignments

2.1. Negative appraisal by students

0

1

4

8

13

2.2. Belief that lecturers don’t correct the assignments

8

2

3

3

16

2.3. Consideration by students that an excessive number of assignments are set at bad times

0

5

5

3

13

2.4. Student belief in the existence of an imbalance between the work set and the value conceded by lecturers in the overall course grade

3

0

0

2

5

2.5. Lecturer’s capacity to motivate students

1

2

3

1

7

2.6. Lack of coordination between lecturers

0

2

1

3

6

2.7. Student belief that lecturers don’t keep watch on ICT

0

1

6

0

7

2.8. Lack of clear instructions as to how to carry out the assignments

0

1

0

0

1

2.9. Consideration by students that lecturers are not committed to their subject

0

4

7

0

11

2.10. Repetition of the same assignments

0

0

1

1

2

2.11. Lecturer’s relationship with students

2

0

2

2

6

3. Causes ascribed to the development of the internet

3.1. Causes ascribed to the development of the Internet

3

1

5

3

12

Other causes ascribable to lecturers that were mentioned on more than five occasions included the following: 1) the lecturer’s incapacity to motivate; 2) the belief that lecturers are not skilled at using ICT; 3) the lack of coordination between teaching staff; 4) the lecturer’s relationship with the students; and 5) an imbalance between the effort spent on the assignment and the overall course assessment.

As illustrated in Table 6, the number of causal ascriptions of plagiarism to students themselves is much lower than the ones ascribed to lecturers (33 as opposed to 87), but it is also lower than the number of characteristics or items raised during the focus group discussions: only three in the case of students, as opposed to eleven for lecturers. Thus, the 33 ascriptions of plagiarism to certain student characteristics can be summed up as: 1) disorganisation and bad personal time management; 2) lack of motivation and/or no motivation; and 3) lack of training, skills and knowledge to carry out academic assignments. Of these, the outstanding factors include a lack of motivation to do the task (15 ascriptions) and disorganisation and poor personal time management (13 ascriptions).

The development and characteristics of the Internet and ICT were pointed out on 12 occasions as an explanatory factor for academic plagiarism: four times in the group of Experimental Sciences students, five times in the Social Sciences group, three times in the Health Sciences group and once in the Humanities group.

Discussion and Conclusions

The survey data regarding causal explanations for the phenomenon of academic plagiarism by students highlight three major dimensions: a) aspects related to students’ personal issues about the assignments, including lack of time, excessive number of assignments set by teaching staff and poor personal time management; b) the ease of access afforded by ICT; and c) the predominantly theoretical character of the assignments. Thus, although it may seem obvious, we suggest that students who plagiarise do so because they can and, undoubtedly, ICT has produced a framework in which there are more and more elements that makes easier and faster the commission of plagiarism (Benett 2005; McKenzie 1998). The Internet as a ‘source of sources’ or a ‘library of libraries’ is no longer a metaphor; the idea has become a reality that affects all fields based on information exchange, locating content and accessing and producing knowledge. Furthermore, this reality is well established in classrooms at different levels of the education system. The Internet has become the main source of academic documentation among university students (Sureda and Comas 2006); consequently, it has also become the main source of plagiarism (Fialkoff and St. Lifer 2002; Groark et al. 2001, 2006). The benefits of ICT for finding information (and for all practices within the framework of any training process) also serve to ‘explain’ perversions such as the rise in the number of cases of academic plagiarism. The ease of accessing and handling information and the anonymity conferred by ICT are key elements that, to a certain extent, account for the current situation. The changes over the last 20 years in the assessment processes of university students have led to a huge drop in closed-book type exams and a rise in assessment based on coursework (Moreno-Ariza and Pérez-Ferra 2009);. As an example: data obtained at the University of the Balearic Islands show that the average number of assignments per year for an undergraduate student is more than fourteen (Comas 2009). Undoubtedly, this growing demand for assignments, intimately linked with the new teaching model inspired by the Bologna Process, has increased the ‘temptations’ of resorting to the shortcut of plagiarism (Benett 2005). Indeed, at this point, it is not a matter of demonising resources that are, in themselves, innocuous; the Internet is not the origin of plagiarism in academic environments. Of course, the Internet has made plagiarism easier to commit, but the developments in ICT have also made it easier to detect this practice of academic dishonesty. Blaming ICT for student plagiarism is unfair and does nothing to help us understand or adequately manage the problem.

The results of this study suggest that a large number of assignments and poor time management by students (or, similarly, procrastination) lead students to consider plagiarism as an easy way out of these situations (although evidently not a very fortunate one). Furthermore, the option to plagiarize may be more likely when the assignment is theoretical in nature.

The discussion groups, however, suggest certain characteristics and behaviour of teaching staff as the main causes of academic plagiarism. They also highlighted the type and quantity of assignments, a lack of student motivation and a lack of organisation and personal time management when completing assignments as likely causes.

If we fit together these determining factors like pieces in a puzzle, we obtain an outline of the context that, from the perspective of students, provides the ‘ideal’ conditions to explain why undergraduates commit academic plagiarism; the scenario would be something like: a lecturer who is perceived by the student as not paying much attention to the assignments (and is not excessively interested in the development of the subject he/she is teaching) sets for a student (who is not very motivated by the task and who has other assignments to do) an eminently theoretical assignment that (in the student’s opinion) is not interesting, and so leaves it to the last minute to complete. To instructors this should sound rather familiar, doesn’t it?

In addition to sounding familiar, these data bear a close relationship and similarity with a number of empirical studies on factors associated with intentional, conscious plagiarism of academic assignments by undergraduate university students. In this sense, our results are consistent with those of other studies, which show students’ use of excuses as explanations replete with a denial of responsibility (for instance, excusing themselves because of the type of assignment, or because of characteristics and/or behaviour of lecturers, etc.). This is the case with Ashworth et al. (1997), who claim, as part of the results of their qualitative research, that students excuse themselves for plagiarism because the subject matter of the course was perceived to be as secondary or not very relevant in the curriculum, was badly presented by lecturers, or was superficially assessed. Phillips and Horton (2000) claim that students’ perception of apathy and disinterest by lecturers is a decisive factor in their decision to plagiarise all or part of an assignment. Sterngold (2004) suggested that conventional teaching methods, the difficulty of the task and a lack of understanding are factors that predispose students to plagiarism and other dishonest practices. Alam (2004) analysed the prevalence of cases of plagiarism in relation to the type of assignments and concluded that students show a greater predisposition to copying for assignments based on theory than for those based on practice. Devlin and Gray (2007) noted that an excessive demand for assignments (in terms of number and length) and the feeling that the lecturer does not know the subject well were explanatory factors for academic plagiarism. Akbulut and his work group’s (2008) quantitative study concluded that students plagiarise because of the large number of assignments they are given and because they feel that the assignments are boring. The study by Sureda et al. (2009) focused on an analysis of the determining factors of plagiarism from the lecturers’ perspectives, highlighting the type and number of assignments as explanatory factors for the phenomenon. In a study carried out in Thailand, Koul et al. (2008) emphasised the educational framework (teaching strategies and methodology) as an explanatory factor for plagiarism: methodologies and strategies more focused on the content rather than on the learning process and on the student development are more likely to aggravate cases of plagiarism amongst students.

The second group of studies emphasise the behaviour of the students themselves in deciding to commit plagiarism. Franklyn-Stokes and Newstead’s (1995) research study, carried out at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, suggested poor time management on the part of students and their desire for better grades as the main motivating factors for plagiarism, as far as students are concerned. Dordoy (2002) concluded that students plagiarise, among other reasons, out of laziness, poor management of the time devoted to studying and completing assignments and the ease of access to material via the Internet. Devlin and Gray (2007) reported that a lack of time, poor time management, laziness and the ease of copying access provided by ICT and the Internet were first order factors to explain this practice; and Akbulut et al. (2008) found again that lack of time and the desire to obtain good grades were personal factors associated with academic plagiarism.

The scenario that emerges from our data and those of other studies requires new and extensive empirical approaches that can analyse potentially contributing factors that have not previously been examined with clarity and precision. For example, with the current social and cultural determining factors that affects the prevailing educational model in our society; for example: as Magnus et al. (2002) suggested that there exists an association between the level of college cheating and the country’s corruption index. It is important to analyse these determining or mediating factors in order to better understand the polyhedral reality of the phenomenon of academic plagiarism. Moreover, it would be beneficial to provide a cautionary analysis of the transitory nature and changing character of the plagiarism phenomenon; today it is defined under conditions and imperatives that may be different in, say, the next decade. We also consider it imperative that in future research the factors associated with not committing plagiarism (the so-called inhibiting factors) should be analysed to understand the context in which we find ourselves with greater rigour and broad-mindedness. This knowledge will be the foundation on which to sustain the necessary changes at diverse levels (institutional, classroom, personal, etc.) and to progress in order to improve an undesirable and worrisome situation.

From the results obtained in this study, a series of guidelines can be deduced both for lecturers and for students that could contribute to reducing cases of plagiarism. Among the recommendations for lecturers, the following can be highlighted: set a smaller number of assignments and/or coordinate the assignments with assignments for other subjects, and even other years and cycles; clearly explain the meaning and nature of the task to be carried out by students; set practical or hybrid tasks (combining theory and practice) that are significant for students; and ensure regular, active follow-up of the students’ process of completing the assignments. We recognize that implementing these types of changes may not be easy for most instructors, but they are worth considering.

Concerning recommendations for students, we highlight the following: manage time, effort and resources adequately; improve informational skills; learn and use quotation and style norms appropriate to the area of knowledge being studied; take responsibility for learning and training; do not base assignments on digital resources and sources, but rather use non-digital resources that can be obtained at university libraries; and show an interest in and familiarity with the academic regulations of the institution regarding plagiarism and other potential forms of academic dishonesty.

Footnotes
1

This study focuses on intentional academic plagiarism: knowingly submitting—with the purpose of deceiving- texts, ideas, hypotheses, assignments, etc. belonging to other people as if they were one’s own. We do not take into account what has come to be known as inadvertent academic plagiarism, which is nearly always generated by using incorrect quotations and paraphrases in assignments or by not directly quoting an author due to a lack of knowledge of the practices and norms related to style (Comas and Sureda 2007).

 

Acknowledgements

This article was written in the framework of the Research project financed by the Ministry of Science and Innovation of the Spanish Government (MCI), entitled “El ciberplagio entre el alumnado universitario”, with reference SEJ2006-10413. The authors are grateful to the MCI for the support received. Authors also want to thank Dr. Miguel Roig for his suggestions and style correction done on the document.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Applied PedagogyBalearic Islands UniversityPalma de MallorcaSpain
  2. 2.Department of Applied PedagogyBalearic Islands UniversityPalma de MallorcaSpain