A Survey on Students’ Understanding of Plagiarism

In his 1997 study “Can Undergraduate Students Determine Whether Text Has Been Plagiarized?,” Michael Roig highlights the findings of two separate studies on the abilities of undergraduate students in recognizing plagiarism. In these studies, students were shown an original passage and then exposed to a number of adequately paraphrased and summarized versions, in which a writer drew from the source. The results showed almost half of several hundred students as having great difficulty in correctly identifying instances of plagiarism. Roig’s methodology turned out to be the biggest inspiration for carrying out my own similar survey using the SurveyMonkey platform.

In an effort to expand upon the ideas and findings articulated by Roig in his 1997 study, I carried out a similarly-styled survey in October 2013 with a sample of 87 individuals, 79 of whom were college students and an additional 8 of whom were university faculty members. The inclusion of faculty was one important feature that distinguished my study from Roig’s. Another difference in my study was that the participants were from different universities around the world, not just 2 private colleges in New York (115). Using Amazon Mechanical Turk allowed me to make the survey available to this wider range of people. In the survey, each participant answered a number of demographic questions and was then shown several examples of student writing, all of which relied upon the same source (adapted from Martin’s The Logic and Rhetoric of Exposition). The first student essay included a citation but merely copied the source verbatim. A second essay did the same in a number of places but also included quotation marks in several instances. The final example, however, contained no plagiarism at all. Each respondent was asked to indicate what type of plagiarism, if any, was occurring in each of the essay excerpts. The findings lend some support to the idea that plagiarism can be overlooked even by those who deny they ever have or would engage in it.

My survey was unique in that it included people of all different colleges, world regions, and majors, which allowed me to compare the perception and comprehension of plagiarism standards across the curriculum even more than some predecessors. Using Mechanical Turk was an incredibly helpful way for me to make the survey available to this wider range of people.

Before starting the study, I had the hope that it would help to further develop ideas about a connection that might exist between one’s academic discipline and their understanding of plagiarism. It did offer several useful insights.

One of the questions posed to respondents was, “What kind of problem do you consider plagiarism to be?” Early in the study, about 51% had said that plagiarism is caused by laziness, while about 42% considered it to be an ethical problem. Quite consistent with research conducted by William Bowers in 1964 as well, 30% of my study’s respondents had already admitted to purposely engaging in some type of plagiarism. Bowers’ study, conducted nearly 50 years ago, had exactly the same percentage. (Note: As more respondents took the survey, this number was reduced to around 21%.)

I was already able to see the same line of thought evident among some of my own study’s respondents. One example essay was completely copied from the source without any quotation; it just had a citation in parentheses at the end. In spite of this, however, 12% of the subjects believed that the excerpt contained “No plagiarism at all.”



Out of all the native English speakers surveyed, the vast majority attributed plagiarism to being a strictly ethical violation. The majority of non-English speakers, on the other hand, attributed plagiarism to misunderstandings born out of one’s cultural background. This was consistent with my expectations, especially in light of the work of Helen Fox and Kathryn Valentine.


The fact that 82% of those who said “No” to the second question also called plagiarism “An ethical problem” indicates that this group likely wants to distance itself from a practice that they perceive as immoral, perhaps as a way of seeking to establish their own moral uprightness.


Juniors and Seniors were those who most often considered plagiarism to be “An ethical problem” (44%).

One thought on “A Survey on Students’ Understanding of Plagiarism

  1. What got me puzzled was the idea that plagiarism is a problem “caused by one’s cultural background”. I honestly never knew that was a thing. It seems like that there are different procedures for each country regarding academic honesty. I could totally see how many would view plagiarism as a laziness issue though.

    The statistics have also surprised me. I would’ve thought that students would be better trained in detecting plagiarism. Well, as long as they understand how to avoid plagiarism, they should be okay.

    What could make this “study” better would be to get more respondents and see if the overall results change.

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