Plagiarism – it’s a word that many higher education professionals equate with cheating and a problem that continues to rise. Where exactly are students getting their information? Turnitin conducted a study that analyzed approximately 24 million college papers and pinpointed the most popular sites (percentages represent percentage of students’ papers that matched the content of the corresponding website):

The Top 10

1)  Wikipedia        10.74%                  6)  Coursehero   3.01%
2)  Yahoo! Answers   3.90%             7)  Scribd    2.95%
3)  Slideshare   3.87%                          8)  Justanswer.com 1.60%
4)  Answers.com   3.57%                   9)  eNotes    1.58%
5)  Oppapers.com   3.11%                  10)  Amazon   1.21%

The study reveals that postsecondary students struggle with submitting original work. What the study does not address is the fact that plagiarism does not necessarily equate to cheating. In my experience, students often commit plagiarism accidentally because they just don’t take the time to learn proper citation styles (e.g. APA, MLA). Many online students are working adults with children so they may not invest the time and effort into learning the rules of citation. Additionally, many students lack research skills because they have been spoiled by Google; they expect to get instant results with simple key word searches.

Distance advisors should be resource experts; they need to: (a) understand their institutions resources; (b) direct  students to them; and (c) teach students how the resources can be used. Students who enhance their research skills and understand how to identify scholarly sources of information will better understand the nature of plagiarism and the nuances of research writing. Also, experience has taught me that the most common plagiarism charges occur because students do not understand how to paraphrase correctly or how to properly cite direct quotes. Dovetailing is another common mistake as students do not always understand that they cannot reuse their work for other classes.

The best thing an advisor can do is proactively assess a student’s comfort level with academic writing and research (e.g. How comfortable are you with APA format? Take me through your process of doing research. What resources do you use to find scholarly sources of information?). Advisors can discuss common problematic trends and suggest ways in which students can take ownership of learning these things. I try to empower my students by suggesting they buy the appropriate manual (my institution uses APA) and constantly refer to it so they can learn it like the back of their hand :) Students must understand that plagiarism is not just about content matches; it is about mastering the art asserting one’s ideas with originality and with the support of research.