Education is the Key
When colleges and universities adopt strict liability standards that punish all forms of plagiarism equally they are usually trying to deter conduct. In theory, such systems sound good. Punishing the plagiarist who tries passing off the ideas of another as his or her own should deter future would-be plagiarists. The problem is that strict liability systems cannot deter unintentional plagiarism caused by lack of proper education. While I cannot speak for every institution, most colleges and universities actively condemn academic dishonesty but do not provide their students with the education and training to fully understand what conduct is off limits.
Academic Plagiarism in the Digital Age
Students who have grown up in the digital age are used to copying and pasting–it is just part of leading a digital life. It is also perfectly acceptable behavior outside of school where blogs, tweets, text messages, and email blur the lines of plagiarism and copyright infringement. Institutions need to move away from strict liability approaches and towards more reasoned approaches that treat each case of alleged plagiarism with the thoughtfulness once applied before the advent of plagiarism detection programs like iThenticate and TurnItIn.com.
Plagiarism detection software indeed has simplified the task of identifying probable plagiarism but it cannot substitute for a professor’s review of the allegedly offending work product. What iThenticate and the other platforms are good at is identifying verbatim and similar text. They do so without regard to whether the identified source was properly cited. All plagiarism detection software platforms are also limited by there source material. Just because iThenticate flags a portion of text as copied from a source in its database there is no way to know whether that text is itself original and worthy of citation. Indeed, the alleged “source” text flagged by iThenticate may itself have been copied from another source that is not in iThenticate’s library.
Waiting for the “Science” to Catch Up
What is happening today in the world of plagiarism is a lot like what happens when a new forensic science technique is discovered. A lot of people are wrongfully accused and convicted under the guises of science. It may be years before this “science” is perfected, however. Until it is, schools need to be careful in relying too heavily on these new technologies and students need to obtain solid legal counsel at the first allegation of plagiarism.