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Plagiarism Goes Social

The Web is going social. And now it seems that plagiarism might be heading that way, too.

A new study found that social and user-generated Web sites are the most popular sources for student copying. Academic sites come in second, while paper mills and cheat sites are third.

A report on the findings was released today by iParadigms, creator of Turnitin, a popular plagiarism-detection service that takes uploaded student papers and checks them against various databases to pinpoint unoriginal content. For its study, the company analyzed 40 million papers submitted by high school and college students over a 10-month period.

“It shows that plagiarism in sourcing work is going the way that everything else in the world is going,” says Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing at Turnitin. “People are relying more on their peers than on experts.”

But the findings come with a big caveat: Turnitin detects “matched content,” not necessarily plagiarism. In other words, the software will flag material from a paper mill, but it will also flag legitimate stuff that is properly cited and attributed. The company leaves it up to individual professors to determine plagiarism. So there’s no way to know exactly how much of the copying highlighted in this study, outside of the material that matches content from shady sites, is actually cheating.

That said, the enormous size of Turnitin’s database still makes the following numbers pretty interesting:

  • One-third of all “matched content” comes from social-networking and content-sharing sites like Facebook, Myspace, Scribd, SlideShare, Yahoo Answers, and Answers.com
  • Legitimate education sites account for one-quarter of all copying. Popular sources included the National Institutes of Health site, www.nih.gov; MedLibrary.org; and test-prep and homework-help sites like Course Hero and BookRags.
  • To researchers’ surprise, paper mills and cheat sites accounted for only 15 percent of matches. In this category, Turnitin includes sites like OPPapers.com and Allfreepapers.com.
  • Over all, the top eight sites for matched content were Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, Answers.com, SlideShare, OPPapers.com, Scribd, Course Hero, and MedLibrary.org
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