Causes of Plagiarism

What are the Causes of Plagiarism and the Failure to Use and Document Sources Appropriately?

Students who are fully aware that their actions constitute plagiarism - for example, copying published information into a paper without source attribution for the purpose of claiming the information as their own, or turning in material written by another student - are guilty of academic misconduct.  Although no excuse will lessen the breach of ethical conduct that such behavior represents, understanding why students plagiarize can help teachers to consider how to reduce the opportunities for plagiarism in their classrooms.

  • Students may fear failure or fear taking risks in their own work.
  • Students may have poor time-management skills or they may plan poorly for the time and effort required for research-based writing, and believe they have no choice but to plagiarize.
  • Students may view the course, the assignment, the conventions of academic documentation, or the consequences of cheating as unimportant.
  • Teachers may present students with assignments so generic or unparticularized that students may believe they are justified in looking for canned responses.
  • Instructors and institutions may fail to report cheating when it does occur, or may not enforce appropriate penalties.

Students are not guilty of plagiarism when they try in good faith to acknowledge others' work but fail to do so accurately or fully. These failures are largely the result of failures in prior teaching and learning: students lack the knowledge of and ability to use the conventions of authorial attribution. The following conditions and practices may result in texts that falsely appear to represent plagiarism as we have defined it:

  • Students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources of those ideas appropriately in their texts.
  • Students will make mistakes as they learn how to integrate others' words or ideas into their own work because error is a natural part of learning.
  • Students may not know how to take careful and fully documented notes during their research.
  • Academicians and scholars may define plagiarism differently or more stringently than have instructors or administrators in students' earlier education or in other writing situations.
  • College instructors may assume that students have already learned appropriate academic conventions of research and documentation.
  • College instructors may not support students as they attempt to learn how to research and document sources; instead, instructors may assign writing that requires research and expect its appropriate documentation, yet fail to appreciate the difficulty of novice academic writers to execute these tasks successfully.
  • Students from other cultures may not be familiar with the conventions governing attribution and plagiarism in American colleges and universities.
  • In some settings, using other people's words or ideas as their own is an acceptable practice for writers of certain kinds of texts (for example, organizational documents), making the concepts of plagiarism and documentation less clear cut than academics often acknowledge and thereby confusing students who have not learned that the conventions of source attribution vary in different contexts.

Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2014