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Is plagiarism more prevalent in some forms of assessment than others?

Lubna Sheikh Alam
School of Information Sciences and Engineering
University of Canberra, Australia
It is increasingly evident that plagiarism in assessment has become a serious problem for universities. This paper reports the results of a survey of postgraduate students in a Master of Information Technology course. The paper presents students' perceptions of plagiarism (intentional and unintentional), percentages of students plagiarising across different forms of assessment, and any correlations found between plagiarism and demographic, situational and perceptual factors. All forms of assessments are subject to plagiarism and occurrences of plagiarism vary between different forms. The paper also discusses ways of addressing plagiarism. It suggests that universities need to undertake an integrated approach that recognises and counters plagiarism at every level from school policy, through staff and student induction, assessment design, deterrence and penalties, and ongoing support. A web based online workshop on plagiarism could be made available to students. Use of plagiarism detection software combined with individual academic support appears to have a positive impact on students. Staff should design assessment tasks that prevent unintentional plagiarism.


It is increasingly evident and widely accepted in the literature and the popular press that academic dishonesty among students, in particular plagiarism in assessments, are at all time high and still on the rise in Australian universities (Marsden, 2003; Park, 2003; Walker, 1998). This has become a serious and stressful concern for both staff and students. "Student plagiarism subverts the system of course evaluation, debases qualifications, and offends against academic integrity" (Walker 1998; p.89). Managing plagiarism in a constructive and consistent way is challenging and there are issues with additional workload and resources for staff.

At the University of Canberra, during the last five years, there has been an increase in the number of overseas students enrolled in graduate coursework courses, such as the Masters of Information Technology (MIT). At present two thirds of the MIT students are international students, the majority coming from Southeast Asia. Many computing subjects require minimal report writing skills but those in the Information Systems (IS) area, central to our MIT graduates, have assignments that emphasise effective research and critical analysis. Students appear to have difficulty with this form of assessment and there has been an increasing incidence of intentional and unintentional plagiarism that has led us to consider how to address this issue.

In this context, in order to obtain an impression of postgraduate IT students' perceptions, experiences with, and attitudes towards plagiarism, a survey was carried out within the school of Information Sciences and Engineering at the University of Canberra. This paper reports the results of the survey describing students' perceptions of plagiarism (intentional and unintentional), percentages of students plagiarising across different forms of assessments, any correlations found between plagiarism and demographic, situational and perceptual factors. The paper concludes with implications for the university.

Major hypotheses of study

In addition to measuring the prevalence of plagiarism reported in the sample, three sets of theoretical hypotheses were tested.

Hypothesis 1
Plagiarism is more prevalent in some forms of assessment than others. There has been a rise in unintentional plagiarism in Information Systems subjects in recent years within the school. There has been considerable research into perceptions of cheating in assignments and in tests and exams (Park, 2003), but quantitative data on plagiarism across different forms of assessments amongst Australian university students is scarce. A number of studies examined a particular piece of academic work, for instance, a major assignment, or an end of semester examination (Marsden, 2003). For example, some research examined test and exam cheating behaviour including discarded cheat sheets and use of gestures (Croucher, 1994; Pullen et al, 2000). Other research relied on students to self report their behaviour over an entire degree program (eg. Roig & Detommaso, 1995). This study was interested to find out what are the relative frequencies of self reported plagiarism incidence among IT postgraduates in various forms of assessment used in the school.

Hypothesis 2
Students plagiarise more in report writing assignments than programming assignments due to an incorrect understanding of citation and referencing conventions arising from the cultural and social diversity (CALD international students, NESB) of students.

This is a two part hypothesis. Based on recent experiences by staff and the Head of School, it was believed that students plagiarise more in technical report writing assignments than programming assignments.

Culturally and Linguistically Diverse students (CALD) students would plagiarise more due to cultural and language difficulties (Cohen, 2003). The reproductive learning culture (Samuelowicz, 1987) prominent among the CALD students, coupled with stress and difficulties experienced due to study shock, lack of English proficiency and critical thinking ability, means that students struggle to come up with original ideas. Critiquing or even paraphrasing renowned authors' work is like challenging established wisdom as commented by some second year MIT students (Head of School, personal communication). International students represent a significant proportion of the school student population. Staff experience claims that many international students have never written a technical report. They are more likely to plagiarise inadvertently due to incorrect understanding of citation and referencing conventions (Larkham & Manns, 2002, p343).


Both quantitative and qualitative research techniques were used to ascertain student perceptions or misperceptions of plagiarism defined in university policy and reported acts of plagiarism in various assignments in the sample. Three broad sets of data were collected. Each of these provided the basis of the outcomes of the project as detailed below.

Data gathered through a survey
A survey was conducted among students enrolled in the MIT. A four part self report questionnaire was distributed in selective graduate and masters level subjects, carefully chosen to range from core programming to information systems management oriented subjects. Participation was during class time and was both anonymous and voluntary. Students who were enrolled in more than one of these subjects were requested to respond to the survey once. The refusal rate was less than 1%. The Human Ethics Committee at the University of Canberra approved the research reported in this paper.

The questionnaire contained a number of closed questions plus questions requiring open ended responses. Section I of the survey was scenario based, describing cases of a student plagiarising. The survey asked students to identify whether it is a case of plagiarism or not, to classify the plagiarism as intentional or unintentional and to justify their responses. Section II of the survey inquired about how many times students have plagiarised in different forms of assessment while doing graduate course work. Section III of the survey contained several open ended questions to identify the deterministic rationales behind plagiarism and how the university can help students to minimise plagiarism practices. Section IV contained items designed to collect demographic information related to the study. Two further items were added to measure the receipt of information on university rules on plagiarism and referencing conventions.

University and school data
Data were collected on the university policy on plagiarism and related matters such as assessment and appeals, and the inclusion of policy information in subject outlines, orientation programs, subject websites etc.

Informal interview data
Other forms of qualitative data were obtained through informal interviews with key academics and support staff. The interviews sought the views of four staff on personal experiences, attitudes towards plagiarism, anecdotal evidence and how to set up assessment tasks to minimise plagiarism.


Quantitative data analysis

99 students participated in the survey with 98 usable responses corresponding to a 99% response rate. The students ranged in age from 21 to 54 with a mean of 28.4 (SD = 7.79). There were 73% male and 27% female, with 40% local and 61% international students. A series of Chi-square test of associations was carried out between plagiarism and demographic variables (i.e. age, sex, employments, average grade etc) and situational variables like awareness of rules and referencing techniques. Significant associations with plagiarism were found only for age and average grade for this sample indicating that younger students with lower grades self report the most instances of plagiarism. Descriptive statistics for the measure of plagiarism are presented in table 1 that reports percentage scores of plagiarism by demographic and situational variables. Some of these measures might not be statistically significant, but have significant implications for the school. For example, students are aware of university rules on plagiarism and penalties, but still they plagiarise. Gender difference in plagiarism is insignificant in this sample.

Students perceptions and misperceptions
There was noticeable confusion in the sample group about attributing acts as plagiarism or non-plagiarism and in classifying intentional and unintentional plagiarism. The four scenarios on proven cases of plagiarism used in the study ranged from neglecting to acknowledge sources to copying others' work in its entirety. Table 2 summarises the students' responses for both local and international students.

Students generally perceived the use of un-cited work as plagiarism. They perceived not quoting others' work as unintentional plagiarism and not acknowledging sources as intentional plagiarism. The rationalisations students provided ranged from laziness, to meeting deadlines, to ignorance of referencing techniques. There was total agreement among the sample that outright copying of another student's assignment was seen as an act of intentional plagiarism. Surprisingly there was a fair amount of tolerance among students that copying or getting someone to write considerable amount of code for programming assignments was not an act of intentional plagiarism. Many saw taking help from peers to complete programming tasks as legitimate and a way of learning.

The study assessed if there existed any significant disconnects between the students' perceptions of what constitutes plagiarism and the university policy, where more disconnects would mean more plagiarism. It examined a combination of situational and perceptual factors in an effort to predict any such relationship. A series of independent chi-square test of associations failed to find any statistically significant associations between students who plagiarised at least once or never with these factors.

In addition, students were asked to identify their stance in terms of how they perceived plagiarism on a 10 point scale ranging from 0(totally unacceptable) to 10(totally acceptable). Students generally perceived plagiarism as an unacceptable act. A t-test comparison of means was carried out to find any significant difference between the means for those who plagiarise (m = 3.37) and those who do not (m = 2.90). The two means are very close indicating that there is no impact (p = 0.383) on students' decision to plagiarise even though they perceive plagiarism as unacceptable.

Table 1: Descriptive statistics and predictive plagiarism

At least once
Asymp. Sig.






Average Grade
   High Distinction



   Not employed




Units Completed
   Up to 3 units
   Up to 6 units
   Up to 9 units
   Up to 12 units
   Up to 24 units


Awareness of Rules






p < 0.05 indicates there is a significant association

Table 2: Perceptions of students of plagiarism based on university policy

Scenario for perceptionsPlagiarism (%)
Did not put quotation mark7228
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no2278
Did not acknowledge source8911
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no7723
Copied other student's assignment1000
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no973
Another student wrote major part of the assignment7723
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no8713
Did not put quotation mark5941
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no3169
Did not acknowledge source8813
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no6832
Copied other student's assignment982
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no982
Another student wrote major part of the assignment6535
     Considered plagiarism as Intentional yes/no7030


Amongst the current sample, 57% of the students admitted to plagiarising at least once. This is much lower than the benchmark study conducted among 954 students at four Australian universities where 81% of the students admitted to plagiarism (Marsden, 2003).

Hypothesis 1: Plagiarism is more prevalent in some forms of assessment than others.
Students were asked to self report on their personal experiences of plagiarising on a five point scale of 0 (never) to 4 (many times). The results below show the relative frequencies of plagiarism across assessments, with more students admitted to cheating in programming assignments, ahead of essay type assignments, then analysis and design assignments (i.e. databases related assignments), and finally group projects and laboratory work.

Hypothesis 2: Students plagiarise more in report writing assignments than programming assignments due to an incorrect understanding of citation and referencing conventions arising from the cultural and social diversity (CALD international students, NESB) of students.

The first part of this hypothesis is rejected. Programming assignments have a mean score of .80, analysis and design assignments 0.45, and essay writing assignments 0.62 on a scale of 0 (never) to 4 (many times). This (and chart 2 below) is indicative that students tend to plagiarise more in programming assignments than essay type assignments.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Self reported plagiarism across different forms of assessment (no of students)

For the second part of the hypothesis, the study failed to find any correlation between student perceptions of acknowledgement and referencing conventions and plagiarism in essay type assessments (p=0.315 & p=0.324). An important and somewhat surprising outcome of the present study is the unexpected finding that information on proper citation and referencing techniques had no impact on plagiarism, where one would hope, especially in the cases of CALD international students, that lack of knowledge of referencing conventions within the discipline area would mean more plagiarism in essay type assessments. One explanation to this anomaly as claimed by students was that they were aware of the locations of the resources on citation conventions (i.e. subject outline, assignment handout, Academic Skills Program, library website, staff etc) but never read/used them.

In addition it follows through, from discussion on student perceptions and table 1, that there was no statistically significant data to relate misconceptions of international students with plagiarism, which can be seen as a limitation of this study. As discussed earlier (and later in qualitative analysis) students' responses and rationalisations and interviews with ESL staff confirm the prevalence of this claim. The survey shows that 34% of international students plagiarise in essay type assessments as opposed to 19.4% of local students, which shows a bias (p = 0.132).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Self reported plagiarism frequencies in assessment (no of students)

Qualitative data analysis

One of the more interesting aspects of the survey was the open ended comments by students that provided a more in-depth view of their perceptions of why plagiarism occurs and their views on the ways in which it could be minimised and managed.

Why students plagiarise
The investigation sought to find reasons why students' plagiarise in IT. The majority of the students (43%) identified laziness, lack of motivation to work hard, and regarding copying as an easy way out as major reasons why students plagiarise. Only 11% of the sample plagiarise in order to achieve higher grades and /or simply to pass the subject.

One third of the students regarded poor time management and stressing to meet deadlines due to workload (both academic and work) as the reason for plagiarising. The majority of the students work part time, leaving them with little time to attend classes and to complete assignments on time. This is supported by a separate study of 477 students at our university that the higher the proportion of classes missed, the lower the average grade. For all fulltime students the study further found that paid employment for long hours per week (> 22 hrs) has a small but negative affect on average marks (Applegate & Daly, 2003).

At the other end of the spectrum, another significant group of the respondents (41%) identified lack of knowledge and understanding of and interest in the subject/ course as the major reason for plagiarism among IT students. This is a unique and significant determinant found in this survey, parts of which are apparently not emphasised in the literature. A fairly representative sample of their responses includes:

Lack of understanding of the principles to complete the assignment.
Lack of knowledge in the subject.
Cannot cope with intellectual content.
The subject may not be related to individual's future work.
They shouldn't be doing the subject in the first place.
As shown by Gerdeman (2000):
Cheating tends to be more common in classes where the subject matter seems to students unimportant or uninteresting or where the teacher seemed disinterested or permissive (in Park, 2003; p.480).
The survey students clearly identified a 'lack of intellect to comprehend the subject or course materials' as the primary factor. This questions the intellectual ability of this group of students to take up studies in IT or their approach to study or their claim for credits or their interest in the chosen field (Baskett et al., 2004)

Among the students almost one fifth reported that students might commit plagiarism out of ignorance of 'what constitutes plagiarism', lack of knowledge of referencing and citation techniques, which were hypothesised to be the major factors behind plagiarism (hypothesis 2). Only a few (8%) thought conflicting cultural values and norms about plagiarism plays a role in plagiarism.

Further as suggested in several student comments, some students believe that the university contributes to student plagiarism - perhaps through lack of resources in terms of staff availability and library resources etc. (5%), encouraging an environment of collaborative learning through group work (3%), poor course assignments with unrealistic expectations and not accepting resubmissions (6%) etc.

A number of studies have confirmed that a perception, on the part of the students, that the low risk of being caught and an unwillingness among the staff to report such cases of plagiarism can contribute to plagiarism (Park 2003, p481). When asked, "do students plagiarise only when they think they would not get caught?" 54 out of 91 respondents disagreed. They referred to the reasons mentioned earlier as being the determinant for their decision to plagiarise or not. Use of detection software may reduce plagiarism, but will not solve the cause of the problem.

Institutional support for students
When asked what the university could do to assist students so that they do not plagiarise, students' responses ranged from issues related to assessment and submission requirements to increasing awareness of plagiarism. Representative student comments for minimising plagiarism include:

Implications for the university

As seen in this study, the range of views on the topic of how to reduce plagiarism is broad, perhaps an indication of how difficult it may be to generate consensus on any campuswide strategy to address the issue. Based on the findings, the paper attempts to incorporate recommendations to the university in the form of support rather than a punitive approach on deterring, detecting and dealing with plagiarism.


Assessment design

Student academic and language support



This paper reports preliminary results of IT students' perceptions of plagiarism and self reported occurrences of plagiarism in a school in an Australian university. All forms of assessment are subject to plagiarism and occurrences of plagiarism vary between different forms. The results show that plagiarism is common among postgraduate students, that there are multiple reasons why students plagiarise and careful design of assessment tasks is necessary to minimise plagiarism. An integrated approach that recognises and counters plagiarism at every level through a process of plagiarism detection software combined with individual academic support will go along way in preventing plagiarism. University strategies should aim to generate constant awareness among students and staff with an approach to support rather than punish. A web based short course on plagiarism could be made available for students. For future exploration, investigation should be aimed at finding why students plagiarise in each form of assessment using more qualitative methods like focus groups.


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I would like to thank Di Adams, Jo Baskett, Penny Collings, Peter Donnan , David Pederson, and Kate Wilson for their comments and assistance in the project.

Authors: Lubna Sheikh Alam can be contacted at

Please cite as: Alam, L. S. (2004). Is plagiarism more prevalent in some form of assessment than others? In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 48-57). Perth, 5-8 December.

© Lubna Sheikh Alam
The author assigns to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document on the ASCILITE web site (including any mirror or archival sites that may be developed) and in printed form within the ASCILITE 2004 Conference Proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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