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Economist Tom Dee's Research Finds Education is the Key to Curbing Plagiarism

Economist Tom Dee's Research Finds
Education is the Key to Curbing Plagiarism

by Stacey Kutish

Tom Dee '90
Tom Dee '90

A new study titled Rational Ignorance in Education: A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism, issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), demonstrates that participation in a brief Web-based anti-plagiarism tutorial before completing a writing assignment greatly reduces the likelihood that college students will plagiarize. The most significant results were among students with lower SAT scores, who among the control group were the most likely to plagiarize in their academic work.

The study, conducted by Swarthmore College Associate Professor of Economics Thomas Dee '90 and Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, included the review of more than 1,200 papers submitted by 573 students in undergraduate courses at a selective post-secondary institution. In half of the participating courses, which were chosen randomly, students were required to complete a Web-based tutorial that defined plagiarism and illustrated how to effectively write papers without committing this academic offense. The results indicate that students who participated in the tutorial were 65 percent less likely to plagiarize than students who did not view the tutorial.

Plagiarism, presenting the work of another as if it were your own by using thoughts, sentences, or clauses without attribution, was discovered in 3.3 percent of the papers in the control group. In the paper the researchers extrapolate: "Based on our data, one would predict a plagiarism rate of 17.7 percent among students at the national mean of SAT scores (i.e., 1017) and 31.4 percent among students at the 25th percentile of SAT scores (i.e., 850). These figures are roughly consistent with prior self-reports on the prevalence of plagiarism."

The researchers conducted a follow up survey with students from the classes, and the results indicated that increased knowledge about plagiarism, rather than a threat of being caught and punished is what informed the students' improved habits.

Professor Dee notes that this study points to a promising new direction with regard to reducing plagiarism among college students: "Given the evidence that college students often don't understand what plagiarism is or how to avoid it, education-based efforts have a natural appeal. However, they are difficult to implement because college instructors often don't view educating students about plagiarism as one of their core responsibilities. A web-based delivery of educational content circumvents this problem because it requires minimal faculty involvement. And our results indicate that it can be highly effective."

Dee's work was featured in the Philadelphia Bulletin.