The Plagiarism Spectrum

Preventing plagiarism in the Digital Age

GUEST COLUMN | by Jason Chu

Summer 2012 was awash in breaking news of journalistic misconduct, punctuated with the exposure of Jonah Lehrer’s and Fareed Zakaria’s acts of plagiarism (for a full review of the “Summer of Sin,” see Craig Silverman’s post on[1]). Though the “Summer of Sin” came to an end, the Fall brought with it more bad news with cases of cheating at both Stuyvesant High School and renowned Harvard University coming to light. The breaking news, as such, regarding the current state of our journalistic and academic integrity paints a pretty bleak picture. If shame, embarrassment, and career suicide are not enough to keep professionals who traffic in facts from staying on the straight and narrow, what can be done to curb this behavior, especially among students?

This post is not about drawing attention yet again to how pervasive the “succeed at all costs” mentality has become in our society (at all levels), but about the steps that we can take to encourage students to make better ethical choices around the use of other’s intellectual property. A central question emerging from the Harvard cheating scandal is instructive. Were the 125 students in the “Introduction to Congress” course guilty of cheating or of “collaboration?” And, what do we make of the differences in perspective that separate students and instructors on this matter?

Plagiarism would seem to be, on the surface, easy to recognize based on a set of straightforward criteria: Is the work the authors own? Was work appropriated from another author’s work without appropriate acknowledgement and citation? Was this an intentional act? Online resources have made it increasingly easy for students to find information—they have also, at the same time, made it just as easy for instructors to pinpoint instances of textual and source similarity. But, what of the question of intent?

Whether it’s because we are living in a “digital age” where students are “digital natives” immersed in a culture of sharing or if it’s because students are canny and quick to realize that those that bend the rules are the ones that get ahead, what’s needed is some kind of intervention—a raising of awareness among students about what constitutes plagiarism (not just a statement that our school or institution thinks that it’s wrong). The Plagiarism Spectrum was developed specifically to help students better grasp what plagiarism looks like in practice.

The Plagiarism Spectrum is a list of the 10 most common types of plagiarism. The 10 types have been “tagged” with digital 2.0 monikers to help spark recognition and enhance the stickiness of the types for students. More importantly, the Spectrum provides students with a vocabulary for understanding the ways in which plagiarism can take form.

In addition to being ranked by severity, each type is also accompanied by an example to illustrate how each type appears within the context of a student’s paper.

For educators, an accompanying white paper shares findings from a survey of nearly 900 educators, revealing the frequency with which instructors see each type as well how problematic each type is for them. The key takeaway from the survey results is that intent matters. The Clone, which appeared most frequently for those surveyed was also, unsurprisingly, the most problematic instance of unoriginality. Problematic scores for types such as the Aggregator and Remix, on the other hand, suggest that instructors are cognizant of how these instances of inappropriate content may be a reflection of students grappling with the process of learning how to write.

As an instructional tool, The Plagiarism Spectrum can serve to broker important discussions about the ways in which students use or re-use sources—and their perspective on that use, bringing some much needed clarity to the question of is it “collaboration” or is it “cheating.”


Jason Chu is the Senior Marketing Manager for Turnitin. Write to:  Turnitin is offering a free infographic poster depicting the Plagiarism Spectrum to the first 100 EdTech Digest readers. As an instructional tool, the Plagiarism Spectrum infographic poster can serve to broker important discussions about the ways in which students use or re-use sources – and their perspective on that use, bringing some much needed clarity to the question of is it “collaboration” or “cheating.” To sign up to receive your free 2’x3′ Plagiarism Spectrum poster in the mail, visit

  • Teresa Schmedding


    Interesting article and framework for discussing the problem. As a result of Silverman’s blog, ACES has pulled together the major journalism organizations for a summit on plagiarism and fabrication that will be in St. Louis on April 5. For info, see

  • englishinsider


    Reblogged this on englishinsider and commented:
    Interesting read on 10 most common types of plagiarism students make.

  • Matthew Wright


    Plagiarism isn’t new – I’ve been a published writer for over 30 years, primarily non-fiction, and have found my material stolen fairly often, either by direct infringement of my words or through lifting of my interpretations and concepts. It’s sometimes hard to do anything about it – my publishers do chase copyright infringements, but pursuing the matter requires court action if the receiving party is obstinate or unapologetic, and it’s usually not worth it. One time, the infringer offered to take me out to lunch by way of settlement! The problem today, as you point out, is the online issue – it’s made it much easier to steal. Sometimes, I gather, it isn’t intentional, either through lack of knowledge of process by the plagiarist or because they’ve made notes and forgotten the source. But sometimes it is deliberate – and of course the people doing it are only cheating themselves; students don’t learn by copying.

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