When students resort to plagiarism, they lose the chance to develop important critical thinking and important literacy skills.

How plagiarism makes the literacy gap worse

When students plagiarize, they lose the chance to develop important critical thinking and problem solving skills

Plagiarism is becoming ubiquitous in academia as an increase in AI-powered writing tools become more advanced and available to students. As a result, educators are faced with preventing, identifying, and stopping plagiarism even as plagiarism becomes increasingly harder to detect.

But why should educators even continue to tackle plagiarism? What are the documented and potentially long-lasting impacts of students plagiarizing their work?

According to a recent study, there was a marked increase globally in paraphrasing and text replacement during the pandemic in 2020 compared to 2019. The average similarity score, which is the score that comes from detecting what content was paraphrased versus what is original, increased from 35.1 percent to 49.6 percent. This is especially troubling considering the already negative effects the pandemic had on education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that the pandemic erased over two decades of progress with drops in both mathematics and reading scores for students at record highs. 

When a student chooses to plagiarize, they are circumventing reading the material or using critical thinking skills to draw their own original conclusions and express their thoughts in their own words. This means that students are 1) not learning the material; and 2) not learning the skills that are only developed through learning which include critical thinking, identifying biases, identifying logical fallacies, problem-solving, the ability to discern objective versus subjective statements, etc. The rise in plagiarism is also correlated with an increase in illiteracy rates. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education, 54 percent of American adults are only able to read at or below a 6th-grade level. This percentage continues to steadily increase every year.

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The lack of development of a child’s critical thinking skills can also reflect how they digest facts and truth. For example, Science investigated 126,000 news stories (both true and false) tweeted by nearly 3 million people more than 4.5 million times on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 and studied “the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed.” They found that the false news stories dispersed “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories.”

Furthermore, their study uncovered that despite popular belief, “robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

The solution to fighting plagiarism is not stricter punishments but addressing the root cause of why students plagiarize. Two different studies, one done in Germany and Slovenia and another in Malawi, have shown pressure for good grades is the primary driver of why students choose to plagiarize.

Instead, we should encourage students and build their confidence to express their understanding of the material in their own words so we can better gauge their performance of the material. This could be a more accurate measure of adjustments that need to be made with the learning material. Plagiarism detection software also offers plagiarism reports that allow students to review their words and catch plagiarism early on in the writing process, preventing the action before it even starts.

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