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Social websites are latest sources for plagiarized material

Harrick advised demonstrating how easily students can be caught plagiarizing at the start of the school year.

Plagiarism is going social, according to, which found that one-third of plagiarized material in student papers can be traced to social networking, content sharing, or question-and-answer websites. offers software that checks student papers against a vast database of prior works and the internet at large, looking for matches that can indicate possible plagiarism. An analysis of the top sources of matched content flagged by the software reveals a significant shift in the last few years, the company says—from so-called “term paper mills” to social sites and homework help sites.

While social networking and content sharing sites accounted for the highest percentage of all matched content, one-quarter of all matched materials came from legitimate educational websites, the company said—many of which use “.org” or “.gov” domain names. These sites often include pages dedicated to helping students complete their homework or prepare for tests.

The results of the company’s analysis reveal a change in habits as students increasingly turn to online sources for help with class assignments. They also indicate a need for students to learn better research skills, including what makes a source legitimate and how to cite their sources properly.

Social Q&A sites are “what [students are] comfortable with,” said Turnitin’s Chris Harrick. Many students think that if “someone says this on Yahoo! Answers, then it must be a credible source; or they sound smart, so it must be true. That doesn’t hold water in the academic world, and as they get into higher levels of education, those sources are not going to be accepted by an instructor.”

Harrick added: “I think [students] do have a problem with understanding the merit of different sources.”

Thirty-three percent of matched online content came from social networking and content-sharing sites, 25 percent came from homework and academic sites, 14.8 percent came from cheat sites and term paper mills, 13.6 percent came from news and portals, 9.5 percent came from encyclopedia sites, and 4.1 percent came from other websites.

The ability of students “to go and rip something off the web … and place it in their papers” is easier than ever, Harrick said. But the problem of plagiarism has evolved beyond merely copying and pasting someone else’s thoughts or ideas. With the advent of Creative Commons licensing, open educational resources, and internet mashups, the notion of “originality” has become more complex—and many students might be plagiarizing without meaning to do so.

“The big challenge that educators have is to make sure that they teach their students the proper way to find material on the web, how to document it, what’s acceptable and what’s not, and then use tools to make sure that those protocols are followed,” Harrick said.

Encyclopedia sites received their own category in Turnitin’s analysis, owing to the popularity of Wikipedia—which was the single most common source for matched material. This category also includes sites such as and

“There is ambivalence around Wikipedia,” said Harrick. “What we hope students will do is use it as an entry point [for their research] … but then use the source material [listed] down below to be able to go deeper into the subject that they’re interested in, rather than just relying on Wikipedia. That’s what we don’t want. It can be a gateway; it shouldn’t be the final destination.”

According to Turnitin’s whitepaper, the top eight most popular sites for matched content, along with their categories, are:

Harrick said that emphasizing the consequences of cheating and discussing the correct ways to use sources should be highlighted at the beginning of the school year to head off problems before they begin.

The whitepaper outlines three recommendations for educators as they strive to teach students how to research and properly cite from sources online:

  • Teacher proper citation. Educators can instruct students on how to take what they have learned from their sources and either summarize, paraphrase or quote it.
  • Use technology to address a digital problem. Educators can teach students digital literacy by investing in tools and technologies that flag potential plagiarism.
  • Create teachable moments. Educators can teach plagiarism before it occurs. Demonstrating educational tools to students at the beginning of the semester or school year can deter students from improper research, citation, and writing practices.

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