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Why Cheat? Plagiarism in MOOCs

In a post on Degree of Freedom: Adventures in Online Learning, Jonathan Haber asks why anyone would cheat in a MOOC, given that it is free and meant for personal enrichment. This is an excellent question.

My own experience, as both a teacher and a student, focuses on a specific type of cheating: plagiarism, typically defined as representing someone else’s words or ideas as one’s own. As a writing instructor, I do occasionally get a student paper that has been lifted from the Internet, usually from a “free essay” site. More to the point, as a student in last fall’s Writing in the Sciences MOOC from Coursera, I was peer reviewer for a paper that had been copied directly from a professional science journal. When I read it, I was suspicious about it because the assignment asked us to take a science journal article and write it in plain style, using techniques we had been taught. This piece clearly had not been revised. It didn’t take long to find the original article online, and, as instructed, I gave it a grade of 0 out of 5 points.

My first reaction was, like Haber’s, “Why cheat? It’s a free, non-credit class — what’s wrong with you?” For most of us, that’s probably our initial reaction — to make this an issue of morality. Only a thief (and/or, as Haber suggests, an imbecile) would do this.

I want to suggest the explanation for plagiarism in MOOCs might be more complicated.

MOOCs attract students from around the world, and different cultures have different perspectives on plagiarism and ownership in education. Lisa Wilkinson, in an article from the Internet TESL Journal, describes encounters with students from several Asian cultures who submitted work that was clearly copied from another source. When she confronted the students, their explanations were some variation on suggesting that the expert source was more reliable than their own inexpert thoughts on the subject, and so they offered the teacher better information. Often, according to Wilkinson, these students had never been asked to write original papers and their exams were rewarded for closely resembling their textbooks.

Another group of students from Vietnam, Mongolia, and China have also reported that being closer to the book source is better than having “original” ideas. They express a version of “what do I know?” when asked about why they would copy.

From that perspective, what we call “plagiarism” seems a reasonable practice. Wilkinson warns, “U.S teachers should also have realistic expectations of students after one or two semesters in American higher education. It is unreasonable to assume all students from other countries can overturn a lifetime of educational socialization in one or two semesters,” let alone the few weeks that many MOOC students have under their belts.

Complicating this is the issue of Internet culture: it’s easy to steal things online, and many people do it without thinking. This might be especially true of younger students, the “Digital Natives” born between 1980 and 2000 (a population that makes up about half of MOOC students). John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, in Born Digital, say one trait of this group is its tendency toward piracy. With little understanding of copyright and ownership law, they take whatever online material they want, and use it as they wish. When they do recognize it is wrong, they see this as something of a victimless crime, since the material is not being kept from anyone. So when a site like Facebook or YouTube informs them that the content they post is not theirs, their first reaction is not to Google “Copyright Law,” or to head to Creative Commons, but rather to find another version of whatever they were looking for, and post that instead.

It’s easy to single out one age group, but the trend doesn’t seem to be much different for Digital Immigrants, either. People take and use without thinking, no matter what the age. Cutting and pasting an assignment response is as easy as pinning a copyrighted photo on Pinterest.

International students might be even more prone to this attitude, with many considering the Internet “a ‘free zone’ and not governed by legal proprietary rights,” according to Wendy Sutherland-Smith.

Of course, Coursera does have an Honor Code, and participants are asked to click a box saying they have read and abided by the Honor Code before they can submit homework. There are two problems with this.

First, the code is very vague. Number two on the list of four items, for example, says, “My answers to my homework, quizzes, and exams will be my own work.” But couldn’t the act of cutting and pasting from another site be considered the cutter-and-paster’s “own work”? [pullquote position=”right”]To put it differently: for someone with a weaker understanding of English, and of American academic practice, and with a different cultural perspective on the ownership of ideas, couldn’t this vague statement be interpreted in a very different way?[/pullquote]

As for the Digital Natives (and immigrants) who are so quick to appropriate others’ stuff, the Coursera honor system is just as problematic. The idea that they need to click a box that says they have read an honor code is the equivalent of having them click a box saying they have read a site’s Terms and Conditions. How many people actually read them before clicking? Hard to say, but there is some suggestion that, for example, less than 1% of Facebook users read its Terms of Use before agreeing to follow them. Why should we expect Coursera’s Honor Code to be treated any differently?

Preventing plagiarism in MOOCs

I am not suggesting that all MOOC participants cheat, or that they should be excused when they do so, any more than I think students in my own credit-bearing classes should be allowed to. But I do think that, if MOOC providers and instructors believe that cheating (particularly plagiarism) is an issue, then they need to approach it differently.

Scholars in my field of Composition Studies (particularly Rebecca Moore Howard) suggest that the best way to combat plagiarism is not by simply punishing, but rather by teaching: letting students know what plagiarism is, why it is bad, and how to avoid it. Presenting the issue as merely another button to click before getting to the check-out page, as does Coursera, does not amount to teaching.

In my experience, plagiarism is often dealt with in MOOCs only after it has become a problem, and only then as a reminder not to do it. The instructors in Coursera’s Crafting an Effective Writer MOOC, for example, sent an email during the fourth week of our five week semester, only after they had received reports of plagiarism. The students in this particular course were, arguably, those most likely to need a lesson in how plagiarism fits into academic culture.

The instructor in the Writing in the Sciences MOOC handled it better, providing a 23 minute video, with several examples of the nuances of plagiarism. It was an excellent discussion, though presented during week seven of eight, and not in response to reported problems, but as a lesson in course content. (In fact, she opened the lesson by saying, “Of course, everyone’s aware that you shouldn’t plagiarize . . . .”)

If plagiarism in MOOCs really is a problem, I don’t think it is Coursera’s to solve. I would suggest MOOCs that are likely to have plagiarism problems — those designed for less-experienced students, for example — include a lesson or two on plagiarism right at the start. The instructors for Crafting an Effective Writer spent the first week of the class teaching students how to be effective on-line learners, acknowledging that this way of learning was new for a lot of people. Many MOOCs could benefit from this same approach: a ten minute video during the first week, explaining what plagiarism is and why it matters, even for a course with no grades, with some encouragement that it also be an issue on a discussion board.

The Canvas Network is currently offering an eight week class called Understanding Cheating in Online Courses; Haber’s comments on cheating in MOOCs came from an assignment for this course. This class is not as open as a full-blown MOOC; it was limited to 1,000 students and filled quickly. I learned about it too late, but I’d be especially interested in hearing from participants in that course on how plagiarism, particularly in MOOCs, is being discussed.

[Editor’s note: Jonathan Haber is a student in Understanding Cheating In Online Courses, and a review from him is in the works.]


Robert McEachern (2 Posts)

I teach writing at a regional public university, where I conduct research on business and technical writing, most recently on the ways social media change the writing process for workplace writers.My own online writing includes a blog devoted to up-to-date information on blood cancers. As a teacher, I am very interested in the ways MOOCs and other digital information sources will affect the classroom, especially the writing classroom, and how they will change the way we deliver information to students.


  1. Thanks for the mention of the Understanding Cheating in Online Courses MOOC (also known as CheatMOOC). A few people have been talking about academic integrity in MOOCs, but the focus has been on more “traditional” online courses. With that said, much of the content really related to pretty much any delivery system, including face-to-face courses. I am the host/author of #cheatmooc and it has been a wonderful learning journey so far. We have some of the leading scholars on academic integrity who have been sharing through public Google Hangouts and all of the content is open to anyone. We hosted this through and they have a policy of limiting the enrollment to 1000. So, the forums are private to the registered users but all content is public and people can still connect or participate on Twitter using the hash tag #cheatmooc. One of the goals was to create a public and persistent crowdsourced collection of great resources related to academic honesty and integrity, so all of the presentations (10+) were recorded and are available on YouTube. Here is a link to much of the content. Just scroll down on the first page and you will see links to the content/activities/instructions for each of the weeks. . By the way, we have another live session tomorrow (Wednesday, June 25th) in a Hangout on Air With April Cognato. It will focus on the Trusted Seal Program. All are welcome. Just go to at 11:00 AM CST to participate. Or, a recording will be shared on Twitter after the fact (#chetamooc).

  2. Thanks for all the information. Looks like a great course. I appreciate your sharing resources and encouraging a broader conversation on this important issue.

  3. Since Professor Bull has made the reading lists/links available publically, I highly recommend the readings assigned during Week 3 which talk about a number of issues Bob brought up in his piece (including cultural reasons behind certain types of cheating – notably plagiarism).

    The last assignment for Professor Bull’s course is to come up with recommendations on how to create a culture of integrity within our own learning environments. And since the environment I’m working in is primarily based on MOOCs, I’m posting my submission for that assignment over at the Degree of Freedom site (it’s in two parts, the first part can be seen at

  4. Thanks for the great post on an important topic. From my personal experience administering (plagiarism detection system) at my university in Egypt, and from my experience teaching about plagiarism to Egyptian adults, I have discovered that it is a “culture” all its own, and it takes a VERY long time to become internalized, particularly as you say, in the “internet” culture of copy/paste. I had a similar experience to the one mentioned above in that I caught a plagiarist in a course teaching ethics (and which included quite an extensive discussion of what constitutes plagiarism).

    How to solve this problem in MOOCs is something I’d be interested to read more about… but whatever the proposed solution… I expect it will take time for some learners unfamiliar with the concept to internalize it.

  5. Interesting perspective, Robert, but I feel that you are letting people off the hook more than they deserved. OK, I’ll concede that there may be some from foreign cultures (or even in this country) that do not understand the rules of plagiarism. I agree that the rules regarding the honor code are a little vague. (Most courses have open-book exams, but I have seen vehement arguments in the fora about whether looking information up on the Internet is also allowed.) Everyone has probably not read the honor code and maybe there are people out there who think cutting and pasting is putting things in one’s own words. (Seems somewhat improbably, but let’s say it’s true.)

    I think most people know what they are doing, but only if that represents a majority the question of why they do it is still valid. However, even if someone is not breaking the “rules”, I am curious about why for a non-credit course one would go to extraordinary means to do well. I have taken courses where the information on the quizzes is straight from the lectures and have found myself going back to the lectures to get the right answers. I chalk it up to too many years of competing for grades.

  6. You know, Ben, I have two thoughts on what you just wrote
    First, i also dod the thing of looking at lec slides to answer questions. Whatever the honor code, having quizzes with such poorly thought out questions is simply POOR pedagogy. Even if someone truly “remembers” the info, they are testing only memorization. This is even less appropriate for online courses, obviously. I realize now o has not read the honor code, but cannot imagine they really expect us not to use the internet or lec slides while doong quizzes!

    Second, I took four MOOCs and at some point they all overlapped. I knew i didn’t HAVE to finish them, but i still wanted to… So i did resort to strategic learning strategies at some point.

    A final point, though, is that plagiarism of the kind related to copy/paste really does take time to internalize. I took a course where half the students wee non-US based. In many countries you don’t learn about plagiarism in high schhol… Possibly not even until GRAD school. If this issue really is a concern for MOOCs, they need to tackle it extensively

  7. “If plagiarism in MOOCs really is a problem, I don’t think it is Coursera’s to solve.”

    I would imagine it should be. This speaks highly of the credibility, and integrity of Coursera if they allow plagiarism to continue in courses using their platform.

    • But Rhian, would you blame Blackboard or Moodle for plagiarism issues that happen using their platform? Why blame Coursera? Unless the plagiarism is occurring because of some shortcoming of Coursera itself, rather than shortcomings of the courses themselves that do not take into account the possibilities of plagiarism. It might be good for Coursera to integrate ways of catching plagiarism or teaching about it, and it would enhance its credibility, but it should really be up to the course providers themselves (instructors, institutions) to call for something like that, and develop their own mechanisms if Coursera does not.