Plagiarism is a familiar concept to the general public and in academia, but research suggests that college students lack specific knowledge of what constitutes unintentional plagiarism, also known as patchwriting (Howard, 1995; Roig, 1997; McCabe, Butterfield, & Trevino, 2012). Patchwriting refers to “passages that are not copied exactly but that have nevertheless been borrowed from another source, with some changes” (Howard, 1995, p. 799). Scholars argue that many students entering university have not developed strong skills in citing and referencing. This may be because traditional education systems often emphasize tests and lectures over writing assessments.

Research in Puerto Rico

In the Puerto Rican context, the problem of academic dishonesty has been thoroughly studied mostly by professors María del R. Medina-Díaz and Ada L. Verdejo-Carrión. The authors conducted a study with undergraduate students at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, in which “55% admitted that they had copied material without citing it in a footnote more than once. Four out of ten reported that they had done the same in high school” (Medina & Verdejo, 2011, p. 37). Additionally, 47% of the students admitted that they had sometimes added references they had not consulted in the bibliography section. Another study by Medina and Verdejo (2016) highlighted personal and institutional factors related to dishonest acts. Some of the personal factors related to dishonest acts were psychological variables such as “fear of failure, grade orientation and anxiety about performance” (Medina & Verdejo, 2016, p. 4).

In contrast, Vendrell (2012) conducted a study with graduate students at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. In this case, the author found that 29% of the students admitted that, at least once, they had copied information from the Internet without modifying the text and without giving credit to the author(s). So, although research has been conducted on academic dishonesty among college students in Puerto Rico, few studies have focused on graduate students’ knowledge of unintentional plagiarism in this context.

This research study

The objective of the study reported in this blog was to determine the differences in knowledge about unintentional plagiarism among graduate students (master's and doctoral) at a private higher education institution, the Inter American University, Puerto Rico. An online test with a dichotomous scale (correct or incorrect) was administered to assess students’ knowledge of unintentional plagiarism. The results indicated that knowledge about plagiarism among all participating graduate students was poor, with an overall average score of 43%.

Both groups scored poorly, but the master's students had relatively higher scores than the doctoral students. The master's group scored 46% on knowledge about unintentional plagiarism, while the doctoral group scored 41%. One of the statements on the questionnaire asked graduate students: “Replacing some words in a published work with synonyms and presenting them as your own ideas is not considered plagiarism.” Only 4% of doctoral students, compared to 21% of master's students, correctly identified this behavior as plagiarism.

The study found that although the majority of graduate students (98%) know that engaging in prototypical plagiarism (Pecorari, 2003) (commonly known as copy-and-paste plagiarism) is considered plagiarism; however, most fail to recognize other types of plagiarism, such as patchwriting. While blatant academic dishonesty has been increasing in recent years, subtle plagiarism, such as unintentional plagiarism, is also becoming a widespread issue in the educational system (Tran, Hogg and Marshall, 2022).

The study also assessed graduate students’ knowledge of academic citation standards based on the American Psychological Association (Seventh Edition) guidelines, specifically exploring their knowledge of paraphrasing and citation rules. The results are significant because they reveal that even graduate students have weaknesses in the academic writing process, particularly in citation practices. The study includes material for a graduate-level seminar course focused on writing and publishing research articles to promote academic writing and citation standards. This material is essential for academic institutions; as Witherspoon, Maldonado, and Lacey (2010) argued, educators often mistakenly assume that graduate students already possess the necessary knowledge for academic writing. The findings of the study will be widely disseminated through a series of conferences and published in a book, currently being edited, starting in January 2025.

Howard, R. (1995). Plagiarism, authorship, and the academic death penalty. College English, 57(7), 788-806.
McCabe, D., Butterfield, K. & Treviño, L. (2012). Cheating in college why students do it and what educators can do about it. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Medina, M. y Verdejo, A. (2011). El plagio como deshonestidad académica estudiantil. Pedagogía, 45(1), 29-58.
Medina, M. y Verdejo, A. (2016). Una mirada a la deshonestidad académica y el plagio estudiantil en algunas universidades en siete países de América Latina. Paper presented at the Educación Superior, Innovación e Internalización Conference: La situación de la Educación Superior virtual en América y el Caribe.
Pecorari, D. (2003). Good and original: Plagiarism and patchwriting in academic second-language writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12(4), pp.317-345.
Roig, M. (1997). Can undergraduate students determine whether text has been plagiarized? The Psychology Records, 47, 113-122. Doi:10.1007/BF03395215
Tran, M.N., Hogg, L. & Marshall, S. (2022). Understanding postgraduate students’ perceptions of plagiarism: a case study of Vietnamese and local students in New Zealand. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 18(3)"
Vendrel, L. (2012). La honestidad académica estudiantil en los estudiantes graduados de la Facultad de Educación en la Universidad de Puerto Rico Río Piedras. [Unpublished Master dissertation]. Universidad de Puerto Rico.
Witherspoon, M., Maldonado, N., & Lacey, C. (2010). Academic Dishonesty of Undergraduates: Methods of Cheating. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Denver, Colorado.


The author's views are their own.

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