Survey Reveals Unique Insights to US Students’ Attitudes Towards Plagiarism



Here at RefME, we wanted to find out if citing correctly is a genuine concern for students in the US, how knowledgeable they really are on the subject, and their general attitude towards plagiarism.

In February 2016 we conducted two online surveys among 2,111 US students currently enrolled in higher education. The surveys were conducted by OnePoll and SurveyMonkey and the findings have been analysed and interpreted by RefME. Two groups were surveyed, students who currently use RefME and those that do not. Furthermore, the two sets of findings have been amalgamated and at times, where statistically relevant, the findings have been used independently to showcase the disparity between RefME users and non-users.

Here’s what we discovered…

3 out of 4 US students are concerned about citing correctly

Of the RefME users surveyed, over 60% agreed when asked if they are concerned about accurately citing their work. In comparison, a whopping 75% of students who do not use RefME reported that they were worried about citing correctly. Today students have access to automated citation tools that help them cite correctly and avoid the risk of plagiarism.

In 2015, a survey conducted by Student Engagement Insights found that 25% of students said their peers are very concerned when it comes to plagiarism, and 45% of students indicated that their peers demonstrate at least some concern about plagiarism. However, the real cause for worry is that only 6% of students reported that their peers are “not at all concerned” about plagiarism, and that 5% reported that they only care about it to the extent that they don’t get caught. 1.


The results demonstrate the value of using a citation management tool by highlighting that those who do not use RefME are more susceptible to citing incorrectly than those who do. Whilst 61% of non-RefME users reported that they have lost points for citing incorrectly, the survey found that just 50% of non-RefME users have been marked down on their work for inaccurate citations. It is important to note that RefME users were asked if they had ever lost points, and were not asked to differentiate between before and after they started using RefME.

RefME enables students to generate accurate, fully-formatted citations in over 7,500 styles – including popular styles such as the MLA format, APA citation and Chicago style. Whether students want to cite their sources using a popular style or a more-specific style, like ASA, IEEE or AMA, they can cite like a pro with RefME’s multi-platform tool.

Students can generate accurate citations in any style with RefME for Chrome, the browser extension that allows you to instantly create and edit a citation for any online source, or the highly-rated iOS and Android apps which create citations in a flash with your smartphone camera. Even better, students can now cite as they write by upgrading their account to RefME Plus to access RefME for Word. Ultimately, RefME enhances the quality of students’ research by providing them with the learning resources to educate themselves about the citing process and the benefits of adopting great referencing standards.

With a large number of students being marked down for academic misconduct, one might assume that students’ academic integrity should be questioned. However, many students are worried about citing because it is so easy to inadvertently plagiarise. Perry’s (2010) two-dimensional model of academic misconduct suggests that only those students who understand the rules yet fail to adhere to them are classified as cheats. 2. 

The survey revealed the most common citing errors amongst students

The most prevalent mistakes made by those students surveyed who have lost points for citing incorrectly were:

  • Formatting citations incorrectly 54%
  • Using the wrong citation style 44%
  • Not submitting a full works cited list/bibliography 19%
  • Failing to cite a quote or idea 12%
  • Citing the wrong source 12%
  • Paraphrasing another author’s work 9%
  • Self-Plagiarism (recycling your own work) 3%
  • Other 1%

It is widely known that there is a lack of understanding around the rudimentary requirements for crediting sources in written academic work. A 2015 study found that students who are new to university lacked even a basic understanding of how to cite sources. Interestingly, those same students claimed that they were very confident they understood what both citing and plagiarism are. 3.

72% of US students fear facing disciplinary action for plagiarism

The majority of both groups surveyed reported that they fear facing disciplinary action for plagiarism. Fortunately, this widespread concern can be easily avoided by simply learning to cite correctly. Using an accurate citation tool helps to reduce this fear by generating citations in line with the formatting of the style in use, giving students confidence that they will not lose points for their bibliographies.

Moreover, the fact that 28% of students do not worry about the potential consequences of plagiarism highlights the importance of providing enough resources and education on the topic of correctly handling and crediting others’ work. This should be conducted in a manner that thoroughly conveys the seriousness of the matter. 4. For more information, visit the RefME Institute website and our Educator Resources page, where you’ll find useful teaching materials, library support and much more.

Rather than wasting precious energy worrying about the penalties for plagiarism, it is important that students use their time wisely to develop essential academic skills. Studying at college level teaches students to: formulate their own thoughts and responses on the topic, to paraphrase and summarise whenever possible, and to acknowledge their sources by taking the time to accurately credit them.

3 in 5 students want more information about citing

Of all the students surveyed, only 40% agreed when asked if they felt they had received enough information about citing during their studies. Citing is a complicated process that takes time to master, so it is a real cause for concern that 60% of students were either unsure or revealed that they had not been provided with enough information on how to cite accurately.

CTL Consultant Katie Malcolm suggests that plagiarism is often the result of students receiving insufficient information on citing, rather than an act of laziness: “Even students who have copied entire pages from online sources have revealed to me that their reasons for doing so are governed not by indolence, but misunderstanding my expectations for sources, for citations, and/or for their own abilities and growth – imperfect as these may be.” 5.

These findings expose a cry for help from students, and indicate that the lack of information available to them is the source of much of the confusion surrounding citations.

The vast majority of students are aware that plagiarism has severe consequences

Whilst students have a range of ideas about what might be in store for them if they are caught plagiarizing, it is clear from the survey results that most students acknowledge the gravity of plagiarism offenses. For instance, 82% rightly think that plagiarism can result in suspension or expulsion from college, and 82% are aware that their work can be marked down.

  • Suspension/Exclusion 82%
  • Losing Points 82%
  • Legal Prosecution 40%
  • A Fine 31%
  • I Don’t Know 3%
  • Nothing Will Happen 1%

The repercussions of student plagiarism can be extremely serious. In most cases, it will result in a failing grade for the assignment or possible failure of the course. In extreme cases, such as repeat offending, students can face the loss of academic scholarships or outright expulsion. If their work is published, they may face legal action from the original author. 6.

18% of US students were wrong or unsure about whether ‘ghost writing’ constitutes academic misconduct


Whilst the majority of students identified paying someone else to write your essay for you as a form of plagiarism, surprisingly 18% were unable to identify that this constitutes academic misconduct. It is worth noting that 6% of those students did not know that ‘ghost writing’ is considered a serious form of plagiarism.

Although 82% of students are aware that outsourcing ghostwriters is a major issue, universities are still experiencing a troubling plagiarism epidemic. 7. Reports found that California, New York and Texas are the most popular regions for commissioning ghost writers, whilst the most sought-after types of content are essays, research papers, and MA theses. 8. A ghost writing service usually charges somewhere between $10 and $50 per page – the price being dependent on factors such as the proximity of the deadline, length, and anticipated difficulty of an assignment. 9.

Even though these writing services produce original material for their customers, Dr. Linda Herlocker warns that teachers get to know their students’ writing styles and can often tell when a paper was not written by the students themselves. 10.

It is vital that students use their education to prepare themselves for working life rather than just cheating their way through college. Those who cheat risk leaving without the necessary research and writing skills to progress in both their academic and professional careers.

Over half of students knew that it is unnecessary to cite common knowledge

The results exposed a degree of uncertainty around recommended citing practices, with 38% of students either unsure or unaware that they do not need to cite common knowledge and everyday phrases in their assignments. Reassuringly, 62% of students surveyed were able to identify that they are not required to cite common knowledge in their work.

Common knowledge is information that the average person would typically accept as a reliable, proven fact. For instance, most people know that ‘Barack Obama is the first American of mixed race to be elected president’ so it is unnecessary to credit it in your work. 11. Likewise, when you use phrases that have become part of everyday speech, such as “all the world’s a stage” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, you do not need to cite them or even to put them in quotation marks. 12.

However, if in doubt about whether something is considered common knowledge or an everyday phrase, students should err on the side of caution and add a citation.

Good news: digitally native students are aware of the need to cite online sources

Today’s digital age has blurred the lines of ownership and intellectual property theft in academia. It has become increasingly easy to access information and knowledge via the internet, which in turn has negatively impacted the research journeys of some students. 13.

In order to avoid committing plagiarism, students must accurately cite all source material used in their written work. Although a small portion of students were unaware, this study found that 84% of students understand the importance of citing information copied from a publically available website.

As well as citing students’ sources in a matter of seconds, RefME helps students understand the importance of accurately citing all source material, which is why 92.2% of RefME users know to cite online sources in their written work.

Findings show more students are turning to technology to avoid plagiarism


Using technology to automate citations allows students to keep their work free from plagiarism, leaving them more time to spend on broadening their research and strengthening their writing. Nevertheless, this does not remove the need to educate students in understanding why citing is important and how a citation is created.

Given that 65% of students reported that they use a citation tool, and 49% say they use plagiarism checker tools before submitting their work, it is clear that students are actively seeking helpful solutions to reduce the risk of plagiarism.


  1.   Tami Strang, “Are College Students Concerned about Plagiarism?,” Learning Outcomes, September 7, 2015,
  1.    John English and Chris Ireland, Plagiarism: Let’s Start as We Don’t Mean to Go on, (n.p., 2015),
  1.    Philip Newton, “Academic Integrity: A Quantitative Study of Confidence and Understanding in Students at the Start of Their Higher Education,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, March 27, 2015, doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024199.
  1. “Are College Students Concerned about Plagiarism?”
  1.   Katie Malcolm, “Plagiarism and Inclusive Teaching: A Perfect Union?,” January 20, 2015,
  1.   “Consequences of Plagiarism in College | the Classroom,” 2001, accessed May 3, 2016,
  1.   Aftab Ali, “UK Universities in ‘plagiarism epidemic’ as Almost 50, 000 Students Caught Cheating over Last 3 Years,” The Independent – News (Independent), January 4, 2016,
  1.   Nancy Laws, “The Shocking Truth about Essay Writing Services,” Huffington Post, April 14, 2015,
  1.   “Detecting and Deterring Ghostwritten Papers: A Guide to Best Practices,” 2011, accessed May 5, 2016,
  1. “Local 6 Confronts Man Helping Students Cheat for Cash,” Click Orlando, May 6, 2014, accessed May 17, 2016,
  1.  “What Is Common Knowledge,” accessed May 5, 2016,
  1.  “6.4 Plagiarism,” accessed May 5, 2016,
  1.  Kuwcnews, “Exploring and Preventing Plagiarism in a Digital Age,” September 23, 2015,
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