At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a website's Frequently Asked Questions page about homelessness — and didn't think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page didn't include author information.
At DePaul University, the tipoff to one student's copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he wasn't defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.
And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — didn't need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.
Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.
But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they didn't write is a serious misdeed.
It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.
Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.
"Now we have a whole generation of students who've grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn't seem to have an author," said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. "It's possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take."
Professors who have studied plagiarism do not try to excuse it — many are champions of academic honesty on their campuses — but rather try to understand why it is so widespread.
In surveys from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University, about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.
Perhaps more significant, the number who thought that copying from the Web constitutes "serious cheating" is declining, to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.
Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution.
"This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don't have the same gravity," said Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. "When you're sitting at your computer, it's the same machine you've downloaded music with, possibly illegally, the same machine you streamed videos for free that showed on HBO last night."
Brookover, who works at the campus library, has pondered the differences between researching in the stacks and online. "Because you're not walking into a library, you're not physically holding the article, which takes you closer to 'this doesn't belong to me,' " she said. Online, "everything can belong to you really easily."
The notion that there might be a new-model young person, who freely borrows from the vortex of information to mash up a new creative work, fueled a brief brouhaha this year with Helene Hegemann, a German teenager whose bestselling novel about Berlin club life turned out to include passages lifted from others.
Instead of offering an apology, Hegemann insisted, "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." A few critics rose to her defense, and the book remained a finalist for a fiction prize (but did not win).
That theory does not wash with Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University, who said that relaxing plagiarism standards "does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness."
"You're not coming up with new ideas if you're grabbing and mixing and matching," said Wilensky, who took aim at Hegemann in a column in her student newspaper headlined "Generation Plagiarism."
"It may be increasingly accepted, but there are still plenty of creative people — authors and artists and scholars — who are doing original work," Wilensky said. "It's kind of an insult that that ideal is gone, and now we're left only to make collages of the work of previous generations."
In the view of Wilensky, whose writing skills earned her the role of informal editor of other students' papers in her freshman dorm, plagiarism has nothing to do with trendy academic theories.
The main reason it occurs, she said, is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.
"If you're taught how to closely read sources and synthesize them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you're not going to be tempted to plagiarize in college, and you certainly won't do so unknowingly," she said.