How to Fight Plagiarism

We are still looking for ways to fix this problem. In this article, we’ll look at how to identify plagiarism and how to prevent it.

The Scope of the Problem

Image via Flickr by jobadge

The Edutopia post indicated that 55 percent of college presidents believe plagiarism has increased since 2000. Another Edutopia post indicated that papers submitted to the Turn It In software, which determines whether or not papers have been plagiarized from online content, averages 3.7 content matches per paper, typically from sites such as Wikipedia and Yahoo! Answers. Paper mills, common sources for plagiarized work, accounted for less than 20 percent of plagiarism instances.

So, if you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a rise in plagiarism. Like the 89 percent of college presidents who blame the Internet, I believe the Web makes plagiarism too easy.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Though the internet is often a big source for plagiarism, it is also offers solutions, such as Turnitin or SafeAssign (these aren’t foolproof).

How to Detect Plagiarism

Until we train dogs to sniff out copied work, it’s our job to detect plagiarism. I have successfully used the following three strategies:

  1. Detecting Unusual Writing Behavior: One way to determine plagiarism is to check it against other examples of a student’s work. If a student is a poor writer, but suddenly produces Pulitzer-quality work, that can be a key clue that a paper is plagiarized. To gain a baseline of a student’s writing style and ability, assign in-class or reflective writing that prevents the opportunity to plagiarize.
  2. Do Snippet Google Searches: Content marketing expert Nicola Stott suggests Googling short snippets (about 120 characters) of suspected plagiarism. This also identifies the source of the copied work, which you can present to the student when you confront him or her about the plagiarism.
  3. Use a Service: Though they have their flaws, Stott suggests using Copyscape or other plagiarism detection programs to search for copied work. They won’t catch everything, but they can give you a good baseline on the originality of a student’s work.

How to Stop Plagiarism

I’ve given my students many lessons and exercises on plagiarism and proper citation, and yet I still receive plagiarized papers. Sound familiar? Well, sometimes it takes more than a lecture to keep students from being copycats. In fact, it may require a shift in how we design assignments.

  1. Make Assignments That Live in the Moment: Instead of assigning a broad topic that can be easily searched on Google or Wikipedia, develop topics that are specific to that class. Have your students comment on an actual class discussion or solve a class problem. Varying assignments from year to year also helps keep topic ideas fresh, and students won’t be able to copy off of older siblings or friends who took your class previously.
  2. Get Creative With Assignments: The research paper has its place in academia, but perhaps it’s time to expand our view to, say, a multimedia project or blog. For an argument course, I have had students write letters to the editor about a community problem that bothers them most. These creative projects require more originality from students, and they connect learning to the real world.
  3. Establish Staggered Project Deadlines: Consider requiring students to submit portions of the assignment throughout the term. If they do plagiarize, it is much easier to detect and correct the behavior along the way than to slap a zero on the paper when it’s all completed. The student learns nothing from the zero, while a staggered project could lead to this teachable moment on plagiarism.  
  4. Emphasize the Importance of Citations: I could talk about MLA and APA citations in my sleep, but that wouldn’t encourage students to use them. Emphasize the importance of citations by requiring students to use them and to think carefully about their research. Assigning a minimum number of sources, requesting an annotated bibliography, requiring bookmarking on social sites such as Reddit and, or asking students to submit a reflection piece on their research process encourages them to think past the grab-and-go information found on the Internet, and it helps you determine the depth of their research abilities.

How to Prevent Plagiarism

Students are not inherently cheaters. Sometimes they plagiarize because they don’t feel that their writing skills are strong, or they honestly don’t know the consequences of plagiarism. Regardless of what you teach, you can integrate discussions about plagiarism into your curriculum.

  1. Open up a Dialogue: Plagiarism shouldn’t be the elephant in the room. Bring it into the open by discussing what it is, why it’s wrong, and why students feel compelled to cheat. Talk about instances and ramifications of plagiarism outside the classroom.
  2. Be Clear About Expectations: If you require academic integrity, don’t make it implicit. Be open about your expectations for each assignment and the course. Explain the consequences of plagiarism, and stick to your expectations with every assignment you grade.
  3. Have Them Examine Their Own Work: Give a small research assignment in class, and require students to summarize and paraphrase the material. This can be as simple as summarizing a chapter of the textbook. The goal is to get students comfortable with writing summaries and paraphrases and discerning the difference between the two. Have them trade papers to read their classmates’ work. I have found that students learn better from their own work and that of individuals on their own academic level than from an arbitrary example written in a textbook.
  4. Offer Support: Demonstrating support for your students and their work not only shows interest in their success, but it also eases fears about writing skills and academic performance. Offer to read drafts or work with students individually to address issues that may arise as they draft papers. I have an open-door policy with my students and have noticed no plagiarism problems among students who take advantage of this opportunity.

In Short

Plagiarism is an ongoing problem in education, but we don’t have to accept it as part of classroom life. Educating ourselves and our students on the perils of plagiarism and carefully designing our assignments can alleviate some issues associated with this ever growing problem.