Friday, February 29, 2008

Preventing Plagiarism

A perennial problem, no doubt, is plagiarism. My approach to this has been to point out my university's academic integrity policy, and, as we are required to do, include it on the syllabus. I also mention it the first day. I've wanted to avoid making a big deal of this issue, especially on the first day, but I'm now rethinking this.

I have had students simply turn in entire papers that they downloaded off of the internet. These cases are fairly easy to deal with. I have more trouble, however, when a student has a sentence or two lifted from a website that I find via a quick Google search, but the rest appears to be their own work. I also wonder how much our students understand about what constitutes plagiarism, as I watch my own children use the internet to look up words, historical figures, and so on for their assignments. I've decided to start using SafeAssignments, a service our university uses to detect plagiarism. However, a more important question in my mind is how do prevent this in the first place? I know some professors spend a day or two crafting a policy in cooperation with the class. Has anyone tried this, or something else that has been effective?


  1. My university uses, and since I have been using this, the nuber of people who plagiarize has decreased dramatically. I think that when the students know that their work will be checked for plagiarism with a very effective program, then that will be all the preventative measures you need to take.

    I am not convinced that students who do plagiarize do not know that what they are doing is plagiarisim in the vast majority of cases. Rather, they are pressed for time, and find something on the web that they can easily put in a paper. They know it is wrong, but think that they cannot be caught, so give it a shot. The service your school uses stops them from doing so, because they simply do not know what will happen if they do.

  2. I find that the best way to prevent plagiarism is to choose essay topics that relate specifically to class material (an example might be to compare and contrast the arguments from two (or more) essays on the reading list.

    Another good idea is to have students submit proposals, outlines, drafts, etc. well ahead of time. A lot of plagiarism is a result of procrastination followed by panic.

  3. Some students will always try to beat the system so you will never have 100% plagiarism free. I suggest explaining several times what plagiarism is and how to prevent it, reiterating it before papers are do and reiterating the sort of punishment one will receive when getting caught. Some students will still cheat, but other students who are genuinely ignorant may benefit from this constant reminder.

    Also, the assignment suggestion made above is not fool proof. I notice when I search google with suspect papers I find papers for sale (or free) that are similar to those I assign. Plagiarism isn't just the students being lazy or cheating, its an entire cottage industry for anyone who can write at an eighth-grade level and those people are trying to cash in. The amount of information and essays online written especially to be used for college classes is depressing.

  4. You could always have the students give you their paper in digital format and then check the whole thing using copyscape.

    Additionally, you could let the students quote sources so that they are not inclined to lift a useful sentence without attribution.

  5. Anon points out that there's probably no foolproof way of preventing plagiarism. So I'm reminded of our earlier discussion about the overly legalistic syllabus, and in particular the quote from Singham, that he previously

    "assumed that we have to teach in an authoritarian manner because of the way students are. However, all the literature on student motivation has convinced me that the opposite is likely to be true: students act the way they do because we treat them the way we do."

    So with respect to plagiarism: Might an overemphasis on plagiarism produce students who plagiarize? Chris P. referred to "that one student" in the syllabus post, that one student for whom the overly legalistic syllabus is intended. I think there's a subset of students who like to figure out what they can get away with, and for these students, stern anti-plagiarism messages might well be taken as a challenge. I'm not suggesting ignoring the problem altogether, nor am I suggesting we shouldn't bother to catch or punish plagiarists. But I've seen less plagiarism as my career has gone on, a fact I partially attribute to simply having a straightforward statement about plagiarism on my syllabus, and beyond that, not making a big stink about the matter. Just being direct and low key seems to work.

  6. The single best method, I think, is to have them write drafts. The most difficult plagiarism to spot is the kind where the whole paper is plagiarized, because you have no way to know what the student's own writing looks like. But the draft method makes that impossible, since they have to hand something in and then hand in a revised version of the same thing. Any plagiarism they do can only be be partial, and will therefore stand out against the background of the student's own words.

    I also have a relatively simple statement about it in my syllabi. One thing I do that's unusual is to point out, in the syllabus, that plagiarism is very easy for me to spot, and also that students (being new to writing) are almost always completely unable to see how much a plagiarized passage stands out.

    These strategies seem to work for me. I don't see much plagiarism. (I suppose my students could be rising to the 'challenge' my syllabus poses and getting lots of plagiarism past me, but I don't think so.)

  7. I have had a lot of problems with blatant plagiarism. The most recent problems result not from students taking papers or paper parts from the internet, but from their taking papers from their peers who had my course in previous semesters. They get the file of a paper from a buddy, put their name on it, maybe change it a little bit here and there (or not) and submit it as their own.

    Pretty much the only way I would know about this is that I require students to spend about $15 to get individual accounts with this turnitin system: my school does not subscribe to it. If I didn't do that, I'd be googling all day but that wouldn't address the problem of peer-to-peer plagiarism.

    This all happens despite (a) a length explanation on the syl. about how to avoid plagiarism, consequences, etc., (b) in-class discussions about this, and (c) a reading about plagiarism and how to avoid it.

    My current response is to fail these students. One good outcome is that some of them return the next semester to my class and they do a lot better. Hopefully they learn a lesson that transfers over to their other courses too.

  8. I did a presentation for our grad students in English some time ago, and put up some of the recommendations in this blog entry, if others are interested.

    This is geared for literature students and teachers, but I think the general principles are pretty applicable across the board.

    You can find it here:

    Best wishes, DM


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