Preventing plagiarism

Below are my thoughts on why plagiarism is so common and what people can do to reduce its prevalence. The tips below are organized by position in life, so if you have a position in life, please consider helping in some way.

Public school teacherPublic school principalParent of grade-school childCollege professorCollege studentCollege librarianCollege writing center coordinatorCollege presidentParent of college studentWeb page ownersSoftware designerInternet surfer dude/dudette Detection tools Internet resourcesPublications Using this page

Public school teacher

If you teach first grade, your potential contribution dwarfs everyone else’s. The reason is that you teach children how to cut and paste from the Internet, so you are in a position on that very day to give guidance on whether it’s OK to steal words and thoughts from others. If you opt not to give this moral guidance, they will assume that plagiarism is OK. Here are some suggestions on how to teach about plagiarism:

  1. Teach the value of attribution. Perhaps use a popular book (e.g., Bunnicula by Deborah Howe) and induce outrage and discussion by claiming that you wrote it. Or claim to have written the first sentence: equally unfair to actual author. Any first-grader will agree about the unfairness of these thefts, and you will have a fun and open discussion.
  2. Introduce the word, “plagiarism.” Ask for show of hands for familiarity (most will know). “Plagiarize” is a Latin word that means “to kidnap,” which sounds exciting and has “kid” in the word so they will be rapt. Kidnapping words and ideas sounds bad, and they’ll agree.
  3. Explain the use of quotation marks (invented in 16th century). Authors use it for dialogue, but also for indicating ownership of other people’s text. Kids label their stuff (skateboard, backpack, etc.) to indicate ownership, so this idea is nothing outrageous to them.
  4. Explain the use of citation/attribution. No need for publication-quality, formal citations, but encourage clear ways to acknowledge the ownership of quoted passages. Put Bunnicula quote on board, in quotes, and cite. Kids will get it.
  5. Discuss a famous plagiarism example in class. E.g., H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, Martin Luther King, Alex Haley, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joe Biden, Michael Bolton, Stephen Ambrose, Jane Goodall.
  6. Craft rubrics that reward use of quotation marks. This seems so simple but I never see it done. Sigh.
  7. Craft rubrics that reward proper attribution. Ibid.
  8. Craft rubrics that don’t penalize quotations too much. Using own words is always best, but give partial credit for quoting material if student is not likely to understand the material well enough to digest and rephrase.
  9. Craft rubrics that don’t train students to try cheating first. If plagiarizers always get a warning, kids will quickly learn to try plagiarism first then wait for redo option if/when the teacher spots it. We don’t want that “cheat first” behavior to persist into middle school, high school, college, and beyond. (It currently is the dominant behavior in college.)
  10. Require that your students complete the assignment on Google Docs so that you have a complete revision history (see the I Teach English to Great Kids blog for details). E.g., if students know that the cut/paste event will be preserved by this feature, they are probably much less likely to cut/paste in the first place.
  11. Use plagiarism-detection software, and tell students you are using it (that’s the main reason it’s effective). If you don’t have something like Turnitin, then just plug sentences into Google — that can work, and you can then still say you are using software.
  12. Explicitly model good attribution behavior. If you show slides (Powerpoint, Prezi, etc.) during class, every single quotation should be within quotation marks and be cited in some way on the slide where the text is quoted. Same goes all handouts. If you do all of this then it’s more likely your students will, too. Read this by Rebecca Schuman.

Public school principal

  1. Make sure your school’s handbook has a clearly marked section on plagiarism. If you have state standards about such things, reference those standards by page number and provide URL.
  2. If the section on plagiarism isn’t at least a page, expand it. Providing just a definition and a comment that plagiarism is bad will not be sufficient. For example, you should provide examples of the different kinds of plagiarism and detail the consequences for each type. You might think “teachers will take care of these details” and “we can discuss these issues when they come up” but because of your position you have ability to set the tone, and a forceful section could really energize the efforts of teachers. Use your power.
  3. Craft an anti-plagiarism agreement that gets turned in with each written assignment. Some schools have found this works really well. Although such a document sounds overly legalistic, having an explicit expectation of student work can help make the learning experience much more valuable.
  4. Include details on whether plagiarism detection software is used by school. If you pay for it, get the full value of the use — if students know it’s being used, their inclination to plagiarize is dramatically reduced.
  5. Make sure the school’s plagiarism policy isn’t plagiarized. I’ve examined policies at dozens of school districts in the United States, and I usually see phrases that are plagiarized from online dictionaries, other school districts, and university Academic Honesty policies. If your district has a plagiarized plagiarism policy, that’s going to undermine your position a tad.
  6. Display the plagiarism policy on the school’s website and send the link to all parents and teachers at the start of the year. Too many policies are hidden from sight. Send the link or the document to the local parent-teacher organization (PTO) it can help advertise the policy to parents. Make sure all teachers display on their course pages (Moodle, Blackboard, etc.).
  7. When there is a plagiarism incident in your school, you are in a position to use it as a teachable moment, so don’t pass that up. Have an assembly on academic honesty — you have assemblies for bullying, drug use, etc., so it’s totally fine to have one about intellectual honesty, which is actually a core school goal. If you have a school blog, make a post. If you have letters that get sent home in weekly newsletters, use that venue, too. At the very least, send an email to all teachers reminding them how they can better prevent future plagiarism, and email to all parents suggesting how they can help on the home front.

Parent of grade-school child

  1. When your young child comes home with a “Good Job!” sticker on a paper or Powerpoint slide deck, pause a second before gushing about their brilliance. Although your kid is undoubtedly gifted, they still might have copy/pasted the bulk of it, and if you praise them for plagiarism they will almost certainly do it again and again. Indeed, for early assignments (in kindergarten, first grade, etc.) it might be best to first ask, “can you show me which words you wrote yourself?” Praise them for their contribution, not for their ability to pirate other people’s stuff.
  2. If your kid’s assignment is clearly plagiarized, have a discussion with the teacher immediately. Teachers like having involved parents, so express your concern and ask whether he/she would be able to teach your kid about citations and quotation marks. You could also send the teacher the link to this web page.
  3. When your kid enters high-school, have the “plagiarism talk.” If this is awkward, ask which teachers use Turnitin or equivalent software. Your curiosity will often be enough to remind your teen that you view plagiarism in low regard. You could also ask, “How many words in a row do your teachers allow you to copy verbatim from a source without needing to cite?” Zero is the best answer. If your kid is not getting instruction on how to cite words and ideas, move to a different district.

College professor

  1. In your syllabus, include examples of different kinds of plagiarism and specify how grades are affected for each scenario. Doing that will take at least a page, more if you do a good job discussing citation format and such. Saying, “students are reminded to adhere to school academic honesty guidelines listed on the home page…blah…blah…blah” tells your students nothing. Rather, it tells them that you are really not that interested in plagiarism and are unlikely to pursue anything less than egregious acts of copying.
  2. Plagiarism happens when students are writing, so discuss plagiarism when students start their projects rather than weeks before. And engage them somehow in this discussion so that they actually pay attention. Perhaps have them read your verbiage for 3 minutes, then discuss with the person next to them for another 2, then have pairs decide on one question (1 min) to address to the class as part of a discussion on why proper citation is good and plagiarism is bad. That will be the most productive 30 minutes in the whole semester. Trust me, I’ve done it. Works like a charm.
  3. Use plagiarism detection software and tell them so. Some of the software is great, but expensive, but even a Google search on the one “odd” sentence in the paper can be effective. Regardless of how you check, the simple act of telling them you check will reduce plagiarism incidence dramatically. People modify their behavior when they know they are being watched.
  4. If you don’t use plagiarism detection software, tell students your brain is a finely tuned, plagiarism-detection machine, and give details. For example, mention that you can detect sudden changes in tone, word use that is above grade level, and similarities to strings of text in articles and books that you have read. Tell them that when you encounter these issues, the paper goes into a separate pile for greater scrutiny. And that you’ll be in a really bad mood when you grade that pile.
  5. Apply grade consequences of plagiarism without giving a preliminary warning. Many students go through public school (and college!) by first plagiarizing and then revising the document if caught, claiming each time ignorance about citation and paraphrasing. You should break this training. In your syllabus, it is helpful to explicitly say that you do not give warnings and that you don’t care if plagiarism was “inadvertent” (that’s in quotes because I don’t believe in that kind of dishonesty). If a student uses a phrase from an article but fails to use quotations, the grade on that paper would go down to an F without discussion, even if a footnote is present. Or down a letter grade — you choose, of course. But have those consequences spelled out in your syllabus so it’s not a surprise to students.
  6. Apply grade consequences uniformly to all students. If, for example, you hold back on giving an F to a student simply because he/she is an underrepresented student in your discipline (perhaps a low grade might discourage them from pursuing the major), you send a message to the plagiarizer that they have special status and can get away with dishonest behavior. Hold everyone to same honesty bar.
  7. Somehow advertise to your class that you do, indeed, detect plagiarism and do, indeed, apply grade consequences. I.e., don’t hide this information. Some professors regularly show histograms for exam results, and you can do the same for grades of written work. Then just point at the low end of the grade distribution and say, “This paper had some plagiarism, so I stopped grading it and just gave it an F. Saved me 2 hours of grading!” Their eyes will bug out and I’d bet good money you won’t have additional instances.
  8. Similarly, advertise on your web site that you regularly give Fs or send students to the college judicial court for plagiarism. The information will repel habitual cheaters from signing up for your courses in the first place. For those of you with course information hidden behind Blackboard and Moodle walls, just print your plagiarism policies and tack next to your office door near the listing of courses you teach. The word will get out during course selection week that your course should be avoided by people who don’t like to write for themselves. They know who they are.
  9. Model good citation behavior — your students are paying attention. This means putting quotations inside quotation marks on your presentation slides and including a reference on that slide, not just at the end of the show (green example on image at right; click to open in a new window). Note that is is highly dangerous to just verbally acknowledge that a sentence is a direct quote or that the quote is from a particular source — students tuning you out during lecture won’t pick up on that, plus if you print or post your slides online, your verbal information will not be embedded. So use visual cues for attribution to be absolutely sure.
  10. If you teach science writing, clarify that simply because use of quotes is frowned upon doesn’t mean it’s OK to simply strip a quotation of quotation marks (trust me, students will claim that’s what you meant).

College student

  1. When you are choosing courses for the next semester, email professors and ask them for their plagiarism policies. If they don’t have something to send that spells out the grade consequences for different types of plagiarism, consider not taking the course. Faculty who don’t have such details handy are, on average, likely to allow plagiarism in their courses (often, the refuse to think it’s their job) … and thus if you are not a plagiarizer you might not thrive against your peers who do. This might seem like a silly basis for choosing courses, but if you value honesty, it will drive you absolutely insane to see your peers getting As on stolen material while you get average grades for 10x the work.
  2. If you failed to the above, ask this question when the assignment is discussed in class: “Professor — what is your policy on paraphrasing and citation? Can you give us the details and how lapses might influence our grade?” Follow up by saying, “I’m not saying I am going to plagiarize, but I know that in other courses I’ve been in, students who plagiarize get high grades because the professor doesn’t care.” The honest students in the class will nod their heads and laugh; the professor should seize the moment and explain the details.
  3. Don’t hesitate to ask your professor for guidance on plagiarism. Good writing showcases your own ideas, but also is generous with praise for ideas and facts previously published by others. Weaving those together takes years to do well, and each discipline (science, math, history, etc.) has a slightly different spin on the ideal — it is the teacher’s job to help you perfect that ability in his or her esoteric field of expertise. Anyway, don’t be shy about asking. Professor will not take your question as a sign you are eventually going to plagiarize.

College librarian

  1. If you get invited to come into classrooms to guest lecture about resources, mention to students the dangers associated with the automatic bibliography services. If there is a space to type notes, for example, there is a danger of copy/pasting text from an online article, and that text can get confused with notes you might have that are your own thoughts.
  2. Before you give a guest lecture, ask the professor to send you the citation/plagiarism part of the syllabus along with the writing assignment. If the plagiarism section is detailed, you’ll know that students will be extra keen on knowing how to find good materials and how best to cite them. And if the professor has a lousy policy, encourage him/her to contact so-and-so on campus who you know has good anti-plagiarism verbiage.
  3. If you are moved to do research on citation use among students, sign yourself up to give a presentation at a faculty meeting so that everyone can benefit. Professors are sometimes clueless about new resources and the implications those new sources have on the way that students cheat. For example, if there is a new database of online resources, Turnitin might not have access to the text and thus would be unable to detect text theft.
  4. If you have control over a library web site, consider collecting a model plagiarism section that would be good for faculty to adopt. New faculty are busy, and they might appreciate a collection of ideas on how best to write their syllabi. In past years they’d look at their colleagues web pages but now that courses are hidden behind content management systems they are blinded to what even their office neighbor is up to.

College writing center coordinator

  1. Make sure all the student writing associates receive standard training with respect to how many words in a row constitutes plagiarism. Arguably, if a writer reuses a distinctive word from a source in the process of paraphrasing, that is plagiarism. Zero is at least an easy goal to communicate even if there are obviously exceptions for words that truly have no synonyms.
  2. Allow and encourage student writing associates to make blunt comments about plagiarism they suspect. For example, “This sentence seems plagiarized because it’s in a different font than the rest of the document.” Such comments, which pitched nicely, can divert students from the path of dishonesty.
  3. Communicate plagiarism to the respective faculty. You don’t need to name the students, of course. But tell them a student brought a draft containing plagiarized sentences to the writing center. Give the details about the plagiarism so that the faculty member can give additional instruction on citing and plagiarism.
  4. Collect examples of anti-plagiarism sections from the faculty on campus who really care about writing, and share on your web page.
  5. Consider making a large-format poster of plagiarism types and examples, and hang it next to the coffee machine in the writing room to generate discussion.
  6. Similarly, consider making a large-format poster that shows results from Turnitin. Construct a dummy paper that includes all the different types of plagiarism. This would be an invaluable teaching aid. If you get it printed on cloth, or have it laminated, you could offer to loan it to faculty for the day. It would be popular.

College/university president

  1. Use faculty meetings to convince professors that they need to craft better guidance on how to write. Motivate them by telling them that many high schools are graduating students who see plagiarism as a life skill akin to downloading MP3s.
  2. Use faculty meetings to summarize the plagiarism statistics on campus. Just like theft and rape statistics, hiding information like this only tends to make the problem worse. When faculty know that the majority of students are plagiarizing, they tend to change their syllabi.
  3. Take personal ownership of the campus academic honesty policy. Is it modernized, or a relict from before the internet? Form a committee to a revise it. And for the love of God, make sure it is completely free of plagiarism. A lot of colleges plagiarize this section from other universities, and that’s beyond shameful.
  4. Redo the official process by which plagiarism cases are reported. Many schools require that suspected plagiarism cases be sent to the campus judicial committee, and the case would be adjudicated by a mix of faculty, staff, and students. This sounds great on paper but actually increases the incidence of plagiarism. Why? Because the process takes too long and often results in outcomes that disgust professors; instead, they ignore the problem in the future. A much better model is to empower faculty to deal with plagiarism just like they are empowered to grade tests. But the critical administrative thing you can do is to require all faculty to inform a specified dean about the plagiarism. For example, “Hi Dean, just wanted to let you know that I Stu Dent plagiarized in my course this semester. Bye!” It allows the dean to keep a database of students. That dean would notify faculty instantly when that same student had been reported earlier, by some other professor. The beauty of this system is that students can’t get away with serial plagiarism. And it is a system that faculty can easily participate in. If students know that there is a plagiarism database, their behavior will change dramatically. Amherst College switched to this system, so contact them if you’re interested in details.

Parent of college student

  1. If you pay the bills, it might be good to have a chat about plagiarism with your little angel. I’ve taken a lot of students to plagiarism court, and they come in all flavors and sizes — rich kids, poor kids, males, females, etc. The biggest risk factor might be if your kid probably wasn’t qualified to admitted in the first place and you have no idea how they got in. Another risk factor is being foreign (plagiarism more accepted abroad, plus there are language issues). The absolute worst scenario is if your kid is on a team sport, is pre-med, and is taking too many courses.
  2. If your kid sends you drafts to edit (this is happening a lot more these days), don’t ignore glaring plagiarism. It’s probably plagiarism.

Web page owners

  1. Ask people not to plagiarize you. This can be in the form of a footer on your web page. Note that putting such requests in your “About me” page on your site will not work.
  2. Ask people not to adapt your pages. Many people think it’s OK to plagiarize if they say, “Adapted from …” at the bottom of their web page. In reality, your ideas and much of your text will be just copied, and readers of that page won’t realize you didn’t permit any of this. It might feel awkward, but it’s better to be explicit. (Conversely, if you want people to copy your ideas and text, please say so.)
  3. If you blog, some types of blogging platforms offer a wide variety of plug-ins to protect your text. For example, on WordPress you can install a plug-in that prevents text copying, and others will display standard or customized copyright information.
  4. Plug some of your sentences into Google occasionally to see who is plagiarizing you. Email those people and ask them to remove that text. 99% will, instantly. It might seem OK if one person plagiarizes you, but what happens is that other people will start stealing from that person, and pretty soon the sentence will be found on hundreds of pages. The danger is when sentences become separated from the clear copyright request that you might have on your actual page.
  5. Do everything this page recommends:

Software designer

  1. Please code plagiarism-detection into Word, Powerpoint, Google docs, etc. E.g., when a person pastes text from clipboard, a talking paperclip (or whatever) would appear and suggest that sentence(s) be placed within quotation marks.

Plagiarism detection tools 

Internet resources and news

Bates College Plagiarism Resources (fyi: I went to ’04 plagiarism conference @ Bates)
Copy, Shake, and Paste (blog by Debora Weber-Wulff)
Plagiarism Detection Blog (nice site maintained by iThenticate/turnitin folks)
Plagiarism Today
(huge website, maintained by Jonathan Bailey since 2005)
(resources compiled by Turnitin folks; with many links to products)
Purdue Online Writing Lab (highly respected resource; well written)

Publications of interest

McCabe, D.L. 2005. Cheating among college and university students: A North American perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity 1:1-11. (article explains why faculty ignore even obvious plagiarism; PDF)

Olsen, KR, and A. Shaw. ‘No fair, copycat!’: what children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science 14:431-439. (awesome article; abstract)

© Colin Purrington 

4 thoughts on “Preventing plagiarism

  1. Paula

    The absolute worst scenario is if your kid is on a team sport, is pre-med, and is taking too many courses. – Definitely agree. That’s the worst scenario, having too much on your plate.

  2. aditya

    The students should know about the pros and cons of plagiarism. So that they will not plagiarize content

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