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How to Combat Plagiarism

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist
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Plagiarism is hardly a new phenomenon. But a couple of recent stories have reignited concerns that plagiarism on the rise, facilitated by new computer technologies.

A recent survey by Pew Research Center found that most college presidents (55 percent) believe plagiarism has increased over the past decade. The vast majority (89 percent) blame the Internet. A study by the plagiarism-checking software also blamed the Internet, but offered a more in-depth perspective of what that online plagiarism actually looks like. It pointed to "social networking and content-sharing sites" as the originators of the highest proportion of content (35 percent) it tied to plagiarized materials. It found that 14.8 percent came from "cheat sites and term paper mills," 13.5 percent came from news sites and less than 10 percent from encyclopedia sites.

But to say that "encyclopedia sites" were just a small portion of plagiarized content on belies the frequency with which students turn to that type of site. Or rather, it belies the frequency with which students turn to Wikipedia. According to data, the collaborative online encyclopedia is its top site for plagiarized content, followed by Yahoo's answer portal.

No doubt, it is much easier for students to find information online and copy it than locating information via the library stacks and transcribing a passage by hand. But some of the outcry about plagiarism and the Internet may need to be reevaluated. Rather than challenge how much we can rely on college presidents' sensibilities about the amount of plagiarism they see, I propose questioning sites that sell plagiarism protection software when they assess the habits of students.

If nothing else, as Kenyon College professor David Harrington found, may only be gauging a small portion of students' online activities. After all, the service seems to track only a portion of the resources from which a student might opt to lift passages. If content is behind a paywall, Harrington contends -- such as in the case of The New York Times or Google Books -- then's search might not uncover it.

Even more problematic, Harrington points to the services that offers, including WriteCheck -- a way for students to check their own work to see if it passes the anti-plagiarism "sniff test."

"Turnitin is playing both sides of the fence," Harrington argues, "helping instructors identify plagiarists while helping plagiarists avoid detection. It is akin to selling security systems to stores while allowing shoplifters to test whether putting tagged goods into bags lined with aluminum thwart the detectors."

If we stand back, we need to ask: is it the advent of copy-and-paste that explains this? Is it the type of resources available online? Is it something else? And in the midst of all of this, what can teachers do to help address plagiarism?

In part, of course, the answer is to teach about proper citation and to help students understand how to attribute their own work to the right research and the right resources. But it also means talking to students about how Wikipedia works -- how its own citations work and how to check the history and profiles of Wikipedia editors.

The other piece too is to assign writing and research assignments that are, at their core, hard to plagiarize. This means encouraging projects that encourage creativity and originality as part of the assignment itself and cannot be simply copied from Wikipedia or other online sources. This can involve assignments that rely on primary sources or recent events or other things that that tend not to be covered by "paper mills." It can mean assigning projects in stages so that students have to submit outlines, research notes, and rough drafts along the way.

And finally, it also means being able to encourage (and to recognize) students' own voices in their writing.

Have you seen plagiarized work before? If so, how have you dealt with it?

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Janet Moeller-Abercrombie's picture
Janet Moeller-Abercrombie
International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

in my early years of teaching. I assumed middle-schoolers knew how to take notes, outline, and produce a piece of work. Now I do the following:

1. Create projects such as "Living Museums" where copying/pasting is next to impossible.
2. Scaffold all projects so that I am formatively assessing them along the way. Here is an example of how I would formatively assess thesis statements of essays:
3. Assess using rubrics. Before turning in a final projects, students use the rubric to "predict" their grade and defend. While many things can be downloaded from the internet, downloaded items rarely meet the specifications of a teacher-created rubric.

Janet |

Stephanie's picture
High School English teacher from Ohio

It always amazes me what students think plagerism is. They have the misconception that plagarism is only when they copy everything word for word. My first year I noticed a lot of plagarism but it wasn't intentional (or at least I don't believe it was)

Now I start by explaining what plagarism is. It always makes me smile when the kids are amazed to find out that they have probably plagrized and had no idea they were doing it. After that, the students are much more aware of what they are doing and are more careful.

I have learned that I must teach my students how not to plagarize step-by-step by teaching them how to correctly research. I have developed many "mini" research projects. We start by simply filling in an outline that I have started. Then we work on citing our sources. Next we work on notecards and how to correctly pull information from sources. Finally the students must write their own research projects.

Yes I believe that the internet has opened up more avenues to plagarism, but it has also opened up a whole new world to research by putting an insurmountable amount of information at their fingertips.

Daniel Alburger's picture
Daniel Alburger
High school English teacher from Baltimore

I never expected my AP English 12 students to plagiarize.
The first boy we caught, we confronted him, he cried, and begged to redo the assignment for partial credit, which we allowed him to do.
The second boy seemed to not care and ended up not being allowed to walk at graduation.

With my 9th graders, it is a different story. I can usually tell when they plagiarize because often they do not put in the work to avoid dectection (leaving hyperlinks, odd formatting, etc). Vocabulary is a great hint as well.

When one boy copied an online book review for his outside reading project, I slid his paper back across the desk to him and said "you may want to redo this." We both knew what I meant.

When confronting plagiarism, I always attempt to find the original sources. I print them off and highligh the commonalities. Staple the internet pages to the student "work" and it is a fairly evident argument.

Colin Neville's picture
Colin Neville
Learning Development Adviser, University of Bradford

I agree with the need to help students improve their citation & referencing skills, as well as proving them with examples of what constitutes 'own voice' in writing. I work as a learning Adviser/Student Support at the University of Bradford. Last year I completed a study of the perceptions of UK higher education students on this topic.

The experiences and perceptions of 354 both home and international students, currently studying at 17 UK institutions of higher education, were gathered. Of this total number, 255 (72%) were international students.

A quarter (25%) of the international students had not encountered any major difficulties, and this was due in large part to the similarity in referencing experiences between what was expected of them in their home countries, and in the UK. The majority of students, however, had not been expected to reference sources in their home countries in the same way as in Britain, and their knowledge of what constituted plagiarism, as defined in UK terms, was also based on different learning experiences. This meant, particularly with postgraduate students on one year course, that they were thrown into their studies too quickly without sufficient induction into the writing demands of their courses.

The main difficulties faced by students was in relation to coping with unfamiliar modes of academic writing, understanding the complexity of the referencing styles they had encountered (over 14 different referencing styles to be found within HE/UK), integrating their own views into assignments, and avoiding plagiarism. The referencing difficulties of all students, home and international, cannot easily be separated from other writing difficulties experienced by them, including paraphrasing, summarising, and developing a sense of authorship of their work.

The survey also considered what institutions can do to prepare international students for the radical educational transition they often have to make, and I felt that more could have been done in the students home countries by UK institutions, in the forms of foundation or introduction to higher education programmes before they arrived in Britain.

Cole's picture

Janet, I too have started using rubrics as a means to help produce quality original work. In my 12th grade Particpation in Government class I use a rubric to aid my students in producing their final ten page exit paper. Not only does the rubric lay out specific guidlines for the format and contents of the paper, but it also explicitly addresses the issue of plagarism and cheating.
I have also collaborated with the reference librarian in our district. She comes in to every class and teaches proper research and citation practices. She is absolutely fantastic and provides the kids with a number of "cheatsheets" for avoiding plagarism.

Dave McReynolds's picture
Dave McReynolds
High School Business/Social Studies

I have been teaching 6th-8th graders for the last seven years. During this period of time I have been teaching about internet safety and plagiarism during the first week of quarter. That usually opens many eyes to what can cause potential issues involving plagiarism. That being said, I still end up catching a few student each quarter that cross the line. From examining discipline records, I think I might be one of the few in the school that even pay attention to this issue as I catch more than my fair share. More students really get confused about paraphrasing, thinking that changing a few words covers their rear. That is usually about a day of exercises practicing rewording others thoughts and ideas and the need to STILL give credit where credit is due.

Renee Oldham's picture
Renee Oldham
Eighth grade reading and language teacher from Assumption, IL

The 8th graders have a World War II unit in which they are allowed to choose any topic they wish concerning World War II. We, myself, the special ed teacher (she pushes her students into my class for the assignment), and the librarian spend numerous amounts of time explaining paraphrasing, plagiarism, and citations. Unfortunately, after all of these class periods, we still receive a handful of papers that are plagiarized. I often question, what did we do wrong in presenting the information to the students? or Are they they just too "lazy" to write when copying and pasting is so easy? or Do they not have enough confidence in themselves to think that they can write a good paper? I actually asked my students one day which it was. The majority answered that they were not confident in themselves or their writing. I am amazed that even with the amount of "practice" writing and citing that we do, that they still do not feel comfortable with their citations. So, I believe the next step is for me to help instill some confidence in my students and their ability to write a term paper. I plan on starting with baby steps and working up to their term paper. Any suggestions in building confidence would also be greatly appreciated.

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