Preventing Plagiarism

Osvaldo A. Class of 2019

According to the National University Catalog, "Plagiarism is the presentation of someone else's ideas or work as one's own." The catalog discusses university policy in greater detail. All faculty and students should read this section of the catalog carefully.

Preventing Plagiarism

Instructors can do a few simple things to reduce the likelihood of students simply submitting whole papers written by someone else or obtained from one of the many sources of such papers.

Explain plagiarism and its consequences. Assign the section on plagiarism from the catalog as course reading. Give students the writing center handouts on plagiarism and on quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing.

Design writing assignments that are hard to plagiarize. Have students write on topics that are very current or somewhat obscure. (Be aware, however, that such topics may also be harder to research.)

Ask students to do something specific or narrow, to answer a particular question about the topic, or follow particular steps (the trick is to do this without restricting the students' sense of creativity and personal investment in their writing by limiting the available topics).

Require rough drafts. Doing so will almost certainly force students to hand in something of their own. They are not likely to hand in a typed, polished paper two weeks into the course. If they later do hand in a paper you suspect may be plagiarized, you will have the earlier draft with which to compare it. When you hand back the rough draft, suggest specific changes; you can then monitor whether or not these changes are incorporated into subsequent drafts.

Change your assignments each time you teach the class to keep students from "borrowing" from papers written for earlier sections. Changing assignments also allows you to make improvements in your assignments based on prior experience and may make the experience of reading the papers more interesting for you.

Post student writing on a class Web page. Previous papers are published for everyone to see and thus cannot be plundered. The public display of their writing may also give students some incentive not to do the wrong thing.

Identifying Plagiarism

More often than submitted whole works that have been plagiarized, students will turn in work with a smattering of plagiarism throughout their paper, or a work that resembles a patchwork of cut-and-pasted segments of other works. Such plagiarism is usually easy to spot, and in most cases your suspicions will be correct. More often than not, students who plagiarize do so poorly, selecting sources that do not fit into their argument well or smoothly. They may have plagiarized because they know themselves to be weak writers, and because they are weak writers, they will have plagiarized clumsily. Some of the more obvious signs include:

  • Any facts or opinions that are not clearly the student's own must be cited.
  • Shifts in style, vocabulary, or command of grammar are usually fairly obvious. These may result from the unacknowledged "borrowing" or paraphrasing of a source, or from excessive editing help from someone else.

What To Do if You Suspect Plagiarism

Students should be held to strict standards of academic honesty. No instance of even suspected plagiarism should go unquestioned.

However, do not assume that students understand what plagiarism is. Many do not, and many-perhaps most-instances of plagiarism are to some degree due to the student's ignorance of academic conventions. Teaching students to scrupulously account for the information and opinions in their writing is an important part of their education, for it prepares them to participate in professional or scholarly discussion. It will also help them avoid what may be a serious mistake later in their academic or professional careers. Students must understand the importance and seriousness of this issue. The best defense is a good offense: an explicit discussion of how to use sources appropriately before students begin to write will head off many instances of the patchwork syndrome and plagiarism in all its forms.

Because clarifying the definition of plagiarism educationally valuable to the student, you should not hesitate to question students about passages in which you suspect plagiarism, not necessarily as a confrontation but as a "teaching moment." Don't be afraid to be wrong: even if the student did not plagiarize, he or she should learn to avoid even the appearance of it.

When confronted about possible plagiarism in this way, most students will simply tell you what they did, and whether it was consciously done or not. Occasionally students will be evasive or lie. In the later cases, you may want to ask the student to explain in his or her own words the meaning of the suspect passage, what role it plays in the larger argument, what certain words mean or why they were chosen, etc. You may also ask the student to provide you with notes and rough drafts produced for the paper (requiring that they hand in a rough draft is one way to reduce plagiarism).

The burden of proof in cases of suspected plagiarism is on the student. You do not need to find the source you suspect the student has plagiarized. The student should be able to demonstrate to you, in some of the ways suggested in the previous paragraph, that he or she wrote the passage in question. While accusations of plagiarism should not be made without good cause, you should not hesitate to rely on your expertise in the field and experience as a teacher to make the judgment that a student's work appears plagiarized.

Consequences of Plagiarism

Every instance of suspected plagiarism must be addressed. You must do two things: inform the student of the problem and report the incident to the Dean of Students. (The office of the Dean of Students will take disciplinary action only at the formal request of a faculty member or in the case of repeat offenses.) You may also elect to do one or more of the following:

  • Require that the student revise the work in question
  • Require that the student write an in-class summary of his/her paper or some other timed essay
  • Issue a lowered or failing grade on the assignment
  • Issue a lowered or failing grade in the course
  • Request disciplinary action from the Dean of Students
  • Teach your students about plagiarism before they write, and hold them accountable for university policy on plagiarism when they write to minimize its occurrence.