The Plagiarism Chronicles….


 [Plagiarism (1621) from L.plagiarius “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer,” used in the sense of “literary thief.”]

It’s mid-semester.  By now, our survey students are getting into the swing of things – they’ve turned in a few assignments, and possibly taken a midterm exam. It’s around this time when we start to notice one of the major issues related to teaching the survey course: plagiarism.

Plagiarism is an issue that’s endemic to all of our classrooms – every semester there is at least one student (although usually more) who copies words, phrases, ideas, and large portions of text from websites, museum wall labels, and printed materials in their paper without citing his or her sources.  I’ve had endless conversations with colleagues about this problem, and it’s been raised in job interviews. It has been addressed on the Chronicle Forum and  addressed on Inside Higher Ed . Books have been published on the subject for students and for instructors.  There is even a book dedicated to the elementary school set.  But no matter how early the issue is addressed it continues to plague university and college classrooms. So, how do we deal with plagiarism?

This post will discuss some of the reasons that students plagiarize, how we can prevent it in student essays, and the unique solution that I developed in reaction to plagiarism in my own classes.

Why do our students plagiarize?

1.   Lack of training.  Either the student literally does not know what plagiarism is, or they’ve never been taught how to cite sources.  Whether or not a student is a good writer, at some point they need to have been told that when they look up information to write an academic paper, that they need to tell their reader where they found that information.

2.  They do it in their other classes without repercussion.  Many instructors seem to just accept that their students will plagiarize and refuse to do anything about it.  This tactic does nothing to help the student learn about citation, and re-enforces the student’s reliance on plagiarism to write essays.

3.  Low confidence.  Our undergrads don’t often have the confidence to write academic papers.  They want to use an academic tone, but they’re still developing the skills to talk about objects.  Instead of putting ideas into their own words, the student will consult a text that already uses an academic tone and proper vocabulary terms for the field.

4.  Language skills. ESL students not only face the challenge of writing in another language, but they may also come from countries where sources are not cited in the same way as they are in the U.S.

5.  Defiance, poor planning, or bad study skills. These are the students that plagiarize because they think they can get away with it.  They often insert large sections of their papers from a friend or an online source, or in the worst cases, they plagiarize the entire paper. Some students students plagiarize because they feel backed in to a corner when faced with several deadlines. Poor planning often leads to poor decisions.

How can we prevent it?

The first step in preventing plagiarism is to identify the source.  We need to build confidence in our students about their writing by giving them as much practice as possible before they turn in papers; we need to teach them about plagiarism and how to avoid it; and we need to provide resources for students who struggle with writing.

The first step in this process is instructing our students about the ethics of writing and research in the classroom before they turn in their first assignment.  Many institutions provide resources to help students understand the issue of plagiarism and the need to cite their sources.  Annie Dell’Aria, one of my colleagues from the CUNY Graduate Center, demonstrates her plagiarism policy by drawing a line on her chalkboard, plotting the grade a student might receive for their paper.  She shows her students that they can receive a grade of 70% to 100% for a paper that is somewhere between “written the night before” and “so good I’m moved to tears” by drawing marks towards the right end of the line.  Then she moves to the far left, where they see the grade they’ll receive if they plagiarize even one sentence: a zero.

In addition, we should also build confidence in students’ writing skills before they submit papers and develop creative writing assignments that discourage plagiarism in the first place.  In my classes, I build writing skills using daily free writing, and I assign papers that require several stages of revision so that my students are less likely to plagiarize.

Online Plagiarism Detection

Our last line of defense is the infamous online plagiarism detection service.  These services match words in a text submitted by a student to an online resource of printed articles, online references, and previously submitted student papers.  There is a plethora of plagiarism checkers out there (, a subscription that institutions pay for, and SafeAssign on Blackboard are two that I’ve used), and there are pros and cons to using them.

These programs prevent plagiarism by scaring our students into not plagiarizing (“My professor will KNOW what I’ve taken from Wikipedia!”), and they help us react to plagiarism by showing the instructor what parts of a student’s paper were taken “word for word” from online sources.

Even though these programs appear to save us time grading, they are not always a reliable way of finding instances of plagiarism because they look for word and sequence matching, and cannot detect paraphrasing, summarizing, sources that aren’t online, or papers written by a ghostwriter.  For this reason, we still need to rely on our own judgment when reading essays to determine if a student has plagiarized.

 A student has plagiarized, now what?

Despite all of your good efforts in the classroom, you undoubtedly will encounter a student who plagiarizes an assignment.  As you’re reading through a group of essays, you’ll immediately recognize it – a phrase or paragraph that seems out of place, vocabulary that doesn’t match the student’s knowledge base, or even an idea from a source you recognize.

Many of our syllabi have some version of the phrase “if you plagiarize, you will fail.”  But should we always fail students for plagiarism? For the majority of cases, I argue that failure is not the only option.


In response to students who plagiarize in my own classes, I developed a plagiarism response essay for students who commit small infractions.  Once I find the instance(s) of plagiarism and identify the original source, I contact the student directly.  I ask them to write a one-page essay on the topic of plagiarism and how to avoid it, due within the week.  The essay must properly cite the sources that the student uses to learn about plagiarism using the formatting style that we use in class. When the student turns in the essay, I give them back their graded paper.

I believe that our student work can be improved if we use plagiarism as a teaching opportunity, rather than a crime.  After completing the plagiarism essay, my students know about plagiarism and how to cite sources, so they don’t become repeat offenders.



4 responses to “The Plagiarism Chronicles….”

  1. While I agree that there can be alternatives with how to address the issue of plagiarism with individuals students (zero, re-write, etc.), I believe that it is imperative to follow the proper channels at the instructor’s university and report the student in order to start a paper trail in case there are (and often times there are) subsequent infractions.

  2. mmhe says:

    I used to get LOTS of plagiarized papers. I believe it happens because students are trained to summarize and paraphrase, rather than synthesize information: most of the academic writing they do is focused on regurgitating information, so they gravitate towards paraphrase/plagiarism — and it is true, teachers in their other classes seem to be oblivious to the problem, or just let them get away with it. For me, the issue isn’t only about citing sources and acknowledging where information is coming from: when a written paper is so completely derived from another resource, it is impossible to evaluate learning. Do they really understand what they are talking about? Is there an original thought at all? When a paper is written like this, even if they properly acknowledged the source of every sentence, the result would still be unsatisfying, because this kind of writing shows very little independent thought or original thinking.

    I have tried to overcome the problem by having students write about works that we did not study in class, and by breaking the essay into smaller components, beginning with a simple subject matter description. Here, I try to cultivate the “art of describing,” encouraging them to look closely, describe details, and to write persuasively. It has not been completely successful, but plagiarism has decreased significantly. Once students understand that what I am looking for first and foremost is a close description, and not a Wikipedia entry with random facts and info, they are more inclined to do without the Google search, and study the image on their own.

    My plagiarism policy is as follows:

    What Happens if I Plagiarize?
    If you submit an essay that is plagiarized (or that is predominantly a paraphrase of another resource) you will receive an “F” for the assignment, and you will be reported to the Director of Counseling, who will add your name to his file. After meeting with the Director of Counseling, you will be given an opportunity to make the assignment up under the following conditions:

    1. You will be required to attend a plagiarism workshop with one of the college librarians
    2. You will be required to re-submit the paper, but you will not be able to earn a grade any higher than a “C”

  3. Parme Giuntini says:

    I think the idea of options is very important and it is increasingly becoming the norm in colleges because plagiarism is everywhere, not just those survey classes and it is rampant among good students as well as weak ones. . I’ve chaired the Academic Integrity Committee at my college for the past six years…that’s the committee that deals with all alleged cases of plagiarism, academic or studio related. I’ve learned a lot and I’m passing on some other concerns that instructors might want to consider.

    1) Most students get little if any instruction in citing sources in high school but lots of assignments that have them researching on the internet and writing up reports. It starts in grammar school so by the time that they walk into our classes, this is their habit and practice. This is often the case with international students who come through systems that stress more reporting kind of writing rather than analytical.

    2) Anyone who assigns written work in any discipline has to take the time to explain what the rules are about using information from any source. This may mean stepping back from the course content and talking about paraphrasing or how to quote or intellectual property.

    3) Nationally, most students plagiarize because they run out of time for the assignment. Students who get LOTS of help from friends and relatives don’t consider that plagiarism. Non native speakers often “patch write” and that is not so much plagiarism as learning how to communicate in a language which is still unfamiliar to them.

    4) Deep breath here…one of the best ways to help students learn what to do is have them write weekly and use a source and have them draft all major papers so they get feedback on what to do before turning in the final work. Needless to say, this generally results in better papers as well as considerably less plagiarism.

    5) In my institution, any case of alleged plagiarism is formally submitted by the faculty member but dealt with by the Academic Integrity Committee and we have an educational option somewhat like the model that Cara uses. This eliminates the often emotional response that faculty have, gives students who don’t know the nuances of citing an opportunity to do a fair amount of work on that and then re-submit the work and saves those students who were unfairly accused of plagiarizing.

    6) The trend for the past decade has been less towards punishment and more towards teaching about intellectual property and being accountable for sources. Assuming that freshmen know about citing and plagiarism is not working. They do know that they can find anything on the internet and they are pros at cutting and pasting so it is a huge hurdle for some of them to stop and cite….in some cases that means citing every line and now we are in the dicey area of “is that really the kind of paper we want them to write?”

    7)…and I’ll stop here. The kinds of art history papers I did in the 1980’s don’t work anymore–those compare and contrast, put a work into context…that kind of thing. We all have to rethink assignments and they have to address critical thinking rather than reporting. My institution is in California and we have a whole new set of mandatory core competencies for accreditation, one of which is information literacy and it directly addresses sources and citation. That has made everyone more aware of what the students know or think, what our expectations are and the gap between both.

  4. Great comments. Thanks to mmhe and parme for additional ideas on this ever present issue for us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.