From the AHTR Archives: 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.


[Ed. Note: Some links in this essay have been updated since its original publication on March 23 2014.]

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