The Plagiarism Talk

I’ve been asked to do a brief presentation for our grad TAs regarding plagiarism: how to detect it, how to handle it (procedurally), and how to respond to it in one’s own teaching.  Since we have a mix of people out there who read the Long Eighteenth, I thought I’d ask you all what kinds of things you think would be useful for a beginning teacher to know about plagiarism.  Any tips you’d like to share?  Any approaches that you have found to work, or not work, in your own teaching?  Any detection strategies that you think would be helpful for TAs out there?  Any contributions or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Best wishes,



14 responses to “The Plagiarism Talk

  1. Dave, I’d definitely include a recommendation that teachers think of new and very specific writing assignments. It doesn’t stop plagiarism completely, but it does help a teacher figure out when it’s happening, because, inevitably, plagiarized material will not answer the question asked.

    Of course, it also helps to have students discuss their proposed topics with each other and with the teacher before beginning to write, and including a draft process if possible.

    And, as I’ve mentioned before, I like to start out every semester with contract language. There is a statement about plagiarism (what it means, that it is not acceptable, etc.) on the syllabus, along with an invitation to speak with me at any time about confusion that may arise around what plagiarism is. Then I stress that the syllabus is their contract with me. I promise to uphold my end of the classroom by providing as much instruction as is needed or by helping students to find tutors if necessary. I promise to assign a reasonable amount of reading and writing and to be fair and clear about my grading process. I promise to provide clarification during classtime and a safe, productive environment for all students. They, in turn, must promise to try to follow instructions, be honest about their work, ask for help when they need it, respect their classmates, and never, under any circumstances, represent someone else’s language or ideas as their own. They seem to dig it when it’s made explicit that we are each offering each other something that is difficult and time-consuming to provide.

  2. Laura Rosenthal

    I’ll just elaborate a bit on what Carrie said since I do a version of the first part of what she wrote about. I always give specific and even idiosyncratic paper topics, such as “compare the representation of empire in *Oroonoko* and *The Conquest of Granada.*” Someone will inevitably ask, “can I just write on *Oroonoko* and I say no. They will not find such a paper on the internet comparing these plays and if they really want to cheat they’ll have to pay someone to write it, which is a lot more trouble. This strategy also encourages me to include less canonical work in all my courses. Another thing I do is include criticism in upper-level courses and then give a topic like “Robert Hume says x, y, and z about * The Country Wife*. What do you think he would say about *The Roundheads*? I’ve actually gotten interesting papers from such topics and of course change the critical material every time I teach the course (mostly to keep it fresh for me but having the added effect of preventing paper-sharing). Finally, they have to turn in two versions of each paper: the first is not graded but gets comments, the second gets no comments but a grade. I sometimes get lax and accept the final version without a first draft, but I really shouldn’t do this because it truly improves their work. So with all this it would be so much trouble for them to plagiarize that they might as well do the work instead.

  3. Richard Pickard

    Good answers both! Let me add a couple of other points, not as corrections in any way but alternatives.

    First, while your question starts from methods of detection, I’m always hoping to run a class without plagiarism. That’s what Carrie and Laura are trying, too, it seems. The stats and anecdotes out there suggest that students are more likely to avoid academic dishonesty of all types when they perceive a sense of relation with the instructor, so I make a point of becoming a known entity. One way to do this is to learn names as quickly as I can, but it’s almost as effective simply to make a big deal of it when I forget a name! I may be only a cartoon for the first few weeks, until there’s time for a clearer sense of me, but I view all my predictable front-of-class tics and antics (deliberately cultivated and otherwise) as aids in building this sense of relation.

    Second, on detection: I use Google to check three-word phrases from every paper I doubt, and a random sample of similar phrases from an equal number of papers that I don’t doubt. Over the years my doubts have been confirmed about 80% of the time, and my trust confirmed almost every time. It’ll sharpen your reading, even if you don’t catch anyone!

    Laura’s comment about making it easier to write than to plagiarise is exactly the point to emphasize, in my humble opinion.

  4. In Korea, plagiarism is a major problem. One thing that I do is to make the students fill out a Welcome to Class sheet in order to get a writing sample as early as possible. Probably by now, the word has spread that part of the rationale for doing this IS to prevent plagiarism, but they have no choice but to comply if they want to join the class. In other words, before they leave the second class, they have written something for me.

    Teaching first language students poses more difficulties, but you could ask the students to compose on something relatively sophisticated and then use that as a gauge for what they might be capable of during the rest of the semester. The other method recommended here — that of detailed and unusual essay questions writing on specifically defined themes — seems to be necessary these days. It probably also leads to much more interesting papers too.

    Googling unusual wording in an otherwise unremarkable essay is useful. The incriminating paper typically comes up in the first page of hits. Students who plagiarize are often lazy!

    The most difficult cases of plagiarism I have encountered, however, have been when students write on behalf of other students. I had one student for two different classes before I detected the problem. The student also sat right at the front of the class, smiling regularly but “too shy” to participate actively, and so her behaviour was only an uncertain guide to her dishonesty. In the end, the theoretical language contained in a paper she submitted deviated from the language I had used –and required the students to use — when discussing narrative voice in the class, and so this became the basis of some detective work and a successful confrontation, complete with tears and an admission that this had also gone on in the previous class!

  5. I would also stress that I’ve found it completely ineffective when plagiarism is addressed as a moral problem in the early stages of college learning. I know that some of us want to stress how wrong, how bad, how dishonest, and so forth, but that doesn’t help the students to understand citation as a process they just haven’t learned yet.

    I had a student who I know had made it three years into an English minor without anyone teaching her that the way she writes her research papers is plagiarism. She puts all the cited works on the back page, but otherwise fills the rest of the paper with “I’ve come to think that x is true,” when x is really a statement by, say Nina Auerbach. (I had a dear friend in college who lost her academic standing and had to leave school because of this kind of plagiarism, so I’m especially at pains to end it.) She had simply never learned how to give attribution. A lot of us treat what is acutally an incredibly complex rhetorical skill as some kind of inborn ethical understanding.

    When this happened to my friend, it was all treated in the language of “What’s wrong with you?” and “How did you think you could get away with such dishonesty?” She thought she had cited the material correctly, but somewhere along the line, never learned to do it. I’m guessing this is because all college instructors tend to assume our students have learned all this somewhere before and are just doing it out of selfishness or spite.

    I find, when I confront plagiarism, even of the egregious, kind, it helps not to scream “dishonest!” but to say, “What was the assignment? Did you misunderstand the directions? Did you think all your classmates were copying essays from the internet? No? Do you see how copying from the internet was not, then, the instructions I gave? And how that constitutes plagiarism?” Force them to admit that they knew that wasn’t what the instructions were, but did it that way anyway.

    If, as in my friend’s case, they didn’t know how to do the work properly, then it’s a question of figuring out how to get that student back on course. Sure, the student gets an F for the assignment, but I think someone has to do something about the failure of that student’s past education. A writing tutor? An offer to repeat the assignment or the course? Something other than moralizing, surely.

  6. Kirstin Wilcox

    The issue Carrie points out is particularly acute with regard to online sources. Otherwise capable and well-trained students often seem not to understand that words in cyberspace “count” in the same way that print words do, and they often think that supplying a URL is license to cite verbatim without quotation marks or further attribution. So now I discuss citation of online sources in my syllabus blurb on plagiarism and in my in-class plagiarism spiel.

    Laura’s success in using paper assignments that involve engaging a secondary source sounds a lot like what one of my senior colleagues does in every undergrad course she teaches. It’s an assignment she developed after several scarring plagiarism incidents. As I understand it, early in the semester students write a book-report sort of paper on a single scholarly work related to the period she’s teaching (that is, she gives them a list, each student picks a book). Then over the course of the semester, the students build that book report into a more substantial paper by writing five pages on each assigned primary text, explaining how it relates to the secondary book they’ve chosen. (I’m not yet comfortable enough yet with weaving secondary material into undergraduate classes to attempt it myself, but one of these years I may.)

  7. David Mazella

    Some good issues are being raised here:

    The question of assignments, as Laura and Carrie noted, is crucial. I moved very early on to response essay formats for most papers, because those were very suitable to the kinds of questions that you both mentioned: specific, inflected questions that demand equally specific responses from students. When I do ask for research papers, those are broken up into specific pieces that students hand in throughout the term, so that I can see individual research projects evolve. I must admit, though, that I don’t switch topics or questions as much as I should, and Laura’s post is going to motivate me to do this regularly.

    I like Richard’s googling-system, and will add that to my repertoire, and pass that along next week. In general, being known to one’s students and getting to know them, is one of the best ways to head off all sorts of problems in the classroom, not just plagiarism.

    Tony’s observations are interesting to me, because I agree that plagiarism often occurs in situations where students feel overwhelmed by demands, and don’t really know how to deal with them. And I think it’s almost impossible to detect custom-written papers, so kudos to those who have done this successfully.

    Carrie’s last point is also important, because I think that plagiarism is a good and telling symptom of students’ problems with information literacy, their ability to locate and utilize the appropriate information for an assignment, and so ignoring it or moralizing it does not address their lack of skills in this area. I’m bringing in an instructional librarian to talk about this a little, because I’ve come to the conclusion that this form of information literacy is a major indicator of college-readiness, something we cannot take for granted in our institution.

    Thanks for the responses so far, and please, keep passing along anything you think our TAs would find useful.


  8. I have thus far encountered plagiarism at some point during each semester I have taught. The university I attend has a strange mixture of hard-and-fast rules and professorial discretion, though from what I hear pursuing a case of plagiarism to the full extent of the law leads only to the Great Gray Erehwon File of the bureaucracy’s upper echelons.

    Without the benefit of, detection is all but impossible except in cases of rookie mistakes. Google will definitely catch the most simplistic offenders, but the more sophisticated blackguard likes to play in the arena of plausible deniability. To wit: the paraphrase. Students know that wholesale cut-and-past is a no-no, and if they’re caught it’s open and shut. TAs should stress in their opening anti-plagiarism polemic the problems of uncited paraphrasing, as I think it’s the easiest offense to commit and the hardest to detect (I will this very week be meeting with a student who is guilty of the crime, unwittingly or not). If the idea is not the student’s, and the student presents it as such, then it’s plagiarism, and appropriate measures should be taken.

    Here’s what I’ve done in the past: when I have a confirmed detection (source material identified, specific instances highlighted), I inform the professor (assuming I am a section leader) and ask for a meeting. I print out the source material, and bring it in with the paper to point out the offending instances. If the professor agrees with my assessment, we discuss the egregiousness of the offense and the appropriate course of action.

    Plagiarism of any kind results in an automatic failure of the assignment. but as I suggested above it doesn’t have to end there. The matter can be forwarded to the Dean (Chair, director of studies, etc.) for further action. This is what I would do in cases of blatant and substantial cut-and-past, purchase of the material, wholesale copying , or misrepresenting another student’s work as original. Lesser offenses, such as the uncited paraphrase (when it’s still obviously sourceable) and the brief, mainly immaterial direct lift of a definition, term, etc. do not usually warrant upstreaming the matter.

    During the meeting with the student, I prefer to let the professor (who has the greater authority) present the evidence and ask the questions. It is safe to assume the student will plead ignorance or misapprehension of the rules in cases of lesser offense. We hand the student a copy of the paper and the source material. We retain and file the original. We point out the problems, clarify the rules of plagiarism — I like to do this without verbal judgment or condemnation, but with an obvious air of disappointment — and pronounce the verdict of the dreaded “F.”

    My rhetoric above reflects a frustration and severity I do not exhibit to the student in the event. While I agree that there are assignment-based tactics that will reduce the likeliness of wholesale plagiarism, I sort of (unfortunately) think that a plagiarist will plagiarize and a non-plagiarist won’t. I want to think that the “there’s no need to plagiarize, you’re all smart, it’s just so unnecessary, if you’re tempted because you’re struggling, come to me not the internet” speech I do at the outset of every class cuts down on the number of would-be plagiarists. But it’s hard to know for sure.

    I don’t offer the opportunity to rewrite. The “F” has to stand. I think there are too many students who are too reliant on second chances and half-hearted consequences. A hand put in the fire must be burnt; the damage done is not as severe nor as long-lasting as is the lesson learned.

  9. Michelle Dougherty

    As mentioned above, is the best way I’ve found to deal with plagiarism, although your university has to subscribe, so it might not be the most feasible. If you do have it, though, I suggest allowing students to submit their drafts and see the results before the final paper is due. Some of my colleagues fear that this invites attempts to “beat the system,” and it might, but my experience has been that it highlights potential problem areas to students.

    Aside from, though, I start each semester with a discussion about readings about plagiarism. I have a lengthy one by Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker, and I also use some from the Chronicle, written by professors whose work has been plagiarized. I hope this personalizes the problem for the students. Then, throughout the semester, I describe the different kinds of plagiarism over and over and over so students can’t later claim they didn’t realize that they can still plagiarize without the simple cut-and-paste method.

    Does this eliminate plagiarism? Of course not, but it lets them know how serious I am about it, and it makes the inevitable conversations after a case of plagiarism a lot less confrontational.

  10. Pingback: Early Modern Notes » History Carnival 50

  11. I’m coming a little late to the discussion, thanks to the History Carnival, but my plagiarism policy and the use of very specific and idiosnycratic questions have reduced my problems considerably. It has meant giving up some of the assignments I really liked, though, like country histories in World Civ.

  12. David Mazella

    Thanks, Jonathan, for joining our discussion.
    Have you tried using secondary criticism to inflect the questions, or asking them to respond to specific arguments, or maybe even annotated biblios, on large-scale debates?


  13. I have to agree with the googling process. I’ve found that students who plagarisim are lazy (who would have guessed?) and so often just cut and paste from another website. Plagararizing from a text is too much work for most of them, which is fine with me because it makes them VERY easy to spot.

    I print out the entire website and highlight the matching sections as my “proof.” Most of them know what they did was wrong and kind of just roll over when you confront them.

    It does make me realize these students must think I’m really stupid. I can tell the difference between something a freshman wrote and something copied from somewhere else. They must also think I’m copying technologically inept!

  14. This discussion reminds me of the time a friend of mine in grad school was reading a blog by one of her old undergrad professors. The professor was gushing in a post about one of her students, how brilliant her prose was and how sophisticated her ideas were. She included just a few sentences of the student’s paper, elated with the complexity and finesse of the use of theory.

    My friend got a little suspicious and googled the phrase. It turned out it was a few lines from Gender Trouble. We were all impressed that the student had bothered to find Butler in the first place and work her ideas in without the change in style being too obvious, but there was some finger-wagging at the prof for being tech-savvy enough to blog about it, but not savvy enough to Google it.