If you teach writing, you’re going to confront plagiarism: it’s that simple. But there are steps you can—and should—take to discourage it, actions that are far less time-consuming and far more pleasant than dealing with a suspected case.
With all we hear about plagiarism, it’s easy to forget that much of it is unintentional. Students from other cultures or those with limited experience with academic research may truly be unaware that it’s wrong. You may also encounter students who know they must cite when using direct quotations, but don’t know the rule applies to paraphrasing.
Even students who know plagiarism is wrong often don’t understand the process of using and citing sources. Learning to quote and paraphrase correctly takes time, as does learning to write citations. As a writing instructor, you have to specify what is and isn’t acceptable use of another’s words or ideas. Have students practice paraphrasing. Show them how to integrate quotations into a text. And share scholarly articles, so students have a model for how a professional approaches citation in your discipline.
Far more troubling than innocent lapses, of course, are deliberate acts of plagiarism. While we can’t eradicate all such acts, the first step to deterring them is understanding why students plagiarize.
Students plagiarize because they’re up against a deadline.
You can encourage students to manage their time more effectively by imposing interim deadlines. Divide longer assignments into manageable sections. Either require students to submit multiple drafts or assign writing (such as proposals, research logs, audience analyses, mini-essays, or readings journals) that lay the groundwork for a longer project.
Breaking an assignment into less-demanding tasks—and giving students feedback on those tasks—means the work you see at the end of the process is less likely to be plagiarized. It’s also likely to be of higher quality, since students have had a chance to revise.
Students plagiarize because they don’t value the work.
Students are more likely to seek shortcuts when they think an assignment is just another box to check on the way to graduation. That’s why instructors should work to develop assignments that have real-world application and engage students in a deeper way than the traditional, end-of-term essay. While a few students may still resist, the majority will be glad that, if they have to write, they can at least see the relevance of it.
Also, always explain the purpose of an assignment and ask for feedback on it. And try to complete it yourself before assigning it; only then will you discover problems, such as a scarcity of scholarly sources, that could lead students to plagiarize.
Students plagiarize because they are overwhelmed.
Struggling students may plagiarize out of desperation, either because the material is too difficult or because they are weak writers. Such students may have an especially hard time paraphrasing: taking another person’s thoughts and recasting them in your own prose is especially challenging for an inexperienced writer dealing with the assured authorial voice of an academic source.
Collect early drafts to help you identify students who need additional support. In addition to offering your own help, you can also encourage them to visit the University Writing Center.
In some cases, it’s not writing, but conducting research that students find daunting. Ask your students how much experience they have with academic research, particularly in using the kind of sources they’ll need to complete your assignment, and be sure they know how to get help from the library staff. You can identify students who need assistance by requiring all student to give early reports (written or oral) about their research or having them make regular entries in a research log.
Students plagiarize because it’s easy.
College papers are easy to come by these days. But using another person’s paper or recycling their own from another class is much more difficult for students when writing assignments are specific and detailed, so be sure you’ve crafted your assignments with that in mind. If you want to give students a choice in what they write, give them options only within a controlled framework.
You should also specify the type and number of sources to be cited; asking for very recent sources can cut down on plagiarizing, as can requiring a unique combination of sources.
Be sure to alter your writing prompts every semester: at the very least, change the intended audience, redefine the scope of a project, adjust the requirements for interim drafts, or reconfigure the kind of sources required. Never leave papers outside your office for students to pick up, which can not only feed material to potential plagiarists, but also violates student policy.
Using a plagiarism-detection service such as Turnitin.com can also help curb plagiarism, but both you and your students need to know that it won’t find every abuse. It’s best used with drafts, and the reports need to be discussed in class so students understand their results. Finally, remember that most of the actions you take to deter plagiarism are also sound practices in the teaching of writing. These practices will help make your students more confident and capable writers, perhaps the best deterrent of all.