Dealing with Plagiarism

Catching cheaters, like fighting grade inflation, requires a large amount of a faculty member's time and energy, and because the promotion, tenure, and salary system of the research university never rewards a professor for detecting a student plagiarist, or any other species of academic thief, why would a faculty member spend precious minutes, hours, even days or weeks in this endeavor (tracking down the exact source of a plagiarized paper can be a trek across a desert)?

— Murray Sperber, Beer and Circus



Sperber is right, of course, but since plagiarism defeats the whole purpose of a W or C course, we are obliged to address it. Our goal as instructors should be to prevent plagiarism, but since that is not possible 100% of the time, we need strategies for detecting and dealing with it as well. The bottom line is that students who cheat do not learn (at least not what we are trying to teach). Your students should know:

  • plagiarism is against University Rules;

  • you will not tolerate it;

  • you have every intention of applying a sanction should you discover it.

Types and Causes of Plagiarism

The most blatant type of plagiarism is the wholesale copying of a student paper or a section of some published work. However, some plagiarists simply lift passages from different works and incorporate them into a paper they have partly written; others will even incorporate them into a paper written by someone else.

Especially in less experienced writers, plagiarism can result from an incomplete or poor knowledge of citation and documentation standards, or from incorporating standards from one field or culture inappropriately into another. Not every culture values intellectual property in the same way as ours; in some cultures weaving an authority's words into a text seamlessly shows superior knowledge of a field and respect for others' views. And many a student inexperienced with writing is unsure of the difference between direct quotes, paraphrases, and summaries.

Finally, some students' poor note-taking habits lead them into plagiarism.

To reduce or sometimes prevent plagiarism, consider its cause. While dishonesty is certainly one, lack of time and ignorance of documentation and research skills are also significant factors. Evans Library Learning & Outreach Services provide help and tutorials for students who may simply be confused. University Writing Center consultants are also available to help students with individualized instruction. Also see our videos from a workshop on preventing plagiarism:

Plagiarism Prevention, Part I
Plagiarism Prevention, Part II
 

For Prevention of Plagiarism

  • Include a statement about plagiarism and consequences for plagiarizing on your syllabus (sample below)

  • Consider requiring students to turn in a plagiarism contract with each paper (sample below)

  • Discuss plagiarism openly in the first few weeks of the course

  • Aid students with time management by providing due dates for drafts or workshops well in advance of the final date

  • Break major assignments into small tasks

  • Provide ample feedback during the writing process

  • Provide instruction on citation and documentation

  • Don't recycle assignments—always make at least a minor change in your expectations

  • Avoid common assignments (Surf the "cheater" sites to get an idea of what they might be in your field.)

  • Ask for oral or written progress reports—well in advance of the due date

  • Never leave papers outside your office to be picked up. They may be stolen and recycled. Besides, this practice violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). 

 


Plagiarism Statement for Course Policies Section of Syllabus 

The following statement may be used as a model. Something like this should appear on your syllabus. You have permission to use this exact statement.

According to the Texas A&M University Definitions of Academic Misconduct, plagiarism is the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit (aggiehonor.tamu.edu). You should credit your use of anyone else's words, graphic images, or ideas using standard citation styles. If I should discover that you have failed to properly credit sources or have used a paper written by someone else, I will recommend that you receive an F in this course. The Aggie Honor System Office processes for adjudication and appeals can be found at aggiehonor.tamu.edu.

Below is a sample of a contract you may wish students to attach to written work:

Your own work: Type the following words at the top of your test [or paper] along with your name, and sign and date it: "I certify that the following is my own work. I have worked independently in writing all answers. I have documented all citations."

The University Writing Center asks every student who consults with us to agree to a set of Ground Rules that includes a similar waiver:

Papers you bring to a UWC consultation must be your original work. We can help you learn to document your sources if you ask.

 


If You Suspect  Plagiarism

If you should suspect plagiarism, don't begin with accusations. First gather solid proof. You can use any number of web sites designed to help find plagiarism. A very effective (and free) way to do so is through Google's Advanced Search option. Pick a key phrase from the suspected paper, run it through the search, and you may well find it.

You can also use Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection database to which the university subscribes. An effective approach is to ask students to submit their own papers to Turnitin; tell them you expect a clean report before final drafts are done. By checking their own drafts, many students who think they are not plagiarizing but are will be educated. You will have to visit the site to set it up so that your students can submit their work. If you need help with setting it up, contact Instructional Technology Services.

Remember that students may not only plagiarize unintentionally as they learn the ways of academic writing; they may also plagiarize without using the web at all. No search engine or plagiarism detection software is 100% foolproof. If the web sites don't provide proof of plagiarism but you still suspect it, try a conference with the suspected student, but, again, be careful not to make unfounded accusations. If you can, have a witness to the conference. Make dated notes about what happened as soon as the student leaves. Usually questioning a student about sources or asking him or her to define words or paraphrase ideas found within the document will provide you with more information; if a student cannot answer such questions, you should ask why. You may ask if a student has plagiarized, or if he or she even understands plagiarism, but don't make accusations based on suspicion alone.

If you should find proof of plagiarism, if a student confesses to it, or if you have reasonable suspicions of it, you must report the student to the Aggie Honor System Office. They have directions on their website for the procedures to follow and helpful advice.

 


Additional Resources

Plagiarism Prevention, Part I

Plagiarism Prevention, Part II

Students Should Develop an Ethical Code for Public Speaking by Jennifer Jones Barbour

The Aggie Honor System Office, and the Minimum Syllabus Requirements, provide guidance about how to present plagiarism issues to students and how to deal with plagiarism at the institutional level.

Evans Library Instructional Services sponsors tutorials on academic honesty and citations.

Turnitin.com at Texas A&M, maintained by Instructional Technology Services

Council of Writing Program Administrators: Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices

Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing with Plagiarism by Robert Harris (available from http://bedfordstmartins.com/technotes/workshops/plagiarismhelp.htm). At this site, entitled "Thinking about Plagiarism," you will find an annotated bibliography of useful online resources.

Check out the resources at http://www.plagiarism.org as well.

An alternative to Turnitin.com is proposed by Bedford/St. Martin's TechTip, "Thinking and Talking About Plagiarism." This site also points to many other useful resources.

For a good discussion of policies and legal implications of plagiarism, see Ronald B. Standler's "Plagiarism in Colleges in USA."