Preventing Plagiarism

As the professor in a course incorporating writing, your students will have ample opportunities to plagiarize (whether intentionally or accidentally) if you provide them. Although few assignments are entirely plagiarism-proof, many assignments can be reworked so that students inclined to plagiarize find it simpler to just do the work.

It is not our intent to ignore the real issue in favor of the policing of it; intellectual ownership, copyright questions and the development of wisdom about the human condition are essential concepts students and faculty need to talk about. We want our students to understand why plagiarism is a mistake, both ethically and practically; in the short term, however, we can explain matters and help them understand our position on academic honesty by paying attention to a few simple elements.

Educate Your Students

  1. Ensure that your students understand what constitutes plagiarism by talking about it directly and explicitly. The gaps in student understanding are sometimes astonishing, and even the students who do seem to know perfectly well what is and is not plagiarism can get caught in those gaps. Provide definitions and examples.
  2. Discuss the benefits of citation and the penalties for academic dishonesty.
  3. Show how easy it is for you to identify a plagiarized essay or assignment by using search terms, the student's bibliography and Google searches.

Limit the Possibilities for Plagiarism

  1. Vagueness encourages students to broaden their research, which opens up the potential for mistaken or intentional plagiarism. Be specific about what you expect. Is research required? Do you want students to summarize, paraphrase or quote? How do you prefer that they cite their research?
  2. To avoid students using "internet sources" in general, build specific requirements for their research into the assignment. For instance, a research essay might require two newspaper articles, a peer-reviewed journal article and an overview of the ethical issues raised in an article you assign. (See Harris's article below for additional suggestions for specific research requirements.)
  3. To prevent the circulation of old essays, require that research sources be current (e.g., published within the last five years).

Encourage Students to Own Their Writing

  1. Insist on several smaller steps leading to the finalized assignment. For instance, an initial rough paragraph outlining an argument or point the student wants to chase down will establish initial ownership; following up that rough paragraph with an in-class writing exercise designed to elicit more information from the student will encourage student engagement in their topics and make plagiarism less likely (and less effective).
  2. Require a rough draft and a revision. A substantial revision not only requires the student to work with you on content and documentation, but also forces the student to abandon any "rough draft" that's actually been written by someone else.
  3. Set up conferences with the students, and ask questions such as "How did you come up with this idea?" and "What's your intention with this particular point?" Students who are treated as contributing, interesting members of the college community will take pride in explaining and exploring their ideas. It's critical for the student to be the one contributing during a conference.
  4. Assign a reflective essay or paragraph to accompany a final draft. A student who reflects intelligently on their writing process and what the final product has taught them is extremely unlikely to plagiarize.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

  1. Assigning an essay early in the semester and providing no follow-up or check points until the essay is due at the end. This encourages plagiarism, since students not only have plenty of time to find a suitable essay but also think you're not taking the work seriously.
  2. Expecting a final draft to precisely follow an informal or "planning" outline. A student faced with this sort of expectation finds no value in thinking through or carefully revising an essay; rather, this situation encourages a student to reverse engineer an assignment by handing in an outline of an article he or she has already found online.
  3. Assigning the same essay topic every semester. Word gets around. This strategy allows students to plagiarize from each other, and because you're familiar with what can and can't show up in that essay, you're potentially blinded to repetition.
  4. Assigning boring or generic subjects or topics. If the student is bored, they will not pay attention, will not learn and will see no value in doing their own work. In addition, a generic assignment lends itself to a generic (and therefore easily plagiarized) response.
  5. Giving students no feedback on their writing. If professors are not paying close attention to their students' writing, not only do they not know what is and isn't original to the student (a useful tool in detecting plagiarism), the students' writing does not improve.
  6. Treating writing assignments as "add-ons" rather than as valuable learning tools. A student who is learning the material in your course is far more likely to want to write about it as part of the process. An engaged student is far less likely to plagiarize.
  7. Assigning no in-class writing. Writing done quickly and without opportunity for revision provides first-hand examples of what a student does and does not understand and examples of the student's authentic writing. In-class writing is one of the best ways to take the measure of the student's ability; it also provides the student a chance to get your response to the content.