Preventing plagiarism: a guide for students and educators

Students cheating on test in Exam and writing formula answer piece of paper.

Academic integrity — the commitment to ethical behaviors and conduct in academic settings, including respect, accuracy, and honesty — is fundamental to learning and expressing new ideas, while respecting the ideas and contributions of others. More specifically, academic integrity means you have to do your own work, give credit to others for their academic contributions, and take responsibility for your own learning. You must also avoid actions that oppose academic integrity, particularly cheating and plagiarism, prime examples of academic misconduct.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is a major threat not only to academic integrity, but also to the world’s collective knowledge and education itself. In the digital age, plagiarism has become both easier to commit and even somewhat easier to detect. With the continuing rise and normalization of stolen content, students need to be taught what plagiarism is, and both students and educators must learn how to identify plagiarism so they can take steps to recognize it and take steps to avoid it.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the verb “to plagiarize” means “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own.” Plagiarism, then, is a form of cheating wherein you take someone else’s ideas or work and make it seem like you are the original creator.

This can be done with or without the original creator’s knowledge or consent, and almost any type of material or media — including ideas, words, images, videos, and sounds — can be plagiarized. Copying a classmate’s homework, purchasing an essay written by someone else, and using quotes from a source without proper attribution are all common examples of plagiarism.

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the bounds of plagiarism in academics. Many schools have created their own definitions and policies regarding plagiarism. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your institution’s specific policies so you know what, exactly, constitutes plagiarism.

Though plagiarism can overlap with other unlawful acts (such as fraud, theft, or copyright infringement) it’s not illegal in and of itself. Typically, you are committing an ethical offense rather than a crime if you plagiarize something in an academic setting.

Types of plagiarism

Just as there is no single way to define plagiarism, there is no single way to commit plagiarism. Depending on the context, it can take many different forms, the most prevalent of which include:

With the advancement of technology and the development of new artistic mediums, plagiarism continues to take new forms. In an attempt to excel in a stressful educational environment while avoiding detection and consequences, crafty students will likely keep discovering new ways to commit plagiarism.

What are the consequences and results of plagiarism?

Regardless of what form it takes, plagiarism is unethical, and it can have serious repercussions. The exact consequences of plagiarism depend heavily on your teacher’s policy, as well as your school’s code of conduct.

Some of the potential short-term consequences of plagiarism include:

These outcomes are relatively minor, and if you’re lucky, they’re the only ones you’ll have to face. However, you could experience more severe, long-lasting consequences, such as:

It is worth noting that all occurrences of plagiarism can result in punishment, even if you do them unintentionally or unknowingly. Generally, more egregious or serious instances of plagiarism will result in more severe repercussions. Further, a single act of plagiarism may yield a short-term consequence, such as having to do a plagiarism workshop, while repeated offenses may result in consequences that have long-term academic and professional impact.

How to identify plagiarism

The ethics of honesty and integrity are necessary in a setting that’s committed to the free expression of ideas, such as school. Therefore, it’s vital for students and educators to be able to accurately identify plagiarism. With online assignments and grading, it’s now easier to detect plagiarism, but technology can also make plagiarism easier to hide.

In a survey of college students conducted by T and F Online, researchers found that new undergraduates “were confident in their understanding of plagiarism, yet performed poorly on simple tests of referencing.” These findings seem to suggest that although many students believe they can correctly identify plagiarism, there is significant room to improve their understanding of it. The study also indicates that by understanding how to recognize plagiarism, students may be less likely to commit it.

Of course, lack of knowledge isn’t the only reason students commit plagiarism. Between academic pressures and plain indifference, there are students who are willing to cheat. Regardless of the motivation, there are several techniques to identify plagiarism:

Use plagiarism detection tools

Laptops and mobile devices are now mainstays in the classroom.and can help identify instances of plagiarism. Students can easily use these tools to upload their assignments directly to a program that will automatically check for plagiarism. The tools then compare the assignment to other published works and assess how similar they are.

Tools, both free and paid, that you can use to detect plagiarism, include:

A simple internet search can even help detect plagiarized content. For example, take a paragraph from an assignment and search for it online. If one of the results is the same as the text you searched for, it was likely plagiarized. If nothing crops up, it’s likely an original work.

It’s worth noting that, although helpful for identification, some researchers at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have concerns about the limitations and applications of plagiarism detectors. The apps cannot technically identify plagiarism, just show how similar someone’s work is to other works in their database. Additionally, the plagiarism detection tools can’t diagnose the reason someone committed plagiarism, help them correct the issue, or prevent it from happening again. It certainly doesn’t hurt to do a quick check on an assignment, but you should not rely exclusively on these tools when identifying plagiarism.

Recognize common detection-avoidance tactics

Even with the growing use of plagiarism detection technology, students can attempt to cheat these tools. Despite these students’ best efforts, it’s still fairly easy to detect plagiarism, especially if you are familiar with common avoidance tactics. Some of the most popular include:

Plagiarism detectors may not be perfect, but neither are the methods students use to get around them. As long as you know what to look for, take steps to improve your digital literacy, and are familiar with other common signs of cheating, you’ll be able to quickly and easily identify most instances of plagiarism in your classroom.

Read thoroughly

When looking over someone’s work, read it as closely and carefully as possible, searching for signs of plagiarism, such as:

Watching for tactics to avoid detection, paying attention to how ideas are expressed, combined with detection tools will help you discern whether an assignment or paper was plagiarized.

How to prevent plagiarism

The only thing more important than learning how to identify plagiarism is learning how to prevent it. Luckily, it’s now easier to recognize plagiarism for what it is and avoid it in the classroom.

Cite everything

Providing sources for your work, or evidence for data and ideas you use, is clearly important. If you aren’t sure whether to cite something, it’s best to go ahead and do it. It’s far better to over-cite your sources and remove them later if need be than it is to commit plagiarism.

There is a single exception to the “cite everything” rule: common knowledge. It’s difficult to succinctly define, but ideas, topics or data that most people know or can look up easily in general reference resources is common knowledge. Virtually all of your writing assignments will use some amount of common knowledge, but it can be difficult to determine what requires citation and what doesn’t when you move into higher levels of academics.

Use your sources to strengthen your claims, develop your ideas, and participate in the larger conversation on this subject. Perhaps the most important part of any writing assignment is incorporating your new ideas into your work. This is a critical part of your education and of your assignments: sharing your unique takes on a subject. Your work isn’t just about completing a homework assignment, you may also be contributing to a larger body of collective knowledge!

Prioritize proper citation

Proper citation is, arguably, the most important best practice that students need to adhere to in their assignments. Again, if you know what counts as plagiarism and how to cite your sources, it’s significantly easier to avoid plagiarism.

There are several distinct citation styles, each with its own unique formatting rules. The style you use will depend upon your teacher or school’s preference, as well as the class or academic discipline.

Due to both their similarities and differences, proper citation is far easier said than done. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the main citation styles, including:

Even with this information, properly citing sources can be confusing. For this reason, educators should make it clear which style they want students to use in their course and teach them how to use it.

Focus on time management

Both students and educators must prioritize organization and time management skills. While there may be countless reasons students choose to cheat, being disorganized with coursework is a significant contributing factor. Between mounting deadlines, conflicting responsibilities, and the pressure to do well, students may feel compelled to cheat simply because they don’t have the time or energy to do the work.

By focusing on time management, you can get ahead of your schedule and plan out your work in advance. This way, you know what assignments and exams are coming up and you can schedule your study time appropriately. Improving your time management skills will ensure you have enough time to do your work, allow you to complete higher-quality work, and reduce your stress throughout the school term.

Educators have a responsibility to help students with time management. You can’t manage others’ time for them, but you can provide the list of assignments and due dates, as well as a schedule of the days you will discuss specific topics so students have the information they need to make a plan. Similarly, emphasize the importance of staying on top of schoolwork and planning when it comes to succeeding in your course.

Understand the gray areas

Plagiarism is a large, complex, and convoluted topic. Some actions — such as purchasing a paper or quoting someone without citing the source — are undoubtedly plagiarism, but with others, it’s far less straightforward. For instance, it isn’t always clear when something is common knowledge, or when you need to distinguish between your thoughts and someone else’s ideas to avoid mosaic plagiarism.

When completing schoolwork, anticipate these gray areas. Keep track of the sources you use in your assignment and do your best to clarify which ideas are yours and which belong to someone else. Try to verify the original source of your information and make note of any inconsistencies you discover.

If there are any issues with your work, you can show your teacher that you’ve made an active effort to avoid plagiarizing. They’ll likely be willing to work with you and help you correct your mistakes so this doesn’t happen again.

Know the consequences

If you’re an educator, you must discipline students who plagiarize or cheat in your class. At the beginning of the term, clearly outline the ramifications if students are caught plagiarizing. If you catch someone plagiarizing, follow through on those promises. Without consequences, students have little incentive to avoid plagiarism or other forms of cheating in the future.

In addition, it isn’t just about punishment. Work with the student in question to determine why they chose to plagiarize. You can then adjust the consequences based on the reason, levying harsher penalties for more serious transgressions and lesser consequences if need be.

For instance, if the student unknowingly plagiarized, you may give them an overview of how to properly cite sources then ask them to re-do the assignment correctly, while someone who intentionally plagiarized may simply fail the assignment altogether. In both situations, you may be able to prevent future instances of plagiarism.

Resources for students and educators to identify and prevent plagiarism

Check out the following resources to learn more about plagiarism in the classroom: