Preventing plagiarism: a guide for students and educators
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:
- Direct plagiarism: this means you copy another’s work exactly and without modifications, such as lifting words from another source without any attribution.
- Complete plagiarism: this means you pass off the entirety of a work created by someone else as your own, such as when purchasing an essay that someone else wrote and turning it in as your completed assignment.
- Misleading attributions: a misleading attribution involves purposefully attributing an idea, quote, or work to a false, incorrect, or nonexistent source. Sometimes referred to as source-based plagiarism, this can include getting information from multiple sources but only citing one, or making up data and statistics but attributing them to a reputable source.
- Self-plagiarism: You plagiarize yourself when using work you’ve done for a previous assignment or class — even when that work is otherwise free of plagiarism. When asked for permission in advance, some teachers may accept work used in an assignment from another course, which would not be considered plagiarism.
- Mosaic plagiarism: Also known as patchwork plagiarism, this describes when you weave others’ work, ideas, or phrases into your work without giving proper credit. You may tweak the sentence structure or use synonyms to do so. Because others’ materials are mixed in with your ideas, this type of plagiarism is particularly difficult to identify.
- Paraphrasing: Paraphrasing involves using your own words to convey someone else’s ideas. When you give credit to the original creator, paraphrasing can improve the quality of your writing and communicate others’ ideas more clearly. However, if you do not cite your sources properly, paraphrasing is considered plagiarism.
- Aggregating plagiarism: When you correctly cite all of your sources but fail to contribute any new ideas in your work, you have committed aggregating plagiarism.
- Accidental plagiarism: this describes whenever you unknowingly or unintentionally commit plagiarism. This may include forgetting to use quotation marks, not knowing how to properly cite a source, or not understanding what counts as plagiarism.
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:
- Having to re-do the plagiarized assignment.
- Receiving a failing grade on the plagiarized assignment.
- Having to undergo anti-plagiarism training.
- Receiving either informal or formal warnings.
- Receiving a failing grade in the course.
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:
- Having a note about the plagiarism on your transcript or permanent record.
- Being put on academic probation.
- Being suspended from school.
- Being expelled from school.
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:
- Using Greek or Cyrillic letters: Certain Greek and Cyrillic letters — such as A, B, E, O, and T — look identical to letters in the Latin alphabet. Some students will copy another’s writing and swap out these letters strategically. When others read the paper, they likely won’t see a difference, and even most plagiarism detectors won’t recognize the identical texts. Luckily, newer detection tools have caught onto this technique and can identify letter swapping.
- Filling in all the spaces: Similar to swapping out similar looking letters, some students will put additional letters or characters in the spaces between their words and then color them white. This makes the letters look invisible, so it looks like a standard project when someone manually reads the assignment. The hope is that plagiarism detectors will struggle to identify the similarities between the student’s writing and other documents in their data. However, most tools can also identify white-on-white text and will flag any strange or questionable characters in a document.
- Switching up words: Other students embrace mosaic plagiarism in their work. They’ll switch up the order of words, change sentence structure, and use synonyms to make another’s writing look like their own. Again, many detection tools can identify this type of cheating. Further, if you read over someone’s work, you may encounter strange sentences, grammatical errors, or wording that is uncharacteristic for the writer — all of which are tell-tale signs of plagiarism.
- Adding images: Some students will attempt to submit their paper as an image. That way, humans can read it, but it cannot be run through a plagiarism checker. It’s fairly easy to detect this form of cheating by requiring students to submit assignments in a certain format or setting a minimum word count. The program will then flag any assignments that do not meet those requirements.
- Translating papers from other languages: Particularly determined students will find a paper on the same general topic written in another language, run it through a translation tool, and then submit it as their own. You will almost always be able to tell, though, that the paper is not original, based on its failure to address your specific prompt. It’s also likely that the assignment will be littered with grammatical errors and strange or stilted writing, due to the imperfections and inconsistencies in free ‘machine’ translation programs.
- Converting PDF files: Tech-savvy students try to cheat by manipulating the layers in PDF files. These files usually have at least two layers: the visual and the text layer. Students will alter the text layer, but not the visual one, so their assignment can be read by humans but not by detection software. You don’t have to be tech-savvy yourself to detect this form of cheating. Simply use a PDF editor to see how the document has been edited. You can also convert the PDF into a Word document, or copy the text from the PDF into Word. You will see meaningless, garbled text, which is a strong indicator of attempted cheating.
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.
When looking over someone’s work, read it as closely and carefully as possible, searching for signs of plagiarism, such as:
- A sudden shift in the tone, style, voice, or sophistication of the writing
- Small differences in formatting, including different font types, sizes, or colors
- Incorrectly or inconsistently formatted sources
- A complete lack of sources or citations
- Sources or information that are out-of-date
- An assignment that is off-topic or fails to address the prompt
- Anything that seems out-of-character for the person who completed the assignment
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.
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:
- American Psychological Association (APA) Style: Developed by the American Psychological Association, APA style is often used to cite sources in the social sciences. It requires both in-text citations and a references page after a paper.
- Chicago Style: Chicago style was created by the University of Chicago and it’s primarily used for citations in history, though it is also used in some humanities, social sciences, and scientific writings. It requires endnotes or footnotes and a bibliography at the end of an assignment. The Turabian style is based on the Chicago style and is commonly used in both high school and college classrooms.
- Modern Language Association (MLA) Style: Primarily used in literary and research papers, MLA style requires specific formatting, as well as in-text citations and a concluding works cited page.
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:
- Harvard Guide to Using Sources: This guide from Harvard University explains what students need to know about using sources in academic writing, including how to properly cite sources.
- The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI): This non-profit organization strives to build academic integrity in high schools, colleges, and public institutions.
- Plagiarism.org: Sponsored by Turnitin (a web-based plagiarism detection service) this website has a variety of articles and resources to help students and teachers learn more about identifying and avoiding plagiarism.
- The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL): From Purdue University, the OWL contains a variety of helpful writing resources for students, including information about proper references and citations and tips for avoiding plagiarism.
- ReadWriteThink: This website provides reading and writing education resources — including those related to plagiarism identification and prevention — to teachers, parents, and other academic professionals.
- The School for Ethical Education (SEE): The SEE is a non-profit organization that empowers educators to teach their students about ethics, and put those teachings into practice.
- The Turnitin Blog: From the same company that makes the Turnitin plagiarism detection tool, this blog is aimed at students and educators who want to learn more about avoiding plagiarism.