Anyone teaching at the college level knows how prevalent plagiarism has become. While this is a huge issue in English and writing classes, it also comes up in other courses, such as history or social sciences, where writing is required. Here are a few steps for recognizing and dealing with instances of plagiarism that may arise in your class.
Make sure that you, as an instructor or teacher, have a full understanding of plagiarism. There are two types: intentional and unintentional. Intentional plagiarism refers to blatant acts such as submitting another student’s paper, having someone else write the paper or copying entire papers or parts of papers from online essays or other sources without giving proper credit. Unintentional plagiarism includes “mistakes” such as forgetting a citation or to include quotation marks around exact wording from a source, using an incomplete or incorrect citation. There can be a fine line between the two, whether a student knowingly did not cite information or “forgot.” Sometimes you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
It is also important to understand your school and/or department’s policies for plagiarism, which can vary. At the college level, some policies suggest giving a zero for an assignment for unintentional plagiarism, and to drop students and give an F in the class for intentional plagiarism. Others state that students receive a zero on the plagiarized assignment, no matter the circumstances.
Discuss plagiarism with your students. Make it one of the first topics you discuss. Thoroughly explain the difference between the two types and do your best to make sure that they understand. Pass along the school’s policies regarding plagiarism. Make the penalties for plagiarism very clear, so it is a good idea to include this information in the course syllabus and assignment sheets. Try quizzing students on plagiarism and its penalties. In class discussion, ask the question, “How would you feel if someone used something that you wrote and didn’t give you credit?” That will get them thinking. Later, bring up the same question after they’ve written an essay for your class: “Think about how hard you worked on your essay. How would you feel if someone used your essay and didn’t give you credit?”
Get at least two writing samples from your students early in the class. Have students write something in class to show you how quickly their thought and writing processes work together. Choose a pretty simple topic, like a reaction to something that you just discussed in class. Then, have students write something out of class to turn in. For the out-of-class sample, assign something easy that couldn’t be plagiarized, like to describe experiences writing essays or in taking tests in history class. This will show you what type of writing can be produced when students have a bit more time to think, because not everyone can think and write well on the spot. Having both samples will give you a good idea of the type of writing to expect from each student.
When developing writing assignments, always give students a handout that explains exactly what is expected, particularly where the information for the writing assignment should come from. For example, tell students if you want them to use outside sources and explain to them how to cite this information; if you want the information to come strictly from them with no outside sources, make that clear as well. If you plan to have students use outside sources, make them cite this information using a standard citation style: MLA, APA, Chicago, etc. It makes life easier for all English teachers if students are always forced to cite.
Look for suspicious writing. Since you’ve already reviewed writing samples, writing that appears different from what students normally produce should stand out. While the more students write, the better they get and students’ writing can greatly improve during the course of a semester, this does not happen overnight. If you have a student that writes incoherently, with incomplete sentences or paragraphs and poor grammar, on one assignment and the next assignment resembles Ernest Hemingway, that’s suspicious. The more papers that you grade and the more you teach, it will become much easier to spot.
You need proof that a student plagiarized intentionally to take any action. This can be obtained in a number of ways. You can ask the student how he or she wrote the paper or where they got the information. Most often, they will lie, but there are a few guilty consciences. If they admit it, that’s really all the proof that you need. If not, there are several ways to find Internet-based plagiarism. An easy way is to Google a specific sentence from the paper. If that sentence is used in an online essay, it will pop right up. Another great resource is the website called MyDropBox, a database of student essays that some colleges subscribe to; check with your institution to see if it subscribes. You can upload your students’ papers into the database (if you plan to do this, be sure to get electronic copies to save you from typing all of those papers into the database) and it will scan them for plagiarism. Reports will show you which website was used and tell you the percentage of plagiarism that exists in the essay. Look over the report for ones that have high percentages because sometimes essays with a large amount of quotations will show a high percentage even if the quotes are properly cited. This database will also compare your students’ essays to others entered in the database, so you can see if the paper has been previously submitted in another class, which is also a form of plagiarism.
Don’t go overboard when searching for plagiarism. Use your resources but don’t obsess. If you think a student has plagiarized but you can’t find it, let it go as there’s nothing you can do. You don’t want to give students the impression that you are out to get them.
Print out and highlight any proof of plagiarism that you find. Depending on your school’s policy, you may have to submit copies to your administration. Also, make a copy for the student and keep one for your records.
Follow the administration’s rules regarding plagiarism before talking with the student in question. For example, if policy states that students should be dropped from class for intentional plagiarism, fill out and submit the proper paperwork before telling the student.
Discuss the issue with the student. Writing the student a letter is a good idea. Give the letter and the proof to the student and tell him or her that you will be glad to discuss the issue further if they choose. Keep copies of everything for your records.
What to do in cases of unintentional plagiarism is up to you or your department. If you see that students had trouble with citations, for example, try giving them a chance to redo the essay or take off points. I usually give students a zero on an essay for this and then let them redo it the first time, with hopes that they will learn from their mistakes.
Whether students plagiarize intentionally or unintentionally, don’t take it personally. It happens. No matter how much you discuss it or try to help them, someone will plagiarize. Deal with it in the best way possible and use the steps here for help.
Erica Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor based in Little Rock, Ark. She has a master's in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her work has been published at SaidIt.org, Arkansas Times, Aging Arkansas and Arkansas Business.