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Jul 2002 Vol. 6   No. 2

........   STUDENT GUIDELINES  ........
Preventing Plagiarism
Assistant Professor Philip Holden
Department of English Language & Literature

Plagiarism is a problem that is receiving increasing attention in the media. Recent publicity concerning the growth of online ‘paper mills’, websites offering past assignments on every conceivable topic to students for a small fee, gives the impression that a crisis is upon us. The solution often proposed is technological—detection software which looks for recurring patterns of words in a vast information bank of assignments.

Such an approach may be misguided. While some cases of plagiarism do involve a deliberate and systematic attempt to deceive, most arise from students’ confusion, carelessness, lack of confidence in their own voices and a lack of knowledge of academic conventions. Most cases of plagiarism can be guarded against by good module design, and a clear departmental policy that can be used as a safety net to deal with more severe cases. Fortunately, educational approaches that prevent plagiarism are also those that encourage active learning.

While most faculty members know what plagiarism is, we tend to struggle when asked to come up with a clear definition. Indeed, at a plagiarism workshop in CDTL last year, university faculty members from different disciplines had divergent, although not incompatible views, regarding what constituted plagiarism in their discipline. My own favoured definition is that plagiarism is the conscious or unconscious presentation of academic work done by another person as one’s own for formal assessment in a university module. Plagiarism can vary greatly in severity, from forgetting to enclose distinctive phrases from an acknowledged source in quotation marks to word-for-word copying of another student’s assignment or from the Internet.

When dealing with plagiarism, it is important to first have a clear departmental policy which can be brought to the attention of all students, and which can guide faculty members if they come across cases of plagiarism. The University Scholars Programme, for instance, publishes an Honour Code and Penalties for Plagiarism on its web site. Beyond this, however, module design is clearly important. Plagiarism needs to be discussed in modules which students take early in their academic career, especially those which aim to introduce students to disciplinary norms. A brief mention of plagiarism and a handout is often, in my experience, not enough—such strategies will not reach students who are already unaware of academic norms. At the same time, giving a long lecture on plagiarism can be off-putting to students, since they may well feel that an assumption has been made that they are all planning to plagiarise. Prolonged discussion of plagiarism also may take up time that should be devoted to content in an already packed introductory module.

In my own discipline, Literature and Cultural Studies, I solve the problem by having students practise skills that are crucial to their discipline, and smuggling in a discussion of plagiarism. The ability to identify key passages in literary texts, to read them closely, and to communicate such a reading to an audience through quotation, summary, and paraphrase, are central to my discipline. Having students carry out such exercises early on in the semester through a process of drafting and revision of a first assignment enables problems, such as plagiarism, to be identified and addressed in discussion with the whole class. Students thus see not just that plagiarism involves a breach of an academic code of conduct, but also the reason why such a code exists. Asking and answering basic questions about what research is in one’s discipline—questions that may be obvious to us, but not to our students—is a good strategy for preventing plagiarism.

In my own classes, I follow up introductory discussions by giving students considerable freedom to choose their final research projects, but requiring them to go through a process of submitting a proposal and drafts to me so that it is very difficult to plagiarise. In larger classes, it may well not be possible to give such detailed attention to the process of student writing. However, there are ways to work around this. Each student could post a proposal to the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment for discussion, for example, and could be asked to comment on one proposal by another student. The lecturer could then briefly review the discussions and make a single posting drawing together points raised. The initial proposal for each would then be part of a public record.

Despite all the precautions above, a small minority of students will still plagiarise. Plagiarised essays, in my experience, frequently have some of the following characteristics (although it is also worth noting that non-plagiarised essays may also feature them):

  • sudden and inexplicable changes in vocabulary, tone and sophistication of argument;
  • consistent use of American English in either the whole essay or in some paragraphs;
  • unusual and consistent referencing system (e.g. if you’ve asked for MLA style, and received APA style).

If these features are present, you may well find you already have a hunch where the material comes from. If not, check first texts in the essay bibliography, and in the module reading lists—it is surprising how much material is plagiarised from these sources. Afterwards, move to the Web. Try entering distinctive phrases which do not appear to be by the student into a search engine such as using inverted commas in this manner, so that the whole phrase is searched for by “…”. Finally, anti-plagiarism software available, either commercially or non-commercially, may be of use, although I have never used it myself.

Above all, we should remember that widespread plagiarism itself is a symptom of deeper pedagogical problems, and that a strategy that maximises prevention through proper module design and a good relationship with one’s students will substantially reduce the number of cases.

Useful Resources

Advice Pages

University of Minnesota Plagiarism Advice Pages—

Faculty Resources, West Michigan University—

Robert Harris’s Advice on Combatting Plagiarism—

Anti-Plagiarism Software

Plagiarism Resources Center, University of Virginia—

[Note that the free software developed here can compare a large number of papers submitted electronically to see if they are copied from each other or from a common source. It cannot search the Internet for other possible sources.]—

[Offers a free trial of their commercial software through, a related website.]

University Scholars Programme Sites

Academic Honour Code—

Penalties for Plagiarism—





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