Preventing Plagiarism: Six Strategies that Build Confidence and Deepen Learning

Johanna Inman, Assistant Director, CAT

Like many instructors, I’ve always included a plagiarism policy on my syllabus. For years, this was my approach to plagiarism prevention. When plagiarism detection software such as SafeAssign came along, I began to incorporate it into my assignments and often shared reports with students as a way to increase their awareness of plagiarism and hopefully further prevent it. However, not long after I began using this tool, an incident occurred that helped me realize this approach was lacking. A student submitted a 15 page final research paper, which SafeAssign identified as over 85% plagiarized. I had never experienced this extreme case of plagiarism. I was livid. After a review of the students’ plagiarism report, it was clear to me that large portions of text were copied from other sources and throughout the paper she had simply gone in and replaced individual words or portions of sentences.

I immediately called the student in for an individual meeting to discuss the paper. Together we looked at the report and I asked, “do you have any explanation for this?” The student did not. I continued to probe her, but it wasn’t until I used the term “plagiarism” that she exclaimed, “I was paraphrasing--that’s okay to do!” After we talked some more, I came to realize that this was her understanding of paraphrasing. She had always been told that paraphrasing was putting someone else’s ideas into her own words and that’s what she thought she had done. At that moment, I realized that I had had been shortsighted. While I had spent almost an entire class session reviewing MLA guidelines for in-text citations, references, and format, I had never explained the differences between paraphrasing, quoting, and plagiarism or provided examples of each. At that point, I helped the student rework a few sentences in her paper. Then, I asked her to rewrite the rest of it on her own and submit it back to me the following week.

Before this incident, I always assumed that plagiarism occurred as a result of laziness or intentional deceit. But as my story illustrates and the research suggests, causes for plagiarism are often more complex. The reasons students plagiarize not only include lack of skill or knowledge--as in my student’s case--but others such as cultural differences around ideas about intellectual property. For other students, plagiarism can be motivated by low self-efficacy or a range of external pressures they face to succeed. More often than not, incidents of plagiarism are ripe for “teachable moments” and can provide a meaningful learning experience.

Six Strategies to Help Prevent Plagiarism

1. Educate Students About Intellectual Property

In addition to clearly defining plagiarism and including a plagiarism policy on your syllabus, make sure to discuss intellectual property early on in the semester. Additionally, communicating consequences for plagiarism both in your class, as well as their career can help students develop respect for intellectual property.

Provide students with concrete examples of plagiarism so they better understand the concept. You may also want to give students an opportunity to practice citing, quoting, or paraphrasing (with feedback) before they submit a final paper. Make sure students are aware of important campus resources like reference librarians and the writing center—you might even consider inviting them to your class. There are also many online resources available, including plagiarism quizzes and tutorials.

2. Design More Effective Assignments

Another strategy that prevents plagiarism is intentionally designing assignments that are challenging or nearly impossible to plagiarize. One way to do this is to “scaffold” students’ research and writing process. For example, have students write a proposal in which they articulate a research question, identify some initial sources, and outline a plan for gathering information and writing their paper. Another approach is to have students complete an annotated bibliography, in advance of a rough draft, which eventually leads to the final paper. Scaffolding provides students feedback about their work and empowers them to succeed, while at the same time reduces pressure that could lead to academic dishonesty.

Assignments that are creative and specific to the moment or context are also harder to buy or copy off of the internet. You might ask students to make connections between course material and unique variables such as current events, local phenomena, or personal experience.

3. Empower Students to Succeed

Helping students feel that they can succeed is crucial to plagiarism prevention. Students are much less likely to plagiarize if they feel they have the skills and knowledge to accomplish the task. A few measures like scaffolding assignments, communicating expectations with a rubric, and helping students develop a growth mindset are all best practices that empower students.

4. Create a Positive and Inclusive Classroom Climate
Research shows a significant link between classroom environment and academic dishonesty. Students are less likely to be dishonest in courses where they have a positive rapport with their instructor. For example, courses where they know the teacher and feel the teacher knows them, respects them, and cares about their learning. The less “anonymous” students feel, the less likely they are to intentionally submit someone else’s work as their own.  

5. Use Plagiarism Detection Software
Plagiarism detection software flags most instances of unoriginal text, allowing you to quickly identify missing citations. Although the software helps identify plagiarism, you can also deter plagiarism by making students aware that you use it. Allowing students to see the software’s report can also point out students’ over-reliance on quotes and help them learn how to cite appropriately.

6. Respond Appropriately to Acts of Plagiarism
What should you do if you incorporate all of these strategies, but a student still submits plagiarized work? An appropriate response to plagiarism can also be an effective strategy towards preventing it in the future, while not responding reinforces a lack of academic integrity in students.

If you receive material from a student you suspect is plagiarized, first you should gather evidence and identify the original source. Then, share your evidence with the student to initiate a conversation and try to diagnose the cause. Is this intentional academic dishonesty, or are you dealing with a misunderstanding or lack of research skills? If you believe this is an educational issue you may want to give the student a second chance. Ask yourself if the student would learn by redoing the assignment correctly. Would they learn by analyzing the problem and reflecting on what went wrong? In many cases, this is an opportunity to clarify misconceptions and further educate students. However, in cases that clearly require disciplinary action, you should consult your chair.  Your chair can review the case and advise you on appropriate measures.

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What strategies do you use in your teaching to help prepare students for scholarly work and prevent plagiarism?

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