What I'd really like one of these semesters

... is to get all the way through the 16 weeks without a single incident of plagiarism turned in as "student work".

Alas, it appears this will not be the semester in which my fantasy becomes a reality. Dammit.

What bums me out is how very obvious the plagiarism is. Three search phrases with Google and I've got them dead to rights.

Am I not supposed to know how to use Google?

Am I not supposed to be conscious enough, while grading papers, to notice content and phrasing utterly at odds with everything else the offending students have given me?

Am I not supposed to care? (Maybe if the students are just going through the motions to get their three units, I'm assumed to just be going through the motions as well?)

For those of you affiliated with colleges and universities, how common is plagiarism at your institution? Is your sense that it's worse in some classes than in others (say, general education classes, "weeder" classes, etc.)? Does it seem like the problem is getting worse (or better) in recent years, or is it holding steady?

And, if you have a successful strategy for pre-empting plagiarism, please share it.

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In two years I taught freshman comp, it was rampant. The attitude of students seemed to be "anything that doesn't get caught is okay."

I made it pretty clear that I knew how to catch them, and so the students who actually *could* write didn't do it. It was tougher for ESL students and others whose written English wasn't very good. I really felt sorry for these students, but I had to enforce the rules -- and *they* needed to learn how to write. No fun at all.

Our campus uses Turnitin. This (probably expensive) service lets us require students to submit papers through a web site that checks their text against all available on-line sources (including submissions from our and other universities).

It works very well as a deterrent to plagiarism. It also can be used as a resource for students - they can pre-submit their drafts to check whether any passages need to be changed.

I also try hard to present plagiarism as an issue that all honourable scholars struggle with - how to gain fair credit for our own work but not unfairly divert credit from others. I want students to feel safe asking for advice on how to avoid plagiarizing, rather than being terrified that we'll immediately accuse them for even raising a question.

Some strategies that have worked pretty well for me: (1) requiring the use of certain sources, (2) specifying the inclusion of certain items, and (3) specifying a particular organization. I try to place enough parameters on the assignment to reduce the likelihood that the student will be able to find a 'match' on the web. Requiring the students to demonstrate progress toward the finished paper also helps because it eliminates the time management issues that underly a lot of plagiarism cases. Also, I never accept 'naked' papers. Printouts or photocopies of sources must be submitted with each paper. If I have any questions, I have on hand the sources that the student claims to have consulted, and Cthulhu help the student if I am unable to verify appropriate use of the sources submitted. Students faced with these requirements learn pretty quickly that the effort required to successfully plagiarize (i.e., to avoid getting caught) is self-defeating.

How much would you really like that? Enough that you flunked the ones caught this semester, then reported them to the academic dean for further discipline?

Enough that you flunked the ones caught this semester, then reported them to the academic dean for further discipline?

As I do every semester.


I take a very hard line wth my students. At the beginning of the semester I state that as this is a science class, cheating is intolerable. Cheating is the polar opposite of the scientific method and plagiarism is one type of cheating. I put up a definition of what constitutes plagiarism and then tell them that if I find plagiarism the student (or students, inappropriate or unauthorized teamwork constitutes cheating) will fail my course and I will take the issue to the Office for Stuent Conduct and Academic Integrity to see if suspension or expulsion is warranted.

I have never found a case for cheating, although this is due to the class not having assignments that lend themselves to cheating. This will likely change as I increase the amount of writing the students do. Sorry for your suffering with the issue though. If these are upper level students I hope they fail your course, I could see some waffle room in more junior students, but there is no excuse for this behavior in more advanced students (other than they learned that its only a slap on the wrist if they get caught, such as getting to do a rewrite).

"At the beginning of the semester I state that as this is a science class, cheating is intolerable."


By PhysioProf (not verified) on 07 Nov 2007 #permalink

Turnitin may have to rework its business model, which currently involves:
a, archiving a copy of each student work, even when they are told that the work is copyrighted and that they don't have permission to keep a copy,
b, sending "a full and complete copy of a student's unpublished manuscript to an iParadigms client anywhere in the world upon request of the client, and without the student's permission."

According to lawsuits filed against turnitin by students, a+b = constitutes copyright abuse at $150K a pop.


Not applicable to some classes, but: in most classes I require a (scientific) lit review paper. usually this is a task requiring identification of three linked papers, analysis, and a conclusion which either critiques or recommends next studies. Together with a requirement that one of the three be published within the past two months, this has seemed to work pretty well (that last gets round most of the papers-for-sale sites).

Toss in Google and students have to be pretty dumb to cheat. Yes, I get some, but few: expulsion is a pretty scary penalty.

Amazingly I've seen it (several times) even in work turned in for grad classes by PhD students. And not even 1st years either.

Once it was even in an assignment where we specifically allowed them to use any sources they wanted as long as they gave proper credit (e.g. if they found a solution to the problem online, that was fine with us). Still, someone turned in copied work with the name changed and no citation given.


Knowing that most students use Google to find "sources" to plagiarize, I cannot believe they would be so stupid as to do so. I went through the multi-college, eight plan. Said plan straddled the Intertubes. I used telnet and played EoTL back in the day. I think it would've been much easy, and less risky, to plagiarize back then.

Google is an amoral tool, used for both good and bad.


I've been grading student papers for a few semesters now, and I don't think I've seen an overt plagiarism. What helps, I think, is that we have long talks about

(1) what plagiarism is and how to avoid it
(2) the importance of citing
(3) how to cite (including pulling examples from papers we read in class and saying "look, see what they did here?")
(4) did I mention the importance of citing?

I make it clear to my students that I know how to use google and won't hesitate to search phrases from their paper. I basically say "look, I know what plagiarism is, I know it is tempting, but it's totally not worth it because I can and will catch you."

As far as I can tell, that's stopped everyone dead in their tracks. I think it also helps that the two papers we have them write are only worth 12% of their grade. Tests are FAR more important, and we work really hard to make sure students don't cheat on those.

I could see some waffle room in more junior students

As a student who doesn't cheat, I absolutely hate it when professors find cheaters and don't throw the book at them. I don't understand the ethics behind that decision. Do freshman not have fully functioning brains with which to read the student handbook?

Sad to say, plagiarism happens in the professional science world, too.

About two years ago I was asked to review a paper submitted to Journal #1. Halfway through the introduction I came across a passage that sounded like something I would have written. In fact I did: the authors had copied verbatim five paragraphs scattered through a paper I had published in that same journal in 2000. I promptly contacted the editor with the evidence, and after some consultation with the publishers he agreed to reject the paper and to bar the authors from publishing in that journal.

The authors were not deterred. Within two weeks they submitted a slightly edited version of this paper (but still containing some of the plagiarized material I had found, plus additional plagiarized material from a paper by somebody else) to Journal #2, which published it. This was a complete breakdown of the refereeing process: upon reading for the first time the parts of the paper that were original, I found them to be (as Pauli put it) "not even wrong," and the paper should have been rejected on that basis even if they hadn't plagiarized.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

""At the beginning of the semester I state that as this is a science class, cheating is intolerable."


In short hand, I was trying to convey that in science, cheating is unacceptable. The scientific process cannot tolerate data fabrication, stealing ideas from papers/grants under review, etc. I know cheating is generally unacceptable, but in other areas of life "cheating" does not affect the heart of the matter in my opinion.

"As a student who doesn't cheat, I absolutely hate it when professors find cheaters and don't throw the book at them. I don't understand the ethics behind that decision. Do freshman not have fully functioning brains with which to read the student handbook?"

I agree with you in principle. I would fail and attempt to suspend/expul any student who cheated on an examination. For plagiarism, depending on the degree, I would be more likely to have some leniency. Why? First, I'm not a fan of zero tolerance approaches, they fail because not all infractions are the same, although they may be categorized under the same heading. Second, I have little trust in the general rigor of our and foreign public school systems. If students are not truly taught what constitutes cheating, plagiarism, etc in high school, then they are not going to magically obtain it when they enter college. I am also not saying I would give the student a pass, but I probably would not push to have a first year student expulled from the college.

I've had the most luck with two things that I'm pretty sure have been mentioned above.
1) Make sure the students are very very clear on what plagiarism is. Some people really do think that cutting and pasting from a web site is research.
2) Force them to show you the process. Go through drafts outlines and show you printout of the sources.

What I don't understand is when students plagiarize when they're taught how to and encouraged to quote from sources. It's not deceit so much as laziness.

Related story: My wife was teaching an agricultural English at the National University of Benin in West Africa. One of her assignments was to write a poem. Well, one of her students handed in the lyrics to a Janet Jackson song. When she confronted the student about itg, the student claimed it wasn't plagiarism because the song was what was going through his head when he sat down to do the assignment!

By Harry Abernathy (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

"he scientific process cannot tolerate ... stealing ideas from papers/grants under review, etc."


And this is different from stealing an idea for an artwork, a musical composition, a fiction novel, etc how?

Plagiarism is rampant the world over - not only students at all levels plagiarize, researchers do, too. I blog in English about plagiarism at http://copy-shake-paste.blogspot.com/, as does Jonathan Bailey at http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/.

There are no numbers, as we do not know how many plagiarism we miss. Software is not the answer, as I have just shown in my test of plagiarism detection software (results in German at http://plagiat.fhtw-berlin.de/software). The software just does not catch everything. Teachers need a good eye - and a basic grasp of the use of a search machine.

The important point is instruction: making clear that plagiarism is not acceptable, and meting out appropriate punishment to offenders. The last point is usually the hard one, often plagiarism is just swept under the carpet, especially if it is a professor caught red-handed.

When I was a TA for junior/senior computer engineering courses, a student of mine turned in two copies of a quiz--one with her name on it, one with the name of a friend. Both were in the exact same handwriting (which I could associate with a name by then anyway, since I'd had this group of students for several terms), and both contained the exact same answer to a circuit design problem that theoretically had an infinite number of possible answers. Even practically speaking, though, there were enough different ways to solve the problem that no one else in the class turned in a duplicate answer.

I had a similar reaction to yours: am I not supposed to care about this? Am I just supposed to let it go? And most of all, just how stupid do they think I am?

I ended up calling both students into my office without telling them why. They confessed immediately after walking in, and tried to use the "he was sick" excuse (note: this meeting happened the same day the quiz was given--about an hour later, in fact--and he looked just fine to me). Of course, when your friend is sick, naturally your inclination is to... take his quiz for him?

When I pointed out that I frequently gave make-up quizzes for students who had to miss class due to illness, he had no explanation for not asking for one. All in all it was just a pathetic, and unfortunately, all-too-frequent occurrence.

Oh, and the best part: the answer was incorrect, too.

We don't have too much of an issue in the science departments, but the humanities seem to be having a tough time. One adjunct who teaches philosophy has had to go as far as requiring not only sources on papers, but physical copies of the source (such as a screen shot from a web page) with the relevant bit highlighted. It seems to work for her as she now only ends up reporting maybe one student per semester out of three ethics and two into philosophy sections.

Drugmonkey - I think the idea wasn't that it's acceptable to cheat outside of science. I interpreted the post as meaning that the most relevant reason against cheating in a science class, specifically, is that it undermines the scientific method, not that there were no other reasons not to cheat, and not that there are no other fields in which cheating is appalling.

However, Lorax, I think you are maybe underestimating other fields of endeavor when you say that " 'cheating' does not affect the heart of the matter." Integrity is core to the arts - no matter how skillful the artist, if integrity doesn't underlie his vision, he's just a hack. (Maybe the art can still be beautiful or meaningful, but the artist is a hack.) There's a role for borrowing inspiration, making homages, building on themes, in the arts, but I think cheating and theft undermine artistic endeavors every bit as much as scientific ones.

I teach paraphrasing, citation, and the importance of not plagiarizing as a high school librarian. The concept is extremely difficult for high schoolers to grasp. They need lots of practice. Even given that there are some intentional cheaters, I think it's possible that there are still people at the college level who just don't get it.

I have had some doozies the past few years. One young lady paid one of her roommates to take an exam for her in a large lecture hall. A few days later the third roommate confessed to her ethics teacher that she knew about the "plot" (student only got a 76 on the exam by the way). I also had a student do a power point presentation that he had stolen off of his roommate's computer that the roommate had presented earlier the same day in a colleague's class.

So we take a multi-pronged approach now. During freshman orientation students talk about plagiarism with their academic advisers and receive a booklet about it. In my class it is included in the syllabus and discussed when we discuss their paper. Before their presentation they have to hand in a working bibliography, meet with me to discuss their progress on their project, submit a rough draft to turnitin.com and submit a final version there as well. They are limited to two Internet sources and have to include the first page of every source they used for their paper. This approach has decreased plagiarism a great deal.