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Dealing with Plagiarism:

Knowing it, Teaching it, and Out-smarting it

Faculty complaints about plagiarism are legion, and there is no doubt that the internet has made finding help with anything from a sentence to a whole paper a lot easier than it once was. But while most academics see “plagiarism” as a clear-cut matter of cheating, there has actually been a lot of scholarship that explains how the issue is more complex than that. In this short primer on the REAL issues of plagiarism, I’ll touch on some of the conceptual problems students and teachers alike face, and then suggest some practical measures to deal with them.

Plagiarism as a Learning Issue

First, we should realize that students frequently don’t see the issue the same way we do—and in many ways it’s we academics who are in the minority. Outside academia, very little writing pays any obvious attention at all to where it gets its ideas, and as a result few of our students have much experience with models of how to make appropriate use of words and ideas borrowed from sources. (If you doubt how rarified the culture of citation is, wander through any bookstore’s general book section and leaf through a hundred books chosen at random. The number you’ll find with anything but the most rudimentary of citations or footnotes will be tiny.)

So the first thing you can do to prevent plagiarism is to help students understand what plagiarism is: using the words or ideas of others without citing sources appropriately.

But we need to go further if we are to impress upon students how important this concept is to us. For the source-based nature of academic writing is one of the major differences between academic and other kinds of writing. For us, the question is not whether we will use the work of others, but how. As a result, we academics have become expert at tracking and citing our borrowings, and for very good reason: citations are our way of protecting the original thinking and articulations of that thinking that are an academic's most important product. In a very real sense, the issues surrounding plagiarism go to the very heart of what we do.

For us, then, failure to document borrowings is a very big deal, but the only way many students will find that out (or get straight on it again two years after they were introduced to it in First-year English) is if you and other writing-friendly teachers are able to help them.

So students' understanding of why plagiarism matters so much to us is one issue. A second is that even those students who do know something about citing the work of others may have what seem to us bizarre notions of what is permissible and what is not. Some really do think--indeed they may even have once somewhere been taught--that it’s ok to quote up to 25 words without attribution; others know that that’s wrong, but think it’s ok to use without attribution anything you find anywhere, just so long as you change the wording so it sounds different.

Plagiarism-proof teaching

That said, how can you get rid of plagiarism? Actually, it's not all that difficult. After making sure that students understand what plagiarism is, and what conventions you want them to follow to document and credit their uses of sources, the best way to prevent plagiarism is by following two basic rules for designing an assignment:

Rule 1. Make your assignment central to your course's reading and thinking.

Rule 2. Make sure your students actually have the skills they will need to complete your assignment successfully and on their own.

To follow Rule 1, begin by thinking of how your assignment can be integrated so as to be central—not an add-on—to your course. A course-integrated assignment might ask students to articulate understandings and evaluations of key course questions, or to extend ways of thinking learned within the confines of the course to material beyond the course, or to engage in one or another course curriculum-related inquiry. Students will write best if, on one hand, they can see clearly how your assignment helps them learn your course material, and if, on the other (and this is really important!), the work they do on a day-by-day basis in class helps them develop the conceptual and technical skills the assignment will require them to have.

Here is an example of a fairly simple course-central writing assignment:

In a lower division fisheries class students were assigned three articles with contrasting views on whether the north Atlantic fishery was undergoing the effects of global warming. As a writing assignment the professor asked them to decide which of the three articles, or what combination of the three, made the most compelling case, and then write a white paper in which that case, along with the student's evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of that case, is argued before a subcommittee of the Environmental Protection Agency.

To prepare for the writing assignment, the professor briefly went over one of the articles in class, showing students how it made its claim, identifying for them its evidence, and then talking with them about how to evaluate that evidence. Students then did a pair of short, ungraded writing exercises in which they first identified what they thought a given article's key claim was and listed the evidence it supplied, and then in the second exercise went on to summarize that article's claim and its evidence and to assess the strength of its case.

This assignment (which is a simplified version of an assignment Bob Francis in the UW Fisheries program used a few years ago) makes plagiarism virtually impossible in two ways.

First, it creates a topic to which generic on-line or otherwise-obtained papers cannot possibly be relevant, since the likelihood that any other professor will have used these three articles in a class of just this kind with just this kind of assignment is very, very low.

Second, it gives students some guided practice with the academic skills (or perhaps more accurately, "subskills"--i.e., reading, understanding, and summarizing professional-level writing) they will need to succeed with the assignment at the same time that it gives them a start on the reading and writing the assignment requires.

Contrast that sort of assignment with a more traditional one:

Find a topic of interest to you that is related to one of the major themes we study in this course, locate three to five articles about that topic and write a paper evaluating the key issues you find.

Something very like that assignment occurs daily all over America, and the internet is thus rife with examples ripe for downloading. Because it is so generic it is also easily plagiarized. More importantly it is also weak because:

  • students will not see it as central to the real work of the course (if it were, they reason, you'd be covering it in class), and
  • such assignments require discipline-specific critical thinking skills your students are unlikely to have (i.e., like the skills required to locate, read, understand, and summarize professional-level writing in your field). When students don't have a skill, they will have much more trouble writing successfully on their own.

Hence Rule 2 of Plagiarism-proof assignment design given above: Make sure your students actually have the skills they will need to complete your assignment successfully and on their own.

More on the importance of skills

We may not like it, but few students enter our classes with all the skills they will need to write well (or even to think well) in our disciplines. Skills to a given assignment might include: doing literature searches; writing accurate summaries of resource material; learning to identify in key readings main arguments or supporting evidence; formulating a significant research question; locating and responding to oppositional voices.

You may think these skills are too simple to teach, or will take time away from your course's REAL material, or you may think students should have learned them long ago in first-year English. But unfortunately, that's actually not a reasonable expectation, since even many seemingly generic skills are in fact discipline-specific in either whole or part.

Thus the sort of claim that philosophers think worthy of study and argument is quite different from the sort of claim chemists or political scientists think worthy of study and argument. Similarly, what counts as evidence in a paper about Shakespeare is radically different from what counts as evidence in a physics experiment. For that reason knowing how to read and assess an article in an English class is very different from knowing how to read and assess an article for a physics lab report. Most students will thus need help in learning how to transfer to your discipline the requisite skills with which they have some, but not enough, experience elsewhere.

Once you've decided what the main skills for your assignment are you can then help students develop their paper through a series of short, ungraded take-home or in-class exercises to introduce them to these necessary sub-skills. The simple truth is: students write better if they can have trial runs, preliminary exercises, and some form of feedback along the way--even when this feedback is minimal!

Moreover, if the assignment truly is course-central, then taking 15-30 minutes four or five times in a quarter to do this will NOT be preventing you from teaching course content. Quite the contrary, in these sessions you'll be teaching students precisely the kind of critical thinking skills they need if they are to become professional chemists, political scientists, literary critics or engineers.

Strong assignments thus are by their nature largely plagiarism proof. And if all that weren't enough, not only will students likely have learned more about the material in your course by going through a writing-integrated course, but the papers they produce will be better researched and better thought through, and thus both more enjoyable to read and far less time-consuming to grade.

(For an example of a course-integrated writing project with accompanying explanations of how it was integrated into the course and how it was used to measure student learning on key course goals, go to The Romantic Survival Project, an account of a course-integrated assignment for an English class in the literature of the Romantic Age.)

Plagiarism as Misconduct

All of what I’ve said above addresses plagiarism as a teaching and learning issue, and not as a behavior issue. And in my own experience, which includes overseeing first-year English composition for 8 years (during which period students taught by TAs in English submitted over 96,000 papers) as well as 35 years of my own classroom teaching, the biggest part of the problem has been solved by designing assignments a little more carefully. But course design is not the whole problem. Some students do cheat—or may if they can see how. What about them?

First, you’ll be best prepared for this eventuality by addressing plagiarism in your syllabus. Explain that you will not accept work that includes any plagiarism. Should a paper show up that you think is plagiarized, you should meet with the student, explain what you see, and ask for an explanation. When I have had this problem (which I have indeed had, even if not often), I have told the student that he or she can get credit for the assignment only by going back to write it again—this time without illicit help. I will then accept the paper, but it will at that point be late and subject to my late paper policy. I penalize late papers .2 grade points a day. Depending on the student and the reasons for the plagiarism, I may negotiate accommodations with the extent of the penalty.

Other faculty will want a stronger solution. There is University policy on this score, and it is on-line at If you wish to deal with plagiarism under this policy, contact the UW Vice Provost for Student Affairs. Many faculty have found this a good solution—this does indeed get students’ attention, and in all cases in which misconduct is established, the Office of Student Affairs ensures that students undergo appropriate disciplinary action.

In sum, students who plagiarize do so for very different reasons, some more forgivable than others, and there is no single remedy that fits all cases. I think what matters most is that we keep about us a just sense of proportion. I have talked with faculty who have actually stopped assigning writing to any of their students for fear of (or anger about) receiving plagiarized papers from a few, and I do understand their frustration. But plagiarism does not have to be a necessary evil. It is a phenomenon that can be all but eliminated through clear explanation of course policies and through thoughtful assignment design.


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