Deterring, detecting and dealing with plagiarism

A brief paper for Brookes staff for Academic Integrity Week

Jude Carroll, November 2004

Is plagiarism a problem?

Yes. The literature is clear that a significant percentage of our students submit work which they themselves did not do. Often, this is because students have not understood the conventions of academic writing or have not yet learned to use the skills of citation, paraphrasing and using others’ ideas to underpin their own arguments. Sometimes, it is because students deliberately break the rules, choose to cheat, and have little or no interest in upholding the values that underpin academic integrity. And often, of course, a mixture of these and other motivations –from pragmatic decisions to take shortcuts or juggle multiple demands to fear of getting it wrong if they rewrite the words of an expert. For whatever reason, the worldwide statistics show plagiarism, collusion and cheating to be on the rise. The THES has articles almost every week on the matter and here at Brookes, as in every other university, the number of cases continues to grow. In the last 12 months (2003/4), we dealt with 100% more cases than in the previous academic year and all indications are that this is significantly less than the actual level of occurance.

Are there solutions?

Yes and no. We will never prevent students from colluding, plagiarising and breaking the rules but we can deter them by putting in place a range of activities and procedures, each on its own unable to make much difference, but in combination, able to change the way everyone deals with the issue. The rest of this briefing paper makes brief suggestions as to what those actions might be. However, the overriding need is to show more openly what we value in academic discourse, how we support and defend academic integrity, and how we help students become aware of and signed up to the same values. This is a longer term aim and in the meantime, we need to focus on students’ day to day behaviours – and on our own as teachers.

Designing out opportunities

Students will be less able to plagiarise if teachers change the assessment task and change what they ask students to submit for assessment each time the course runs. If possible, avoid problems and tasks which result in one solution; instead, seek ways that students can submit individualised answers, perhaps by asking for a statement about why this approach was chosen or asking for drafts and/or the “workings out” as well as the student’s final result. .

Tasks that ask students to describe and list information are especially prone to wholesale downloading from the Web whereas asking for comparisons, analysis and evaluation will lessen the chance that a suitable document already exists to meet the requirement. This is especially true if the assignment relates to events that are local, recent and specific. However, you could include information-gathering skills in the learning outcomes and devise tasks that encourage their Web-plundering skills.

Research shows that a key driver for plagiarism is poor student organisation leading to cheating when last minute panics arise. To lessen this effect, you could put more emphasis on the planning and structure of tasks rather than only assessing the end product. By asking that students show you an essay plan, a draft or copies of research papers they will use for the final product some weeks before the submission date, you encourage all students to be as strategic as the clued-up ones. [Note: this is about verifying a plan etc exists, not marking it…..]

Finally, asking for novel formats can significantly lessen the chances of submitted work being bought, faked or copied. Rather than a standard essay, it might be possible to devise something that is equally valid as an assessment ‘product’ and probably more likely to encourage student learning. Annotated booklists, portfolios, poster presentations, information leaflets, group project reports and reflective logs cannot be downloaded wholesale and probably do not lend themselves to cut-and-paste construction.

Inform students / teach the skills

Induction can be a useful place to first introduce the idea of referencing sources and attributing ideas to their initiator. It may be the first time a student has come across the idea of paraphrasing or using an in-text citation. However, it is unlikely that students read the Handbook or remember a tiny fraction of what they are told. Regular reminders in Module Handbooks and assignment briefs are important. Students report they have used written guidance, especially if it is in student-friendly language and includes examples, but they also confirm that definitions and guidance are not enough. Knowing what plagiarism or collusion is, whilst useful, is not the same as knowing how to avoid it.

All students (and many academics) will need to use active learning techniques to fully understand and some will need extra help. International Students, those at the start of their academic career and those engaging in cross-disciplinary work are especially in need of guidance and feedback.

Finding time to teach these skills can be tricky, especially in a modular programme. Skills are best learned if they are incorporated into the discipline-based teaching. Students can check their understanding by exercises such as choosing which of three versions of a paraphrased text is acceptable or peer reviewing the citation practice of fellow students. They can have their attention drawn to these matters during early diagnostic exercises or on linbe quizzes. They can compare their ideas with others in classroom discussion – however you do it, the key is getting students to realise these rules apply to them and their work.

Modelling good practice

Research shows (and our experience at Brookes confirms) that students are more likely to cheat if they feel a course is unimportant or badly taught. If they feel ignored or cannot understand the purpose of the assessment or believe they are being asked to reiterate well-worn ideas rather than create their own, they cut corners and the opportunities for doing so grow daily as more and more essay banks, ‘cheat sites’ and ghost writing services are created. So showing you are interested, constantly reviewing the course in response to student feedback, and have put effort into devising useful and creative assessment tasks will have benefits for plagiarism.

You could also model good practice yourself, citing references in your lectures and explaining why you believe in academic values. Another important signal is to spot and take action on blatant signs of plagiarism such as URLs left on the pages, fluent written English in a student who struggles with day-to-day conversation, all references in an obscure and distant library or American spelling. If you see any of these signs and do nothing, you are signalling that academic rules are not worth defending.

Detection and dealing with cases

Detection alone will not sort out the problem of plagiarism. Indeed, relying on “catch and punish” strategies can threaten the experience of both staff and students. Detection needs to be part of an integrated approach, combining any or all of the other ideas in this briefing paper. However, a holistic approach does rely on detection as one vital aspect of the overall package – ignore it and the rest is less effective.

It is possible to screen students’ work prior to marking it by using a range of electronic tools if students submit their work electronically (though assessors often want a hard copy for the purpose of marking). Electronic submission is usually fairly straightforward via the University central computing facility and creates a record of the time and date of submission as well as opening up electronic detection opportunities. If you as a marker encounter work that seems unlikely to be that student’s own, you can also investigate further using electronic means like an Advanced Google search. Alternatively, you can compile a range of signals in the work that point to it not being that of the student.

As soon as a marker feels there are grounds for this view, the Academic Conduct Officer must be informed. Your school’s Academic Conduct Officer’s role is to ensure that students understand their responsibilities, comply with academic regulations, and to decide appropriate sanctions if they do not.

Confirming a case must be done within University regulations and the ACO will guide you in what needs to happen next. For a full account of University procedures, see

Note: this kind of information dates quickly. If you encounter this paper well after the November 2004 events, I suggest you contact your ACO or myself for an update on how things stand

For more information on dealing with plagiarism, see the Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism In Higher Education.

Another useful resource is the Plagiarism Advisory Service