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Preventing and Recognizing Plagiarism and Cheating: A Guide for College Teachers and Students

Featuring contributions from a university professor and undergraduate students. Quotes obtained for this article are published anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Fast Facts About Plagiarism and Cheating in College

  • 86% of students surveyed claimed they cheated in some way in school.
  • 54% of students surveyed indicated that cheating was OK. Some went so far as to say it is necessary to stay competitive.
  • 97% of admitted cheaters say that they have never been identified as cheating.
  • 76% copied word for word someone else’s assignments.
  • 79% of students surveyed admitted to plagiarizing their assignments from the Internet or citing sources when appropriate.
  • Only 12% indicated they would never cheat because of ethics.
  • 42% indicated they purchased custom term papers, essays, and theses online.
  • 28% indicated they had a service take their online classes for them.
  • 72% indicated they had used their phone, tablet, or computer to cheat in class.

Source for all figures: 2017 Kessler survey

The data show that plagiarism and other forms of cheating are prevalent among college students. However, the issues behind these numbers are complex—it isn’t as black and white as simply labeling students either “ethical” or “unethical.”

This guide is designed to help both students and teachers understand what constitutes plagiarism and learn how to detect and prevent it. It also explores cheating—which is an umbrella term that includes plagiarism—and strategies for combatting it.

What Is Plagiarism?

While plagiarism seems like an easy enough concept to understand—copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own—in reality, a host of actions can constitute plagiarism, and many of these fall into a gray area.

Plagiarism is not always intentional. According to a university professor who formerly served on an academic plagiarism committee, “A big issue at the college level is that students are not aware of what constitutes plagiarism. Students get in the habit in high school of paraphrasing other works without attribution. Many universities are now instituting information sessions on plagiarism as part of freshman orientation in an attempt to address this issue.”

“A big issue at the college level is that students are not aware of what constitutes plagiarism. Students get in the habit in high school of paraphrasing other works without attribution. Many universities are now instituting information sessions on plagiarism as part of freshman orientation in an attempt to address this issue.”

A good part of this guide is devoted to helping students identify plagiarism and learn how to avoid it.

Why Students Plagiarize

The reasons that students plagiarize vary depending on whether the plagiarism is intentional or accidental.

Causes of Unintentional Plagiarism

Middle Georgia State’s comprehensive Plagiarism Prevention Guide discusses some of the factors that lead to unintentional plagiarism:

Not Understanding the Extent of Plagiarism
Some students think that plagiarism only involves copying specific words from a source. But representing the concepts and ideas of someone else as your own is also plagiarism.

Difficulty differentiating between paraphrasing and plagiarizing
This is a problem for many students, especially when they write about topics they don’t fully understand.

Issues With Notetaking
It’s easy when taking notes from different sources to copy down the exact wording and then later forget that the words are not your own.

Misunderstanding What Constitutes Common Knowledge
This is a gray area for many writers. If something is considered common knowledge, no citation of a source is needed. An example of common knowledge might be that George Washington was the first President of the United States. Providing a source for that information in a paper would not be necessary.

Causes of Intentional Plagiarism

The factors that lead to intentional plagiarism often involve internal and external pressures. Understanding these factors can help both students and teachers find ways to prevent it:

Pressure to Succeed
This pressure might come from the student, family and friends, or both.

Feeling That the Course Is Not Essential to the Career Being Pursued
You want to be an elementary school teacher, so why do you need to write a paper about 20th-century literature?

Signals From Peers and Faculty Themselves
Perceptible and imperceptible signals can give students the idea that it’s OK to plagiarize. The prevalence of plagiarism in college “waters down” an action that is unacceptable. Faculty might turn a blind eye to instances of plagiarism, which can also send the wrong message.

I had procrastinated on an assignment, which I had about two weeks to do, so I really wanted to just, as the cliché goes, “throw in the towel.” However, I was just honest with my professor and asked him for an extension and explained my situation. If I had plagiarized, I would have had to face some serious consequences and lose my professor’s trust, too. It’s just not worth it. If you’re going to fail or get that C minus, might as well earn it.

–Undergraduate Student

Students’ Guide to Identifying and Avoiding Plagiarism

The first step to avoiding plagiarism is knowing what it looks like. The second step is knowing how to revise your work so that it is all your own. Following are examples of common types of plagiarism and how to correct them.

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is the act of restating a section of text in a different way. This technique is often used to clarify or summarize existing text. When done correctly, paraphrasing can be a good approach to writing. However, there’s a fine line between stating text in a different way and just plugging in a few different words here and there.

Indiana University’s Writing Tutorials Service site gives the following examples of paraphrasing, done both correctly and incorrectly.

How to Paraphrase

Original Text

From page 1 of Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s by Joyce Williams, et al.:

The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants. With industry came urbanization, the growth of large cities (like Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens lived), which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade.

Unacceptable Paraphrase

The increase of industry, the growth of cities, and the explosion of the population were three large factors of nineteenth century America. As steam-driven companies became more visible in the eastern part of the country, they changed farm hands into factory workers and provided jobs for the large wave of immigrants. With industry came the growth of large cities like Fall River where the Bordens lived which turned into centers of commerce and trade as well as production.

Explanation

  • Paraphrase changes around only a few words
  • It doesn’t provide a source
  • It misrepresents some of the information

Acceptable Paraphrase

Fall River, where the Borden family lived, was typical of northeastern industrial cities of the nineteenth century. Steam-powered production had shifted labor from agriculture to manufacturing, and as immigrants arrived in the US, they found work in these new factories. As a result, populations grew, and large urban areas arose. Fall River was one of these manufacturing and commercial centers (Williams 1).

Explanation

  • The paraphraser uses their own words
  • The information is relayed correctly
  • A source is provided

Presuming Common Knowledge

Common knowledge is something that a wider educated readerships would commonly know. When writing a paper, you don’t want (or need) to source every statement. You assume many things are common knowledge.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) states: “Generally speaking, you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources.”

If you are on the fence about whether information in your paper is common knowledge, err on the side of caution and provide a citation.

Uncited Quotation

It’s the night before your paper is due, you are reviewing it, and suddenly you realize you included some direct quotations from the sources you used. You don’t have time to rewrite the text, so what do you do?

Adding quotation marks and a citation can be an easy way to take care of the problem. Here is an illustration, using the same passage from the Indiana University example from above:

How to Cite a Quote

Original Text

From page 1 of Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s by Joyce Williams, et al.:

The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants. With industry came urbanization, the growth of large cities (like Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens lived), which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade.

Unacceptable Quote Citation

Joyce Williams, et al., say that the rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants.

Acceptable Quote Citation

According to Joyce Williams, et al., in the book Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s, “The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants.”

Note that there are different ways to provide citations depending on the writing style you are following: MLA, APA, AP, CMS, and others. You can find more information about writing styles and how to create citations in each on our Writing and Style Guide page

Self-Plagiarism

It may seem odd to think that reusing your own words can be plagiarism. But, if you use too much of what you wrote in a previous paper in a new paper, or turn in a paper you wrote previously in a different class, this is considered plagiarism.

The best solution for avoiding self-plagiarism is to give yourself enough time to research and write a new paper so you can use fresh words.

Tools for Detecting Plagiarism

It’s difficult enough to get papers and essays written on time without having to feel as though you need to examine every sentence you write for plagiarism. While it’s important to be aware of the trap of plagiarism, there are tools that can help you catch it. They compare your text with millions of online documents, show you instances of plagiarism, and let you know what percentage of your paper contains duplicate copy. These tools include PaperRater, Grammarly, quetext, and iThenticate.

Teachers’ Guide to Detecting and Preventing Plagiarism

Although you may want to assume that your students don’t plagiarize, or you turn a blind eye because you know some students struggle with writing, in the long run you aren’t doing them any favors. Whether the plagiarism is accidental or intentional, calling students out will help prevent them from doing it again.

I think plagiarizing can be tempting because we as students sometimes don’t think professors really take the time to look through our essays and spot these things. Some students don’t take it seriously until a professor is like, ‘Hey, I put your work through this thing that detects plagiarism.’ Maybe if professors were more transparent, the less tempting it’d be to plagiarize.

–Undergraduate Student

There are also things you can do to be proactive about preventing plagiarism.

Detection

In its Plagiarism Prevention Guide, Middle Georgia University provides a list of indicators of possible plagiarism:

  • The writing is more sophisticated, scholarly, or complex than the general capabilities of the student
  • The writing contains advanced concepts or terms that the student is unlikely to know
  • The writing is inconsistent: Some sections may be of higher quality than others
  • The paper contains embedded links, page breaks, or incorrect page numbers
  • There are links or URLs at the top or bottom of the paper or greyed out letters or areas

Be aware of “paper mills.” These are online databases students can search to find existing papers or to find people who will write their papers for a fee.

There are also tools you can use for papers that you suspect have plagiarized copy. In addition to those mentioned in the previous section, there are more comprehensive tools made for teachers, such as turnitin and Glatt Plagiarism Services.

Prevention

The first place to start in preventing plagiarism is to promote academic integrity in your classroom. Don’t let the issue be the elephant in the room: Have an open discussion with students about plagiarism, cheating, and academic integrity.

Other strategies to prevent plagiarism include:

  • Ensuring students understand what plagiarism is
  • Teaching students when and how to cite sources, and how to correctly paraphrase. Refer to the guidelines above, as well as the citation resources below for more information
  • Reviewing your institution’s code of conduct
  • Making sure students know the consequences of plagiarizing

Cheating

Although plagiarism is a form of cheating, some other actions are also considered to be cheating. Students can cheat on tests in a variety of ways, and they can also cheat on homework.

The causes of cheating are similar to those for plagiarism: internal and external pressure, mixed signals, and peer pressure. However, cheating is an intentional action; there is no such thing as accidental cheating.

Plagiarizing—though discouraged and heavy in consequence—sometimes seems like the easiest thing to do. I remember having to juggle work and school, thinking copying and pasting wouldn’t be the worst thing. However, I remembered how unethical and life-shifting it could be if caught, so I stayed away from it.

–Undergraduate Student

Interestingly, though, studies show that students have different perceptions about what types of cheating are “acceptable.” In one survey, when high school students were asked whether they thought cheating was OK either morally or ethically, they reported as follows:

  • 4% believed it was OK to cheat on homework, but not tests
  • 39% believed it was not OK to cheat on either homework or tests
  • 1% believed it was OK to cheat on homework and tests
  • 5% believed it was OK to cheat on tests, but not homework

Detection

As with plagiarism, some tools can help you detect cheating. One notable tool is Proctortrack, which monitors online test-takers through a webcam, identifying potentially dishonest behaviors. Some colleges have found similar methods for monitoring students during a test.

It’s also important you understand some of the techniques students use to cheat. Knowing possible cheating methods can help you identify them.

High-Tech Cheating

As technology gets more sophisticated and students become more tech-savvy, new ways of cheating have emerged.

  • Students can find answers to math problems using Photomath. They simply take a picture of the problem, and the app provides the answer. Although the app was developed to help students learn math, it can be misused.
  • Students can take pictures of their answers and then AirDrop them to anyone in close proximity.
  • Smartphones can be disguised as calculators and then used to search for answers.
  • In intricate cheating schemes in China, students installed miniature cameras into pens, glasses, and wireless earphones resembling small earplugs.
  • A University of Iowa student inserted hardware that captured every keystroke entered into a computer on his professor’s computer. This gave him access to everything the teacher typed, including passwords and exam keys.

Prevention

Establishing a classroom environment of academic integrity is essential in preventing cheating. Providing a code of conduct and defining the parameters of cheating are also important. Other strategies deal with how teachers approach the issue of cheating.

Douglas Harrison, Vice President and Dean of the University of Maryland Global Campus’ School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology, suggests that rather than focusing on the question “How can I stop cheating?”, teachers should instead ask themselves, “What’s the best teaching and learning experience I can construct and deliver for the vast majority of students who are there to learn authentically and who want to succeed?” For example, he suggests teachers give students “scaffolded, supported opportunities at lower-stakes levels to practice the skills, ability and knowledge they’ll need to build into the competencies.”

David Rettinger, Professor of Psychological Science and Director of Academic Programs at the University of Mary Washington, said he uses open-book final exams and gives lots of quizzes for which the “stakes [are] so low that it’s not worth cheating.”

Rettinger has also formulated a list titled “Small, Scalable Changes for Improving Academic Integrity.” Examples include giving students flexibility in their choice of assignments, having them make pledges of honesty and integrity, and scaffolding larger assignments.

Resources

Use the following resources to learn more about plagiarism and cheating, find plagiarism detection tools, and access resources for creating citations.

Plagiarism and Cheating, General

  • Plagiarism.org: This organization is dedicated to helping students write with integrity. It provides information about understanding, preventing, and teaching plagiarism.
  • The International Center for Academic Integrity: ICAI was created to help combat all forms of cheating in higher education. The organization provides resources and tools, as well as assessment and consultation services for members.
  • Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It: This book was written by Donald McCabe, who conducted a 15-year study of cheating habits in college students. The book presents the results of his studies and discusses causes and preventative measures.
  • Plagiarism Prevention Guide: Middle Georgia State University has compiled a comprehensive guide to plagiarism that includes sections about promoting academic integrity, why students plagiarize, prevention, detection, and paper mills.
  • Avoiding Plagiarism: This Harvard Extension School guide provides tips on ways to avoid plagiarism.

Plagiarism Detection Tools

Citation Resources

Citation Generators

These tools automatically generate citations in any writing style.