Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers
Version Date: February 28, 2012
Earlier version: December 18, 2010; June 14, 2009; November 17, 2004
The availability of textual material in electronic format has
easier than ever. Copying and pasting of paragraphs or even
essays now can be performed with just a few mouse clicks. The
discussed here can be used to combat what some believe is an increasing
amount of plagiarism on research papers and other student writing. By
employing these strategies,
you can help encourage students to value the assignment and to do their
Strategies of Awareness
1. Understand why students cheat.
By understanding some
of the reasons students are tempted to cheat on papers, you can take
to prevent cheating by attacking the causes. Some of the
2. Educate yourself about plagiarism. Plagiarism on
takes many forms. Some of the most common include these:
- Many students simply do not know what plagiarism is. Their
awareness, if any, often derives from urban legends and myths
("Everything on the Internet is public domain and can be copied without
- Many other students know what plagiarism is, but don't consider
it wrong. The belief that "information wants to be free," and the idea
that copying from sources with a few words of one's own is merely
"patch writing," a normal way to write, support these students in their
beliefs. So the plagiarizer you catch might not be the defiant, lazy
cheater you assume, but a practical, "community of words" compiler of
essays using fellow writers' verbal structures.
are natural economizers. Many students are
the shortest route possible through a course. That's why they
questions such as, "Will this be on the test?" Copying a
looks a the shortcut through an assignment, especially when the student
feels overloaded with work already. To combat this cause,
your paper to be due well before the end-of-term pressures.
students that the purpose of the course is to learn and develop skills
and not just "get through." Writing a research paper helps to
develop the skills of researching (hunting for something in the
information universe), problem solving (the principal work of most
people), writing (language is the most powerful weapon on earth),
perseverance, and commitment. It follows that the more students learn
skills, the more effective they will be in their future lives.
- Students are faced with too many choices, so they put off low
With so many things to do (both of academic and recreational nature),
students put off assignments that do not interest them. A
here would be to customize the research topic to include something of
interest to the students or to offer topics with high intrinsic
- Many students have poor time management and planning
students are just procrastinators, while others do not understand the
required to develop a good research paper, and they run out of time as
the due date looms. Thus, they are most tempted to copy a
time is short and they have not yet started the assignment.
structure your research assignment so that intermediate parts of it
early research, prospectus, outline, draft, bibliography, final draft)
are due at regular intervals, students will be less likely to get in a
time-pressure panic and look for an expedient shortcut.
- Some students fear that their writing ability is
of a bad grade and inability to perform cause some students to look for
a superior product. This is sometimes called "cheat to compete."
Sadly, these students are among those
to judge a good paper and are often likely to turn in a very poor
one. Some help for these students may come from demonstrating
poor many of the online papers are and by emphasizing the value of the
learning process (more on this below). Reassuring students of
help available to them (your personal attention, a writing center,
assistants, online writing lab sites, etc.) may give them the courage
- A few students like the thrill of rule breaking. The more
you condemn plagiarism, the more they can hardly wait to do
approach that may have some effect is to present the assignment and the
proper citation of sources in a positive light (more below).
Visting some of the sites that give away or sell research papers can be
an informative experience. If you have Web projection
you might do this visiting in class and show the students (1) that you
know about these sites and (2) that the papers are often well below
expectations for quality, timeliness, and research. There is a list of
many of these Internet
paper mills here.
There are some good discussion points at "Cheating
101: The Danger of Using an Internet Paper Mill" from
- Downloading a free research paper. Many of these papers
written and shared by other students. Since paper swappers
not among the best students, free papers are often of poor quality, in
both mechanics and content. Some of the papers are
(with citations being no more recent than the seventies).
- Buying a paper from a commercial paper mill. These papers
good--and sometimes they are too good. If you have given
an in-class writing assignment, you can compare the quality and be
enlightened. Moreover, mills often sell both custom and stock
with custom papers becoming stock papers very
quickly. If you
visit some of the mill sites, you might just find the same paper
for sale by searching by title or subject.
- Copying an article from the Web or an online or electronic
Only some of these articles will have the quantity and type of
that academic research papers are expected to have. If you
a well-written, highly informed essay without a single citation (or
just a few), it may have been copied wholesale from an electronic
- Copying a paper from a local source. Papers may be copied
who have taken your course previously, from fraternity files, or from
paper-sharing sources near campus. If you keep copies of
papers turned in to you, they can be a source of detection of this
- Cutting and pasting to create a paper from several sources.
"assembly-kit" papers are often betrayed by wide variations in tone,
and citation style. The introduction and conclusion are often
and therefore noticeably different from and weaker than the often
- Quoting less than all the words copied. This practice
end quotation marks or missing quotation marks. A common type
plagiarism occurs when a student quotes a sentence or two, places the
quotation mark and the citation, and then continues copying from the
Or the student may copy from the source verbatim without any quotation
marks at all, but adding a citation, implying that the information is
student's summary of the source. Checking the citation will
- Faking a citation. In lieu of real research, some students
up quotations and supply fake citations. The fake citation can be
either completely fabricated (The American Journal of Asymmetric
Induction Studies), or it can reference a real source (book, journal,
or Web site) which contains no such article or words that have
supposedly been used. You can discover
by randomly checking citations. If you require several Web or
electronic sources for the paper, these can be checked quickly.
3. Educate your students about plagiarism.
Do not assume that
students know what plagiarism is, even if they nod their heads when you
ask them. Provide an explicit definition for them. For example,
is using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to the
person. When you use someone else's words, you must put quotation marks
around them and give the writer or speaker credit by revealing the
in a citation. Even if you revise or paraphrase the words of someone
or just use their ideas, you still must give the author credit in a
note. Not giving due credit to the creator of an idea or writing is
In addition to a definition, though, you should discuss with
the difference between appropriate, referenced use of ideas or
and inappropriate use. You might show them an example of a permissible
paraphrase (with its citation) and an impermissible paraphrase
some paraphrasing and some copying), and discuss the difference.
also quoting a passage and using quotation marks and a citation as
to quoting a passage with neither (in other words, merely copying
attribution). Such a discussion should educate those who truly do not
citation issues ("But I put it in my own words, so I didn't think I had
to cite it") and it will also warn the truly dishonest that you are
watching. Wholesale copying is obviously intentional, but a
paper with occasional copy and paste sentences or poorly paraphrased
material might be the result of ignorance. It's a good idea to teach
students (or at least provide a handout) about paraphrasing,
summarizing, quoting, citing, and indicating clearly the difference
between their own ideas and ideas or words from a source.
Discussing with students why plagiarism is wrong may be
Clarifying for them that plagiarism is a combination of stealing
words) and lying (claiming implicitly that the words are the student's
own) should be mentioned at some point, but should not be the whole
or you risk setting up a challenge for the rebels (those who like to
the rules just for fun). Many statements on plagiarism also
students that such cheating shows contempt for the professor, other
and the entire academic enterprise. Plagiarizers by their
declare that they are not at the university to gain an education, but
to pretend to do so, and that they therefore intend to gain by fraud
credentials (the degree) of an educated person.
Perhaps the most effective discussion will ask the students to
about who is really being cheated when someone plagiarizes.
papers or even parts of papers short circuits a number of learning
and opportunities for the development of skills: actually doing the
of the research paper rather than counterfeiting it gives the student
only knowledge of the subject and insights into the world of
and controversy, but improves research skills, thinking and analyzing,
organizing, writing, planning and time management, and even
(those picky citation styles actually help improve one's attention to
All this is missed when the paper is faked, and it is these missed
which will be of high value in the working world. A degree
students get a first job, but performance--using the skills developed
doing just such assignments as research papers--will be required for
4. Discuss the benefits of citing sources.
students do not
seem to realize that whenever they cite a source, they are
their writing. Citing a source, whether paraphrased or quoted, reveals
that they have performed research work and synthesized the findings
their own argument. Using sources shows that the student in engaged in
"the great conversation," the world of ideas, and that the student is
of other thinkers' positions on the topic. By quoting (and citing)
who support the student's position, the student adds strength to the
By responding reasonably to those who oppose the position, the student
shows that there are valid counter arguments. In a nutshell, citing
make the essay stronger and sounder and will probably result in a
Appropriate quoting and citing also evidences the student's
for the creators of ideas and arguments--honoring thinkers and their
property. Most college graduates will become knowledge
earning at least part of their living creating information
They therefore have an interest in maintaining a respect for
property and the proper attribution of ideas and words.
5. Make the penalties clear. If an
institutional policy exists,
quote it in your syllabus. If you have your own policy, specify the
involved. For example, "Cheating on a paper will result in an F on that
paper with no possibility of a makeup. A second act of cheating will
in an F in the course regardless of the student's grade
you teach at a university where the penalty for plagiarism is dismissal
from the university or being reported to the Academic Dean or Dean of
you should make that clear as well. Even the penalties can be
in a positive light. Penalties exist to reassure honest
that their efforts are respected and valued, so much so that those who
would escape the work by fakery will be punished substantially. Note:
There are always a few students who will be caught plagiarizing and
then claim that no one cared or told them. When you point to the
section in your syllabus, they will say, "I thought it was a generic
syllabus so I didn't read it." The better idea, then, is to read the
appropriate places from the syllabus.
Strategies of Prevention
The overall goal of these specific strategies is to make the assignment
and requirements unique enough that an off-the-shelf paper or a paper
for another class or a friend's paper will not fulfill the
Only a newly written paper will.
1. Make the assignment clear.
Be specific about your
expectations. Should the paper be an individual effort or is
permitted? Must the paper be unique to your course, or do you
it to be submitted to another course as well? (In scholarly
such multiple publication is usually called self-plagiarism. If you
a unique paper, be sure to prohibit photocopied papers and insist on
typescripts or printouts.) What kind of research do you
How should it be evidenced in the paper, by quotation or just
It has been claimed that a major source of poor student papers (not
plagiarizing) is the unclear assignment. You might ask
member to read your paper assignment and discuss with you whether or
it is clear and detailed enough for students to fulfill in the way you
2. Provide a list of specific topics and
require students to
choose one of them. Change topics from semester to semester whenever
Unusual topics or topics with a narrow twist are good because there
be fewer papers already written on them. If you provide a substantial
list of topics (say two dozen), most students will find something that
can interest them. You can also allow for a custom topic if the student
comes to discuss it with you first.
3. Require specific components in the paper.
For example, "The
paper must make use of two Internet sources, two printed book sources,
two printed journal sources, one personal interview, and one personally
conducted survey." Or, "You must make use of Wells' article on
Design Principles,' and some material from either the Jones or Smith
Or, "Include a graph which represents the data discussed in the first
Requirements that will strongly inhibit the use of a copied paper
If a student begins with someone else's paper and has to work
material such as the above into it, you'll probably be able to tell.
example, the fit will be awkward where the new material has been
in or the writing styles will differ.)
- Use of one or more sources written within the past year. A
like this will quickly outdate most paper mill products.
- Use of one or more specific articles or books you name or
The articles could be available online (from the Web or one of your
proprietary databases) to save the effort of photocopying and
- Incorporation of some information you provide (for example, a
- A personal interview with an expert or authority. An
both a current and a checkable source.
4. Require process steps for the paper. Set
a series of
due dates throughout the term for the various steps of the research
process: topic or problem, preliminary bibliography, prospectus,
material (annotated photocopies of articles, for example), outline,
draft, final annotated bibliography, final draft. Some of these parts
be reverse engineered by the determined cheater, but most students
realize that doing the assignment honestly is easier than the
The rough draft serves several functions. A quick
reveal whether whole sections are appearing without citations. At the
stage, you have the opportunity to educate the student further and
how proper citation works. You can also mark places and ask for more
material to be incorporated. If you are suspicious of the paper at this
point, ask for the incorporation of some specific material that you
such as a particular book or article. Keep the drafts and let
know that you expect major revisions and improvements between drafts.
is actually a great way to improve students' writing, quite apart from
the other goal of preventing plagairism.)
5. Require oral reports of student papers.
Ask students questions
about their research and writing process. If students know at the
of the term that they will be giving a presentation on their research
to the rest of the class, they will recognize the need to be very
with both the process and the content of the paper. Such
should serve as a strong deterrent against simply copying a
Regardless of how many times a student reads over a copied paper, much
of the knowledge of the research, the drafting, leaving out, and so on
will still remain unknown. Alternative to an in-class
is a one-on-one office meeting, where you can quiz the student about
aspects of the paper as needed.
Many students have been caught by simple questions like, "What
do you mean here by 'dynamic equivalence'?" Few students use words they
cannot pronounce, so having them read some of the paper aloud can be
as well (although you may be merely exposing the mindless use of a
If you suspect a student has copied a whole paper, complete with
asking about the sources can be useful. "Where did you find the article
by Edwards? It sounds fascinating. Can you bring me a copy at
next meeting?" Or, "This quotation seems slightly out of context. What
was Follet's main point in the chapter?"
6. Have students include an annotated bibliography.
should include a brief summary of the source, where it was located
call number for books or complete Web URL), and an evaluation about the
usefulness of the source. (Optionally, as a lesson in information
ask them to comment on why they thought the source credible.)
normal process of research makes completing this task easy, but it
headaches for students who have copied a paper from someone else since
few papers include annotated bibliographies like this. Another benefit
of this assignment is that students must reflect on the reliability and
quality of their sources.
7. Require most references to be up-to-date.
Many of the free
term papers online (and many of the ones for sale) are quite old, with
correspondingly old references. If you require all research material to
be, say, less than five years old, you will automatically eliminate
of online papers. Such a recent date restriction is not
for some subjects, such as history or English literature, but you can
require a few sources of recent date.
8. Require a metalearning essay. On the day
you collect the papers,
have students write an in-class essay about what they learned from the
assignment. What problems did they face and how did they overcome them?
What research strategy did they follow? Where did they locate
of their sources? What is the most important thing they learned from
this subject? For most students, who actually did the
this assignment will help them think about their own learning. It also
provides you with information about the students' knowledge of their
and it gives you a writing sample to compare with the papers. If a
knowledge of the paper and its process seems modest or if the in-class
essay quality diverges strikingly from the writing ability shown in the
paper, further investigation is probably warranted.
Strategies of Detection
1. Look for the clues.
read the papers, look
for internal evidence that may indicate plagiarism. Among the
are the following:
Few of these clues will provide courtroom proof of plagiarism, of
but their presence should alert you to investigate the paper.
if you do not find the source of the paper, you may be able to use
clues profitably in a discussion with the student in your office.
- Mixed citation styles. If some paragraphs are cited in MLA
while other references are in APA, and perhaps one or two are in CBE or
Chicago, you are probably looking at a paste-up.
- Lack of references or quotations. Lengthy, well written
without documentation may have been taken from general knowledge
such as encyclopedias, popular magazines, or Web sites.
- Unusual formatting. Strange margins, skewed tables, lines
in half, mixed subhead styles and other formatting anomalies may
a hasty copy and paste job.
- Off topic. If the paper does not develop one of the
or even the topic it announces, it may have been borrowed at the last
or downloaded. Similarly, if parts of the paper do develop
but other parts seem oddly off, the product may be a cut and paste.
- Signs of datedness. If there are no references after some
date (e.g. 1985), or if a data table offers a company's sales from 1989
to 1994, either the student is using very old material or the paper
is rather old.
- Anachronisms. If the paper refers to long-past events as
("Only after the Gulf War is over will we see lower oil prices" or "Why
isn't the Carter administration acting on this?"), you almost certainly
have a recycled paper on your hands.
- Anomalies of diction. Many undergraduates do not understand
of levels of diction. They think all words are equally
every paper. As a result, when those who plagiarize with the
method perform their deeds, they often mix paragraphs of varying levels
together--the sophisticated scholar's paragraph precedes the breezy
commentary, which may be followed by the student's own highly
addition. Similarly, you may come upon some suspiciously elevated
usages. "Thesaurusitis" is one source of this, to be sure,
common source of such vocabulary is another writer, who should have
quoted rather than simply copied. "What do you mean by
can sometimes provide you with inexpressible information.
if you find that the paper uses several archaic terms, or words no
used in the way the paper uses them, you may be looking at some very
- Anomalies of style. Is the prose style remarkable? Are
paragraphs that remind you of a nineteenth-century encyclopedia? Is
ornate rhetorical structure? Does the introduction get in its
way and stumble around, only to give way to glowing, flowing
Is there a mixture of British and American punctuation or spelling,
consistent usage within large sections?
- Smoking guns. This category might be called "blunders of
since it includes obvious indicators of copying. Reported in
past have been labels left at the end of papers ("Thank you for using
title pages stapled to Web printouts (complete with dates and URL in
corners), title pages claiming the paper is by Tom Jones when
pages say "Smith, page 2," and papers with whiteout over the previous
2. Know where the the sources of papers are.
you begin to search for the source or sources of a suspect paper, you
know where to look. Here are the major sources of text in
3. Search for the paper online.
If you suspect the
paper may have
come from the Web, you might try these strategies to find it:
- Free and for-sale term paper sites. As mentioned earlier,
a list of many of these sites at http://www.coastal.edu/library/presentations/mills2.html.
- The free, visible Web. This category includes all the
Web pages, which are indexed by search engines.
- The free, invisible Web. This cateory includes the contents
that provide articles free to users, but that content may be accessible
only by going directly to the site. That is, the articles are
indexed by search engines and therefore cannot be located by using a
engine. Some magazines, newspapers, reference works,
and subject-specific sites are in this category.
- Paid databases over the Web. This category includes
for consumers (such as Northern Light's Special Collection) and
that libraries subscribe to, containing scholarly journals, newspapers,
court cases and the like. Providers like Lexis-Nexis, UMI Proquest,
JSTOR and others are in this group. To find information from this
you must have access to the database (through password or an on-campus
computer) and search on the database directly.
- CD-ROM resources. Encyclopedias and some databases are
4. Use a plagiarism detector. You might also try
Center for more information. If you do not find the paper
you might want to turn to some commercial services that provide
detection. Here are some of the services:
- If you find nothing with these tools, try several of the
full-text search engines like Google,
an exact phrase search on a four-to-six-word phrase from a suspect part
of the paper (find a phrase that has two or three relatively unusual
in it). Remember that no search engine covers more than about
of the visible Web, so you should try several engines before you give
- Next, locate some appropriate databases on the invisible Web,
on the subject of the paper. You can find many of these
by consulting the "World Wide Web
page on this site. If indicated, visit some of the online encyclopedias
as well. Here, you will have to use keyword searches rather
exact phrase searches, but using a string of appropriate keywords can
- Now go to your library's online database subscriptions and search
databases using keyword searches.
It is sometimes said that the best plagiarism detector is the student
handed in the paper, because he or she already knows whether or not the
paper is genuine, or what part is fraudulent. Therefore, you
sometimes enlist the student's help. You must be very careful
accusing a student of cheating unless you have clear proof, because a
accusation can be both cruel and reason for litigation. But
ask the right questions in the right way, you will often be
Here are some example questions that may help reveal the truth:
Educational materials and a software screening program that creates a
of familiarity for a student to complete. The company says
student has been falsely accused. CD ROM program.
Online service that checks submitted student papers against a large
and provides reports of results. Also monitors term paper
- Plagiarism Finder
Searches Internet sources.
Inexpensive software agent that searches the Web to compare a suspect
with Internet content. Shows site and degree of match.
- "I was quite surprised by your paper, so I did some investigation
it. Before I tell you what I found out, is there anything you
to tell me about it?" With the appropriately serious demeanor
tone, a well phrased question like this will often result in a
If the student is innocent or just hardened and replies, "No," you can
always reveal some innocuous fact and go on.
- "I'm curious to know why your writing style is so good in some
the paper and so poor in others. And why have you not shown
great writing on the in-class essays?"
- "This long passage doesn't sound like your normal style. Is
a quotation where you accidentally forgot the quotation marks?"
- "Explain to me again what the rules for paraphrasing or
summarizing are. Some of the passages in your paper make me think you
might be unclear about them."
Also of Interest:
Ronald B. Standler's "Plagiarism
in Colleges in USA" provides a legal perspective and other
on the issue.
For a DVD that teaches Middle Schoolers about plagiarism in a
TV-episode format, go to www.AdinasDeck.com.
the book! Robert Harris has
written The Plagiarism Handbook for Pyrczak
Publishing of Los Angeles.
The book includes chapters on educating yourself about plagiarism,
your students about plagiarism, constructing assignments to prevent
strategies for detecting plagiarism, strategies for dealing with
and administrative and institutional issues relating to
Also included are seven appendices, including example definitions and
examples of proper and improper use of sources, useful Web links, an
list of paper mill sites, and a number of search tools to help find
papers on the Web. The book is illustrated with two dozen
suitable for use in teaching. For more information, or to order, visit
AntiPlagiarism.com. Or you
can order The
Plagiarism Handbook: Strategies for Preventing, Detecting, and Dealing
directly from Amazon.com.
1999, 2001, 2009, 2012 by Robert Harris | How
to cite this page
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About the author:
Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com