Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 30, 2013
 Earlier versions: February 28, 2012; December 18, 2010; June 14, 2009; November 17, 2004

The availability of textual material in electronic format has made plagiarism easier than ever.  Copying and pasting of paragraphs or even entire essays now can be performed with just a few mouse clicks.  The strategies 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 own work.

Strategies of Awareness

1.  Understand why students cheat. 
By understanding some of the reasons students are tempted to cheat on papers, you can take steps to prevent cheating by attacking the causes.  Some of the major reasons include these: 2. Educate yourself about plagiarism. Plagiarism on research papers takes many forms.  Some of the most common include these:
Visting some of the sites that give away or sell research papers can be an informative experience.  If you have Web projection capability, 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 your 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 Adultlearn.com.

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, "Plagiarism is using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to the other 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 source in a citation. Even if you revise or paraphrase the words of someone else 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 very much like lying because without a citation, you are implying that the idea is your own." 

In addition to a definition, though, you should discuss with your students the difference between appropriate, referenced use of ideas or quotations and inappropriate use. You might show them an example of a permissible paraphrase (with its citation) and an impermissible paraphrase (containing some paraphrasing and some copying), and discuss the difference. Discuss also quoting a passage and using quotation marks and a citation as opposed to quoting a passage with neither (in other words, merely copying without attribution). Such a discussion should educate those who truly do not understand 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. (The Learning Strategies for Paraphrasing and for Summarizing might prove helpful here. You might send your students to these pages.)

Discussing with students why plagiarism is wrong may be helpful also.  Clarifying for them that plagiarism is a combination of stealing (another's 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 emphasis or you risk setting up a challenge for the rebels (those who like to break the rules just for fun).  Many statements on plagiarism also remind students that such cheating shows contempt for the professor, other students, and the entire academic enterprise.  Plagiarizers by their actions declare that they are not at the university to gain an education, but only to pretend to do so, and that they therefore intend to gain by fraud the credentials (the degree) of an educated person.

Perhaps the most effective discussion will ask the students to think about who is really being cheated when someone plagiarizes.  Copying papers or even parts of papers short circuits a number of learning experiences and opportunities for the development of skills: actually doing the work of the research paper rather than counterfeiting it gives the student not only knowledge of the subject and insights into the world of information and controversy, but improves research skills, thinking and analyzing, organizing, writing, planning and time management, and even meticulousness (those picky citation styles actually help improve one's attention to detail).  All this is missed when the paper is faked, and it is these missed skills which will be of high value in the working world.  A degree will help students get a first job, but performance--using the skills developed by doing just such assignments as research papers--will be required for promotion.

4. Discuss the benefits of citing sources.

Many students do not seem to realize that whenever they cite a source, they are strengthening their writing. Citing a source, whether paraphrased or quoted, reveals that they have performed research work and synthesized the findings into their own argument. Using sources shows that the student in engaged in "the great conversation," the world of ideas, and that the student is aware of other thinkers' positions on the topic. By quoting (and citing) writers who support the student's position, the student adds strength to the position. By responding reasonably to those who oppose the position, the student shows that there are valid counter arguments. In a nutshell, citing helps make the essay stronger and sounder and will probably result in a better grade.

Appropriate quoting and citing also evidences the student's respect for the creators of ideas and arguments--honoring thinkers and their intellectual property.  Most college graduates will become knowledge workers themselves, earning at least part of their living creating information products.  They therefore have an interest in maintaining a respect for intellectual 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 penalties 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 result in an F in the course regardless of the student's grade otherwise."  If 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 Students, you should make that clear as well.  Even the penalties can be presented in a positive light.  Penalties exist to reassure honest students 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 to the class at the first meeting.



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 written for another class or a friend's paper will not fulfill the requirements. 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 collaboration permitted?  Must the paper be unique to your course, or do you allow it to be submitted to another course as well?  (In scholarly publishing, such multiple publication is usually called self-plagiarism.)  What kind of research do you require?  How should it be evidenced in the paper, by quotation or just summary?  It has been claimed that a major source of poor student papers (not just plagiarizing) is the unclear assignment.  You might ask another faculty member to read your paper assignment and discuss with you whether or not it is clear and detailed enough for students to fulfill in the way you intend. Or discuss it informally after class with a few students to see how clearly they understand.

2. Provide a list of specific topics and require students to choose one of them. Change topics from semester to semester whenever possible. Unusual topics or topics with a narrow twist are good because there will be fewer papers already written on them. If you provide a substantial enough 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 'Intelligent Design Principles,' and some material from either the Jones or Smith book." Or, "Include a graph which represents the data discussed in the first section."  Requirements that will strongly inhibit the use of a copied paper include these:

If a student begins with someone else's paper and has to work additional material such as the above into it, you'll probably be able to tell. (For example, the fit will be awkward where the new material has been stuffed in or the writing styles will differ.)

4. Require process steps for the paper.  Set a series of due dates throughout the term for the various steps of the research paper process: topic or problem, preliminary bibliography, prospectus, research material (annotated photocopies of articles, for example), outline, rough draft, final annotated bibliography, final draft. Some of these parts can be reverse engineered by the determined cheater, but most students should realize that doing the assignment honestly is easier than the alternative.

The rough draft serves several functions.  A quick glance will reveal whether whole sections are appearing without citations. At the draft stage, you have the opportunity to educate the student further and discuss how proper citation works. You can also mark places and ask for more research material to be incorporated. If you are suspicious of the paper at this point, ask for the incorporation of some specific material that you name, such as a particular book or article.  Keep the drafts and let students know that you expect major revisions and improvements between drafts. (This 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 beginning of the term that they will be giving a presentation on their research papers to the rest of the class, they will recognize the need to be very familiar with both the process and the content of the paper.  Such knowledge should serve as a strong deterrent against simply copying a paper.  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 presentation is a one-on-one office meeting, where you can quiz the student about several aspects of the paper as needed.

Many students have been caught by simple questions like, "What exactly 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 interesting as well (although you may be merely exposing the mindless use of a thesaurus). If you suspect a student has copied a whole paper, complete with citations, 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 the 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. The annotation should include a brief summary of the source, where it was located (including call number for books or complete Web URL), and an evaluation about the usefulness of the source. (Optionally, as a lesson in information quality, ask them to comment on why they thought the source credible.)  The normal process of research makes completing this task easy, but it creates 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 thousands of online papers.  Such a recent date restriction is not usually workable for some subjects, such as history or English literature, but you can always require a few sources of recent date. (But, as mentioned above, be on the alert for citation upgrading, where the date of publication is changed from an older date to a recent one.)

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 most of their sources? What is the most important thing they learned from investigating this subject?  For most students, who actually did the research paper, this assignment will help them think about their own learning. It also provides you with information about the students' knowledge of their papers and it gives you a writing sample to compare with the papers. If a student's 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.
  As you read the papers, look for internal evidence that may indicate plagiarism.  Among the clues are the following: Few of these clues will provide courtroom proof of plagiarism, of course, but their presence should alert you to investigate the paper.  Even if you do not find the source of the paper, you may be able to use these clues profitably in a discussion with the student in your office.

2.  Know where the the sources of papers are.  Before you begin to search for the source or sources of a suspect paper, you should know where to look.  Here are the major sources of text in electronic form:

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: 4. Use a plagiarism detector. You might also try using software. See The Plagiarism Resource Center for more information. If you do not find the paper this way, you might want to turn to some commercial services that provide plagiarism detection.  Here are some of the services:
It is sometimes said that the best plagiarism detector is the student who handed in the paper, because he or she already knows whether or not the paper is genuine, or what part is fraudulent.  Therefore, you can sometimes enlist the student's help.  You must be very careful about accusing a student of cheating unless you have clear proof, because a false accusation can be both cruel and reason for litigation.  But if you ask the right questions in the right way, you will often be successful. (A book you might find useful is Spy the Lie, which offers techniques for detecting deception when you interview others. See the ad nearby.)  Here are some example questions that may help reveal the truth:


 


                           
Also of Interest:
Ronald B. Standler's "Plagiarism in Colleges in USA" provides a legal perspective and other discussion on the issue.
For a DVD that teaches Middle Schoolers about plagiarism in a TV-episode format, go to www.AdinasDeck.com.
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Get the book! Robert Harris has written The Plagiarism Handbook for Pyrczak Publishing of Los Angeles.  The book includes chapters on educating yourself about plagiarism, educating your students about plagiarism, constructing assignments to prevent plagiarism, strategies for detecting plagiarism, strategies for dealing with plagiarism, and administrative and institutional issues relating to plagiarism.  Also included are seven appendices, including example definitions and policies, examples of proper and improper use of sources, useful Web links, an annotated list of paper mill sites, and a number of search tools to help find plagiarized papers on the Web.  The book is illustrated with two dozen cartoons 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 With Plagiarism directly from Amazon.com.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com