Preventing Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a challenging topic in the context of writing instruction. Academic integrity is a cornerstone of higher education, and violations of academic integrity policies are considered severe breaches of community standards. Simultaneously, for novice writers, citation and attribution rules can be unfamiliar and opaque, especially when students are asked to cross disciplinary boundaries and when instructors’ expectations of citation practices might appear arbitrary.

This page will address multiple definitions and perspectives on plagiarism, provide strategies for designing courses and assignments that discourage plagiarism, and, finally, provide resources to instructors to address errors in citation and attribution.

What is plagiarism?

Although it is easy to furnish examples of plagiarism (e.g., the student who submits a paper ‘borrowed’ from a friend or roommate), definitions of plagiarism brush up against gray areas that make text borrowing a challenging topic for writing and teaching.

Most everyone agrees that an author has plagiarized when they have intentionally made use of source material without attribution for the purpose of personal or financial gain. High-profile scandals represent this type of plagiarism, where writers, speakers, politicians, and academics have borrowed material from others without attribution, credit, or compensation. For published works, this unauthorized borrowing could also be an infringement of copyright. In these cases, plagiarism is understood as a kind of fraud, and legal judgments often require financial restitution.

Unfortunately, most instances of plagiarism are not so simple. While students earn credit for the completion of academic courses, it is hard to suggest that a student gains a specific financial benefit from academic misconduct in the manner of someone selling bootleg recordings. Although one could claim that a student is seeking a personal benefit from turning in plagiarized work (by receiving undeserved credit for completion), it can be challenging to prove the intent to deceive. Conversations with students about academic misconduct predictably turn from outright denial (I didn’t do it) to claims to lack of intent (I didn’t mean to do it).

What is academic misconduct?

Academic misconduct is a well-studied phenomenon, and considerations of plagiarism are often understood through the lens of academic integrity. One of the earliest systematic studies of academic misconduct in 1963 revealed that 75% of students reported engaging in academic dishonesty in their undergraduate careers. While the rates of anonymously self-reported academic dishonesty fluctuate from year to year, two counterintuitive results are worth mentioning. First, little evidence suggests that academic dishonesty is worse than ever (the period 2002–2010 saw slightly lower self-reported cases). Second, while students’ academic misconduct changes with new technology, the advent of cut-and-paste and electronic delivery of documents has not significantly altered the rate of academic misconduct. Typically, such self report data does not distinguish between intentional acts of cheating and conduct that a student later learns was inappropriate.

James Lang’s recent book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, identifies four significant features of courses in which intentional academic misconduct is common:

  • Emphasis on performance-—Courses with one-time skills assessments were more likely to experience cheating than courses with multiple assessments and learning for mastery.
  • High stakes on a single outcome—Courses with fewer high-stakes assessments had more cheating than those with more frequent and lower-stakes assessments.
  • Low intrinsic motivation—Cheating was more common when the reasons for task completion were unclear, opaque, or irrelevant.     
  • Low expectation of success—Cheating was more likely in courses where students felt less self-efficacy. Classes with high failure rates and reputations for challenge witnessed higher instances of cheating.

By outlining these features, Lang illustrates the ways in which both course design and student motivation can work together to discourage cheating of any kind.

Cases of academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, should be referred to the Office of Community Standards. This office adjudicates issues related to campus conduct and promotes a restorative justice model when addressing plagiarism or inappropriate scholarly behavior. They also provide resources for faculty and staff on developing a culture of academic integrity in your courses.

Academic misconduct or predictable error?

Plagiarism is different from other forms of academic misconduct like falsifying research or cheating on a test. Students may violate expectations for attribution and citation even when they are actively seeking to meet those standards. Part of the troublesome issue of intent with plagiarism is that many students are legitimately confused by the multiple citation styles and expectations they will encounter across the curriculum. Their previous academic college preparation may be insufficient to their needs as participants and learners in a host of research disciplines.

Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson, the lead researchers of the Citation Project, have studied undergraduate students’ use of sources in their academic writing. They noted that when novice writers encountered challenging but essential passages in their reading, they might attempt to provide a paraphrase while making minimal changes to the source text. They named this particular form of troublesome textual borrowing as “patchwriting.” While patchwriting could be a strategy for deliberate misconduct, it could also serve as evidence of students’ difficulty with conceptually challenging material or lack of familiarity with citation practices.

In her article in College English, Howard writes:

In any instance of inappropriate source use, instructors will want to consider carefully the context of the error, the severity and frequency of the error, and the relative experience or preparation of the student in working with the genre. It is not necessary to establish the writer’s intent in order to identify and eliminate citation errors.

Principles and practices to help avoid plagiarism

Convey the value of research and research processes as elements of your course description and pedagogy.

In all courses that include research reading and writing, it can be valuable to be explicit about the role of research in the discipline and the ways that research, publication, and citation advance the state of the art in the field. Rigorous documentation of processes and respectful attribution of prior ideas is at the heart of the mission of a research discipline and a research university. You can make these values apparent in a syllabus statement or whenever you use research materials for instructional purposes.

Clarify the skills being developed in the completion of the assignment and their value.

When students are clear on the reasons for a particular assignment and the value of the research activity to course learning or professional applications, they may be increasingly motivated to complete the work. Similarly, showing how a particular assignment extends the skills they have already developed can increase students’ sense of confidence and competence with complex tasks.

Identify and note the use of sources in your course readings.

In addition to discussing the ideas and content of course readings, it can be very useful for students to identify the features of those readings and the use of sources. For example, what kinds of materials are cited in the introduction of a piece of research writing? Where does the reading refer to published statements from other researchers? Why might these researchers have been chosen? Who else is acknowledged in the reading for their contributions to knowledge, and how are they recognized? Critically, such discussions can call attention to the function of textual references as well as their accepted forms.

While textbooks may include fewer citations than academic articles and monographs, you can call attention to how such books offer attribution of ideas and why the function of a textbook (a guide for novices to a field into the history, terminology, and processes of a subject or discipline) might not have the same citation practices as a research article (produced for researchers to advance the state of knowledge).

Design assignments that make the research and writing process visible.
Excerpt of a reference page with black text and white background.

To avoid the problems associated with a single high-stakes assignment mentioned in Lang, find ways to break up large assignments and provide formative feedback as students are developing their own work. Not only will you have a chance to intervene if a student is off track, but added instruction on how to construct a large and complex project will eliminate some of the common reasons students resort to intentional plagiarism like ineffective time management or a lack of understanding of assignment goals.

Design assignments that are grounded in a particular time, context, or location.

When considering the features of your assignment, look for ways to transform a general assignment prompt into something more specific. Rather than asking for “a five-page research paper on Romeo and Juliet,” for example, you might ask students to incorporate their own context and experience into the writing by considering how the central conflict of the play would be influenced by the existence of social media and dating apps.

Provide multiple examples of effective source use in annotated exemplars.

When asking students to write in an unfamiliar genre, providing annotated examples of effective writing can help students understand what effective writing in your discipline looks like. Rather than simply offering a good example, mark the text and comment on it in ways that explain how an example succeeds and why the choices in language in the example are effective.

Some instructors are nervous about providing examples, especially if they have seen students overuse an example and copy its features directly. Annotated exemplars can help to prevent this error by clarifying why and how a piece of writing succeeds.  Similarly, providing multiple examples of successful elements of writing can be better than providing a single completed example that can be used as a map.

Assist students in learning and recognizing your field’s preferred citation styles.

In some fields, expectations for citation practice are narrowly defined and quite explicit. In Psychology, the APA citation style governs many aspects of manuscript preparation from citation to typography. In other fields, or in interdisciplinary contexts, citation styles may vary. While it may be tempting to simply ask students to use a citation style with which they are familiar or to offer choices in citation practices, it can be valuable to be explicit with your students about what forms of citation are most appropriate or typical of the genre of research. In fact, learning citation styles is an important part of early career development for researchers. You might even require advanced students to use the citation guidelines of a research journal in the field or of a journal that publishes student research.

Incorporate University of Minnesota Libraries tutorials on citation in your class activities.

The University of Minnesota Libraries provides a brief interactive tutorial on using citations as a part of the research and writing process. Even better, the Libraries support three different platforms for citation management: Endnote, Mendeley, and Zotero. Using citation managers can help students in your major learn the expectations of your field and can help them to manage the complex writing and research tasks that they will encounter as they progress through your major. Students exposed to frequent opportunities to make use of research and research tools are much less likely to make costly errors.

Direct students to citation resources from Student Writing Support at UMN.

Student Writing Support at the University of Minnesota provides free peer consultation for students at all levels and a comprehensive set of handouts and downloads to address common writing questions and issues. Two resources are particularly valuable on plagiarism and citation.

“What are you telling your readers?”

This handout approaches citation from a reader’s perspective. Writers can use this resource as a crib sheet to assess whether they are accurately communicating who deserves credit for the words and ideas in their texts.

Plagiarism...and how to avoid it!

This presentation for new international students at the University of Minnesota offers an introduction to American academic expectations about plagiarism, showing examples of what is and is not plagiarism using the framework of the "What are you telling your readers?" handout above.

Electronic originality checks

The University of Minnesota has a Turnitin plug in for Canvas that allows faculty to compare student writing to material on the publicly available web and a large cache of student documents collected from academic institutions around the world (54 million documents and counting). Documents submitted to Turnitin will produce a similarity report, identifying when and where students have used text that has previously appeared in print and will assign a numeric score to the student document.

While Turnitin generates a single score, it does not provide a verdict on whether a student document has been plagiarized. A short, highly documented piece of research writing may have a large number of direct and indirect quotations, which may generate a high score. Similarly, a document borrowed from a student that isn’t in the Turnitin database may generate a false negative. Still, Turintin does provide a simple first check of students’ writing and can be a deterrent to some of the most obvious forms of plagiarism.

Turnitin has generated some controversy among writing professionals, particularly for its use of students’ intellectual property in its comparison databases and the potential chilling effect of its surveillance model. Courts consider the originality checking platform an example of fair use and maintain that individual students still retail the copyright to their written work.