Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism

William Brown for The Chronicle

August 14, 2011

Plagiarism is making us crazy. No, the mere thought of plagiarism is making us crazy. Collectively, as a professoriate, we're obsessed with it.

Consider "The Shadow Scholar," an anonymous confessional by a man who purportedly produces student papers on demand. Originally published in November of 2010, it remains one of the most-viewed articles on The Chronicle's Web site and has received, to date, more than 600 comments. More recently, we all read with fascination The Chronicle's account of Panagiotis Ipeirotis, a professor who got into hot water at New York University for blogging about the hordes of alleged cheaters in his courses. That piece, too, was among the site's most popular.

All of that preoccupation with plagiarism does little to help us answer the fundamental question: What can we as individual faculty members do about it?

My approach to student plagiarism over the course of my 26-year teaching career has been simple but, I believe, effective. I use strategies well known to most experienced professors, with a few twists of my own. Please note that what I'm about to describe is strictly my personal approach and does not reflect the official policies of my college (although I don't believe it conflicts with those policies, either).

Keep your priorities straight. I'm a writing instructor, not a detective. My primary responsibility is to help students learn to write better. Identifying and punishing plagiarists is, unfortunately, part of the job, but it is far from the most important part.

Of course I care about plagiarism, and I certainly take steps to deal with plagiarists once I have sufficient proof. But I don't spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plagiarism or trying to catch students at it. I'd prefer to direct my time and energy toward something more positive, such as actually teaching the subject I've been hired to teach. I'm not sure I can be both an effective writing teacher and a zealous anti-plagiarism crusader.

That's what Mr. Ipeirotis concluded, after his campaign to eradicate plagiarism in his courses at NYU backfired. As he wrote in his blog post, "The whole dynamic of the class changes. [Students] hear what I'm saying, but back in their mind they are thinking about cheating, cheating, cheating ... It's a vicious cycle. So, I get into class—I'm less happy because I had to deal with cheating the day before, instead of preparing better for the class. Students get less happy. ... I don't get positive feedback."

State your policy in your syllabus. You need to discuss plagiarism with your students, and the best place to start is with a clear and comprehensive statement in your syllabus. That should include a definition and a list of potential penalties. If your college already has such a statement, use it; otherwise, write your own, but make sure that any penalties are in keeping with existing campus policies. No point making threats you can't enforce.

Your policy will serve both as a guide to students, letting them know what plagiarism is and what can happen to them if they commit it, and as a kind of contract with them. It's something you can point to later, if you have an actual case of plagiarism, as long as you stick to the policy as written.

Talk about it openly. Speak candidly about plagiarism on the first day of class. Begin by explaining clearly what it is, because a surprising number of students honestly don't know. In elementary school, they copy their reports directly from encyclopedias and other sources. By middle school they've learned to alter the wording so they're not "just copying." Perhaps in high school they're exposed to concepts of research and documentation.

But many students, when they arrive on our campuses, have not yet mastered those concepts or come to understand fully the difference between what they did in middle school and what we're asking them to do. We have to explain it to them, thoroughly—and not just on the first day of class but throughout the semester.

We also need to articulate the reasons that plagiarism is wrong: because it's a form of stealing, because it's unfair to other students, and because it ultimately prevents you from acquiring the writing skills you're going to need—and be expected to have—as college graduates in the work force. In my experience, those reasons make a lot of sense to students. That doesn't mean some of them won't plagiarize anyway, but studies suggest that students whose professors discuss the subject directly are somewhat less likely to cheat.

In your discussion, don't dwell on the negative—on the penalties for cheating. But it doesn't hurt to mention them briefly. Knowing what might happen if students plagiarize can serve as a deterrent to those not swayed by moral arguments.

Above all, tell students explicitly that you expect them not to cheat. Even today, the teacher is still an authority figure. Your words carry more weight than you realize.

Make plagiarism difficult. One of the best ways to discourage cheating, as many researchers have concluded, is simply to design tests and other assignments that are difficult to cheat on.

That is easier with written assignments than with, say, multiple-choice tests. It's nearly impossible, for instance, to plagiarize an essay written in class with the teacher watching closely—assuming the teacher is actually watching closely. Out-of-class writing assignments are, of course, much more susceptible to cheating, but even then you can take steps to make it hard to cheat.

One of the most effective is to require multiple drafts, checking—if not actually grading—each to make sure that it represents further development of the previous draft. Personally, I'm not a big fan of in-class essays, for reasons I'll go into later. But I do often have students write first drafts in class. By comparing those drafts to subsequent drafts written out of class, I can make sure they aren't just buying canned essays off the Internet and that the original ideas, at least, are their own.

Another well-established strategy is to design assignments that don't easily lend themselves to canned essays. One of my favorite requires students to find a recent newspaper editorial on a topic of interest to them, and write a response. For a fiction or poetry analysis, I'll have students choose something from a recent journal or literary magazine. Any student can find an essay about "The Lottery" online, and a clever student might even be able to rewrite it to avoid detection by anti-plagiarism software. But it's pretty unlikely that even the cleverest student can find an essay about a short story published in the spring 2009 issue of Ploughshares.

Don't penalize the nonplagiarists. Whatever you do to discourage cheating, make sure you don't damage the integrity of the course or make it more difficult for students to learn. I think it's both wrong and counterproductive—not to mention incredibly cynical—to assume that every student is a plagiarist, whether nascent or full-blown. You should start each course believing that most students are basically honest and genuinely want to learn. Otherwise, why would you stay in this profession?

I mentioned that I'm not a fan of in-class essays. That's because I teach students that good writing requires a great deal of time—time spent planning, writing, editing, and revising. Asking students to condense that process into a single class period is a little like requiring a surgical resident to perform a heart transplant in an hour.

For me, using in-class essays solely as a means of ensuring that students don't cheat is out of the question. I believe that would do great damage to the integrity of my course, in that I wouldn't be teaching students what I'm really trying to teach them. Ultimately, I would be the one doing the cheating—cheating students out of the educational experience they're paying for and have a right to expect.

What about the software? You may be wondering why I haven't said much about popular plagiarism-detecting software, like Turnitin. That's because I rarely use it.

I'm not a fan of the software. I understand why so many of my colleagues tend to rely on it heavily, but I don't, for three reasons. First, it seems to me that having students submit all of their essays through Turnitin or something similar is tantamount to saying that all of them are cheaters—or at least they would be, given the chance. I think that's a bad way to begin a teacher-student relationship. Second, the software doesn't do anything to deter common low-tech forms of plagiarism, such as students' getting others to write their essays for them. And finally, as Mr. Ipeirotis discovered, tracking students through software can become its own kind of obsession, distracting you from other, perhaps more useful, pursuits.

Let it go. If some students take unfair advantage of the fact that I let them do most of their writing outside of class, or that I don't use Turnitin, so be it. It's not that I don't care. I do, and if I catch them plagiarizing, I try to make sure that justice is swift and sure. I just don't devote an inordinate amount of my time to catching them—or to obsessing over the ones I don't catch.

When I say "let it go," I mean that in the metaphysical sense. I'm not saying you should ignore clear cases of plagiarism. But the truth is, there aren't many clear cases of plagiarism. Most cases are borderline, at best. It's also true that, no matter what you do to deter cheating, some students are going to find a way around it. You can go crazy thinking about that all the time.

It comes down to this: Either you can be a teacher or you can be the plagiarism police. I choose to be a teacher. As such, part of my job involves catching the occasional plagiarist. When that happens, I chalk one up for the good guys. Otherwise, I don't worry about it. I find that I'm much happier and more productive that way. True, some students may "get away with" cheating, for the time being, but I believe they'll get their comeuppance eventually.

After all, it's pretty hard to plagiarize a quarterly report.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at and writes monthly for our community-college column. His book, "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges," has just been published by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Press.