Best Practices for Preventing Plagiarism

Webster University and its faculty aim to educate students; to achieve this goal, faculty are encouraged to develop academic assignments that ask students to create work that illustrates not only quality but also integrity. To help meet that goal, faculty must be aware of what common causes lead students to commit plagiarism and to understand how they can design course materials, meetings, and assignments that demonstrate to students that honesty in their work is expected and required.

Why Students Plagiarize

Consider these potential factors when designing courses to help students avoid plagiarism.

  • The internet has made it easier to access information that can be effortlessly pasted into one's writing.
  • Perceptions of intellectual property influenced by file sharing, music downloads, Wikipedia, etc., make it difficult for students to evaluate the source of information.
  • Students may be unprepared for college-level writing.
  • Students' focus on grades and their fear of failure create a motivation to cheat.
  • Procrastination and poor time management leave students with limited options.
  • Students are uncertain about which documentation rules to follow.
  • Students in groups may blur lines between individual and collective responsibilities.
  • Assignments that are too general or only require a final draft may be perceived as opportunities to cut corners.
  • Inconsistent campus and faculty responses make it easier for students to hide behind their own confusion.

What are some differences in non-traditional/traditional students related to plagiarism?

In addition to the above, there are special circumstances that non-traditional students may face:

  • Increased time management demands of balancing home, work, and school
  • Increased feelings of lack of integration coupled with higher outside pressures
  • Increased grade pressures for those whose employers fund their education

What are some cultural differences related to plagiarism?

International students may face specific challenges:

  • Text and other intellectual property may be viewed as collectively owned by the society or culture, not the individual.
  • Some cultures value open access over individual ownership.
  • Learning based in rote memorization and copying rather than critical examination leads to instances of copying and pasting.
  • The use of someone's work verbatim can be viewed as honoring the author.
  • The buying or borrowing of papers and other forms of cheating are widely accepted.
  • The pressures of writing in English create additional challenges: excessive paraphrasing, cutting and pasting passages, and “patchwriting” can be considered as a means of learning the language.
  • Students are unfamiliar with rules defining common knowledge, documentation, and other concepts.

Designing Course Materials

Have a Plagiarism Policy

Include a plagiarism statement in all course syllabi. Provide a basic definition and common examples of unacceptable behavior (using someone else’s work, re-using assignments from other courses, etc.). This will not only inform students of the course expectations but also provide the faculty with a personal policy to fall back on should a student infringe upon it. Be aware that it’s recommended to also include possible repercussions. It may be helpful to refer to Webster University’s Academic Honesty Policy at this point, tailoring these actions to the faculty’s preferences:

“Webster University strives to be a center of academic excellence. As part of our Statement of Ethics, the University strives to preserve academic honor and integrity by repudiating all forms of academic and intellectual dishonesty, including cheating, plagiarism and all other forms of academic dishonesty. Academic dishonesty is unacceptable and is subject to a disciplinary response. The university reserves the right to utilize electronic databases, such as, to assist faculty and students with their academic work. […] In most cases, the instructor will address issues of academic dishonesty within the confines of the student's course. The instructor may decide an appropriate consequence, including the following options: a written warning; the assignment of a written research project about the nature of plagiarism and academic honesty; a reduced grade or partial credit on the assignment; requiring the student to repeat the assignment; or issuing a failing grade to the student of the course.”

Utilize this or a personalized discussion of plagiarism to set a standard for the course, and if an instance of plagiarism occurs, use those consequences where appropriate.

Have a Citation Policy

Another important syllabus component is citation style and expectations. Many students aren’t fully aware of which courses utilize MLA versus APA or other style guides, so specifically stating a preferred/expected citation style for the course in the syllabus will avoid any confusion on the student’s part. This would also be an effective time to stress that a formal citation page is required whenever sources are used and that in-text citations are expected within the body of the assignment to note specifically where source material is utilized. To complete this section of the syllabus, it may be helpful to provide students with a resource to go to should they need help with citations (consider directing them to a specific style book, the library, the Writing Center, or credible online resources).

Talk about It

In addition to having statements in the syllabus, discussing the issue of plagiarism in class reinforces that this is an issue that both faculty and the university take seriously. Faculty members are encouraged to discuss plagiarism in the first course meeting or when the first assignment is discussed. As students are informed about the course and the objectives for the term/assignment, faculty can stress that the academic projects required of the course must be done with honesty and integrity. Discussing plagiarism in class can also help avoid confusion among students about exactly what actions are considered plagiarism (e.g., buying papers on-line, cutting and pasting from multiple sources, paraphrasing material but not citing it, etc.). Surveys show that many students have an unclear definition of plagiarism. By directly stating honesty is expected and what appropriate academic practices are, students will be more aware that the faculty member is attentive to the quality of student submissions as well as more informed.

Provide Tutorials

Faculty might consider adding a plagiarism tutorial, quizzes, surveys, or other corresponding assessment in select, broad-reaching courses (1000, 3000, and 5000 level courses). Faculty could utilize a course quiz or survey that addresses primary definitions, good practices, or behaviors to avoid. Other measures might include handouts or examples that illustrate acceptable assignments as compared to unacceptable material. It may also help to tailor tutorial material to individual faculty expectations or guidelines. Some courses may implement material or resources that students haven’t encountered before, such as an instructor manual or answer guide. These personalized tutorials can inform students what practices are unacceptable should they not be familiar with certain resources or expectations. Schedule this tutorial to be covered or available prior to any major assignments so that students are fully aware of the faculty’s expectations as they develop course projects.

Enable Good Habits

A tool that faculty can use to prevent academic dishonesty from their students is providing their students with the tools needed for good writing and research practices. If relevant to the discipline, discuss with students how certain projects can or should be conducted and the steps or stages needed to complete the project effectively. Discuss what proper source use entails (quotations or paraphrasing) or how to keep effective notes in the research process. If this sort of instruction isn’t applicable to the course level or the field, then provide students with links and resources to relevant material should they need to review. As most students come from a range of different educational and cultural backgrounds, what educators expect from their students unfortunately doesn’t always coincide with the students’ actual knowledge, so having these resources clearly linked gives students somewhere to go should they need help with certain concepts or be unsure of how to complete a project. Most importantly, these sorts of resources inform the student precisely how faculty expect assignments to be accomplished not only correctly but honestly. Webster University’s Academic Resource Center provides many of these tools: the Writing Center provides writing tips and citation advice and the Plagiarism Prevention site is a student-centered analysis of plagiarism prevention that educates students on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Consider linking or referring to these as needed throughout the course.

Creative Assignments

The best (albeit more challenging) way to avoid plagiarism is to design assignments and class activities that make it a challenge for students to plagiarize. Well-designed assignments can make it more difficult for students to copy ideas from other sources indiscriminately. They can also make plagiarism easier to spot for the instructor when an assignment deviates from the expectations or requirements. The following are some suggestions of ways that faculty can design assignments that make plagiarism less likely.

Be Aware of Student Progress

Practice: Make sure the first time learning about the topic and nature of a student's assignment isn't when they turn in the final product.

Rationale: By working with the students at various stages of the assignment, faculty can better tell which ideas are their own. Forcing students to begin a project before the final deadline can also help them to avoid procrastination, a major incentive to plagiarize.

Practice: Ask students to turn in materials before the final paper: for example, a topic proposal, an annotated bibliography, or an initial draft.

Rationale: Linking multiple assignments together means that the final paper is not the only exercise that has required the student to work with that subject, making it harder for students to compile a paper by cutting and pasting from the internet. Expecting students to provide a bibliography also encourages them to keep track of where they found their information more rigorously, which can help cut down on plagiarism due to sloppiness.

Use Group Work

Practice: Have students complete assignments in pairs or groups.

Rationale: Collaboration can promote honesty, since a student who might plagiarize alone may find it harder to do so in front of their peers. Properly designed, group work does not necessarily mean that the student is doing less work than an individual assignment.

Practice: Use peer review and have students incorporate their peers' feedback into their work.

Rationale: Requiring students to incorporate feedback from their peers can make it difficult for the students to hide the fact that they have not developed their ideas individually.

Practice: Have students turn in their peer-reviewed drafts or comments along with the final project to determine if the work has progressed.

Rationale: The peer-review comments can let the instructor get a sense of whether the work has grown since the first draft, even if the instructor did not review the earlier draft.

Go Beyond the Essay

Practice: Use non-traditional writing formats where appropriate. For example, instead of an essay, have students write a letter or proposal, design a blog, or develop a podcast or panel discussion.

Rationale: This type of assignment encourages students to interpret their research into their own words in order to match the format of the assignment. Students will also find it much more challenging to find papers in such non-traditional formats online.

Practice: Assess non-writing assignments that might achieve course objectives and illustrate student learning, for instance presentations, videos, activities, or other ways to illustrate the material.

Rationale: Writing assignments are naturally more likely to be plagiarized, so if the course material or discipline allows, a project that doesn’t involve a major written component will ask students to think about the project in different ways and makes it difficult for students to counterfeit.

Practice: Have students prepare a cover letter for the assignment, summarizing their findings and explaining the process behind their research.

Rationale: In addition to encouraging students to be more reflective about their methods and writing, an assignment like this makes it easier for the instructor to detect papers purchased on-line. A well written, thoughtful paper with a cover letter that seems confused about the paper's argument or methods can be a red flag.

Practice: Have students give an oral presentation over their project, either in class or in an oral examination with the instructor.

Rationale: As with a cover letter, having to present their work orally as well as in writing requires students to be more engaged with their project. This may discourage students from buying papers on-line or blindly cutting and pasting material, since they know that they will have to explain the material in their paper in person.

Make Expectations or Requirements Part of the Assignment

Practice: Require students to use a set number or specific variety of sources for their projects, including print resources.

Rationale: Print resources are harder for a student to copy and paste from. Also, finding or implementing specific sources will help ensure students avoid using pre-written papers. Similarly, a submitted paper that doesn’t meet the correct requirements would warrant closer inspection.

Practice: Require the inclusion of class-specific texts or sources, such as a chapter or article over a specific concept or theory.

Rationale: Requiring students to use faculty-chosen sources will make it harder for students to find material to copy, making it both less profitable to plagiarize and easier to detect if they do.

Practice: Require specific objectives or criteria that need to be met aside from or beyond source materials.

Rationale: The more open/broad an assignment, the more susceptible it is to being plagiarized. While it may not be practical to assign specific topics, faculty can incorporate requirements that make it difficult for students to find pre-made assignments that meet those objectives. Consider requiring specific sections, headings, or objectives that must be addressed through the discussion.

Keep Things Fresh

Practice: Change/tweak assignments from term to term or for different sections.

Rationale: If the assignment changes, student work from previous semesters will no longer meet the requirements of the assignment, discouraging students from sharing work or making it easier to detect when this occurs.

Practice: Ask students to select a topic that is timely or relevant to their personal lives.

Rationale: Topics related to personal details make it difficult for students to misrepresent others' ideas as their own. Topics from recent headlines will mean that there are fewer possibilities to find pre-generated discussions.