Detecting Plagiarism in College Essays and Research Papers

It isn't difficult to discern a plagiarized paper or essay if the instructor knows the students in the class. Dealing with this discovery is another matter.

Jonas was taking my American History I survey course for the second time. He failed the class in the prior semester because I caught him plagiarizing answers on a take-home essay test as well as the semester custom research paper. He even plagiarized an extra credit assignment, designed to rehabilitate low scores while offering a unique educational experience: a visit to a local historical site. Jonas could have opted for another instructor. Instead, he selected my class – again. But Jonas had not learned from the past and I again caught him plagiarizing.

Detecting Plagiarism Involves Knowing Your Students

I encourage class discussion and frequently toss out controversial ideas from American history. It isn’t very difficult to generate heated debate on certain residual topics in American history. Such interchanges, however, also help me to gauge the vocabulary and thought processes of my students.

I expect good prose in rewrite essays and papers. But when I read perfect constructions with no comma errors – the bane of student writing, I stop and begin to question. I’ve used Blackboard’s Safe Assign feature as well as for research papers, but not on short essays or essay answers to take-home tests.

It takes little effort to type a well-written sentence containing upper-level vocabulary into a search engine like Google to find the academic pillage: a paragraph lifted from a Wikipedia article, an answer, or some other general site, usually written by a person not qualified in the subject or discipline.

Responding to Student Plagiarism

I have a copy of the Academic Misconduct Reporting Form in my computer documents, but I’m always intimidated by the process. The form, with attachments, begins with the department coordinator, moves on to the department chair and the dean, and ends up on the desk of the Vice President for instruction.

I am also aware that many of my colleagues never submit this form. It takes time and nobody wants to invite a potential hearing or be labeled as the “plagiarism police.” But I also think of the other students, those that completed the assignment correctly. I am also aware that at some point, students that plagiarize, buy papers, or cheat otherwise, should be held accountable. Some of my students will be nurses, doctors, or other professionals society depends upon to act with integrity.

Plagiarism is a Symptom of a Society Lacking Ethics

I once had a student whose mother wrote his essays and papers, but she was a compulsive internet copier. Hence, the student failed once the plagiarism was detected. I met with the student and his mother, who was attempting to take the blame and save her son from failure in the course.

The mother justified her actions, however. Her husband had built a successful multi-million dollar business circumventing ethics, she told me. According to her, this was the “real world.” A course in American History was nothing but theory and did not reflect how everyday business was done. I still submitted a failing grade.

Short Assessments Help to Establish Patterns of Student Writing

Most instructors know that students converse differently than they write. A short elevator ride with students on their cell phones proves this. Short assessments, like in-class writing or essay tests given in class, will demonstrate writing and competency levels. Since most students wait until the last minute to write papers, significant differences in writing styles should be easy to detect.

Some instructors break the major paper assignment into sections, each graded separately. Students submit thesis statements, sub-themes, paper outlines, and a preliminary draft. This used to be done in high schools. Many college and university instructors shy away from this approach due to time constraints.

Detecting Plagiarism is Easier than Playing Sherlock Homes

Although teaching experience helps in detecting plagiarism, new instructors can be just as adept. Is the grammar too perfect? Does the paper sound like the work of a graduate student? Is paragraphing too organized and chronological? (Hint: most students in survey classes have no clue about proper paragraphing. I’ve received three- to four-page essays that are submitted as one long paragraph. It might work in German, but definitely not in English)

Meeting with the student after class usually clears up any ambiguity. I always start with, “I know how to pay someone to write my paper cheap.” In most cases, offending students will immediately “come clean” and offer an excuse. Some might call it a “Kodak Moment,” but in academics, it can be the first step in real instruction with lasting consequences.