Detection of Plagiarism in Student Papers

  • Paper seems to be too good

    • Reads like an encyclopedia article

      • Ask librarian for help: check written and electronic encyclopedias
      • Pick unusual string of 4-6 words or a proper name from the paper and do an Internet search
      • Ask student to explain choice of certain phrases or to identify location of some specific fact
    • Paper seems above student’s research or writing ability

      • Have him read a few paragraphs from the paper and check for fluency of reading (especially if you can compare to his reading of something you know he has written)
      • Have him read a few paragraphs from the paper and check for understanding
      • Have him rewrite a paragraph or two from the paper in his own words in the classroom while you observe
      • Select 5 or 10 big words from the paper and have him explain them
      • Copy a section of the paper. Cut into paragraphs. Have him reassemble them. (If he wrote it, he’ll be able to do this.)
      • Ask him to bring outline and drafts to the interview; this works only if students have been told that you may ask for these at any time and that failure to produce them will be considered proof of dishonesty
    • A critical review of a play or film seems to be very professional in style and vocabulary

      • Check a few unique words strings on the Internet
      • Discuss the play or film in some detail with the student, asking her to explain and justify several of her opinions as expressed in the review
    • A paper contains words you wouldn’t expect the student to know (unusual words, archaic expressions, highly technical terms, abstruse cultural references)

      • Have the student read aloud a paragraph with unusual vocabulary or scholarly terms and note the fluency of his reading; students usually don’t use unfamiliar sentence constructions or write words they don’t know
      • Have him explain or paraphrase the paragraph 
    • A student’s paper has marked shifts in style and organization (some poorly written paragraphs and others that are very polished in style)

      • A good clue is whether the writing in the middle sounds too advanced
      • Check for consistency of sentence length (or of grammatical correctness) throughout the paper
      • Check the bibliography for books and journal articles that actually exist; many book chapters do not have separate bibliographies
      • Ask the librarian to identify books in the school library on a slightly broader topic than the paper—where the paper could be a chapter
      • Ask the student to read one or two difficult paragraphs from the paper and explain them
      • Ask where several items in the bibliography were located
    • A paper has a journalistic sound (short sentences, frequent quotes from experts in the filed, snappy writing)

      • Pick an unusual phrase or two and do an Internet search
      • Ask librarian’s help to check CD-ROM and online sources of current news articles (ProQuest, SIRS, NewsBank)
      • Ask the student to discuss the paper with you and explain why s/he chose the experts s/he quoted
  • Paper sounds familiar

  • A student hands in a copy of a friend’s paper from a previous semester, or one from a file of old papers (your class or a closely related class) that are available on campus
    • Keep papers filed in the department by topic; return grade and topic to student but not the paper (or make a Xerox copy or ask for 2 copies to be handed in)
    • Be sure to check the middle section of the paper; many students change the beginning, the end, and the title, while copying the middle.
    • Avoid using the same assignment year after year; do not give students the choice of topics used in previous years
  • Students in different sections/periods of the same class appear to have worked together on their papers and turned in very similar final versions

    • Check all papers on the same topic for conclusions that are too similar or for same paragraphs in the middle of the paper
    • Check the papers for bibliographies that are identical or vary only slightly
    • Be sure you have made it clear to the students how much collaboration you consider fair
    • Ask the students, separately, for an explanation of the close similarity. Check their understanding of permissible collaboration on the assignment. 

Paper appears to be just “a little bit off”

  • The paper has an odd appearance

    • The title page is in a different font or typeface from the paper body or printed on a different style of paper
    • Gray or faded test in areas that were in color on the screen indicates a paper printed directly from the Internet
    • The layout seems strange or may be the combination of two of more different format styles
    • Links to Internet sites are embedded in the paper, there are strange headers or footers, or a web address from the Internet has been left on the paper 
    • Ask the student for an explanation of breaks in page numbers, a Web address, or other strange or out-of-place items
  • The paper just doesn’t match the assignment closely enough

    • The approach to the topic differs from the one assigned in class
    • The assigned topic is addressed only peripherally and may not fit with the rest of the paper
    • Ask the student to clarify his treatment of the topic and have him explain several paragraphs to check his understanding of what he has written
  • A quotation or a reference cited in the paper doesn’t “sound right”

    • Finish grading all papers before you turn any back.. The actual source may turn up in another paper
    • Ask the student to explain the quotation or reference, what it means to her, how it supports the topic, and where she located the source
    • Check that all citations in the paper actually are listed in the bibliography
  • The bibliography is suspicious (too long; few references to assigned reading in the class; most of the copyrights are four or more years old; format is one that the student wouldn’t know and that was not required in class) 

    • Ask student to explain the bibliographic format and show what style sheet she used
    • Have her demonstrate the format by making new citations for 3 articles and books you provide; check that they match the suspect paper
    • Ask where each reference was located
    • Ask which print and electronic periodical indexes she used and get a copy of the index page showing the reference cited
    • Ask why there are no recent items
    • If an article seems too specialized, ask her to discuss the article
    • Ask for a finished bibliography to be turned in a week before the term paper is due so that you have time to check suspicious entries

Sources: Ann Lathrop and Kathleen Foss, Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era.
Bernard Whitley, Jr. and Patricia Keith-Spiegel, Academic Dishonesty.