Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism

Heyward Ehrlich, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of English
Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, USA
(1998, revised and links added 2008, 2009, 2011, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Translations: [Romanian] | [Indonesian] | [Portuguese] | [Italian] | [Armenian]
Links: Maryville U
  • Original Discussion (1998)
  • Outline for workshop (2008)
  • Some Web Sites (2009)
  • Social Networking (2011)

  • Discussion

    College plagiarism seems to be on the increase. So we round up and decry the usual suspects: the rise of the internet and the decline of student writing. To be sure, there are term papers for sale on the internet, and the very process of surfing the Web encourages looseness in borrowing. And surely fewer students seem to master the art of sustained research and argument in long papers these days. Each semester at term paper time a few of my colleagues invariably seek computer help for diagnosing and tracing suspected instances of plagiarism. Of course, by then it is almost too late. For many teachers, the labor of proving suspected plagiarism is a formidable obstacle to face at the end of the semester. If plagiarism is to be combated, it must be done regularly throughout the semester, not just at the end.

    Here are some suggestions.

    A: The Problem of Plagiarism:

    Try these questions out on yourself.

    B: The instructor's dilemma:

    If a faculty member is not sure of the answers to the questions above, what can students be expected to know? If students have substantially more computer expertise than faculty members in using the internet, computer multitasking, and CD-ROMs, are they therefore almost able to plagiarize with impunity and without fear of detection from their teachers?

    What do you estimate to be the rate of occurrence of the following in your courses? Are they rare, infrequent, occasional, familiar, common, customary, typical, normal, prevalent, or universal?

    If you were to do an analysis of plagiarism as a strategy for student conduct (weighing both benefits and risks) in your courses, would you agree that the short-term benefits appear to outweigh all the costs, risks, and disadvantages? In a popular culture in which authority is routinely disparaged and extra-legal methods glamorized, is plagiarism becoming emotionally satisfying to some students?

    C: The solution: Possible countermeasures.

    1. Don't merely assign an isolated term paper at the start of the semester and then collect it at the end. Increasingly students do not know how to do the planning, research, and revision required in such papers. Under such circumstances plagiarism may be a strategy of desperation more than of opportunism.

    2. Provide a continuing context for student work, including shorter papers, research proposals, and oral reports. Insist that students use a series of several formal worksheets for research proposals. Spend some time explaining research opportunities in the field, including a supervised visit to the college library. Explain the opportunities and limitations of research on the internet. Be frank and open about the existence of purchased papers.

    3. In small classes, make the research process (including the existence of plagiarism) as public as possible. Ask students to share research proposals with the entire class in oral reports. These occasions can be a major learning opportunity as workable and unworkable proposals are discussed, as well as interesting and trite ones. Ask students which proposals they feel are most original and which seem indistinguishable from plagiarized ones.

    Do not accept papers that short-circuit the research proposal procedure. They are much more likely to be plagiarized. Proposals that mysteriously arise from no where and reach an unexpected conclusion are to be suspected.

    4. In larger classes, insist on a research trail which becomes part of the submitted paper. Insist on a research proposal that must be approved and that makes use of the college library. You may wish to insist on all the original handwritten notes, marked photocopies or printouts, and copies of all computer disk files. Make your suggestions regarding the research plan and the student's use of them a formal part of the project.

    5. If you receive a paper you suspect to be plagiarized, move cautiously. Examine the sources cited carefully: do they cluster oddly, or seem unlikely to have been found in the college library? Are errors in bibliographical technique actually efforts to misrepresent the research done. Does the style of the opening and closing paragraphs differ from the others? Be careful what you write on the paper: writing only "Please see me" makes its point emphatically. Ask the student in a conference to explain the main points, argument, evidence, or terminology of the paper. Discuss with the student possible additional research? An honest paper will often have a substantial amount of unused material.

    Don't assume infallibility: yes, plagiarized papers can always slip through, and the suspicion of plagiarism can always be raised where it doesn't apply.

    In response to a query about using the internet to detect plagiarism in a dissertation.

    Direct and indirect internet plagiarism are rampant. Most recent articles and books in copyright are NOT on the internet in full but papers quoting from them are. So are many class and personal discussions. Unattributed passages are included increasingly in papers that are "assembled" rather than written. It may be easier for you to ask the writer to review his or her research methods than to undertake a full scale hunt. If that's not possible you may find other suspicious evidence, such as citations that all fall into a narrow time period or are suspiciously too old or too recent. Or sources that fail to account for the discussion (unattributed passages) or citations not reflected in the discussion (exaggerated bibliography). Needless to say, differences in style. emphasis, or direction and unaccounted digressions can be suspicious.

    But it can be exhausting to try to trace electronic plagiarism, and it can be hazardous to make the accusation without proof. Can you simply complain of the sparseness or inappropriateness of the documentation? Are there other members of the dissertation committee who can be helpful?

    If you do go ahead to use the internet to fight the internet, here are some ideas:

    Detection method 1: find some distinctive phrases or misspellings (2-3 words) and search for them as "strings" on a search engine such as Try also the related site,

    Detection method 2: look at what's generally available on the subject in a directory such a those on or in a topical handbook or bibliographical survey. How do these sources compare with the sources in the article. Do the sources in the student work account for the evidence cited and argument pursued?

    Detection method 3: look at commonly available electronic encyclopedias online such as Wikipedia or those distributed on CD-ROM, formerly given away as Microsoft Bookshelf.

    Detection method 4: Look at commercial term paper services, with names such as (I'm not making this up.) A Google search for the phrase "term paper" (in quotes) yields 2.5 million matches -- for "research paper" 5 million.

    Detection method 5: replicate the research for the paper by tracing the subject, author(s), title(s) online. One good place to start is Voice of the Shuttle .

    Detection method 6: If this is a dissertation, look at advanced tools such as DAI Abstracts, specialist discussion groups, listservs, newsgroups, etc. (I see student requests for help all the time in professional forums.)

    Detection method 7: Go beyond the gratis internet to see what abstracts and articles are available commercially from Questia, Elibrary, and similar sources.

    Detection method 8: Use the "homework helper" facility of AOL, Scholastic, and comparable sites.

    It is legitimate of course for students to use these methods of assistance but I rarely see a properly formatted citation for an electronic source. Occasionally papers received are essentially abstracts downloaded and strung together. Although there is a charge for commercial research articles, it can be relatively low, and often the abstracts are free.

    Outline of seminar, November 5, 2008

    Outline of "Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism," a presentation and workshop
    by Heyward Ehrlich, Dept. of English, Rutgers-Newark

    Electronic/Multimedia Classroom, Room 021A, Dana Library, Newark,
    Wednesday, November 5, 2008, 2:30-4:00p.m.

    A. Basic Questions:
    1. Why students cheat
    2. How prevalent is plagiarism
    3. What kinds of plagiarism exist, and which are worth worrying about:
    4. Detecting plagiarism once it's suspected and what to do then
    5. The Rutgers procedures concerning plagiarism
    6. Prevention strategies
    7. Building plagiarism-proof assignments
    8. How faculty members may inadvertently solicit plagiarized work:
    9. Pedagogic issues in research and writing:

    B. The dimensions of student plagiarism
    1. Don Mc Cabe Field research
    2 Cambridge (UK) Varsity (BBC and Guardian, Oct 31, 2008
    3. Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 20, 2008
    4. Times Higher Education (Guardian, Oct 23, 2008)
    5. Rutgers Observer, October 29, 2008
    6/ Handout found in English department elevator area, Hill Hall
    7. Google statistics: "free term paper" and "free essays" (1.6 million)
    8. "Plagiarism" word frequency in Google news: 1930-present

    C. Perspectives on plagiarism
    1. Cost-benefit analysis
    2. Some student assumptions
    3. Some faculty assumptions
    4. Short term (detection) and long term (prevention) views

    D. The final week crisis
    1. A worst case scenario.
    2. Crisis detection strategies: Google, Turnitin, SafeAssign
    3. Undetectable offshore custom-written papers
    4. Last resorts at detection
    5. Deciding on an action

    E. Prevention methods
    1. Educate students about the nature of copyright & plagiarism
    2. Work more closely with librarians about research
    3. Distribute anti-plagiarism materials
    4. Explain research procedures in detail through research worksheets
    5. Your track record of penalties of students caught plagiarizing
    6. Assignments in structured research versus free-form searching
    7. Oral reports to share progress and difficulties with class
    8. Make research procedure transparent and visible in class discussions or on Blackboard 9. Identify and work with student problems (wrongly registered, bilingual, transfers) 10. Structured assignments leading up to longer paper(s)
    11. Introduce research technique questions on some portion of the final examination
    12. Sharing information about plagiarism and searchable lookups on the internet
    13. How argument and evidence in interpretation go beyond "common knowledge"
    14. Differences between high school reports and university research
    15. Don't accept papers that have not gone through the development process

    F. Professionals, statesmen, and academics who plagiarize
    What do Russian president Vladimir Putin, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Senator (now vice-president) Joseph Biden, historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, authors Helen Keller and Alex Haley, musician George Harrison, and 142 articles in Wikipedia have in common? All have been convicted or convincingly charged with plagiarism. So has a president of a University of Texas campus, Pan American (Oct 29 2008)

    G. Plagiarism as a Faculty problem
    1. Self-plagiarism found in 60% of articles by Australian academics (Plagiary 2007)
    2. Academic journals screening articles with industrial strength Turnitin. (Chronicle 4/25/08)
    s3. Students lost copyright violation case against Turnitin (Chronicle 4/4/08)

    H: The culture of success by any means
    1. Recent public scandals in accounting, banking, investment, politics
    2. Rise of "cheating culture," new technologies and "mash-up" reuse of contemporary media, traced to William Burroughs' The Third Mind (1964-65) (Plagiary 2006)
    I. The problem of commercially assisted research
    1. Questia literary topics:
    2. Elibrary,
    3. Gale

    Useful Web pages on research and plagiarism:

    Social Networking (2011)

    The spread of social networks under Web 2.0 has entirely changed student communications. Incessant smart phone use by many students in the form of texting, posts on Twitter and Facebook, and Web searching on Google has in effect given students very small and quite unobtrusive computers for research on demand and data sharing at all times. The opportunities for sharing information during class discussions and during examinations are unprecedented. Since research suggests that a good number of airline passengers will not turn off such devices during flight despite safety announcements to do so suggests it will be very hard to arrange for students to refrain from using smart phones and related devices during class, especially since they easily can be used furtively. Since students are far more sophisticated in this area than most faculty members. many opportunities may arise to violate academic integrity in new ways that will be increasingly hard to detect and prosecute despite any announcements that are made in class.

    One suggestion to instructors: design assignments, quizzes, and examinations in ways that limit the exchange of "answers" that are easy to exchange. For example, assignments and exams should never be repeated, and quizzes should be distributed to the class with the questions in several different sequences, reflecting class seating patterns and accounting for late arivals. Of course, the challenge is to design instruction in such a way that work that results from plagiarism or cheating identifies itself by seeming excessively "right" without insight or depth.

    In conclusion, plagiarism cannot be ignored but should not become an obsession. In recent years I found students focusing more and more on pushing for higher grades, but I cannot say that this is necessarily an indication of a willingness to sacrifice standards of academic integrity.

    Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism (1998-2011)

    Send comments to
    ehrlich @ andromeda. rutgers. edu
    Last revised 15 January 2018