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The Top 10 Signs of Plagiarism Every Teacher Should Know

Posted on Tuesday December 4, 2012 by Staff Writers

Sad as it may seem, subpar performance isn’t the only problem you can expect from students. Academic dishonesty (cheating, to get right down to it) is rampant in schools everywhere. Younger kids are, after all, kids, and can’t be held to zero-tolerance standards, so for kindergarteners all the way up to high school students, it may not seem like such a big deal. However, if those bad habits of copying homework or texting test answers survive into college, serious consequences for a student’s reputation, livelihood, and future come into play. Whether through sloppiness, laziness, ill intent, or plain desperation, many public figures have been damaged and even ruined by plagiarism. Although it’s always uncomfortable to do so, the best thing you can do for cheating students is to catch and confront them as early in their careers as possible. Here are some of the “tells” that can tip you off to a plagiarized paper:

  1. Sudden changes in diction.

    Perhaps the most reliable tip-off of all is an unexpected shift of register. Put simply, if the student suddenly sounds a lot smarter (or stupider, or more professional, or at a different grade level) than they did a few paragraphs ago, that may not be their writing. This can be more subtle than some of the factors below, but when grading, you should already be reading closely enough to notice this.

  2. More than one font.

    This one is more of a gimme. Look out for changes in font type, size, color, and style (italics, bold, or underline), as well as suspicious formatting, especially a change from one setting to another (single vs. double space, margins, and so on). There may be other, perfectly legitimate reasons for these errors, so it’s hardly dispositive proof of plagiarism, but it should be a red flag.

  3. Uncalled-for hyperlinks.

    Along the same lines, a signal that a paper (or a portion of it) may be copied and pasted from an online source is the presence of HTML links, which you obviously can’t follow if the submission is a hard copy. These are often underlined and blue, or darker gray in black-and-white printed papers. Again, there may be no foul play here, but it may be a sign of something.

  4. Odd intrusions of first person.

    Logically, first-person interjections would seem to be a sign that someone did write something, wouldn’t they? Always look carefully at these, though. Do they sound like something this student would say? A student was once caught submitting an essay on steroid abuse that included the phrase, “In my many years as a physician … “

  5. Outdated information.

    If you come across a passage that says something like, “our current president, Bill Clinton,” or “Soviet scientists assert that,” you might be reading a plagiarized paper. Granted, this may also simply be a sign of poor researching skills or plain ignorance, but it’s sure redolent of lazy academic thievery.

  6. Apparent quotes without quotation marks.

    This is not only a sign of plagiarism, it’s one key definition of it. It should be made very clear to students that improper citation by itself constitutes plagiarism, and though it’s typically of the accidental kind, in practice that does not necessarily mitigate the consequences. Again, if they sound like someone else’s words, they very well might be, so investigate.

  7. Incorrect or mixed citation systems.

    Different disciplines have different methods of citing sources. You should make it clear to your students whether you expect them to use MLA, APA, Turabian, Chicago style, or whatever system fits your subject, and adequately instruct them in how to use it. Most important of all is consistency. If the citation style changes, you may be looking at plagiarized material.

  8. Missing references.

    These can either be footnotes or endnotes that don’t exist, or random notes with no referent in the text. Just like a mismatched or confused citation style, these loose ends can reveal chunks of text lifted directly from source material. Again, incorrect or absent citations are an academic offense in themselves, but they may also point to something more systematic and deliberate.

  9. A paper that doesn’t really fit the assignment.

    It’s a good policy to give students as specific a prompt as possible for written assignments. This makes it much harder to simply steal (or buy, there are sites for that!) a paper by another writer. If you do give a fairly particular briefing for an assignment, and then get a submission that’s just slightly askew from what you asked for, like a square peg in a round hole, it may be that the student secured a paper from another source, figured “Hey, close enough,” and turned it in.

  10. Getting a hit on a search engine.

    Finally, we come to the technological solutions for diagnosing plagiarism. The simplest and most readily available resource is Google: paste a sentence or phrase that seems iffy and see if you get any hits. More precisely tailored tools include Turnitin, Plagium, Plagscan, iThenticate, and many more. It’s amazing how often it fails to occur to students that their teachers could do this. It really adds insult to injury: if they’re going to cheat, they should at least do it well, instead of assuming you’re an idiot who won’t notice. For their own good and your own integrity, don’t let them get away with it.