Suspecting Dishonesty in Your Classroom
Strange formatting may indicate material cut and pasted from a web document or a paper from a paper mill.
- Is the formatting what was required by the assignment?
- Are there line breaks or page breaks at odd places?
- Is there a URL or article number at the end of the paper?
- Are there odd or out of place sentences such as “click here” or “graphic omitted”?
Citations can be a significant clue to plagiarized work.
- Are all citations old?
- Are a large number of citations to materials that the library does not own? Most undergraduate students do not use interlibrary loans.
- Are citations consistent with the content? Does the bibliography match the citations or footnotes in the text?
- Do the citations look “stuck on”?
- Does the paper lack citations?
- Are there lengthy, well-written sections without attribution?
These style questions might also point to poor or exceptional writing skills, but style can be a good indicator of a plagiarized paper.
- Is the writing style and level consistent with the student’s previous work?
- Is the level of writing far below or above the writing of others in the class? (This can, of course, indicate an exceptional student. However, it might indicate plagiarizing of a published article, or a high school-level paper from a paper mill.)
- Are past events described in the present tense or as if they are recent?
- Does the style of the paper (expository, creative, etc.) match the assignment?
Content can be very revealing. It can be difficult for the plagiarizing student to find a paper that really meets the assignment.
- Does the paper match the assignment?
- Did the student ask for a last-minute change of topic? This could indicate an intent to submit a plagiarized paper.
- Does the paper seem pieced together from multiple (uncited) sources?
- Are sentences suspiciously long? The average sentence length of a first-year college student is about 15 words.
When you suspect something,
- Ask the student to meet with you to discuss your concerns. Do not be accusatory. Probe the student for relevant information. Ask the student to summarize the work.
- If you suspect a student simply turned in a paper written by someone else, ask questions such as, “The paper by Smith sounds interesting. Where did you come across it?” Ask students to bring in copies of the sources.
- If there are particularly esoteric elements of the paper, ask students to clarify these concepts or ask them to indicate what they were thinking when they chose to include these things.
- Visit any websites mentioned in the submission.
- Use a search engine to search for any unique phrases.
- If you are not satisfied that the student turned in his/her own work, you must follow one of the two options described under “Reporting Academic Dishonesty.”