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.”