My latest 1-minute guide (in deference to our ever-shortening attention spans) takes a quick look at plagiarism. Not how to do it, but how to avoid our students doing it.

1 Everyone does it
With access to the Internet, plagiarism has got so much easier. Teachers frequently complain about how their students copy and paste whole chunks of text from the Internet, and hardly bother to cover their tracks. It’s all too tempting for students to search for content for an assignment online, and then to copy it, and hand it in as their own work. After all, why put in all the effort of writing something, when somebody has already done a better version of it, and it is freely available on the web? Even the German Defence Minister allegedly plagiarised parts of his Ph.D. thesis. Plagiarism has always existed, but the Internet has made it a lot more tempting, and a whole lot easier.

2 Plagiarism is bad. Or is it?
Plagiarism is a tricky area and it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Students (and teachers) come from a range of educational contexts, and understandings of what exactly constitutes plagiarism can vary. Although most of us agree that verbatim copying of content is plagiarism (and is unacceptable), a 2014 study* found that teachers themselves can be ambivalent about whether unattributed paraphrasing of others’ work constitutes plagiarism. The key concept for students to understand is the difference between attributing ideas and work to others (quoting your sources), and passing that work off as your own (plagiarism). So plagiarism doesn’t only mean copying content verbatim, although this is the easiest form of plagiarism to spot. It can also mean not attributing sources correctly and making others’ ideas look like your own. This may well be unintentional on the part of the student. Clearly it’s important for students to understand the various forms plagiarism can take (see below for more on this).
* Lei, J. & Guangwei, H. 2014. ‘Chinese TESOL lecturers’ stance on plagiarism: does knowledge matter?’ English Language Teaching Journal 68/1: 41-51.

3 Plagiarism detection tools
There are a number of plagiarism detection tools available, both free and pay-for. Here are some plagiarism checkers:
– a list from Richard Byrne
– a list from Jennifer Scottson

As Byrne points out in his blog post, many teachers simply copy and paste a chunk of text into Google when they suspect plagiarism. If that text is already out there in a webpage or article, Google may well find it for you, so it’s a good first port of call.

4 Work with your students
Talk about plagiarism with your students, and sensitise them to the issues involved. Often students have not been taught at school that plagiarism is not acceptable. They may have been using sources such as Wikipedia from primary or secondary school, but nobody has ever explicitly told them not to copy from these sites directly, or how to quote their sources. You can also point out the consequences. For example, in high-stakes contexts where assessed work may lead to a certificate or degree, plagiarised work can lead to students being expelled from an exam – or even from an entire degree programme.

Here’s are two activities to try out with your students:

a) Ask your students to look at this infographic which describes 10 types of plagiarism, and then to discuss it. You could first ask students to put each type of plagiarism from the infographic on a scale of 1 (not serious) to 5 (very serious) to encourage them to analyse their own attitudes to different forms of plagiarism. Then encourage your students to come up with a checklist of ways to avoid plagiarism in their own work.

b) Get your students to play an online game about plagiarism in pairs. Produced by Lycoming College, the game takes students through a number of scenarios in which they need to identify the correct action to take. This is a fun and educational way to help your students understand plagiarism and how to avoid it.

What about you? Do you have plagiarism issue with your students? How do you deal with them? Please add any advice or experiences you’ve had to the Comments section below. I’d love to hear about it!

Postdata: A version of this article first appeared in my regular column for English Teaching Professional Magazine (issue 94, September 2014), entitled ‘5 Things you always wanted to know about plagiarism, but were too afraid to ask’. I wonder if I’ve plagiarised myself…?

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
January 2016

Past 1-minute guides:
The 1-minute guide to the digital divide
The 1-minute guide to good conference presentations
The 1-minute guide to MOOCs
The 1-minute guide to integrating technology into teaching
The 1-minute guide to the mobile classroom
The 1-minute guide to teachers’ concerns about mLearning
The 1-minute mLearning Panel summary