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Why Students Plagiarize and What Teachers Can Do About It

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Top 10 Reasons Students Plagiarize and What Teachers Can Do About It” by Michelle Navarre Cleary in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2017/January 2018 (Vol. 99, #4, p. 66-71),; Cleary can be reached at
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Michelle Navarre Cleary (DePaul University) analyzes the reasons for plagiarism and suggests remedies for each one:
• Students are careless. Most students don’t plagiarize intentionally, says Cleary; they’re in a hurry, cut corners, and don’t take the time to cite sources.
- Say up front that you’re using Turn-It-In, Google, or some other method of checking their work.
- Clarify that the consequences of plagiarizing are serious.
- “Make it so hard to plagiarize that they might just as well write the paper,” says Cleary. For example, require students to hand in a paper proposal, an outline, an annotated bibliography, multiple drafts, a copy of one or more of their sources, and a reflection piece. Streamline the monitoring process by using peer review and spot-checking.
- Assign fresh, interesting topics around specific, focused questions or issues, not old chestnuts like writing about Hemingway’s character.
- Help students feel connected to the subject matter, their fellow students, and the teacher. Of course, this is easier in a small class.
• Students panic. Deliberate plagiarism happens most often when students are under time pressure and feel backed into a corner with unfamiliar subject matter.
- Assign intermediate drafts and discuss the process as it unfolds.
- Alert students about common problems up front.
- Teach students time management skills – pacing themselves and organizing their work.
- Explicitly discuss why the assignment is important.
- Make the consequences of being caught very clear.
• They lack confidence. Students may believe an author can “say it better than I can” and feel uncomfortable putting well-stated views or unfamiliar jargon in their own words.
- Help students see that they already have well-developed views on music, movies, and sports and can transfer these skills into an academic domain.
- Have students write their own ideas or conjectures before, during, and after doing research.
• They believe they’re supposed to reproduce what the experts have said. This stems from the misconception that scholarly publications are like dictionaries where we look up information. A similar belief is that students are passive vessels being filled with knowledge from others.
- Require students to generate a hypothesis before they begin researching and have them test it against what they find in source material.
- Show students examples of papers containing plagiarism and challenge them to spot the problems.
- Quickly scan handed-in papers looking for summaries and paraphrases that may not have been cited.
• Students have difficulty integrating source material into their own exposition or argument.
- Suggest that students put source material out of sight as they write.
- Encourage summarizing and discourage paraphrasing.
- Scan papers looking for citations that come only at the end of paragraphs – a sign that students think that covers all the borrowing in the paragraph, not just the last sentence.
• Students don’t understand why people are so concerned about sources. “These students do not see themselves as members of a scholarly community that is collectively building knowledge,” says Cleary, “but, rather, as islands of self-contained knowledge or as outsiders who are merely trying to get through this ordeal.” Prohibitions against plagiarism may seem “overly fussy and secondary to the process of learning.”
- Explicitly discuss the goals of students’ research.
- Talk about their membership in a community of scholars in which they are contributing knowledge as well as learning from others.
- Acknowledge that citation styles, especially for Internet sources, are in flux.
- Work with other teachers to develop consistent citation conventions.
• They are sloppy with note-taking. This can happen even to eminent historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who mistook quotes for her own notes more than once.
- Teach strategies for organizing notes.
- Insist that students include citations in all drafts.
• They don’t understand that they need to cite facts, figures, and ideas, not just quotations. These students aren’t being dishonest; they just don’t understand the rules.
- Make sure every source in the references corresponds to a citation in the text.
• They are learning the craft of writing. Benjamin Franklin improved his writing by imitating writing he admired, and some students may be using a similar process, believing that changing a few words makes it okay.
- Treat “patchwritten” papers as early drafts.
- Discuss with students the need to digest and analyze material in more sophisticated ways.
• They are used to a collaborative model of knowledge production. This can occur with students who have grown up with sampled music and video mashups and aren’t concerned about distinguishing their own thoughts and ideas from those of friends and family members. “Does one need to acknowledge parental influence on the development of one’s thinking?” asks Cleary. “What about a peer’s suggestions to add an example to a paper? And what about clergy who repeat phrases and ideas that many others have used before them?”
- Discuss gray-area cases with students.
- Discuss and ensure that students understand the reasons for citing sources.
- Be clear on what does and does not constitute plagiarism.

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