Resources for Teachers: How to Detect Plagiarism

Plagiarism is unacceptable academic behavior. The best approach, of course, is to prevent plagiarism from occurring in the first place, but sometimes that is simply impossible. MIT’s Policies and Procedures spells out "Procedures for Dealing with Student Academic Dishonesty." In those cases, it is important to be able to detect plagiarism.

Warning Signs

Unusual phrasings, noticeable unevenness of style (some very sophisticated sentences followed by some amateurish ones), concepts that seem too sophisticated for the level of the class, unclear or incorrect sources listed in the bibliography, a writing style or diction choice in a particular paper that seems inconsistent with that found in other samples of the student’s writing — these are some of the signals that you might be reading a plagiarized paper.

One technique to detect plagiarism is to enter an unusual phrase or sentence into a standard search engine (e.g., Google) and see if a match is found. A second technique is holding a conference with the student writer and discussing the paper to determine the student’s familiarity with his/her own paper and its concepts.

Dwight Gardner’s "Beg, Borrow, Or …" from Salon.com reminds us that plagiarism occurs in the literary world as well.

Kim McMurty’s article "e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge" in The Journal (March 2002) offers some insights into this issue.

Detection Tools

The following sites offer tools and techniques for detecting plagiarism.

Know the "Enemy"

Here are some Web sites that offer papers to students, either for free or for money. New sites appear weekly, so the following is a mere sampling. Seeing what these sites offer, however, can help us know what to look for and can help us develop strategies for making such plagiarism extremely difficult.