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Designing Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism

There is an old saying that someone who does not lock the door to his or her house and then is robbed shares the sin with the thief for giving the thief the opportunity. In the age of the World Wide Web, when students can download papers from Google protected sites in less than thirty seconds, every instructor has an obligation not to make plagiarism too easy for students. Students sometime manage their time poorly, and at 5 am they might be tempted to plagiarize an assignment due that day even though they are basically honest persons. Following a few simple steps, however, will help reduce the opportunities for plagiarism.

At the beginning of the term:

  • Explain in explicit detail what constitutes plagiarism.
    • Some students are still told by their high school teachers that any information or point-of-view, if it occurs in three or more places, is common knowledge and does not have to be cited;
    • Students sometimes are not aware that changing a few words to synonyms but retaining the basic sentence structure and some of the original language still constitutes plagiarism.
    • Appropriating sources without attribution has different meanings in different cultures.
  • Explain why plagiarism is so serious. In an academic community words and ideas are the primary currency. We can use the words and ideas of others if we pay the appropriate “price” of appropriately identifying and citing the words and/or ideas. Not to do so is theft.

While designing the assignment:

  • Make the assignment specific and tailored to the specific content of your class. Asking students to write a paper on any topic that interests them is an open invitation to plagiarize that some students will not be able to resist. Requiring students to write on a specific topic, applying two or three specific concepts in the course, makes borrowing another person’s work much more difficult.
  • Define a specific rhetorical situation. Ask students to write posing as a specific character or in a specific role. Identify the audience and purpose.
  • Include specific evaluation criteria for the paper that will make generic or bought papers receive poor grades. For example, you can state that the paper will be graded partially on how well a specific kind of evidence is used to support certain points.
  • Require a proposal with a preliminary bibliography. Then always add one or two books or articles to the bibliography that should be included in the final paper.
  • Define clearly the specific parts of the assignment and specify the order in which they are to done.
  • Sequence parts of the assignment.
  • Require students to attach the URL of every online source and Xeroxes of pages cited from print sources.
  • Meet with students regularly while they are writing the paper and request revisions of specific sections. Not only does this tactic discourage plagiarism, more importantly, it encourages students to learn to view writing as a process.

For additional materials on designing assignments to discourage plagiarism see “Designing Assignments to Discourage Plagiarism” by Alice J. Robison, L&S Program in Writing Across the Curriculum, University of Wisconsin, Madison