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Resources for Teachers: How to Prevent Plagiarism

Reports from campuses across the country indicate that plagiarism is on the rise. Several causes have been suggested — e.g., the increased availability of Internet sources; students’ confusion about the exact nature of plagiarism; students’ belief that anything on the Web is “free” and can be claimed as one’s own; the pressures of maintaining a high G.P.A.; students’ sense that a particular course is irrelevant to their career goals and hence not worth an investment of time; and a student culture that values “beating the system.”

Whatever the cause(s), teachers face the question of how to deal with plagiarism. Few teachers signed on to be private detectives, following a twisting trail through various sites and volumes to track down a plagiarizer. So what are we to do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Give students a clear and explicit definition of plagiarism at the beginning of the semester, preferably on the syllabus.
  2. Make a clear distinction between acceptable collaboration and plagiarism, preferably on the syllabus. Because this distinction can vary from discipline to discipline or from department to department, students can become confused unless the distinction is spelled out explicitly for each class. The explanation of the collaboration policy for 16.070 is a good example.
  3. Create assignments that encourage originality and discourage plagiarism.
  4. Create assignments that are unusual or that take a different slant on the material, thus eliminating “canned papers” that can be easily purchased or even found for free on the Web.
  5. Create writing assignments that have several parts (e.g., a proposal, an annotated bibliography, a first draft, a second draft).
  6. Request photocopies of all sources used in a paper.
  7. Have students email you a copy of their essays as well as hand in a hard copy. The email version will be easier to submit to a plagiarism search engine, and the very fact that you make this request might be enough to deter some students from plagiarizing.

If, in spite of these efforts, you receive a paper that might be plagiarized, go to “How to Detect Plagiarism.