Detecting Plagiarism

Plagiarism is in some ways easier than ever, but many of the same tools people use to plagiarize, e.g. the Internet, can be used just as effectively to detect plagiarism, and while it is unlikely that every student who plagiarizes will be caught, there are usually a surprising number of students who do indeed get caught plagiarizing in greater or lesser ways. The authors of this book, as instructors, have caught more than a hundred plagiarizing students and, every now and again, a few more are caught who for one reason or another thought it was a good idea to try to cheat.

To use a metaphor, plagiarism being detected and prosecuted is handled similarly to the enforcement of the speed limit on roadways: not everyone who breaks the rules will be caught, but enough are to make it unwise to risk the penalties. Likewise, the penalties are harsh enough that even getting caught one time is significant, as described in the following section. If a student makes a habit of cheating, sooner or later one of two things is likely to happen: (1) they are caught, and potentially expelled, ending their career at the university, (2) their ability to write papers decreases while the expectations for their writing increases, leading to a situation where they are no longer able to write their own papers, or even perhaps to do their jobs after graduation (depending on how much writing they are required to do professionally). Both may happen. In either case, students who are paying large sums of money to learn a difficult professional skill like writing are not learning, and so it is the responsibility of students and teachers alike to encourage learning and prevent plagiarism and the need for it. Each student has considerable resources in the form of their classmates, instructor, and course materials, and so in many cases it is actually more difficult to plagiarize than it is to just do assignments besides.

Similarity versus Plagiarism

One of the most popular mechanisms for detecting plagiarism, especially for misused quotations, are programs that check for the similarity between a submitted paper and a large pool of other papers. Many universities have these available and many classes even require all major papers to be submitted through a similarity checking program of some kind.

It is important for students to understand what these tools can show, and what they cannot show, as many students think that similarity and plagiarism are the same things, and while they sometimes are, they often are not. For example, all citations of a single source in every paper that cites that source written in the same format (MLA, APA, etc.) should be identical, and would therefore be 100% similar on a similarity checking program. Likewise, certain phrases, like the plagiarism-adjacent example above, will simply be similar to other phrases by coincidence due to patterns in the way English is commonly spoken or written, and that similarity will boost the overall percentage of similarity. Occasionally students have common names which are categorized as similar to another paper. None of these are examples of plagiarism. When grading a paper, an instructor will examine whatever the similarity-checking program highlighted as “similar” and then decide if it is plagiarism. This is usually the first step in determining if a paper has been plagiarized, but again the important thing is that the program measures similarity, which is not the same as plagiarism.

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