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Featured Article

The following article was published in the Term 4 2011 issue of the ATESOL NSW Newsletter. We thank the author for permission to publish the article.

Battling Plagiarism

by Tomiko Breland

Plagiarism is rampant. In fact, it may be more widespread than most teachers realise. According to a 2010 survey of 43,000 U.S. high school students by the Josephson Institute:

  • 82.9% of students have copied an Internet document for a classroom assignment at least once, and

  • 80.6% of students admitted to having copied another person's homework.

And though current plagiarism statistics for college students are hard to come by, a 1996 study by McCabe and Trevino found that 84% of college students admitted to cheating on written exams, and that 52% had copied a few sentences from a website without citing the source.

Many teachers blame the Internet for plagiarism. After all, students in all parts of the world have access to the Web, which means they have access to hundreds of sites that offer more than just the temptation of an easy cut-and-paste: they offer thousands of pre-written papers on topics covering all areas of academia. It can be extremely tempting for any student, English language learner or native speaker, to turn to a company that offers a complete paper in a neat little package, all for a small fee. It is not the Internet, however, that is the problem: Dant's 1986 survey (conducted well before the Internet was at everyone's fingertips) revealed that 80% of students admitted to having plagiarised (as cited in Moore, Howard & Davies, 2009, p. 65).

Problems Addressing Plagiarism

Finding a solution to plagiarism is complicated, because the issue itself is mired in complexities. For English language learners especially, plagiarism can be a sensitive topic. International students are sometimes not familiar with what is considered plagiarism in English language publications and for class; plagiarism, as many teachers think of it, is a cultural concept, and students may not realise they are violating any particular rule. 'Schools expect students to behave ethically and embrace common values, but behaviours and values that are accepted in one culture may differ significantly from what is accepted in another' (Di Maria, 2009, June 4).

As we all know, our students come from different cultures, but we must also consider (a) the culture in which we are teaching and (b) the culture in which our students may live and work once they have finished schooling. English language learners, in particular, may be inclined to '"borrow" the words of native authors through lack of confidence in their own abilities to write correct, clear English' (Carroll and Appleton, 2001, p. 15). According to Mark Johnstone, in some cultures (such as Arabic and Chinese) students are reluctant to paraphrase because doing so diminishes 'the impact of an argument from authority, introduces the possibility of distortion and error, and appears presumptuous in that it attempts to speak for the person quoted rather than simply saying what was said' (2011, July 19).

Another complication arises in the definition of the word plagiarism. Each teacher at an institution may hold different beliefs about what is considered cheating or plagiarism, and what is the appropriate course of action or punishment. According to Carrol and Appleton (2001), 'While often academics are sure that they know what plagiarism is when they see it, any discussion that goes beyond a dictionary definition will soon reveal considerable variation in understanding' (p. 4). For students also, the definition can vary greatly. According to a survey of 271 students by Fuller, Allen and Luckett (as cited in Craig, Federici and Buehler, 2010), when asked if it were considered cheating to submit the same paper for two different classes (often considered self-plagiarism), 43% of students said yes, 24% of students said no, and 32% of students said they weren't sure.

In a discussion about plagiarism on TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section e-mail list, teachers' responses to how to deal with plagiarism varied from simply noting it in the margins of the students' paper and doing nothing else to immediately issuing an official warning and even expulsion. This variation in responses indicates that it is extremely important for all teachers within an institution to agree with one another on what constitutes plagiarism and its established consequences; it is equally as important for students to understand this definition and the repercussions so that all cases are treated equitably and consistently.

Preventative Measures

Though your school will have an official policy for dealing with plagiarism, there are steps you can take that may help to prevent an incidence of plagiarism from becoming an official problem. Plagiarism can be a result of many factors: students' insecurity related to language skills, misunderstanding about what is acceptable in a particular academic or cultural setting, or just laziness or unwillingness to do the work. Additionally, the definition of plagiarism widely varies: It can cover everything from accidentally leaving off a set of quotation marks to downloading an entire prewritten paper from the Internet.

Some teachers see plagiarism as a crime. However, until we have clarified the definition of plagiarism and helped our students understand how to avoid it, the responsibility may lie with us. Professor Jennifer Lubkin of Georgetown University has found that by creating an open conversation about plagiarism that can extend throughout the year, 'students not only understand the consequences of plagiarism but through class activities, [her] written comments, and individual meetings, students learn how to and how not to plagiarise' (2011, July 28). Here are some steps to help you begin that conversation and prevent plagiarism before it begins.

  • Define plagiarism and provide examples. Ensure that students are intimately familiar with exactly what is considered plagiarism. You can provide examples of what your school considers a plagiarised paper (showing it alongside the item from which the text was lifted): make an activity of it, asking student groups to highlight which parts of the paper are considered plagiarised. After everyone is clear on the definition, you can ask students to sign your school's plagiarism policy, which should be transparent and in writing.

  • State your expectations. Counts of plagiarism most often seem to boil down to a misuse of sources, sometimes (or often) unintentional. Expectations and objectives must be clearly stated so that students understand the differences between writing one's own paper, collaborating when it is acceptable, and cheating. Write and provide them with your institution's policy statement in the beginning of the course, and be sure to go over it in class so that everyone understands. A good sample policy statement can be found on Purdue OWL's website.

  • Teach paraphrasing and summarising. Sometimes we forget how difficult it can be to summarise an issue succinctly, especially if we are not familiar with the subject matter or the language. Begin with paraphrasing; make it clear to your students that replacing individual words with synonyms is not acceptable. Walk the class through a paraphrasing activity, focusing on main ideas and key words, and then let your students practice paraphrasing another passage on their own. From this activity, go on to summarising. (Check out this web page for a lesson on how to teach summary writing.)

  • Consider learning outcomes. Assignments that lend themselves to plagiarism tend to focus on knowledge acquisition and simple understanding. Assignments and prompts that require information gathering, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis are more difficult to plagiarise. 'The more analytical and creative the task, the less likely it already exists' on the Web for the student to find and copy (Carroll and Appleton, 2001, p. 9).

  • Monitor the process. Require students to turn in prewriting assignments, including outlines and first drafts of papers; this ensures that you can trace the development of your students' writing. Additionally, having access to the writing process makes it easier for you to see dramatic (and perhaps inauthentic) shifts in thought processes.

  • Vary your assessments. Implement different kinds of assessments – assessments that are more likely to result in unique outcomes. For example, Carroll and Appleton (2001) suggest an alternative to the standard essay: Ask students to turn in an outline for the essay they would write and to include the best online sources they would have used to support their paper (p. 12). This deflects the likelihood of plagiarism but still requires students to do the work.

  • Get at the root of the problem. Find out the reason the student is plagiarising; if you can get to the root of the problem, it's easier to address. You might find that your student needs additional help with grammar, or that he or she is overwhelmed with a particular aspect of an assignment or topic. 'People "cheat" for all kinds of reasons, and when we remove those reasons, they usually stop.' (Mark Johnstone, 2011, July 18)


Anti-plagiarism software is widely available on the Internet; the problem is that the software helps catch plagiarism after it has happened rather than stop it before it's begun. Additionally, this software can only catch instances of direct plagiarism and can't identify if a student has represented an idea as his or her own.

Most of the software involves entering an electronic document or scanning a paper submission into a system that then searches the Web and databases of scholarly articles for repeated sentences or phrases. The cons of such software are various and abundant: Some don't distinguish between plagiarised material and cited material, some are exceedingly expensive, and some have technical restrictions.

A useful page listing various kinds of anti-plagiarism software and outlining the pros and cons of each software can be found on the Empire State College Instructional Technology Toolbox website.


There is no dearth of resources on the Internet to help teachers and students better understand and deal with plagiarism. Here are just a few to get you started:

Tutorials/Quizzes for Students

Resources for Teachers

Includes questions and guidance to help you create a plagiarism or honesty policy aligned with your organisation’s principles and mission. Also includes links to many organisations’ existing policies as examples.

Useful handout that helps students reflect on their own cultural values and discuss differences in values across cultures.

Include lesson plans and activities for helping students understand and avoid plagiarism.

Includes a best practices summary in Appendix 1 to help teachers and organisations prevent and deal with plagiarism.


Carroll, J., & Appleton, J. (2001). Plagiarism: A good practice guide (pdf). Oxford: Oxford Brookes University and Joint Information Systems Committee.

Craig, P. A., Federici, E., & Buehler, M. A. (2010). Instructing students in academic integrity. Journal of College Science Teaching 40.2, 50-55.

Di Maria, D. L. (2009, June 4). Plagiarism from a cross-cultural perspective. Al-Jamiat.  

Johnstone, M. (2011, July 18). Re: Plagiarism and cheatingSupervised Writing Process, TESOL International Intensive English Programs Interest Section [Electronic mailing list message]. 

Johnstone, M. (2011, July 19). Re: Plagiarism and cheatingCultural basis of plagiarism, TESOL International Intensive English Programs Interest Section [Electronic mailing list message]. 

Josephson Institute. (2010). Josephson Institute's 2010 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth (pdf).

Lubkin, J. (2011, July 28). Re: Plagiarism and cheating – Don't Police: just teach, TESOL International Intensive English Programs Interest Section [Electronic mailing list message]. 

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1996). What we know about cheating in college: Longitudinal trends and recent developments. Change 28.1, 28-33.


About the author: Tomiko Breland received her BA in English from Stanford University and her certificate in TESOL from Anaheim University. She is currently pursuing her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University, and is an editor at TESOL International Association.

Taken from TESOL Connections, October 2011 issue.



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