Tips on Detecting and Preventing Internet Plagiarism magnifying glass

Prefatory Note:

Phyllis Holman Weisbard, Women's Studies Librarian for the University of Wisconsin System, presented an excellent seminar on "Cheating, Plagiarism (and Other Questionable Practices), the Internet and Other Electronic Resources" at the 2001 NWSA convention. I (Kate Waits) agreed to take notes on the session for those who were unable to attend.

Phyllis provided an comprehensive handout, which can be found at: http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/WomensStudies/plag.htm.

The handout contains many links, both to sites where "canned" terms papers can be found (both for pay and for free) and sites discussing the problem. There are a number of commercial sites that have WS papers. Commercial sites often have multiple names and URLs where the same papers are available, often catalogued in overlapping categories (e.g., the same paper will be listed under both WS and anthropology).

Below are just a few points from a wide-ranging discussion.


1) It may be that free search engines, such a Google (which is apparently the best free search engine for this purpose), will do as good a job of detecting plagiarism as some of the paid sites like IntegriGuard and Turnitin.com. However, the paid sites require less labor from the professor, so that it may be worthwhile for the university to pay for these services.

Be sure you understand the scope of the search tool being used. For instance, turnitin.com doesn't check scholarly works, only past student work submitted.

The best way to try to detect plagiarism with a search engine is to take a suspicious phrase that isn't likely to appear in a ton of works. These are also the phrases that you most suspect couldn't possibly come from the student. An example might be "The hegemony of patriarchal institutions in antebellum North Carolina." If one suspicious phrase doesn't give a hit, you may want to try another (or try another search engine).

2) Phyllis recommended checking journal databases (aggregators) to which campus libraries subscribe, such as Academic Search (Ebscohost) and Proquest Research Library, both of which include journals across a wide range of disciplines. These include numerous journals, from which skilled plagiarist may crib. A standard web search won't reveal plagiarism from these sources.

When using these databases, BE SURE you've set them to a "full text" search. Otherwise, the search will just be of citations and abstracts rather than the full article. Check with your school's library about which journal databases are available on your campus.

3) Recognize that detection of papers that students have paid for is especially difficult. Some of the paid sites are set up so that search engines can't "capture" their information. Luckily, the paid sites are quite expensive (we saw one that was $9.95 per page - with "free" bibliography!), and require more advance planning from the student. So Phyllis believes that easier-to-detect cheating from free sources is much more common.

4) Several sites have papers that are presented as one long paragraph. If you encounter this, or paragraph breaks that make absolutely no sense, this may be a sign of a plagiarized paper.

5) When stuck consider a query to a listserve in your discipline. One audience member had seen this done very successfully on a domestic violence listserve.


1) Just having students know that you're wise to paper sites could be a deterrent. You might handout Phyllis' paper at the beginning of your class.

2) Re defining plagiarism for your students. Phyllis' handout contains citations to several articles on the subject, including one that's on the www.schoolsucks.com site and which she thought was a good discussion of the topic. An audience member also recommended a little book from Hackett Publishing, Writing with Sources: A Guide for Students by Gordon Harvey.

3) In order to prevent OTHER students from plagiarizing, Phyllis urged us to take down old student work that we have posted to the Web. She gave examples of some papers that were ripe for stealing, but which no longer served any useful purpose for the professor/organization that originally posted them.

4) Audience members had various suggestions re prevention. Defining plagiarism in your syllabus and saying in advance how harshly you'd deal with it seemed to help. Talk about plagiarism repeatedly, with lots of EXAMPLES of different kinds of plagiarism.

5) Making it clear that you're available to help students with their papers could be a preventive.

6) One audience member makes a point of telling her students in advance that if they get in a spot, they'd be better off turning in no paper than a plagiarized one. She tells them that a zero on the paper (if it was, say, 25% of their grade) was better than a guaranteed F in the course, which is her penalty for plagiarism.

7) Some felt that having a number of written assignments in the course helped both with prevention and detection. One tells her students that our writing styles are as individual as our fingerprints. Therefore, with a few short assignments, this professor can get a feel for each student's style. Others were less sanguine, saying that students may claim that they made changes because of the instructor's comments, etc.

8) It was widely agreed that having multiple drafts and a step-by-step timetable helped prevent plagiarism.

9) Another tactic is to have students write papers only on very specific topics, one where canned papers are less likely to be available. More general questions (e.g., a generalized question about patriarchy) could then be reserved for examinations. Along similar lines, the professor could provide a very RECENT document that has to be the focus of the students' papers. Or provide two specific passages from disparate writers and require the students to comment on them.

This can also be applied to courses where the students are allowed to choose among several books. E.g., "if you choose to write about Pride and Prejudice, you must select one of the following [narrow] topics."

10) Help students understand why we, as professors, care so deeply about the issue. Remind them that plagiarism is the stealing of ideas - OUR ideas and those of our colleagues - and that it's a crime. Demystify our own writing process. Make clear that it's OKAY to learn from other people, as long as you provide proper acknowledgment.

11) Students may not like it, but you can require that they describe their research process (E.g., "I found this in a book on the 3d floor of the library"). This would be a MAJOR deterrent.


1) We briefly touched on helping students EVALUATE web pages. So often they seem to think that if it's on the Web, it must be true. A number of people recommended the information on the Widener Univ. library site: Evaluating Web Resources at http://www2.widener.edu/Wolfgram-Memorial-Library/webevaluation/webeval.htm

The UCLA library also has two sites, one more general and one more specific:

"Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources" by Esther Grassian, UCLA College Library http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/college/help/critical/index.htm

and the more detailed "Thinking Critically about Discipline-Based World Wide Web Resources" by Esther Grassian, UCLA College Library http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/college/help/critical/discipline.htm

Respectfully submitted, Kate Waits

Kathleen (Kate) Waits
Associate Professor
University of Tulsa College of Law
3120 East 4th Place
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74104-2499
918-631-2450 (voice)
918-631-2194 (FAX)
E-mail: kwaits @ utulsa.edu

Phyllis Holman Weisbard
University of Wisconsin System
Women's Studies Librarian
430 Memorial Library, 728 State Street
Madison, WI 53706
pweisbard @ library.wisc.edu

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