Plagued with Plagiarism

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Recently, a colleague stopped me mid-rant and asked:

“How many hours a week do you spend looking for plagiarism?” The question made me realize that

  1. I don’t know, but
  2. it’s a lot.

In the EAP course I teach, students are required to write 2 essays each month. The essays need to be at least 750 words and include proper referencing, etc. Even though we spend a lot of time in class discussing plagiarism, the penalties both in our school and in a proper university, and the likelihood they will be caught, over the 3 months that students are in the course, many will copy / plagiarise in their first month for 2 main reasons: cultural plagiarism or simple plagiarism.

Cultural Plagiarism: As our Arabic counsellor told me a few years ago, when she was completing her university studies in Kuwait, she was penalized for not simply copying, word for word, from the sources. The requirements for university were just that.

On their first essay in their first month when students copy and paste from the sources, then add a footnote on the end and say “done”, this is usually the situation. In their previous academic lives, copying and pasting was all that was expected!

Solution: Thankfully, by having students go through a process of outlines -> 1st draft -> 2nd draft -> final draft, I’m able to catch these cases early on and help the students realize that they need to change their approach to writing. Sadly, the second type is more difficult to deal with.

Simple Plagiarism: This is the standard sort that many of us have been guilty of at some point in our lives. Thankfully, most of the time it’s a typically honest student who, through writer’s block or time management problems, didn’t do the assignment and quickly grabs something online (thanks!) A frank talk with them about their options and the importance of talking to the teacher if more time or help is needed generally stops them from doing this again.

Rarely, and more difficult to deal with, are the students who from the start plan to copy: either through submitting essays their friends wrote in the past or by copying and pasting from online sources.

Solution(s): As these students are actively trying to hide their theft, it can be a lot more difficult to catch, but there are 2 incredibly effective tools I use:

The first, of course, is Google. As these students are high-intermediate / advanced students, they have a high level of English, but by noticing key words that ESL students would not know, I am able to check out my suspicions.

(For example a student who wrote about ‘the use of telephone switchboards in the past’ = automatic red flag!).

A simple Google search of sentences or phrases together usually comes up with their sources.

One student actually dared me that I wouldn’t find his source, but by reverse-translating it through Google Translate, I was able to find it.

Moral: Never challenge your teacher to prove your plagiarism!

The other tool I use is a freeware program called “Search My Files” (Available at ). The course I teach has been going for 5 years this month, and I’ve made a point to keep a copy of every draft/essay submitted. By entering a sentence from a student’s essay,this search program will look in every file in my directory and pull up matches. This has been a godsend to me, as submitting former students’ work has become the most common way students ‘break the law’.

So, yes, I do spend a lot of time looking for plagiarism, even with the warnings students are given throughout the course, but these programs and tools have helped reduce the time spent, as well as my effectiveness in catching it.

What are some strategies you use when looking for or dealing with plagiarism?

Hi! I’m Andrew Shedden. Like most people, I fell into ESL by accident. I was preparing to apply for my Master’s in history and decided I wanted to teach in Japan beforehand as a vacation. I got a CELTA degree so I would know what this teaching thing is all about, but one thing led to another and although I never actually made it to Japan as a teacher (or applied for a Master’s program), I’ve been teaching ESL ever since! I've been teaching EAP for over 10 years now... I love the focus on academic writing and English, since I can vicariously go back to university through my students. (I do miss it!) My other professional love is computers. I’ve been obsessed with them since I was 3, and I’m always trying to learn more about how to incorporate IT into my program and classes.


3 thoughts on “Plagued with Plagiarism”

  1. Thanks for the resources in this post. Plagiarism is certainly a challenge to convey to students on both a cultural level and an academic level. We use Turnitin at the school I work at, but students tend to get more anxiety about the percentage it shows rather than the editing tool it provides. I think it’s important for us to talk about it in the open as just a way of academic life.

    1. I’ve always been curious about Turnitin. It might be good at my school since it would prepare students for colleges & universities that use it.

      Is it expensive? Or I guess the better questions is: Is it worth the cost?

  2. Thanks for the posting! It is very helpful!

    My students write the first draft in class and the second draft is simply a correction of the error codes and additional suggestions I write on their first draft. I change topics each time even slightly so students can’t copy past submissions. For research papers, we have students find resources to support their original in-class essays and even then, we walk them through the research essay process step-by-step, so we see their resources and their detailed outlines early in the process. It is easier to detect where and when things go wrong.

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