When and how did plagiarism become a thing? What does plagiarism look like in the 21st century? And how can we stop students from cheating on papers, thereby cheating themselves out of a good education? These are complicated questions to which I’ve attempted a few short answers below.

First off, the term “plagiarism” comes from the Latin plagiarius, meaning “kidnapper,” though its meaning could be expanded to encompass kidnappers of words, not just people. The 1st-century Roman poet Martial used the term to complain about other poets stealing his verses. The word seems to have entered English in the form “plagiary,” used by Ben Jonson in 1601. A 1755 dictionary defined it as “the crime of literary theft.” But definitions of plagiarism, and opinions on whether it was a “crime” or even unethical, have varied considerably over time.

The Middle Ages: A Plagiarist’s Paradise?

During the European Middle Ages, “plagiarism” was often just a normal part of writing. Authors compiled selections from various religious texts, often assuming that readers would already be familiar with them. Sometimes these texts credited the original source, or later commentators added references in the manuscript’s margins—but sometimes not.

Plagiarism was such a common phenomenon in medieval Europe that more than one scholarly article has appeared on the topic. It’s worth noting, however, that lax attitudes toward plagiarism were not a universal part of the ancient and medieval world. There are exceptions to every rule, and accepted practices could vary by region or genre of text.

Changing Attitudes toward Plagiarism

In any event, things slowly started to change during the Renaissance and its aftermath. Artists began signing their work more regularly. Scholars, poets, and scientists alike began asserting ownership of their work with greater insistence.

Nevertheless, the practice of copying and compiling others’ ideas and words persisted, generally with few or no consequences. Shakespeare is an especially famous example who lifted plotlines, language, and characters from other sources for use in his own writing. Benjamin Franklin likewise chronically copied others’ words and ideas.

During the 18th century, however, attitudes were hardening against plagiarism. Copyright laws made an appearance. Authors were expected to create something original, rather than reiterate or compile old ideas. Thus the modern idea of “plagiarism” and the celebration of original work emerged more fully articulated.

In the 19th century, historians such as Leopold von Ranke insisted on rigorous, meticulous scholarship that treated sources carefully, complete with plenty of footnotes. (The history of the footnote, by the way, is complicated enough to have its own book, as well as several shorter pieces documenting, for example, the footnote’s medieval antecedents.) The work of 19th-century academics further refined understandings of plagiarism, establishing standards for proper citation. Scholars who fell short of these standards ran the risk of plagiarism.

This history of plagiarism is by necessity brief and selective! For further details, check out Thomas Mallon’s book, Stolen Words and Jack Lynch’s short piece, “The Perfectly Acceptable Practice of Literary Theft: Plagiarism, Copyright, and the Eighteenth Century.”

Plagiarism and Academia Today

Plagiarism and academia have in many ways coevolved. It’s no excuse for plagiarism, but the academy can be a high-pressure environment. Students struggle to maintain 4.0 GPAs while juggling classes, extracurriculars, and a social life. Junior professors face the “publish or perish” mandate or risk tenure denial. Academia rewards prolific, innovative output. It demands both quality and quantity. In this environment, it’s deplorable but hardly surprising that people sometimes resort to desperate, unethical tactics. University honor codes and warnings in syllabi probably do deter some—but not all—perpetrators.

Today, plagiarizing a class assignment or academic article is easier than ever thanks to the internet. It’s incredibly simple to copy and paste text into your own document without attribution. With so much information readily available, it’s also incredibly easy to absorb dozens of ideas and later have trouble untangling them: who said what? Which source had that great quotation? Do I have to cite a webpage with no known author? That cool idea was mine, right?

Numerous noteworthy authors have faced charges of plagiarism in recent decades. Historian Stephen Ambrose, for example, was found to have pilfered multiple passages. Other perpetrators include politician Joe Biden, novelist Jacob Epstein, and countless journalists such as Jonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria, and Jayson Blair. And unfortunately, quite a few academics and students.

To Catch a Thief*

So what can you, as an educator, do about catching “thieves” of words and ideas in your classroom? Here is what I’ve learned about preventing plagiarism in the first place and investigating potential cases of plagiarism when they arise:

Know your students. This is a crucial line of defense against academic cheating, though it’s not always possible. So let me amend that to: When possible, get to know all of your students as best you can.

Here’s how: try out 2-minute in-class writing prompts to get acquainted with each student’s writing style—after all, it’s hard to plagiarize when you only have a pen, paper, an unforeseen prompt, and 2 minutes! In-class essay exams also do the trick (assuming they’re not cheating on those too). Read students’ drafts and ask questions about their ideas. Finally, teach proper note-taking and citation methods. Some cases of plagiarism are truly accidental. Remove the excuse of ignorance.

Of course, not all classes include time for personalized writing workshops. Maybe you have too many students to spend hours with them one-on-one. Maybe your course focuses on teaching content instead of honing writing skills. Maybe you’re the TA and have no say over the class structure.

And even if you do take preventative measures, some students will still cheat. Moreover, if you suspect plagiarism, you’ll need to have some sort of proof before proceeding further.

That’s where the benefit of a good plagiarism checker comes in.

Let’s say Student X decides to plagiarize. X copies and pastes text from an academic into a Word Document. Knowing that a plagiarism checker may be used, X reads over the document, swapping out words for synonyms and even introducing a tiny mistake or two.

A quick Google search often won’t catch these cases. High-quality anti-plagiarism software can. Quetext, for example, detects not only word-for-word copying, but also similarities in syntax and instances of possible or probable plagiarism. Plus, it features a library for synonym-use detection.

By pointing you directly to the original source, Quetext allows you to review ambiguous cases yourself to determine if plagiarism occurred. Its statistical algorithms mean that even “clever” plagiarists like X will still be caught. (“Clever” is in quotation marks because if they were really clever, they’d just write the wretched paper in the first place!)

Critical Forecast: The Future of Plagiarism

Plagiarism could grow more difficult to detect. Most notably, there’s the potential use of artificial intelligence (AI) to write papers. One can easily find title generators for academic papers. I tried this one and it spat out, “Periphrasis and Disguise in Medieval Towns: Supporting Quarrelsome Xenon”—total nonsense. Some sites purport to generate entire essays for you, but I’m skeptical any of them could earn a passing grade. At the moment, title generators and the like are still a joke and churn out gibberish.

That may not be the case forever. A 2017 article in The Economist notes that AI will likely be able to handle writing (presumably decent?) essays by the 2020s. That’s right around the corner! As an example, sciNote recently launched a program called Manuscript Writer. This service allows scientists to enter their data into a notebook. It draws on these notes, as well as various references, to produce an article draft that can then be manually edited or expanded. Essentially, Manuscript Writer performs the work of organizing your thoughts into a first draft. But can the software produce an intelligible draft? And will it constitute a form of plagiarism or academic dishonesty? As AI’s creative capacity grows, we may need to rethink our ethics and definitions of dishonesty to come to a new consensus for today’s world.

Technology is simply a tool; it can be used by both sides, by cheaters and professors alike. As academic dishonesty grows more sophisticated, so does plagiarism detection software. Eradicating plagiarism from the modern (and future) classroom will likely require a combination of state-of-the-art anti-plagiarism software and simple human attention.

*On the subject of discerning plagiarism: This subheading is an allusion to the 1955 Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief, rather than plagiarism of its title: what’s the distinction? See here.