Plagiarism is perhaps one of the most disheartening things that we as teachers encounter. Most of us, I presume, enjoy our subjects and do our best to bring material to life for our students. Whether we’re running paper workshops or chemistry labs, we work hard to teach important skills: critical thinking, problem solving, close reading, effective argumentation. A student who plagiarizes rejects the opportunity to learn and hopes to pass the class through dishonesty. Why does this happen? And how can we prevent it?

Reasons for plagiarizing generally fall into two categories: accidental and deliberate plagiarism. Some students plagiarize because they genuinely don’t know any better, while others make the choice to cheat, usually to save time and effort or to boost their grades. Read on to learn more about why students plagiarize and how to prevent plagiarism in your classroom.

Accidental plagiarism

Improper research and note-taking methods

Stolen ideas and words often slip in at the note-taking stage. Students might take notes on dozens of books and articles as they research their papers but then forget where they found particular ideas. Maybe they copy down quotations without using quotation marks or use sloppy paraphrases that stay too close to the original phrasing.

Misconceptions about what constitutes plagiarism

Some students might think that they only need citations for direct quotations, not realizing that they also need citations for information that they summarize or paraphrase. Many students, especially if they’re still early in their academic careers, simply may not realize that it’s possible to plagiarize ideas in addition to precise language.

Deliberate plagiarism

Poor time management or an overly demanding schedule

Students sometimes turn to plagiarism out of desperation: The deadline is looming, and the student begins to despair of finishing in time using honest means. It becomes more and more tempting to take shortcuts like copying and pasting chunks of text or even purchasing an entire paper online.

No interest in the subject

No matter how engaging you make your course material, there may still be students whose interests and priorities lie elsewhere. If students are unenthused about a particular subject, they’re less inclined to expend any effort on it and more likely to plagiarize.

Desire to maintain high grades

There’s no doubt that high-pressure academic environments at times tempt ambitious students (and even professors) to cheat. Students might be afraid of disappointing their families, feel competitive with their peers, or want a better shot at a dream summer internship. They might not have the confidence in their own ability to perform well and think that their only chance at an A is to lift ideas from a distinguished scholarly source.

Belief that they will not get caught

Students understand that teachers often have numerous papers to read, and they may assume that a few instances of copied text or missing citations will go unnoticed in the sheer volume of paperwork. Moreover, they may not be aware if their teachers plan to use anti-plagiarism software, or they might (mistakenly) think that they can evade such software by changing a few words around.

Thrill of breaking the rules

This one is perhaps less common than the other reasons on this list, but on rare occasions, you might encounter a student who sees rules as artificial constraints meant to be broken.

Tips for reducing plagiarism

Student motivations for plagiarizing are incredibly varied. Luckily, there are some measures you can take in your classroom to prevent most (if not all) of your students from succumbing to temptation or accidentally plagiarizing out of ignorance.  

  • Provide instruction on proper research methods: Encourage students to indicate their sources clearly in their notes and to use quotation marks for any sentences copied verbatim. Emphasize the importance of developing conscientious note-taking habits. This practice will help them avoid mixing up their own thoughts with someone else’s.
  • In a similar vein, provide instruction on proper citation methods. Explain how and when to cite. Again, remove the excuse of ignorance.
  • Stress the importance of academic honesty in your classroom. This might come in the form of an academic honesty statement on your syllabus or a reference to the university Honor Code.
  • If you sense that your students struggle with time management, set aside a few minutes of class to teach them some skills. Try assigning scaffolded projects; for example, instead of requiring one big final paper, have your students turn in a first draft earlier in the semester and the final draft a few weeks later. Breaking large assignments down into components shows students how to tackle bigger projects and ensures that they begin work well in advance.
  • Point students to resources such as campus writing centers or university tutoring programs to help them develop their skills and confidence. Teach them that they do not need to cheat to do well. If your institution doesn’t have a writing center, you can still direct students to the resources made available online by other university writing centers.
  • Realize that no matter what you do, some students may still choose to plagiarize. Using a sophisticated plagiarism checker will make it much easier to catch students who do. A plagiarism checker can also serve as a deterrent if you note upfront that you will be using one.

In general, truly accidental plagiarism can be eradicated through proper instruction in proper research and citation skills. Tackling deliberate plagiarism is trickier. Nevertheless, the techniques outlined above will reduce its frequency and enable you to catch it when it occurs.