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Tips on Detecting Plagiarism

What is Plagiarism?

According to the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, plagiarism is "the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas of another." There are several different types of plagiarism:

  1. Theft of an idea without acknowledgement
  2. Patchwriting, or copying from a source and deleting some words, altering grammar, or plugging in synonyms
  3. Paraphrasing, or saying the same thing in clearer words but failing to acknowledge the original
  4. Direct copying (typing in another's words exactly and passing it off as your own)

Plagiarism and the Internet

The Internet makes it easier than ever for students to plagiarize. By its very nature, the Internet promotes the idea of information as "cultural commons," or community property. Furthermore, web pages often lack a definitive author or owner, making them difficult to cite. Citation practices for Internet sources are still unstable, varying wildly depending on the style manual.

Students have easy access to Paper Mills, where they can download pre-written essays on file or order a custom research paper for a fee. There are hundreds of paper mill web sites out there- to see a list of some of them, go to Internet Paper Mills. Most of the papers coming out of these paper mills are poorly written, have old or unreliable citations, and have been recycled numerous times on other paper mill sites. Unfortunately, these factors often do not deter students.

Ways to Minimize Plagiarism

As an instructor, there are several things you can do to minimize plagiarism in your classes. Here is a list:

  • Talk to the class about why we cite other works, the purpose citations serve, and the concept of intellectual property.
  • Teach students the difference between paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting.
  • Make sure students know your definition of plagiarism.
  • Set a strict penalty for plagiarizing and be sure to include it in the written directions for the assignment.
  • Give specific instructions for papers. For example, a requirement that the paper include the student's opinion on the topic will decrease the possibility that s/he will be able to find a pre-written paper (and will raise the financial cost of plagiarism, since custom-written papers are more expensive).
  • Try to make assignments that will give students an opportunity to select a topic that interests them.
  • Emphasize the process of writing. Require students to turn in notes and a rough draft before the final paper is due.
  • Have short conferences about the assignment and/or use peers to comment on drafts.
  • Have students turn in a copy of their sources (or the first page of each).
  • Require students to reflect on the writing process. What features of the paper are they proud of? What problems did they encounter researching or writing the paper? What did they learn from it?
  • Discuss acceptable citation styles, and prepare a handout with examples of how to cite different types of material (i.e., a book, a magazine article, a newspaper article, a website, an online article, etc.).

How Do I Detect Plagiarism?

Clues to Watch for

  • Weird formatting in the paper- unusual fonts, changes in the margins, strange spacing, etc.
  • A change in the writing style, such as use of stilted or formal language, complicated sentence structure, or switching tenses
  • Use of unexpected vocabulary
  • Signs that the paper was written at some past date (obvious anachronisms or failure to mention relevant current events)
  • Review the bibliography. Could the student have found the sources listed?
  • Printed off the Internet, with a web address showing

What If You Suspect Plagiarism?

It is usually easier to track down online plagiarism than old-fashioned copying from a print source. Here are some sources for tracking down online plagiarism. When you search these sources, select unique phrases from the paper (the more stylized or awkward the better). Be sure you are searching within the "fulltext of the article" rather than just the citation/abstract of the article. Introductions and conclusions are often especially difficult for students to write, so they may be likely candidates for plagiarized passages.

For further information on plagiarism, see the Quick Reference: Anti-Plagiarism site and the Web Sources Related to Plagiarism site. Reference staff at Joyner Library can also provide assistance in tracing a source. Stop by the Reference Desk, email us at, or call us at 252.328.2267.