Posted by: Ellie Kutz | October 19, 2010

Putting Internet Plagiarism in Context for Students

Putting Internet Plagiarism in Context for Students

What constitutes academic literacy is changing in a digital age.  If literacy involves being able to use reading and writing appropriately for particular contexts and purposes, then teaching in an academic context in which much knowledge is shaped and exchanged in online environments requires that we help students learn how to navigate those environments—whether course sites like Blackboard, databases like JStor, or the wide and wild web.  And we need to help them understand that their evolving social practices for drawing material from online resources are often at odds with the expectations of their professors.  Here are a few proven or potentially effective responses.

1. Make students aware of the problem of internet plagiarism by giving them up-to-date instruction and information, not simply by pointing to an existing honor code.

It seems that timely instruction can make a difference.  In a study of 573 students, 1,256 papers, at Rutgers where students in paired courses were randomly assigned to a control group or a group that took a required online plagiarism tutorial, the amount of plagiarism was reduced by two thirds in the tutorial group (Dee and Jacob). The tutorial and self-quiz they used, along with other plagiarism resources, was developed collaboratively by Colby, Bates and Bowdoin Colleges, and can be found at their plagiarism resource site:

2. Give students specific strategies for how to draw from online materials in their writing in appropriate ways.

Steve Sutherland of the English department has focused on this question since his days as an instructor in the Harvard Writing Program.  Strategies from a very helpful student guide he wrote with his colleagues, Writing from Internet Sources, include the following:

  • planning ahead (since careless copying without clear citation information often occurs when writers are pressed for time)
  • printing source pages, along with the URL and the date of printing
  • keeping a separate file for information from each electronic source (rather than cutting and pasting information straight into an essay)
  • keeping writing drafts and source information separate throughout the writing process
  • keeping a source trail (so that the path from sources to notes to drafts to revisions can be reconstructed).

We’ve typically discovered such strategies ourselves, but don’t always share them with our students, when guiding them explicitly through a process that’s often implicit in our assignments can help them to work more effectively.

3. If you’re using SafeAssign, let students submit their drafts, and help them to understand how the software works, what the reports tell them, and how they might use that information not only to avoid plagiarism but also to defend themselves against a potential unwarranted charge of plagiarism in a future course.

We’ve seen that faculty like Carol Allen are encouraging students to submit drafts of their writing, so that they can learn from the reports they receive.

I tried a related task with my graduate students recently, having them choose a piece of their writing from any class to submit in draft mode through SafeAssign, and then reporting on the results and what they learned.  Here are the comments from Brittany Wadbrook, an English MA student who is currently teaching freshman writing here.   Brittany wrote a blog entry about her experience in submitting a short piece of her own writing, describing her process and her results.

I got 4% and it only highlighted one sentence, which was a sentence in quotes. It highlights the quote and provides the website where the highlighted material was detected. Then, I can click on the website where the information came from. This is great if the material is not cited, because then I can see what types of sources my students are reading and selecting from. Also, I can click on the highlighted material itself, and it will show me how much the text matches (in my case 91% which makes sense for a direct quote) and then you don’t even need to navigate away from Safe Assign because it shows you the uploaded manuscript text and the Internet Source side-by-side so you don’t even need to search the website for place where the student copied data from! This, I think, is great.

Brittany also submitted a heavily plagiarized text and again received appropriate results.  She then posted an image of her first report, which you can find on our class wiki at

If I were currently teaching undergraduates, I’d not only show them how to submit drafts of assignments but I’d have them work in peer response groups to a) review their drafts and the SafeAssign reports;  b) identify the reasons for any “matches” that appeared, using the terms suggested by Gillis et al for the sorts of typical academic discourse that are often picked up as “matches” (see “Realistic Expectations” in this issue)– topic termstopic phrasescommonly used phrases and disciplinary jargon—as well as instances of problems with paraphrase and citation;  and c) decide on appropriate changes—not so much to get a wholly clean (green) report but to get a report they could explain and defend.  Since every user seems to agree that the SafeAssign reports need to be interpreted, we need to teach students how to interpret them also.

4. Put all “plagiarism,” in context (whether or not it involves the internet) by learning about what students are thinking and responding to their concerns.

Vivian Zamel, another English professor and Director of the Center for the Improvement of Teaching, reminds faculty in the frequent workshops she offers that “when students use sources without attributing them, they often are not aware that this strategy is problematic.”  She points out that students who are struggling with the kind of academic work they are assigned may not know how to respond to this work, faced with the unfamiliarity of the issues and the discipline-specific language in which they are presented.

Vivian provides an example from her own teaching. She has her students read a section from Mike Rose’s book, Lives on the Boundary, in which he recounts working with Marita, a student who had written a paper that was clearly not all hers, and concluding that “Marita was adrift in a set of conventions she didn’t fully understand” (p.180).

When Vivian asked her first year composition students to read about Marita’s situation, in order to explore their perspective on this issue, she was given further insights into why students might borrow from sources the way they do. For example, Kwan, a student in one of her courses, wrote,

Marita is, like myself, “unsure as to how to weave quotations in with her own prose, how to mark the difference, how to cite whom she used, how to strike the proper balance between her writing and someone else’s—how, in short, to position herself in an academic conversation” (p. 180). I believe she didn’t intend the plagiarism, she was just unsure of how, when, and what to quote. Personally I really believe that writing skill gets better as building on the writing of others. Another reason I love to quote or borrow from others is because they use the perfect, or at least, grammatically perfect English, which I have to achieve someday. I quote to learn, I borrow to get a sense, so that I can make them mine. I believe that it will eventually make my sentence richer, my writing better if I turn those good ideas into my own. Since I was corrected so many times by my English professor, now I am getting a better idea of when, how, and what to quote. Students just need right guidance.

Vivian notes that “Kwan’s response suggests that when he borrowed from sources as Marita did, he did so in order ‘to achieve,’ that he found this approach to be an instructive strategy, helping him acquire the academic discourse of the work assigned. But, with time and practice, which both Marita and he needed, he came to understand how to enter the academic conversation appropriately. This is borne out in his very response, as he quotes from and weaves Rose’s words into his own writing” (Zamel).

Dee, Thomas and Brian Jacob. Rational Ignorance in Education:  “A Field Experiment in Student Plagiarism.”  NBER Working Papers, January 2010 <>.

Colby, Bates and Bowdoin Colleges. “Plagiarism Resources Site.” <>.

Sutherland, Steve et al. Writing from Internet Sources. <>.

Wadbrook, Brittany. “Entry on Class Wiki.”<>.

Zamel, Vivian. Excerpt from personal communication. Email, October 19, 2010.


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