Dealing with Plagiarism

First-Year Writing


We are at our best when we work to prevent plagiarism rather than catching those who are guilty of it.  A number of students who plagiarize do so accidentally (because they don't understand documentation rules, for example) or impulsively (because they have put off an assignment and feel overwhelmed), and these students can be helped by strong instruction.  Here are some suggestions:

Address Plagiarism in your syllabus.  Including a strong statement of definition and consequence in your syllabus is instructive and provides students with an early opportunity to see your concern and vigilance.  For example, consider the following syllabus plagiarism statement:

The First-Year Writing Program at Montclair State University values students’ honest efforts in the classroom and as writers.  Plagiarism is strongly discouraged and this class will educate you about what it is and how to avoid it.  Should you choose to plagiarize—turning in written work as your own that you have copied from some other source, whether a website, print media, or even another student—your professor will submit your plagiarized paper and the source materials from which you have plagiarized to the Student Conduct office and you will face disciplinary action from the University.  Your professor additionally reserve(s) the right, when plagiarism is proven with documentation, to fail you for the semester.  Should you be accused of plagiarism, you have the right to appeal the decision and also to request a meeting with your professor and the First-Year Writing Program Director, Dr. Jessica Restaino.  In an effort to avoid this serious offense, please visit the First-Year Writing Program website to learn more about plagiarism and how you can avoid it, and be certain to ask your professor about any aspects of the issue that you do not understand.

Note that the University defines plagiarism as "using another person's words as if they were your own, and the unacknowledged incorporation of those words in one's own work for academic credit."  See the University's Academic Dishonesty & Plagiarism.

Teach Documentation.  In ENWR 100, ENWR 105, and ENWR 106, review and discuss the specifics of appropriate documentation.  Ask students to read the appropriate section in their handbook and review your policy, making sure you let students know how you personally feel about plagiarism.  Discuss and, most importantly, practice direct quotation, summary, and paraphrase.  It's helpful to have students practice appropriate documentation on essays in which they use a common text (i.e., some articles from the textbook), as then you will be able to make sure they have summarized, paraphrased or quoted correctly.  Additionally, asking students to complete an online mini-course with exercises and examples is also useful.  In turn, when students write their documented essays they will be better able to appropriately document their papers.  Here are some good sources:

Structure Assignments.  Structure assignments so that there are many sequential elements.  Proposals, in-class-writes, early drafts, revision drafts, and final drafts should be assigned and, at the end of the unit, collected.  While I do not read all of the material that accompanies the final drafts, collecting these materials dissuades plagiarism.

Remind Students Again.  In the last few weeks of the semester remind students of the temptation and danger of plagiarism.  Tell them stories of woe, for example, of good students failing because of plagiarism.  It is useful to offer reminders as it's well documented that plagiarism increases as students experience greater pressure and stress, both of which are most evident at the end of the semester.

Develop paper topics carefully.  Consider avoiding very open topics, particularly if they are on heavily read literature.  (I have observed that students plagiarize more in 106 than 105, interestingly enough).  While you don't want to create your syllabus with plagiarism at the forefront of your mind, it is true that specific and highly individualized paper topics on non-canonical texts make it more difficult for students to plagiarize.


As a general rule, we cannot indict students for plagiarism without proof.  Where once determined faculty went to the library to search out sources, now most go to the web (assuming our students are similarly web-inclined).  Regardless, finding evidence is crucial.

Be on the look-out.  Primarily faculty rely on good gut instincts.  Signs that something may be amiss include: missing drafts, unusual vocabulary, a voice of atypical authority, but most of all, a voice that simply isn't your student's.  (You should know your students writing from in-class work and previous assignments.)  If you never catch students plagiarizing for your classes, be suspicious of your own detection abilities.  Perhaps you're avoiding seeing what you don't want to see.

Search Engine and SafeAssign.  If you suspect a student has plagiarized, the easiest next step is to go to a search engine (like Google) and type, in quotes, a string of words from your student's paper.  For example, type in "Reaction to Owen's descriptions in 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' transcends mere emotion" or even just "transcends mere emotion."  Try a few different word strings as often plagiarists only plagiarize parts of their papers.  Also, try more than one search engine (they don't all catch the same things).  You may also use the "Direct Submit" process in the SafeAssign tool in Blackboard.  If you find a "hit," print the source page(s) and highlight the plagiarized passages in both the web text and the student text.  

Student Conference.  If you can't "find" the paper on the web, but you still think it's plagiarized (either written by someone else or bought from a source not available to the web) you need to have a conference with the student.  During this conference you can: ask your student questions about the content of his/her paper; request earlier drafts (if not available); require a short in-conference writing sample re-arguing the thesis of the paper; or even directly ask if the student received help.  You might consider laying out for the student how it is atypical from other work s/he has submitted.  Your methods here will depend on all sorts of factors specific to you and your student.

Coming up Empty.  If you have failed to get an admission of failure or a copy of the source from which the student plagiarized, you're in a difficult position.  It's tricky to require the student to re-write the paper on grounds that you suspect plagiarism.  After all, what if you're wrong?  What I usually do is grade the paper quite carefully, holding the student to the highest of standards and grading down for failure to strictly follow the assignment.


The plagiarism policy for First-Year Writing students is to uphold the university rulings.  Professors are encouraged to address plagiarism directly in syllabi and in classes, and to encourage students to see them or a Writing Center consultant for individual questions about how to appropriately cite sources.

Plagiarism can be divided into two types: accidental and intentional.  As teachers it is important for us to provide support for "accidental plagiarists" who attempt to acknowledge their indebtedness to outside sources but who are still having trouble with appropriate citation.  For those students whose plagiarism includes an effort to deceive and/or includes little or no effort to appropriately acknowledge sources, the label "intentional plagiarist" is appropriate.  See below for actions.

Accidental Plagiarism:
Grading.  You can require a rewrite, fail the student for that paper, or lower the final grade by 1 or 2 grades (a kind of penalty for plagiarism).  You may also simply fail the student for the course.

Intentional Plagiarism:
Plagiarism is intentional when it is clear that the student is not confused about how to properly cite, or when to properly cite.  Thus, for example, if a student has a work listed on a Works Cited page and places that work at the end of a paragraph which includes six or seven lines of direct quote that have not been set off with quotation marks, this plagiarism can be classified as unintentional.  The student has done a poor job of documenting the citation and has, in fact, plagiarized, but the in-text reference and the inclusion on the Works Cited list are indications of honest intentions.  In contrast, plagiarism is intentional when the following can be found:

  • A passage of four or more consecutive words taken from a source that the professor has located and has in her/his possession (on the web or elsewhere). This source is not on the Works Cited list.

  • Summary or paraphrase from a located source that is not listed on the Works Cited list and is not imaginably in the students' common knowledge because the language is fairly precise and particular.

  • Particular ideas taken from a source (e.g., Sparknotes, Cliffnotes) that is not cited in any way.

For cases determined to be intentional plagiarism, it is Program Policy that the following actions be taken.  All First-Year Writing faculty are expected to follow these guidelines so that university students can receive consistent responses. -Emily Isaacs

For First-Year Writing Policy on Responding to Plagiarism see Plagiarism Policy.