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How to avoid plagiarism: 10 strategies for your students
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How to avoid plagiarism: 10 strategies for your students

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell
M.A. in Teaching; Senior Marketing Writer

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The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) defines academic integrity as not just avoiding dishonest practices, but rather “a commitment, even in the face of adversity, to six fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage.” And while it might feel like enough to post these high-level tenants on the wall of a classroom and move forward, it’s wholly more valuable (and complicated) to provide actionable ways to avoid plagiarism and embody these values.

There are myriad ways to support students in and outside of the classroom. And when it comes to avoiding plagiarism, many might say instantly, “Just get a plagiarism checker!” However, genuine instruction and learning goes beyond that: a successful approach to learning needs to contain guidance on areas that surround accurate research and citation; adequate time management; definition of misconduct and support if misconduct ensues.

Below are ten specific strategies for instructors that specifically support the skills students need to not simply avoid plagiarism, but to authentically learn and grow.

  • Ensure students know the difference between academic integrity and plagiarism.
  • Outline and define emerging trends in academic misconduct.
  • Teach students how to properly cite sources in a paper.
  • Support students’ development of time management skills.
  • Emphasize the value of and way to paraphrase correctly.
  • Clearly outline the institution’s and course’s policy on academic misconduct and AI writing usage.
  • Define the steps taken after misconduct is suspected.
  • Explain the concept of authentic learning.
  • Describe how authentic learning can help students avoid plagiarism.
  • Consider options for a plagiarism checker and an AI detection tool.

Let’s dive into this list in more detail. In the next section, you’ll find each tip framed as a question that a student might plug into a search engine (“What’s the difference between academic integrity and plagiarism?”), followed by suggestions and resources that support the development in that topic.

What is plagiarism? What is the difference between academic integrity and plagiarism?

In the classroom, it is important to have an aligned definition of plagiarism, even if it's assumed to be common knowledge. Explicit instruction for students has a measurable impact on mitigating misconduct. So to start things off, let's define plagiarism.

To plagiarize means to “steal or pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own” and/or to “use (another's production) without crediting the source.” In fact, plagiarize (and plagiarism) comes from the Latin plagiarius “kidnapper.: An integral tenant of the Western world’s concept of academic integrity involves citing the original source of information, giving appropriate credit where credit is due.

Truth be told, many consider “plagiarism” and “academic integrity” to be synonymous, when in fact, they cover different aspects of similar ideas.

In a previous Turnitin blog post, we recognize that “while plagiarism is indeed an act of academic dishonesty and academic misconduct, it isn’t the entirety of academic integrity.” In fact, academic integrity really is the commitment to live by the values listed by the ICAI (above) and plagiarism, specifically, “is a subset of academic dishonesty, and one way to violate academic integrity.”

Students, then, need to understand what plagiarism is and isn’t, as well as their school’s policies on integrity and misconduct, so that they can approach their work with gusto and honesty. Instructors benefit from communicating their policies around academic integrity not just at the start of an academic semester, but throughout the year. In addition, it is worth talking with students about forms of plagiarism, which can be seen on Turnitin’s Plagiarism Spectrum 2.0, covering twelve different types of unoriginal work, including traditional forms of plagiarism and emerging trends. Furthermore, instructors should explicitly list resources that students can turn to in times of need (tutors, office hours, citation guidelines, etc.) so that the temptation to plagiarize is lessened even more.

When students study or publish abroad, it’s worth noting that the concept of authorship and citation is deeply rooted in Western principles. There are significant cultural differences in plagiarism that need to be considered, so educators and students alike can uphold integrity as global citizens while also respecting the cultural norms of different learning communities.

What are emerging trends in academic misconduct?

There are a variety of trends in academic misconduct out there today. From contract cheating and electronic cheating devices, to word spinners and online test-banks, there is a vast world of shortcut options. There is also concern around AI Writing tools and how they may transform the landscape of academic integrity.

Some instructors may fear that by talking about shortcut solutions, they introduce the concept of plagiarism and thereby open a door for students. The opposite is true for many educators, however, who find that by discussing shortcut solutions openly and clearly communicating their plagiarism policies, students know what is expected of them and which recommended resources to turn to in times of need.

Additionally, there has been lots of meaningful discussion around the appropriate use of AI writing tools in education. Depending on the instructor’s or institution's policy around AI tools, it is of utmost importance for a student to have an understanding around expectations concerning AI for each and every assignment. And as instructors more readily utilize AI writing detection, it’s equally important to have a context within which to interpret any particular AI writing detection score. In particular, this infographic enumerates many of the variables that educators should consider when interpreting each student's AI writing score

A meaningful first step can be Turnitin’s eBook, “Emerging trends in academic integrity” for a complete look at trends in academic misconduct. This free, downloadable guide talks about how to identify cases of misconduct and mitigate them, as well as how to deliver remote assessments with integrity, which helps institutions and instructors alike to build a strong foundation of integrity for authentic learning.

How do I cite sources in a paper?

Instructors at every grade level and in every subject should cover correct citations. Referencing others’ work creates a strong association between one writer’s thinking and the perspective of other scholars in that field. According to the University of Washington (USA): “Scholarship is a conversation and scholars use citations not only to give credit to original creators and thinkers, but also to add strength and authority to their own work. By citing their sources, scholars are placing their work in a specific context to show where they ‘fit’ within the larger conversation.”

If students understand the value of citations and how to craft them in their papers, it can lead to confidence long-term in submitting their own writing and not that of others’, illustrating their own understandings, and developing their own voice in the academic space.

How can I develop time management skills?

Time management is essential to success, not only in academia, but in life. As early as possible, students should learn time management skills so that they can organize their work, schedule time to study or research, and balance their extracurricular and academic activities. When students plan ahead, there is less likelihood that they will choose shortcut solutions for assignments because they are confident in their own approach and the time required to research and revise.

If students are struggling with time management, interventions by tutors or teachers may be helpful prior to a larger assignment or exam. Online resources, too, can be helpful; Blair Fiander, founder of Blair’s Brainiacs, offers advice on how to keep motivated while studying remotely and tips for independent study and revision.

How do I paraphrase correctly?

Paraphrasing supports learning outcomes because it requires students to analyze, summarize, interpret, and restate others’ writing. It supports and strengthens research because it brings in other ideas without interrupting the flow of writing the way a direct quote sometimes does. However, if a student doesn’t know how to paraphrase information accurately or effectively, there is a greater chance that they will unintentionally plagiarize, or even seek alternative methods, including word spinners or AI writing tools to complete an assignment.

When students can read a body of text and then put it into their own words, not only do they avoid plagiarism, they also more deeply absorb complicated concepts and enhance their own thinking. Paraphrasing can often help students to feel more confidence about research they conduct and produce. Check out Turnitin’s Paraphrasing Resource Pack, a comprehensive set of ready-to-use resources for those seeking to enhance this valuable skill.

What is my school’s policy on academic misconduct and AI writing usage?

Just as roadways function better with clearly posted speed limit signs, so too, can students complete their best, original work when they understand expectations. In addition to the syllabus and rubric, which gives students a roadmap on what is needed to complete the assignment, students also need an understanding of the honor code and how a school approaches suspected misconduct.

When a student body receives education around academic misconduct, there is a significant decrease in cases of plagiarism. A 2020 study found that after 12 semesters of academic misconduct data, there was a 37.01% reduction in instances of detected plagiarism following explicit interventions on academic misconduct (Perkins, et al.).

Sharing a policy can take many forms. The University of South Australia provides students with a 12-page written Academic Integrity Policy that not only defines key terms, but also outlines levels of offense and their specific consequences. Kingston University in London offers a landing page that defines academic misconduct and the university’s procedures. Instructors, furthermore, should update their honor codes for online learning environments because with the increase of online instruction during the pandemic, many universities reported an uptick in misconduct.

Institutions, as mentioned above, also need to update their academic integrity policies to include AI and ideally, clearly outline what constitutes use and misuse within the charter.

All of these steps provide clear guidelines for students who need to know how to submit high quality assignments, as well as what happens if misconduct occurs.

What happens if I’m caught plagiarizing?

If a student’s assignment has suspected plagiarism, there are several things that may happen, depending your institution’s policies:

    1. An escalation policy, which needs to have been communicated to the students prior to any assignments, is enacted.
    1. Conversations between students and instructors, which could include a deep-dive into how research was conducted, how references were cited (or not cited), as well as any examples of a student’s previous work as a comparison.
    1. Administration or academic panel involvement (if needed).
    1. Next steps, be they a rewrite, a failed grade, expulsion, or other.

Plagiarism not only tarnishes the act of learning, but it can also affect a student’s or institution’s reputation, the quality and respectability of research, and the value of a diploma. And while it’s never a pleasant experience to go through this process, sometimes simply knowing there are serious penalties for misconduct deters students from seeking shortcut solutions.

Hamilton College Reference Librarian Julia Schult says, "Plagiarism isn't a bad thing simply because it's intellectual theft—although it is that. It's a bad thing because it takes the place of and prevents learning." As such, many instructors and institutions are opting for an alternative to the zero-tolerance approach when it comes to misconduct, in order to put learning back into the equation.

There is an increased desire for restorative justice which, unlike traditional punishment, looks “to see students not only learn from their mistakes, but to simultaneously re-establish their standing and give back to the institutional community” (ICAI 2018). The University of Minnesota (USA) has provided a program entitled “Academic Integrity Matters” (AIM) for students who have engaged in scholastic dishonesty and accept responsibility for violating the Student Conduct Code. Based on restorative justice principles, this program offers an opportunity for students to attend facilitated meetings with community members to reflect on the importance of academic integrity. Participants and community members discuss and agree on an educational opportunity the student will complete in order to demonstrate understanding of academic integrity and move beyond the disciplinary space.

For instructors seeking restorative justice, there is an opportunity to turn plagiarism into a teachable moment, helping students to understand why there are safeguards in place to ensure original work. Furthermore, if students feel like they can fail safely, often risks are mitigated because they know that even if they make mistakes, they can rewrite, relearn, and rebuild trust to make it better in the future.

What is authentic learning?

Avoiding plagiarism is about prioritizing learning and its process above the end result. While explicit instruction and academic policies fortify academic integrity, it’s also important to nurture intrinsic motivation for learning. What is one way to help foster such intrinsic motivation in students? Authentic learning is one option.

Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes authentic learning as ”learning activities that are either carried out in real-world contexts, or have transfer to a real-world setting.” She goes on to say:

“Authentic learning tasks capture students’ attention and raise their motivation to learn because they touch on issues that are directly relevant to students’ present lives or future careers. The instructor’s role, in this mode of teaching, is to help students to make connections between their own ways of making sense of the material and the established cultural frameworks of the discipline” (Stein et al., 2004).

Rooted in constructivist theory, authentic learning insists that actively engaging with problems and materials constitutes the best way to learn (Mayo, 2010). As John Dewey said, “[E]ducation is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” (Dewey, as cited in Mayo, 2010, p. 36). Stein, Issacs, & Andrews emphasize that authentic learning activities should have both personal and cultural relevance (2004). And as often as possible, instructors should merely be facilitators of learning, providing an environment for learning where students themselves lead the charge and engage with topics, wrestle with new ideas, engage in discussions with each other, and ultimately, dive into material that is meaningful to them on their own terms.

How does authentic learning help students avoid plagiarism?

At its core, authentic learning fosters intrinsic motivation. Instead of being driven by fear, by a higher grade, or even by approval of others, students instead work hard for themselves. They have an internal desire to try something new, make mistakes, acquire a skill, and increase their knowledge. And because it comes from within, they are less likely to seek shortcut solutions that would hinder or taint their genuine learning. If educators can foster in students such a desire to learn for its own merits, then even when under pressure or facing a deadline, a student will still seek to complete their own, original work.

There are a variety of ways instructors can create an environment of authentic learning, including:

As James Lang put it in his book, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, educators should strive to inspire students “with appeals to the intrinsic joy or beauty of the task itself.” If educators nurture an environment that feels authentic, safe, and inspiring, with clear expectations and high standards for original work, research shows that cases of misconduct are low and the caliber of learning high (Lang, 2013).

How can a plagiarism checker help me?

In an academic space where students and instructors alike are seeking to avoid plagiarism and promote original thought, this question is prominent. However, it is a question that should be asked in tandem with all of the questions above, as one element of a multi-faceted approach to academic integrity. Plagiarism checkers like Turnitin Feedback Studio act as a backstop solution to academic misconduct if all of the above methods should fail.

A tool like Turnitin Feedback Studio is beneficial because it utilizes a massive database of content to determine if there are similarities between a student’s work and writing that has already been published. If instructors opt for multiple submissions, then a student can receive up to three Similarity Reports before the due date to get feedback on their writing and improve it before submitting.

Utilizing tools like Draft Coach in the writing process also upholds integrity; with Draft Coach, students can receive immediate feedback, not just on similarity, but on citations and grammar as well. From there, students can revise their writing accordingly, which not only encourages real-time learning, but also equates to real time saved by teachers grading papers on the back end.

And within Turnitin Originality, there is an AI detection feature to help educators identify when AI writing tools such as ChatGPT have been used in students’ submissions, offering insights to inform next steps.

And while choosing a plagiarism checker is helpful in a variety of ways, it is important to note that Turnitin does not detect plagiarism. Our tools, in fact, detect similarity and offer insights to support instructors and administrators making their own informed decisions about student work.

In sum: Strategies for students to avoid plagiarism

In the end, avoiding plagiarism goes beyond having a tool to check for similarity. It is a robust, holistic approach that includes foundational instruction around citations and paraphrasing; a culturally responsive curriculum that clearly defines misconduct and policies in that community; the prioritization of student wellbeing to ensure that students feel seen in the classroom.

Students, instructors, and administrators can work together to utilize these strategies and establish a culture of academic integrity where authentic learning is the goal and high-quality, original work is seen daily.