Plagiarism is one of the most difficult discipline problems to address. Students plagiarize for a variety of reasons, from ignorance to sheer laziness. Parents often don’t understand the definition of plagiarism and become defensive when such words as “cheating” and “dishonesty” are used in regards to their children. That is why good instruction and communication is key.

What is Plagiarism?

Simply put, plagiarism is stealing someone else’s intellectual work. There are four basic types of plagiarism.

The most obvious sort of plagiarism is direct plagiarism. This type of plagiarism is the easiest to spot, as the writer directly copies, word-for-word, the work of someone else, without quoting or providing a source citation. This plagiarism is the laziest sort, as all it requires of the writer is a simple copy-and-paste. Fortunately, it is also the easiest type of plagiarism to spot.

Another common type of plagiarism is paraphrasing plagiarism. This occurs when the student knows they cannot copy someone else’s work word-for-word, so he or she changes some or all of the words, but maintains the same structure and ideas.

Less obvious, self-plagiarism involves re-using your own previous work for new purposes. An example might be turning in the same essay to two different teachers without permission. This type of plagiarism is often not done with the intention to deceive. After all, the author is using their own work, not someone else’s. However, it is better to ask permission before reusing previous work, even one’s own.

Another type of plagiarism is the accidental plagiarist. This is a student who plagiarizes because they do not know how to properly cite sources. They may cite sources at the end of the research paper, for example, but not properly indicate direct quotations. This is a problem of ignorance, not dishonesty.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

The first, and most important, safeguard against plagiarism is good instruction. Students need to be taught how to find credible sources, how to quote or reference those sources in their writing, and how to properly format a reference page.

When evaluating the credibility of a source, it is important to know the credentials of the writer. The writer should be qualified to speak as an expert on the subject at hand. For example, anyone can write a narrative about their summer vacation to the oceanside, but a marine biologist would be uniquely qualified to write a scientific article about coral reefs. If the writer does not have the proper credentials, he is not worth citing.

The more recent the source, the more credible it likely is, especially in subjects of technology and science, where new discoveries and inventions are being made all the time. Most often, when looking at web sources, sources that have an .edu or .org address are more trustworthy than .coms. Even with .orgs, it is important to note possible biases. Most .orgs have a mission they are trying to fulfill, and the information they are sharing fits their preferred narrative. Critical thinking is essential to evaluating sources, no matter their credentials or web domain.

Students also need to be taught how to quote or reference their sources within their writing, also known as in-text citations. There are multiple styles of citation, the most common being MLA and APA. At minimum the author’s name and page number or year of publication should be cited within the text. Style guides and digital citation wizards can assist with teaching this skill. Students need to be coached that quotation marks are necessary for any phrases that are copied word for word. Quotations should be used sparingly, only if the idea is so uniquely stated that the student cannot state it better. Otherwise, paraphrasing with proper citation in parentheses is preferred.

A properly formatted reference page should be at the end of any work that uses outside sources. In-text citations refer the reader to the reference page if they would like to do further research. This can be taught using style manuals and citation wizards.

Consequences of Plagiarism

Students also need to know there are consequences for plagiarism, both at school and in the outside world. This requires direct instruction of what plagiarism is and the consequences for it. It may even be worth having students sign a document stating they have been taught about plagiarism and understand its consequences. This protects you, the educator, if a student plagiarizes and claims ignorance.

When deciding the consequences for plagiarism at school, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is for students to learn how to properly cite sources and apply that knowledge to their own writing. If caught plagiarizing, students should be given the opportunity to rewrite the paper without plagiarism. This sends the message that plagiarizing will not get the student out of doing his work. The student should be given a grade based on the quality of his work, with no points deducted for the initial instance of plagiarizing.

That being said, there could be other consequences, such as ejection from honor societies. In addition, the student might be required to write their paper during detentions or Saturday school days. As always, it is best if the punishment fits the crime.

With good instruction and clear communication, cases of plagiarism are hopefully few and far between. When they do occur, consequences should be instructive for the student to prevent future cases of plagiarism.