Addressing Plagiarism in the Schools



In the classic movie Back to the Future, in a scene that takes place in 1955, Biff “the bully” is seen demanding that Marty McFly’s father (the classic nerd) do his homework for him, but he is smart enough to know what to do so he won’t get caught cheating. “I gotta have time to recopy it. Do you realize what would happen if I handed in my homework in your handwriting? I'll get kicked out of school. You wouldn't want that to happen would you?,” he explains to Marty’s dad one day when he gave him the homework assignment late.

Plagiarism is not a new issue, but with the rise of resources available to students on the web, it has become a whole new game of cat and mouse between students and teachers. It has become very easy for students to simply cut and paste directly from the web into a document that they could submit as their own work. Plagiarism, the act of submitting work that is not one’s own, continues to be a concern that schools, both high schools and colleges, need to address proactively.

Back in 2011, Mind/Shift writer Audrey Watters talked about Plagiarism Differences in High School and College Students. She referenced a report that had been published by the plagiarism software company TurnItIn that noted Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers as two of the most popular places that students used to steal content. Interestingly, the report went on to suggest that plagiarism habits differ slightly between high school and college students. High school students make more use of social media and content sharing sites while college students gravitate more to content from cheat sites and paper mills.  

Many schools are gravitating towards services like TurnItIn to help them combat the growing issue. TurnItIn offers users, typically teachers, the ability to have student work analyzed against a large web-based comparison database to be checked for originality. The database has over 45 million pages of digital content. The software will highlight passages in a piece of student-work that match or have a high degree of similarity to similar passage in its database. The student work then gets added to the database for the future, thus eliminating the chance that a student could give their work to a student in another class with a different teacher.

Recently, Edudemic writer Kristen Hicks talked about the 5 Best Plagiarism Detection Tools for Educators. In addition to TurnItIn, Hicks talked about these detection tools: Plagiarismchecker.com is a free site developed by middle school teachers. It works a lot like TurnItIn, but it doesn’t draw from the same digital database. Instead, this tool checks small phrases in a paper against resources available in sites like Google or Yahoo.  SafeAssign is a service that is available only for clients who use the management software BlackBoard. Plagscan is a web-based plagiarism detection tool that works much like TurnItIn, giving papers a score of red, yellow, or green which corresponds to the level of originally that the paper contains. Finally, the Plagiarism Checker, a tool first developed by a college student, offers a simple copy and paste function that matches student work against digital content from the web. 

The question of what to do with students who plagiarize has also changed over the years. When I was in high school, the solution was simple: If you cheat, you get a zero on the assignment. Many schools, however, have moved away from tying academic behaviors to academic grades, and so other consequences must be assigned. At my high school in southern New Hampshire, we have adopted an Academic Integrity policy which clearly articulates what will happen if a student plagiarizes work. They are always required to resubmit the assignment, because at our school we believe that they should never be off the hook from doing the work. For their actions they may lose privileges like parking or sports participation, or they may be asked to complete a digital citizenship online unit that the school uses to teach students why plagiarism is such a big deal. Many of the plagiarism detector tools, like TurnItIn, offer similar plagiarism education modules through their service for their users.

Will we ever reach the day when plagiarism is gone? We probably won’t. But if we can teach our students how to be responsible digital citizens who hold themselves to high levels of academic integrity and honesty, we will be taking a step in the right direction towards helping them to be honest, productive members of society.


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