Battling Plagiarism

I graded 66 final essays last week. And do you know how many of them were plagiarized? Zero. Not a single one. Given that the first time I taught this course, over 20% of essays were plagiarized, this is a huge achievement. And that achievement is all mine.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the essays were necessarily good. A minority of the students worked hard, improved their writing, and produced brilliant essays. Many, however, were very bad. Several were plain atrocious. But they were the students’ own work in every single case. And that makes me very happy.

What I discovered is that all the software that is supposed to catch plagiarized essays is a total waste of time. Turnitin and Co are useless, so just forget about them. Students keep coming up with ways to cheat Turnitin and render it useless. For example, they substitute some of the characters in the essay with characters from other languages, which makes Turnitin pass them as original. You can’t distinguish a Cyrillic a from a Latin a visually, so there you have it. My advice is: forget about software. It’s useless.

The only way to get students to write their own stuff is by investing a lot of time and effort into it. Here is what I do to battle plagiarism:

1. I always come up with topics for the essays that will force students to think. I Google my topics before assigning them to make sure that online searches will render nothing to my students that even remotely sounds like the topic I assign.

2. I give a list of very specific requirements for the essay. The elements that should be included and excluded, the length of quotes from the texts we analyze, the way the first, second and last paragraphs should be, etc. If there is a single generalization or a dictionary definition, the grade drops. You lose points every time you fail to complete one of the requirements. Students can’t help but find that it’s easier to write their own paper than to redo the one they bought somewhere to fit my specifications.

3. I get the students to create a thesis statement for the essay and submit it to me a month before the due date for the paper. Then, they submit the entire first paragraph two weeks before the due date. I give them a buttload of comments on these exercises and if the final version they submit doesn’t take these suggestions into consideration and doesn’t demonstrate significant changes, I refuse to grade the essay.

With 66 students, this means a ton of work for me. I have decided that teaching them to read critically and to write well is a huge teaching priority for me. That’s why I don’t begrudge the time for this. if this is not a priority for you, that’s fine. Just do us all a favor and stop assigning essays altogether. It is very annoying to see students do a half-assed job on an essay because other profs didn’t take it seriously and allowed this kind of crap to slide.

4. I use the essay format to teach students to be meticulous, careful, and to listen to instructions. Their name, my name, the course number and the date go in the top left-hand corner of the paper. If they place this info in the right-hand corner, I lower the grade. The title is not underlined, bold-typed or cutesified in any way. If it is, I lower the grade. If there is a cover page of any sort, I refuse to accept the essay.

These measures might sound draconian, but they serve a useful purpose. You will not succeed in any workplace if you can’t listen and follow simple instructions.

5. I give a huge number of comments on each essay. On over 10 essays this semester, I gave 80+ comments for 4-5 pages of text students produced. People tell me that it’s a waste of time because students don’t read the comments and just skip to the grade. I couldn’t care less, to be honest. I’m doing my job by reading and commenting their work very carefully. Nobody forced me to assign the essay. I made that choice and now I live with the consequences. The same goes for the students. If I see that they disregarded my comments to the first essay and made the same mistakes on the second one, the grade drops significantly. If, for example, I wrote on the first essay that the student needs to remove all the “actuallys” and “basicallys” from the essay and the final essay still contains them, the penalties are harsh.

6. I always remind students that if I see a single plagiarized sentence, just a single one, I stop reading and give them a zero, irrespective of how fantastic and original the rest of the essay might be.

The idea of shifting the burden of doing all this onto software or paid graders is understandable. I’m exhausted from all this grading and my own writing style has suffered from reading so much garbage. (You don’t have to tell me that my recent posts are poorly written. I know they are. This is the price I pay for being a responsible teacher). But the truth is that nobody will do this work for us. There is no software in the world that can substitute the continuous dialogue about writing between a student and a teacher.

11 thoughts on “Battling Plagiarism”

  1. I remember hearing complaints about professors being picky about how papers were formatted. I wish more of my professors had been sticklers for this, because one of the most important things people *fail* to learn (including myself) in college is how to follow instructions carefully and to the letter. I would rather I had trained myself in this in college than in the workplace.


  2. It’s a relief to see a professor who cares about cheating. When I was in college I witnessed three incidents of test cheating. Each time I told the professor. Each time there was obvious proof (for example, one of the students had a stack of note cards hidden underneath the test). And each time the professor told me that they couldn’t write the student up because it’s the professor’s job to catch cheaters and not the student’s. Zero tolerance my ass.


    1. The problem is that college administrators don’t want to deal with the cheating, so they penalize profs who try to address the issue. The first time I caught a cheater and took action, I was really persecuted for that by my department. Like I was the one who cheated, you know. I was told that I traumatized the student needlessly and the cheating wasn’t so serious anyways. When she saw that, the student in question immediately cheated again. So I kicked her out of the course for good and took the consequences with my department.


      1. As I leave to take my French final, I have to wonder: how is getting cheating on an exam traumatic? If you cheat at all, you’re practically begging to be caught.


  3. You rock. I am highly impressed and moved to see someone who cares so much about quality and integrity. I am committed to holding students (and myself) to the same standard when I teach one day. Thanks for caring.


  4. I have very similar policies than yours, minus the format of the essay. My students will send me their final essays tonight before midnight. I hope my many many many comments and suggestions will somehow reflect in their work.


    1. I calculate that about 20% of my students are future nurses. We have a very strong nursing program. Can you imagine anything scarier than a careless nurse who can’t follow simple instructions?

      Good luck with grading, mon ami!


  5. I teach a couple of writing classes, and I’ve never thought about what you said concerning formatting requirements. Usually I just let it slide if it’s wrong because I care more about the content of the essay, but you’re right. They need to learn how to follow directions, and I’m not doing them any favors that way. Next semester, I’ll try to be more firm about them fulfilling the requirements.


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