Spotting and Dealing with Plagiarism

By Heather Theijsmeijer


The Internet is a very tempting medium. With virtually any information right at our fingertips, it has become incredibly easy to look up and “learn” pretty much any topic. It has also become much easier to plagiarize.


In the past (and I’m sure we all remember it well), acquiring researched information involved finding the material in print, writing down the most relevant sections and then incorporating the knowledge into your own work. Today’s student has become more used to quickly “copying-and-pasting” Internet-based research material into a word processor document –  a document which eventually becomes their “own” work, with the lines between what they have written and what they have taken from online sources severely blurred.


Fortunately, there are ways of discouraging plagiarism and ways of catching a student in the act.


How do we know if a student has plagiarized?


Here are some indicators that work a student has handed in may not be his/her own:

·        The font is blue and underlined (like a hyperlink), or a page of text is made up of several fonts due to copying and pasting directly from websites (yes, some students do this and don’t even try to make it look like something they typed!).

·        There are gaps in the “flow” of the material. For instance, a student may start writing about one subject and suddenly switch to another subject without any transition.

·        The vocabulary presented in the students’ work is above what is typical for that grade/age level, or above that which you know the student is capable.


Checking for plagiarism:


If you suspect a student is plagiarizing from the Internet, there are a couple of ways you can easily check:

         Quiz a student orally on the content of a paper. If a student presented material in his/her own words rather than copying, they will be more likely to understand the concepts.

         Type a suspicious phrase, surrounded by quotation marks, into an Internet search engine. This searches the Internet for that specific sentence and returns only one or two websites where the student may have gotten that information verbatim.

         If work was submitted electronically, websites such as can be used to check for plagiarism against both web sources as well as previously submitted student papers. All student papers that are “turned in” are then stored for future comparison. There is a cost associated with using this site, and some Canadian universities have a partial or total ban on this service, so check before using it.


How to avoid plagiarized assignments:


As the traditional saying goes, 28.35 grams of prevention is worth 0.454 kg of cure! J

·        Address the issue and teach the proper referencing format. Sites such as offer easy-to-follow guides as to when and how students should reference their work. An easy “next-step” would be to provide students with a handout early in the year showing them how to properly reference a number of different sources. Be sure to show examples (possibly of your own work!) of what is expected when they hand in material.

·        Create assignments which require an individualized response. Questions that begin “State your opinion,” “Do you believe,” or “Do you agree with” should automatically assure that no two assignments in the course are the same, and reduces the ability for students to search for the answer online.

·        Be creative in the type of assignment you assign. Instead of a traditional written response, having students present their knowledge in a creative manner – poster, commercial storyboard, video, oral presentation – can also help eliminate plagiarism. This may be more suited for first-year or general astronomy courses.

·       Give students enough time to properly complete assignments, and give reminders of due dates. Students are most likely to plagiarize when they are faced with looming deadlines and the sense that they don’t have the time to do proper research.