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Managing Your Time & Handling Plagiarism

For all the discussions we have about plagiarists, rarely do we talk about how time-consuming and needy they are.

Think about it: if I suspect someone of plagiarism, I first have to gather evidence and tracking down his or her sources. Then, I have to write an icy-yet-professional e-mail, declaring that I know what they did and reminding them “how very, very serious” the offense is. Upon learning that I’ve assigned a zero, the student replies, apologizing profusely and begging for clemency. Should I refuse this request to revise, the student will show up in my office, offering up excuses, doctors’ notes, and tales of woe that don’t quite work to explain away plagiarism. Humoring this whole chain of events takes a lot longer than it ought to—and it steals time and attention from those students who actually submitted original work.

Everyone knows that plagiarism is a grave issue on college campuses, but equally serious is time-management. As a harried instructor, responsible for multiple course sections, committee assignments, and meeting the needs of a diverse student population, I do not have time to invest in stolen work. As such, I’ve tried to limit my responsibility in cases of plagiarism, clarifying policies, and refusing to participate in endless discussions about grades.

In order to focus instructor attention on original work from honest students, here are a few tips for dealing with plagiarists:

  1. Explain Way too Much in Your Syllabus

It’s likely that your department will have some pre-scripted language about plagiarism to insert in your syllabus. Typically, this includes a statement about the “seriousness” of academic integrity, a definition of plagiarism (in all its forms), and a description of its ranging punishments. For years, I did not modify this section of the syllabus, fearing that it would limit my ability to give each case the individualized attention that it deserved. After all, every case of plagiarism is subtly different from another, right?

Not really. Relying solely on a “range” of potential punishments left students feeling an urge to “plead their case,” insisting that their excuses for plagiarizing should result in a different penalty. It was a huge waste of time. In recent years, I’ve outlined a policy that I can communicate on the first day of class and refer to whenever plagiarized material crosses my desk:

If it’s plagiarized—and I can prove it—you get a zero on the assignment.

This is often enough to chasten plagiarists and hobble their grades quite a bit. However, for the career plagiarists, I add a caveat:

If you plagiarize a second time, you receive a zero for the entire course.

No exceptions, no loopholes, and no debating.

This, of course, is my approach to plagiarism. At a variety of institutions, there are very clear policies that require instructors to report breaches of academic integrity to a larger reporting body. While it’s typically desirable for instructors to handle plagiarism—and its various punishments—within the walls of a classroom, repeat offenders often need to be identified, in case they attempt similar acts of dishonesty for other instructors. Be sure that you’re clear on the details of your department’s requirements (when to report, whom to contact) before the first day of class.

  1. Lean on the Software

For too many years, I bragged to students that I “didn’t need” plagiarism checkers like (“I am”) For the most part, this was a flashy threat, designed toward students from cheating. In truth, I didn’t use plagiarism checkers because, for a year or two, I taught on campuses that didn’t provide me access. After that, it was my own unwillingness to learn that kept me in the Dark Ages; I was certain that I’d read all the pertinent literature and could identify it myself if a student cribbed certain phrases.

It was sheer intellectual vanity that kept me from using Turnitin; I wanted to believe that I was keen enough, in the Sherlock Holmes sense of the word, to catch plagiarism in all of its forms. In retrospect, this was a mistake—not because I was ill-equipped to locate cheating, but because it was taking up too much of my time. Plagiarists, as it turns out, are not artful pilferers of intellectual property; more often than not, they lift from SparkNotes and blog entries—not the “pertinent literature.” Without fail, I tend to spot stolen sentences or shifts in syntax on the essay’s third or fourth page, after I’ve already spent ten minutes reading and commenting. Turnitin has proven immensely helpful at weeding out plagiarism (and providing an originality report) before I even crack an essay’s first page. If I scan their report and decide that the program has indeed found a breach of academic integrity, I am free to turn my attention elsewhere: toward the original work of another student.

  1. Remember That the Software Doesn’t Know Everything

Although Turnitin is a genuine time-saver, it doesn’t catch everything—nor does it know your students personally. In my experience, it works best as a first pass over your submissions, weeding out potential plagiarists early—before they can harness too much of your time. Instructors who use Turnitin as gospel are doomed to punish well-meaning students and excuse their more sophisticated plagiarists. For that reason, it’s important to:

  • Have an original sample of your students’ writing

Last semester, I suspected that a student submission wasn’t entirely original; portions of writing seemed too stylish, the syntax and grammar too controlled for what I knew of this particular student’s work. Nevertheless, Turnitin marked the essay free from lapses in originality. To test my suspicions, I went to Google and, after 15 or 20 minutes of searching, I was able to find a source from which the student had (briefly) copied.

Still, this wasn’t enough for me. I wanted the student to be aware of my other suspicions—namely, that he’d asked someone to write the rest of the paper for him. In requiring a diagnostic essay on the first day (not to mention subsequent in-class writing assignments), I had—at my disposal—samples of the student’s writing. Conferencing with him, I informed the student that he’d be receiving a zero (for the provable passages of copy-paste plagiarism); however, I was also able to demonstrate the drastic changes in comma usage, sentence construction, word choice, and insight—how this one essay seemed more complex and grammatical than the work that preceded and followed it. Smart to keep his mouth shut, he didn’t admit to plagiarizing these sections—even though he was woefully unprepared to explain anything he’d (supposedly) written—but the point was made. Thankfully, I knew his voice well enough to spot stylistic differences and had writing samples to help me demonstrate.

  • Know the difference between a pattern of errors and willful plagiarism

My students are often shell-shocked by the prospect of being accused of plagiarism—and they seem to have lots of experience being punished by hard-liner teachers. Hoping to put them at ease, I often tell students that I know the difference between honest mistakes (incorrect citation, clumsy paraphrasing) and willful plagiarism. Whether or not I’m right, it’s important for every instructor to give students the benefit of the doubt—particularly when they’re dealing with first-year writers, ESL students, and anyone unfamiliar with your discipline’s style guide/citation norms.

Intuitive teachers can differentiate between those students that struggle and their less-than-truthful peers. In my course, when I see citation mistakes that look honest, I give students an opportunity to revise them. I inform them that this is technically plagiarism and cannot (in its current state) be graded. They are typically grateful for the chance to revise—and, more importantly, to learn. Distinguishing between honest and dishonest mistakes can create teachable moments for students.

  1. Commit to Long Conversations at Your Peril

As an instructor, I strive to make myself accessible to my students. This means responding to e-mails, answering questions thoroughly, and meeting during (and outside of) my scheduled office hours. Nevertheless, all my willingness to help does not apply to plagiarists. Remember: students caught cheating only have one remaining card to play—explanation. If allowed, they will monopolize your time and attention with frantic correspondence and teary conference sessions, desperate to make you change your mind. To the inexperienced instructor, this may seem like an either/or proposition: either I let them revise their work or they corner me at office hours and steal time away from everyone else.

This simply isn’t true. If I can support my claims of plagiarism—and don’t believe the student’s pattern of errors looks “accidental”—then I devote no more than a few minutes to discussing it, informing them that my decision is final and I will not bargain with them. I advise them to bring any and all complaints about my decision to the department chair.

The goal isn’t to shirk responsibility, but rather to avoid investing more time in an essay than the author has. No matter their skill level, students are plainly aware that breaches of academic integrity come with punishment. Learning to allocate time toward hardworking students and away from the ones who only seem to offer excuses is ultimately your best defense against plagiarism.

About the Author

Professor Ray Dademo is an adjunct professor of English at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Middlesex County College. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled "Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition.

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