Talking About Plagiarism

For Students

Plagiarism is a big deal because it's an academic offense with serious consequences. Taking someone else's words and ideas and representing them as your own is dishonest and carries strong penalties. Obviously, copying an entire paper from a Website or pasting chunks of an article into your paper and pretending you wrote it is wrong. But it's also easy to misuse sources, even without intending to. As you work with sources, remember these rules of thumb.

  • Keep track of where your information comes from. Having to hunt down a source you quoted from but lost when your paper is due is frustrating, and running out of time is no excuse. Knowing whether notes you typed are your thoughts or a quotation is also important, so develop your own system for keeping track of your sources and taking notes in a way that clearly separates your words from others' words.
  • Summarize ideas from sources when possible. Without looking at the source, write down the gist of it. Forcing yourself to use your own words without looking at the original can help you avoid plagiarism.
  • If you copy from a source, then change a few words, you're plagiarizing. When you want to use ideas from a source, you need to understand the ideas, set the source aside, and write it in your own words. If you're having trouble, try telling a friend what the source says; chances are you'll find your own words.
  • Include a citation for everything that isn't "common knowledge" - information that is found in many sources and is essentially the same in all of them. If you aren't sure if information you are using is common knowledge, cite the source.
Apart from avoiding plagiarism, acknowledging your sources will improve your writing. When you cite a good source, you've just brought in an "expert witness" to help you prove your point. When you show your reader your work is based on strong sources, it will boost their confidence in what you're saying. And when you cite a source, you have given them the information they need to find it if you have aroused their curiosity and want to find out more.

For more ideas, see "Avoiding Plagiarism" from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

For citation rules, see our page on citation styles.

For more about how plagiarism is handled at Gustavus, see the college's Academic Honesty Policy.

For Faculty

Detecting plagiarism is often a matter of plugging suspiciously sophisticated phrases into search engines and likely databases. (Some databases, such as JSTOR, default to a full text search; for others you may have to select "full text" as an optional field to search.) Some instructors use the "fill in the blanks" technique - whiting out key words in a suspicious paper and asking a student to supply them verbally.

Another approach is to design assignments that are "plagiarism proof."

General tips for plagarism-proof assignments

  • Develop a sense among the students of being part of a research community by having "swap meets" to share resources and insights. The more they feel comfortable being researchers (rather than transcribers) the less likely they will accidentally misuse sources.
  • Develop critical reading skills by spending a class period or part of a period looking at resources together (Web sites, for example) and as a group looking for clues to assess its quality.
  • Head off poorly chosen sources by requiring students to bring their preliminary bibliography to the reference desk for a librarian to sign off on it.
  • Spend time discussing how sources are used in scholarly writing so that the purposes of citation are clearer. Explain that a well-chosen source can be brought into their papers as an expert witness to help them make their claims. Before they compose their footnotes, have students seek out sources used in a bibliography to recognize how they function, like hyperlinks, to connect similar threads of scholarly discourse. Students who are used to composing citations often don't know how to read them.
  • Require students to show their work in progress: have them write a proposal, a progress report, and require drafts. It's difficult to plagiarize a process.
Two Approaches to Designing Assignments

One: break a major project into sequenced steps

You might, for example, require students to hand in two or more of these assignments

  • A "field report" on a topic: scan databases to see what kinds of questions researchers are asking. What areas seem hot right now? Are there areas that aren't getting attention?
  • A research proposal that proposes a question and a plan for answering it.
  • A preliminary bibliography-perhaps including some information on where and how they found the things they're using-or require annotations.
  • A formal paper, poster, or presentation that puts their knowledge to work.
  • A reflective essay-what was the process like? What did they learn? What would they have done differently?
Helps unpack the research process into a series of steps; provides scaffolding for organization and time management; shows work in progress rather than simply a finished product; helps students focus on research as process not product; helps you intervene earlier when a student has problems.

Logistically challenging in terms of processing the paperwork that results and managing feedback expectations.

Two: Emphasize originality by asking students to do something they can't get "off the shelf."


  • Ask students to compare two things that have not been compared before; have them use secondary sources to inform their analysis-but let them know they won't be able to look up "the right answer."
  • Ask students to do analyze a primary source that hasn't been widely written about. Develop a set of questions the source gives rise to, seek answers, then write an introduction or analysis. Secondary sources are used to illuminate, not be the object of inquiry. This could be a joint project for a class, annotating an anthology of texts or developing an exhibit catalog for a set of images or artifacts.
  • Ask students to analyze something that happened within the last few weeks using secondary sources that provide background.
  • Give students primary material about a historical event. Ask them to describe what the primary material tells them. Then ask them to find secondary sources that comment on the event and compare them. Do they all tell the same story? Why or why not? What evidence do the secondary sources use and how effectively is it interpreted?
  • Have students develop a briefing or grant proposal for a particular individual or group on a topic relevant to your course.
  • Give students a quotation with dubious "facts" taken from the Web. Ask them to find the source, critique it, and check the facts for accuracy.
Gives students a sense of owning their work that they don't get when the paper is based entirely on interpreting other people's work.

Can be time-consuming to develop and test assignments to be disaster-proof. Also prevents wholesale copying of a text, but doesn't address problems of inappropriate paraphrase or failure to cite a source.

Recommended Reading

Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices from the Writing Program Administrators Council.

Talking about Plagiarism: A Syllabus Strategy for Talking about Plagiarism with Students by Nick Carbone.

Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism by Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle of Higher Education.