I have been grading student essays this morning and just detected plagiarism in one of my students’ essays. It’s not the first time a student has turned in a plagiarized essay to me, and I am sure (sadly) that it won’t be the last. On the one hand, I know this student was sick when the essay was due, but I did offer her more time to complete the essay, and she declined. What is particularly troubling to me is that the essay contains sections entirely copied and pasted from Wikipedia or Answers.com. I find this distressing for many reasons. First of all, I think it is rather insulting to my intelligence that a student believes she can copy text from such well-known websites without my knowledge — indeed, I had provided students with links to the Wikipedia article she copied in order that they might find it a useful source. Second, it bothers me that the student must have believed turning in writing culled from Wikipedia was OK. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; our current culture encourages plagiarism — you can purchase essays online. I find it frustrating that students continue to steal content from the Internet. I imagine they do so because it’s easier than stealing it from a book, but I don’t think they realize how much easier it is to catch them at Internet plagiarism.
I have learned a couple of tricks that help me catch plagiarists. First of all, look for straight quotes as opposed to curly quotes. Straight quotes often indicate copying and pasting from the Internet because web standard displays quotation marks as two small, straight lines, whereas the default font in MS Word, Times New Roman, displays quotation marks as two curly marks. Straight quotes don’t always indicate plagiarism, but they are something to look for if you are suspicious. If you suspect plagiarism, type a sentence or two from the paper word for word into Google search. You should yield a result if the language is identical to that of another site or even if only a few words have been changed (if you don’t put quotes around the sentence). I found my plagiarist using both straight-quote identification and Google search.
What should you do if you catch a plagiarist? It depends upon the nature of the assignment. I give students zeroes. If the assignment is a major assignment, such as a term paper or research paper, I think discipline needs to be taken further. I think students who plagiarize long-term assignments need to have their parents notified and possibly be referred to administration. I didn’t elect to do that with my student. I think the zero will be enough. I think she’s a sweet girl, and I hate that she’s put me in this position. I did try to be understanding about her illness, offering her more time to finish her essay. She declined.
We all make choices. Part of our job as teachers is to help students realize that plagiarism is never the right choice. Even a poorly written essay wouldn’t have received a grade lower than an F (50-59) in my class. I have a hunch she would have earned at least a C if she’d done the work herself.