Six and a Half Tips for Catching Plagiarists

When I finally get my military dictatorship, and once I’ve dealt with all the bad film composers (James Horner and Hans Zimmer your days are numbered), the next people against the wall will be plagiarists.

Plagiarists are like the academic equivalent of corporate tax evaders. They are people with such a sense of entitlement that they crave success without effort. They have the honour of an HSBC accountant, and the morality of the people who gave broadband to ISIS.

It’s actually a growing problem in universities, not necessarily because students are any more dishonourable than before, but because there are just more opportunities for nicking other peoples’ work.

A big part of that, of course, is the internet, which – when not circulating images of cats punching bananas – is busy creating manifold new opportunities for dickheadery. It’s meant that it’s become easier for students to pinch stuff and cut and paste it into their own documents (though it’s also, of course, easier for the Good Guys to check, partly through websites like ‘Turnitin’).

But the most pernicious development is the Essay Mill. These are sites where students can literally pay for people to do their work for them. Hand over a certain amount of money, and the Essay Mill will guarantee you a 2.1 or a 1st. And there are those who think humanity is making progress.

This is a subspecies of plagiarism that is especially hard to detect, because the work is original, it’s just not written by the student themselves.

But there are ways for tutors to tell – we just have to look a bit harder. Here, then, are my top tips for detecting when your students have joined the dark side (and not in a cute, fluffy, Anakin Skywalker way, either)

1. Your Spidey-Sense. Actually, the first sign of plagiarism is often intangible. Something isn’t quite right about an assignment. Usually, this comes down to the prose. A student who can barely string a sentence together unexpectedly starts penning beautiful, poetic prose: imagine E.L. James suddenly writing Wolf Hall. Someone for whom grammar is usually optional starts deploying clever Latin idioms; a student who confuses ‘their’ and ‘there’ uses the word ‘Moreover’.

A lot of the time, plagiarized work just doesn’t sound quite right. This is often your first sign. You’ll usually know it when you see it. Watch it carefully.

2. The Document has a Funny-Sounding Author. It’s an obvious point, but check the electronic ‘author’ of the document. If your student Jennifer submits an essay ‘authored’ by someone called ‘Dave’s Laptop’, then this is cause for interest. Of course, Jennifer might have a new boyfriend, so this is never conclusive, but it can also be a sign of plagiarism. Another thing to look for is essays whose author sounds like a company, especially if – when you Google the name – an essay-writing or ‘proofreading’ service comes up. Finally, if the recorded author changes week on week, this is really fishy.

On the other hand, a sharp student might get around this by pasting the Mill essay into a new document they create on their own computer. Have a look at the document editing time. In most cases this will be a number of hours; if it’s a minute or so, then this is suspicious.

3. It has a perfect Turnitin report. Ironically, a clean bill of health on the Turnitator is in itself quite suspicious. Some essay mills will actually detection-proof their ‘work’ by running it through the usual software and ironing out anything that appears similar to other online material. On the other hand, most student essays – through random chance – have some bits which are quite similar to stuff they’ve read. A perfect report, or one in which only the references are picked up, is stinky.

4. Linguistic tics. People write in different ways. In fact, the academic world is pretty well divided into tribes of Hence-men, Albeit-ists, Thus-folk and Moreover-ers, as well as advocates of the revolting ‘So-we-can-see-that’, or (worst of all), aficionados of that modern horror, ‘Keith Thomas, in his book…’ The point is that we all have our own writing tics (I’ve been challenged to get as many Taylor Swift song titles into my next book, so mine’s proper weird). If these change from essay to essay, it’s something to keep an eye on. I use text-analysis software such as this, which is a great way of finding those telltale phrases that get repeated.

5. Unusually good references. Let’s face it, we all bloody hate writing footnotes. It’s boring and a pain in the bum, like M&S underwear. But it has to be done, so the natural response for any normal human being, especially in the 18-21 demographic bracket, is simply to do a shoddy job: garbled nonsense and the occasional blank space (ha!). Whack something on the paper, don’t worry about the facts: just like writing for the Guardian or being David Starkey.

So, when a student who is not famed for their attention to detail or – um – ability to use words, starts writing footnotes with publishers and ISBNs, then you need to take a closer look. Nobody writes proper footnotes unless they are paid to do so. Got an essay with immaculate references? You do the math.

6. The Interview. At the end of the day, this is always the clincher. Get the student in, quiz them about the essay. Be nice about it, but be rigorous. What did you read? What did you think about the reading? What do you mean by this? How did you conclude that? As anyone who’s seen Prime Minister’s Questions will know, a genuine bullshitter will be able to hold you off for a bit. But unlike those unfortunate MPs, you can press. And press. And press.

A proper interview – conducted politely of course – will help sniff out even the most determined cheat. It’s not a bad idea to have a witness, though. In any potentially tetchy and conflictual situation: Tony Blair’s meeting with St Peter, anything that’s ever happened in Leeds, it’s helpful to have someone else to back you up if things get disputed later on.

Oh, and I promised a final, half-tip. This one’s for students, and it’s pretty straightforward. Don’t be a helmet. Do your own work.

One Comment Add yours

  1. As a previous HE admin I’ve seen some fun ones of these. Anonymous marking makes some of your tips trickier, but when you submit a piece of work entirely copied from a different student’s essay the previous year *including the previous student’s ID number* you know you’ve got a live one.

    Also, top marks for using the expression “helmet”.

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