The Worst Case of Plagiarism

At a recent faculty workshop on Avoiding Plagiarism, Alicia Andrezejewski and Carrie DiMatteo led the participants into a seemingly straightforward, but surprisingly thought-provoking free-write exercise. The prompt read:

Write about the worst case of plagiarism that you have encountered in your own classroom, or heard about from another instructor in your discipline. Make sure to think about the assignment the students were responding to.

In this post, I’d like to revisit this prompt.

For me, the worst instance of plagiarism by one of my students was not simply an instance in which the student copy-pasted entire excerpts of text and presented them as his/her own. Rather, the worst case of plagiarism I’ve ever encountered involved a difficult situation in which copy-pasted experts were embedded within an otherwise original essay that demonstrated the student was engaging with course material in an independent way. That is, this student was treating the course material in a scholarly way, but was not articulating the concepts with which he was wrestling in a way that demonstrated he understood them on his own. The dilemma I faced was how to reward his engagement when it was buttressed by academic dishonesty

My approach to Writing Across the Curriculum privileges writing as a tool for learning. I care more about my students learning, than I do about academic writing proprieties. Learning is a process aimed toward independent critical thinking that involves wrestling with complex ideas in new and challenging ways. In the end, I was more concerned with my student’s engagement with the material than I was with his unoriginal definition of (well-known) concepts—here I’d like to remind that plagiarism is oftentimes more an indicator of lack of self-confidence when participating in academic discourse than anything else. Thus, I plan to work with the student to re-write those portions of his exam that are not his own so as to cultivate his ability to appropriately paraphrase authors when he engages with course material.

-Albert de la Tierra

Back to school, back to plagiarism?

As another semester gets under way, many City Tech students will find themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure – with family, work, and school obligations, finding time to write a successful paper might seem impossible to some. And that’s what the folks handing out these on campus are hoping to take advantage of:


As a professor who spends time designing and grading assignments with the goal of helping your students learn the course content, this kind of service probably makes you feel angry, frustrated, or depressed – if not all three at the same time. Even plagiarism detection programs can’t help you with paper writing services like this. You can try to get to know a student’s writing “voice,” but it’s still hard to deal with those who take advantage of these services.

But there are things you can do to make it much less likely that your students will turn to services like this. Remember that for many students, the pressure to succeed is very intense. English may not be their first language. They may not have been well prepared by their previous education to write college-level papers. They may not really want to cheat in this way, but they might not feel capable of writing a big term paper or project that has a lot riding on it. You can help address these issues by breaking down big, daunting assignments into smaller pieces – what we at WAC call “scaffolding” – that build toward the final paper or project. In this way, you make it harder for them to take advantage of paper-writing services, but more importantly, you make it feel less tempting to them.

Let’s say you’ve assigned a final paper or writing-based project that accounts for a large portion of your students’ grade. You can scaffold that assignment by designing shorter assignments throughout the semester that tackle and help demystify pieces of that final project. This could include assignments on brainstorming and writing a strong thesis statement, building a literature review, or compiling and evaluating data or evidence. Students are much less likely to plagiarize on these smaller assignments – particularly if you do some of them in class – and by the time the final project comes around, they’ll discover it’s more than half written already and doesn’t need the help of a service like the one offered above. They’ve also built the knowledge and confidence that will hopefully help them tackle bigger projects with confidence in future classes.

If you’d like more ideas on how to do this, come to some WAC workshops this semester! Next Tuesday (9/13) we’ll be presenting an overview on Designing Effective Assignments that will touch on these issues; then on October 18 we’ll be doing an entire workshop on preventing plagiarism. We’ll round out the semester with a workshop on Effective Grading and Minimal Marking (11/15) and the Creative Classroom (12/6). And if you can’t wait for a workshop, you can check out the PowerPoints and handouts from previous workshops last year that we’ve posted online:

(Our complete Fall workshop schedule with times and locations will be posted on that page as well.)

Best of luck this semester, and we hope to see you at a workshop!

Recapping: Avoiding Plagiarism Workshop

Last Thursday’s workshop on “Avoiding Plagiarism” brought out a fantastic showing of professors, for one of our most attended workshops yet! Thank you to all those who were able to make it, for those of you who weren’t, here’s a little recap:

No professor wants to deal with plagiarism (the disappointment! The bureaucracy! The uncomfortable conversations with a student!), this workshop takes as its premise that it is possible for professors to take steps to prevent plagiarism before it occurs! In particular, here at WAC we believe that often plagiarism occurs because a student hasn’t fully understood what counts as plagiarism (and we saw during our workshop that there is a lot of gray area that even professors can disagree on!).

City Tech has a particularly notable policy on academic misconduct, that emphasizes the professor’s responsibility in informing students about plagiarism. It states:

“Students and all others who work with information, ideas, texts, images, music, inventions, and other intellectual property owe their audience and sources accuracy and honesty in using, crediting, and citing sources. As a community of intellectual and professional workers, the College recognizes its responsibility for providing instruction in information literacy and academic integrity, offering models of good practice, and responding vigilantly and appropriately to infractions of academic integrity.” – NYCCT statement on academic integrity (emphasis added)

With this responsibility in mind, the first part of the workshop included a number of activities and handouts that professors can use to assist them in raising awareness about plagiarism in their classrooms. Many of us have used these strategies in our own classes and have found them particularly helpful.

Crafting Assignments to Avoid Temptation to Plagarize

Student plagiarism can have many different causes. Another prominent one we’ve found- that can easily be targeted!- is a lack of confidence, or difficulty with time management. The pedagogical tool of scaffolding can be an invaluable resource for creating assignments that develop students’ confidence and encouraging time management skills. Scaffolding, as many of you know, emphasizes building towards larger projects, step by step. This graduated nature of scaffolded assignments helps students from feeling overwhelmed by a large term paper, and feeling tempted to go online and download a preexisting one.

In the workshop we examined how a scaffolded assignment schedule helps both develop students confidence and promotes working in increments rather than leaving everything for the night before.

In addition to scaffolded assignments, designing assignments with a unique or contemporary twist can help students develop an interest in the work, and also mitigates the temptation to hand in something they found online.


For example- one sociology professor has her students write an analysis of Marx’s notion of estranged labor, but asks students to argue whether or not Beyonce could be considered “alienated”. An English professor teaches The Crucible and has students create a podcast in the style of the extremely popular “Serial”.


Both Marx’s notion of “estranged labor” and The Crucible are certainly topics which students could find a wealth of prefabricated, rote essays to pilfer from on the internet, but these alternative assignments seek to engage students’ interests, and avoid the temptation to hand in a preexisting essay by shaking things up a bit. As an extra bonus for professors , these types of assignments can be more interesting to read and grade as students really can let their passions shine through!!


Professors in attendance were encouraged to think up some different and unique assignments they could design to get students thinking through the core concepts of their class. One electrical engineering professor designed an assignment where students would have to calculate the amount of electricity needed to power a Beyonce concert!

concert 2

Do you have any unique assignments that have been particularly successful? We’d love to hear see in the comments below!

Of course, not all assignments have to be unique and scaffolded, we encourage professors to try out a variety of different tactics that might work best for their needs.

Be sure not to miss our next workshop:

  • Effective Grading and Minimal Marking
    • Thursday, November 19, 2015
      • 1:00-2:15pm
    • Room: Namm 1005
    • Free lunch and coffee!


*If you would like to see the full workshop, slides are available for download here

A Recap of the “Avoiding Plagiarism & Documenting Sources” Workshop for Students

On Tuesday March 10th, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellows Pamela Thielman and Roy Rogers reviewed what plagiarism is, talked about the difficulties of paraphrasing and reviewed the most popular citation styles (e.g., MLA and APA). Below is a summary of what was discussed.

What is Plagiarism?

According to the NYCCT statement on academic integrity:

“Plagiarism is the act of presenting another person’s ideas, research, or writings as your own. Examples of plagiarism include:

  • Copying another person’s actual words or images without the use of quotation marks and footnotes attributing the words to their source.
  • Presenting another person’s ideas or theories in your own words without acknowledging the source.
  • Failing to acknowledge collaborators on homework and laboratory assignments.
  • Internet plagiarism, including submitting downloaded term papers or parts of term papers, paraphrasing or copying information from the internet without citing the source, or ‘cutting and pasting’ from various sources without proper attribution.”

Why does plagiarism occur?

  • Poor time management
    • When you don’t put aside enough time to work on your own writing, it becomes more tempting to use other people’s work.
  • Lack of self-confidence
    • When you feel like your can’t do an assignment or don’t know what to say, it may be tempting to use the words of others.
  • Bad paraphrasing
    • If you substitute a word or two in a sentence with a synonym, that does not make the sentence original. This may lead to unintentional plagiarism.
  • Improper citations
    • Even when not using quotes (like when you are paraphrasing), citations are still needed in the body of your paper.

What is Paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing is rewriting a sentence or series of sentences in your own words. It is different than a summary, in that paraphrasing does not have to summarize the original text completely, and the paraphrase is often incorporated into a writer’s larger argument.

Here is an example from Purdue OWL, 2012

Original Text:

Students frequently overuse direct quotation in taking notes, and as a result they overuse quotations in the final [research] paper. Probably only about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly quoted matter. Therefore, you should strive to limit the amount of exact transcribing of source materials while taking notes. Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers. 2nd ed. (1976): 46-47.


In research papers students often quote excessively, failing to keep quoted material down to a desirable level. Since the problem usually originates during note taking, it is essential to minimize the material recorded verbatim (Lester 46-47).

6 Steps to Effective Paraphrasing (Purdue OWL, 2010)

  • Reread the original passage until you fully understand it.
  • Write your version without looking at the original.
  • Include a few words below your paraphrase to remind you later how you envision using this material.
  • Check your version with the original to make sure that your paraphrase accurately expresses all the essential information in a new form.
  • Use quotation marks to identify any unique phrase you have borrowed from the original.
  • Cite your original source using proper formatting

Where do citations go?

Before you begin writing your assignment, make sure that your professor has communicated the preferred citation style for the class. If not, ask!

Typically, academic papers include citations both in the body of the paper (such as in-text citations or footnotes / endnotes depending on style), as well as at the end of the paper (such as a bibliography, works cited, or references page depending on style).

Two common citation styles include MLA and APA.

MLA is the preferred style for liberal arts and humanities.

  • Example of MLA in-text citation
    • Along these lines, revisionists have stressed continuing popular Episcopalianism after disestablishment and recast the demographic explosion of evangelicalism as a firmly early to mid-nineteenth century story (Heyrman 18–20).
  • Example Works Cited
    • Heyrman, Christine. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Print.

While APA is the preferred style for the social sciences.

  • Example of MLA In-text citation
    • Along these lines, revisionists have stressed continuing popular Episcopalianism after disestablishment and recast the demographic explosion of evangelicalism as a firmly early to mid-nineteenth century story (Heyrman, 1997, pp. 18–20).
  • Example Reference Page
    • Heyrman, C. (1997). Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

If you’d like to learn more, please download our PowerPoint presentation and supplementary materials that include a plagiarism quiz (answers here).

Workshop Recap: Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Resources

On November 11, WAC Writing Fellows Claire Hoogendoorn and Jake Cohen, together with Bronwen Densmore of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library, led a faculty workshop on avoiding plagiarism and using library resources.  This was a lively workshop in which WAC Fellows and City Tech instructors shared their understanding of and experiences with plagiarism.

The presentation was organized around three main topics: understanding plagiarism, strategies for preventing plagiarism, and responding to plagiarism.  Some key points from the discussion are highlighted below.

Understanding Plagiarism

  • In order for students to avoid plagiarism, it is critical for them to know exactly what it means. The NYCCT statement on academic integrity is a necessary first step in this regard.
  • Not all plagiarism is equal: there are different kinds and levels of plagiarism.
  • Students commit plagiarism for a host of different reasons. Sometimes plagiarism involves an instance of pure cheating, however other times citation errors and/or bad paraphrasing are to blame.

Strategies for Preventing Plagiarism

  • Educating students about plagiarism – i.e. having an open and honest conversation about the topic – is the first step toward preventing plagiarism.
    • To this end, the WAC Writing Fellows will be organizing a student workshop on the topic next spring.
  • Part of the education process includes outlining the pedagogical purpose of research, providing examples of plagiarism, and modelling correct citation format.
    • There are also online quizzes (e.g. via the Baruch College Library) that can be used to reinforce the lessons.
  • Creating high quality assignments is a fundamental step in preventing plagiarism: Scaffolding assignments remains one of the most effective methods.
    • It is also helpful to use details in assignments and to empower students.
  • The City Tech Library has a number of resources to assist students in doing research and completing assignments.
  • Paraphrasing is difficult! This is true for both native and non-native English speakers.  Developing paraphrasing skills requires proper training and practice.

Responding to Plagiarism

  • Refer to the Academic Integrity Policy Manual for information about how to report cases of plagiarism.
  • We have to report every case of plagiarism.
  • There exist electronic resources for suspected plagiarism, e.g. SafeAssign

The slides and handout from the workshop are linked below…

PowerPoint Slides Handout


Thinking About How to Avoid Student Plagiarism

“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

The above gem of English locution is from a British television comedy show from the 1980’s and ’90’s called A Bit of Fry and Laurie. The sketch, called “Tricky Linguistics,” calls this an example of a unique sentence, one that—despite being made up of ordinary words—has never been said before “in the history of human communication.”

Most of the time uniqueness in student writing is something good. It can reflect a student’s personal engagement and original thinking, and display their “voice.” Many of us consider voice or personal style in writing a mark of writerly maturity, and if we think about our own favorite writers we can probably identify words and phrases that instantly tell us who we are reading. This tendency of writers to use and reuse words is the basis of algorithms like’s Statistically Improbably Phrases and term frequency-inverse document frequency (tf-idf), both of which can help determine what role particular words and phrases play in a text or body of texts.

At this point you may be asking yourself, what does all of this have to do with Writing Across the Curriculum? Well, in preparation for the upcoming workshop on avoiding plagiarism, I wanted to talk a bit about one electronic resource available to City Tech faculty that uses the kind of technology mentioned above to help spot, as well as educate students about, plagiarism.

The Blackboard learning platform (available for all courses at City Tech, not just hybrid or online classes) has a tool called SafeAssign. This allows students to turn in their writing through an electronic system that checks the text for exact or near-exact matches to documents publicly available on the internet, on the closed-access database of publications ProQuest ABI/Inform, and in archives of documents previously submitted by City Tech students. The system then produces a report that marks passages of concern and links to their possible online sources, as well as providing a calculation of the percentage of the paper that matches existing text.

This may seem like a wish come true to time-pressed faculty members—an instant plagiarism detector!—but as with all tools it makes a real difference how you use it. Rather than its capacity to alert the instructor to possible issues of citation (intentional or unintentional) I want to suggest that one of the great things about SafeAssign is that the reports that it generates are not only visible to the instructor, they are visible to students. Even better, there is an option to allow students to run their drafts through the system without turning them in, so that they can see what the problems are before it is too late.

In many cases, what looks like plagiarism is actually poor citation practices and a lack of understanding of paraphrase. Using a tool like SafeAssign to allow students to see where their work is falling short in these areas at the draft stage can take some of the pressure off of the instructor and improve the overall quality of the finished product. More importantly, it can encourage students to be proactive by providing an opportunity for them to self-correct or to seek outside help.

No single tool is the answer to when it comes to student plagiarism. There are lots of ways to address the issue before it becomes a matter for the Academic Integrity Committee. For more ideas join WAC fellows Jake Cohen and Claire Hoogendoorn, and library faculty member Bronwen Densmore for the Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Resources workshop this Tuesday, November 11 at 1pm in Namm 1105.

Avoiding Plagiarism–Guiding Our Students

As instructors, helping our students learn to avoid plagiarism while using sources to guide their work is an important role for us to play. We all have negative gut reactions to a student’s paper that seems to include evidence of plagiarized material or have a lack of appropriate citations, but approaching this topic proactively may be much easier on our students, not to mention on our tempers after reading a towering stack of papers with inappropriate uses of others’ scholarly work.

This semester, I have begun to focus on providing students with thorough guidance of how to effectively use sources in their writing, thereby helping them to avoid or at least minimizing unintentional plagiarism in their writing assignments. Giving students the benefit of the doubt in the beginning of a semester and taking on the tone of understanding in terms of how difficult it can be to learn how to properly use sources, as opposed to being the “police” of plagiarism in the classroom can be an effective avenue to take.

This inherently involves allotting some class time to discuss the issue. Doing so, makes your students aware that you place importance on this topic and that you are willing to assist them in this learning process. Providing students with a plagiarism quiz that gives examples of scenarios in which they decide whether a given situation entails plagiarism and then having a class discussion about what constitutes plagiarism allows for students to be honest about the areas they deem confusing regarding paraphrasing, citing, etc. Recently, two of our writing fellows, Syelle Graves and Heather Zuber in collaboration with Bronwen Densmore and Anne Leonard from the library, gave a workshop to faculty about avoiding plagiarism and using library resources. Their slides and handouts, including the aforementioned plagiarism quiz can be found HERE.

Additional ways to minimize plagiarism in your students’ writing (from my own experience as well as the workshop mentioned above):

  • Provide high-quality models of writing with correct citations and paraphrasing
  • In class, show students how to find scholarly sources through City Tech’s library databases (step-by-step demonstration including giving them a list of the best databases for your field)
  • As the instructor, model correct citations throughout the semester (in your syllabus, handouts, slides)
  • Provide handouts to students with links to other sources regarding paraphrasing and correct citation format for your field (links are included in the handouts for the aforementioned past workshop)
  • Require students to create annotated bibliographies for which they cite their sources and summarize the main findings along with the importance of that source for a later larger research project or paper in your course
  • Give a typed assignment handout that states the citation format (e.g., APA, MLA) they need to use for that assignment and the number of sources they need