Emporia State University's psychology department used to see just one or two plagiarism cases a year. But with the advent of Internet "paper mills"--sites that sell student-written papers to other students--it now handles as many as 20 annually.

What's happening there reflects a national problem of Internet-fueled plagiarism, says professor emeritus Stephen Davis, PhD, who recently retired from Emporia but still conducts research on academic dishonesty. The department has tried tackling the trend with a rule that students caught plagiarizing receive automatic F's.

But at many other psychology departments, disciplinary procedures aren't as clear-cut, if they exist at all. And, adding to the difficulties of prosecuting students is the fact that definitions of plagiarism differ across and within departments, allowing students wiggle room and making it tempting for faculty to ignore potential problems, says Jane Halonen, PhD, director of the School of Psychology at James Madison University. "It's demoralizing to think that students might be taking advantage of you, and it's awful to feel like a detective," says Halonen. "It's a part of being a faculty member that people don't enjoy."

Yet the uncomfortable fact remains that plagiarism rates are high, and they appear to be rising. Davis's studies peg rates of academic dishonesty at 40 to 60 percent at larger universities. And roughly 70 percent of professors handle at least one plagiarism case a year, according to the Center for Academic Integrity.

What can be done to quell the tide? Given the problems with prosecution, some psychology faculty are finding that the best offense is a good defense.

More are turning to such preventative methods as setting clear definitions and policies, making students more accountable for their sources, and warning that they will check students' work with new computer and Internet programs (see Technological tools to detect dishonesty) as well as with old-fashioned detection methods.

In the end, quashing plagiarism is up to each individual professor, says psychology professor and plagiarism researcher Miguel Roig, PhD, of St. John's University. "You've simply got to make plagiarism as hard to pull off as possible."

What is plagiarism?

When it comes to specifics, definitions of plagiarism vary, even over something as simple as how many sequential words must be lifted from an original text before being considered plagiarism.

For some people, it is as few as three words. For others, such as Frostburg State University psychology professor Chrismarie Baxter, PhD, it is five. The important thing is to pick your operational definition and stick to it in marking students' work, she says. Also key, she says, is watching for the "softer" forms of plagiarism--a particularly common one is copying and citing text from an original document, but failing to put it in quotes.

Halonen sorts through the confusion by thinking of plagiarism as occurring on a continuum. On one end are the students who do it inadvertently--what she calls the "benign" form. On the other end are those who do it knowingly with the goal of "outfoxing the teacher"--the "malign" form. In between are those who do it somewhat by accident or out of sloppiness.

In her view, the "malign" kind has become ever easier with the ready availability of papers on the Internet. "Students just grab it, download it and they're across the finish line," Halonen says. "They don't think about the ownership and quality issues."

Particularly problematic is the fact that Internet papers are typically written by other students, making Internet plagiarism harder to detect. As a result, it's more important than ever that plagiarism be difficult to pull off in the first place, says Halonen.

How can you fight it?

After struggling with such dishonesty for years, Halonen and other psychology faculty suggest specific steps professors can take to keep plagiarism at bay:

* Clear up the confusion. Explain to students up-front what plagiarism is, in all its forms, to prevent students from doing it inadvertently, say Halonen and Davis. Students also need to know that plagiarism is cheating and that it's wrong, says Davis. "There's a new ethic that runs, 'If I buy this paper it's my property, and I am turning in my property to the professor,'" he says. "Students need to be set straight on that."

Davis also suggests giving students the philosophical background that cheating is unfair to one's peers, and ultimately, to oneself: "Some students say cheating in high school is for grades and in college it's for their career," says Davis. "You need to point out, if they haven't learned anything, what types of jobs will they be able to hold?"

As for more accidental forms of plagiarism, the best inoculation is simply giving students more guidance, says Perilou Goddard, PhD, who teaches a psychology of writing course at Northern Kentucky University. "Students often don't realize that it kind of glows in the dark when they don't paraphrase," Goddard says. She advises walking students through APA style on citation (see pages 348-349 of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association) and teaching them to paraphrase from articles in their notes, so they don't repeat exact phrases.

  • Set rules. Spell out what happens when students plagiarize, suggests Frostburg State's Baxter. Professors might even wish to establish different consequences to fit plagiarism's different forms, she says.

Or they may favor a simple, flat penalty, as used by Roig at St. John's University. In his classes, students get an automatic F if they plagiarize--often enough to make them fail the course. Also, in an effort to prevent students from using Internet paper mills, Roig forbids them to use the Web in their research.

  • Ask that students highlight cited text. Yet another way to pre-empt plagiarism is requiring students to submit all the articles used for a paper--with the sections they've cited clearly marked. The method is especially helpful when students cite material from obscure sources, says Roig.

  • Limit the sources students use. Professors can also direct students to specific sources for their papers, making it easier to tell when students "lift" material. For example, Baxter assigns her students a paper on sex differences in book-carrying behavior--a topic covered by limited research articles that Baxter knows well. Baxter gathers the articles and puts them on reserve for her students in the library. Professors wishing to give students more latitude might let them find the articles themselves.

  • Assign phased papers. Another strategy is requiring students to write just one paper over the course of a semester and having them submit the papers in stages, from the initial outline through several drafts. This way, a professor can catch students' citation problems and help them correct the problems in subsequent drafts, says Barbara Nodine, PhD, writing expert and psychology chair at Arcadia University (formerly Beaver College).

"The goal here is teaching students authorship--how to take ideas and make them your own," says Nodine. By doing so, professors support students' development, rather than policing them, she says.

  • Check students' work. If students know you check, they're less likely to cheat, says Roig. He, for example, requires students to submit their papers electronically, so that he can run an electronic plagiarism-detection program on them. The type he uses checks scanned-in original papers against students' papers, looking for duplicate strings of six consecutive words. More comprehensive detection programs that check students' papers against extensive databanks of original papers are available on the Internet. The old-fashioned alternative, says Halonen, is the Cloze procedure, in which a professor types up a suspicious passage from a student's paper, leaving a blank for every fifth word. The professor then meets with the student and asks him or her to fill in the blanks.

"If the student can't at least give you the meaning, it means it's gone straight from their eyes to their fingertips without going to their brains," says Halonen. "They haven't grasped the idea that when we're teaching them writing, we're teaching them thinking."

Further Reading

  • Roig, M. (2001). Plagiarism and paraphrasing criteria of college and university professors. Ethics & Behavior, 11(3) 307323.

  • Tenpenny, P.L., Keriazakos, M.S., Lew, G.S., & Phelan, T.P. (1998). In search of inadvertent plagiarism. American Journal of Psychology, 111(4) 529559.

  • Price, D.W. (1990). A model for reading and writing about primary sources: The case of introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 17(1) 4853.

    For more information on the Cloze procedure, see the article, "An evaluation of the Cloze procedure as a test for plagiarism," published in Teaching of Psychology (Vol. 13, No. 3) by Standing, L.G., & Gorassini, D., in 1986. For more general information on plagiarism-detection, go to www.umuc.edu/distance/odell/cip/links_plagiarism.html