10 Signs Of Plagiarism Every Teacher Should Know

Plagiarism is usually fairly easy to spot in a small class with students you work with daily. Students suddenly write–and sound–much different than they have in the past, or interject insights and ideas that sound nothing like you’ve ever heard or seen from them. But for larger classes–or new students–it’s not always obvious and can be easy to miss.

Whether students simply fail to cite a source properly or outright buy papers from essay mills, plagiarism can erode learning, destroy credibility, and severely disrupt a student’s educational experience. Below are ten signs to keep an eye out for before sending the paper off to the digital plagiarism checker.

10 Signs Of Plagiarism Every Teacher Should Know

Unusual or Advanced Vocabulary

Sometimes, students may attempt to disguise their plagiarism by using complex vocabulary or terminology inconsistent with their usual writing ability. This can be a red flag, especially if the language used does not match the student’s typical level of proficiency.

Inconsistent Writing Style

Plagiarized content often stands out because it may have a different writing style or quality than the rest of the student’s work. Students may copy and paste content from online sources, leading to abrupt changes in language or tone. If a portion of the text seems disconnected from the rest of the writing, it could be a sign of plagiarism.

Sudden changes in diction

Perhaps the most reliable tip-off of all is an unexpected shift of register. Put simply, if the writing suddenly changes within a few sentences or paragraphs, that may not be their writing. This can be more subtle than some factors below, but you should read this closely enough to notice this when grading.

More than one font

This one is more of a gimme. Look out for changes in font type, size, color, style (italics, bold, or underline), and suspicious formatting, especially a change from one setting to another (single vs. double space, margins, and so on). There may be other, perfectly legitimate reasons for these errors, so it’s hardly dispositive proof of plagiarism, but it should be a red flag.

Uncalled for hyperlinks

.Along the same lines, a signal that a paper (or a portion of it) may be copied and pasted from an online source is the presence of HTML links, which you obviously can’t follow if the submission is a hard copy. These are often underlined and blue, or darker gray in black-and-white printed papers. Again, there may be no foul play here, but it may be a sign of something.

Odd intrusions of first-person or shifts in tense

Logically, first-person interjections would seem to be a sign that someone did write something, wouldn’t they? Always look carefully here. Do they sound like something this student would say? A student was once caught submitting an essay on steroid abuse that included the phrase, “In my many years as a physician … “

Outdated information

If you come across a passage that says, “Our current president, Bill Clinton,” or “Soviet scientists assert that,” you might be reading a plagiarized paper. Granted, this may also simply be a sign of poor research skills, but it’s a possible sign of plagiarism.

Apparent quotes with quotation marks

This is not only a sign of plagiarism, and it’s one key definition. It should be clear to students that improper citation constitutes plagiarism, and though it’s typically of the accidental kind, in practice, that does not necessarily mitigate the consequences. Again, if they sound like someone else’s words, they very well might be, so investigate.

Incorrect or mixed citation systems

Different disciplines have different methods of citing sources. You should make it clear to your students whether you expect them to use MLA, APA, Turabian, Chicago style, or whatever system fits your subject, and adequately instruct them in how to use it. Most important of all is consistency. If the citation style changes, you may be looking at plagiarized material.

Missing references

These can be footnotes, endnotes that don’t exist, or random notes with no referent in the text. Like a mismatched or confused citation style, these loose ends can reveal chunks of text lifted directly from source material. Again, incorrect or absent citations are an academic offense, but they may also point to something more systematic and deliberate.

A paper that doesn’t really fit the assignment

It’s a good policy to give students as specific a prompt as possible for written assignments. This makes it much harder to simply steal (or buy, there are sites for that!) a paper by another writer. If you do give a fairly particular briefing for an assignment, and then get a submission that’s just slightly askew from what you asked for, like a square peg in a round hole, it may be that the student secured a paper from another source, figured “Hey, close enough,” and turned it in.

Verbatim Results

Finally, we come to the technological solutions for diagnosing plagiarism.

The simplest and most readily available resource is Google: paste a sentence or phrase that seems iffy and see if you get any results. It’s amazing how often it fails to occur to students that their teachers could do this. It really adds insult to injury: if they’re going to cheat, they should at least do it well.