Caught Red-Handed: Plagiarism Checkers Really Work

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That essay you’ve been working on looks and sounds really nice. You’ve put together a convincing report, have checked your spelling and grammar, and you’ve cited multiple sources.

Unfortunately for you your paper will get a big fat red “F” because your professor caught you committing an egregious act: plagiarism.

red handEmbarrassed, stunned, and upset, you insist that you’ve done nothing wrong and have asked to meet with your professor to go over your notes in a bid to prove your innocence. As luck would have it, he agrees to meet with you to outline your many transgressions, helping you learn a valuable lesson in what constitutes plagiarism.

Clearly, you had no idea that plagiarism was so widespread and easy to do.

While the story I have shared is fiction, the problem is not. Plagiarism is a scourge that has plagued academia since the first term papers were assigned, with students purposely lifting ideas from some ancient, dusty tome in oil lamp lit libraries, and passing them off as their own.

Back then it was easier to take other people’s thoughts and use them as your own unless, of course, your professor was intimately familiar with the unattributed material.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes plagiarize as, “to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.” College officials know that the problem is spiraling out of control as the internet offers plenty of academic quality material for students at the click of a mouse.

But professors have a number of online tools available to them including Copyscape, The Plagiarism Checker, Turnitin, and others. Within seconds, your paper can be processed via a Google API or other scripted tool, thoroughly checked line by line and sentence by sentence for stolen words or ideas.

Every school should have a clearly defined policy on what constitutes plagiarism. In my opinion, that policy should be easy to read and understood. It should also be signed by incoming freshmen and kept as a matter of record by your Registrar’s office. In any case, the following plagiarism avoiding guidelines are worth remembering (Indiana University: Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It):

To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit whenever you use:

  • another person’s idea, opinion, or theory;
  • any facts, statistics, graphs, drawings—any pieces of information—that are not common knowledge;
  • quotations of another person’s actual spoken or written words; or
  • paraphrase of another person’s spoken or written words.

Plagiarism isn’t the realm of students only. Columbia University professor Madonna G. Constantine was accused of using other people’s work in her academic journals (The New York Times: Columbia Cites Plagiarism by a Professor) while Kaavya Viswanathan, who was at the time a 19-year old sophomore at Harvard, admitted that she plagiarized more than forty passages from two Megan McCafferty novels for her own book (Los Angeles Times: Young author faces more allegations of plagiarism).

Even rehashing original words you used in an earlier report can be considered plagiarism.

If you are currently putting the finishing touches on your own term paper, thesis, essay or other written report then you may want to scrutinize it to make sure that you use quotations as needed, paraphrase without scrambling a handful of words, and cite sources whenever an interpretation of facts is given.

Plagiarism is easy to do and always wrong. Do your part by contributing original material, following academic guidelines always.

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Photo Credit: Gabriella Fabbri

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Categories: Academics, Study Tips