There is so much written word in the world, it would seem almost insurmountable to figure out if your student copied and pasted their assignment.
Back in the day, it would be pretty easy to look at a student's assignment and recognize if it had been plagiarized. Words and phrases that didn't sound like the student, were way above their knowledge level, or that you had actually read from your own experience would be pretty quick giveaways.
But in today's world, there is so much writing everywhere, but especially online. While you may recognize plagiarism from texts and other books as well as reports and articles online, it would be impossible to recognize work that your student copied and pasted from all of the articles and resources now found online.
So how do I answer the question, "Did my student copy and paste?" There are several incredibly reliable plagiarism checkers online that you can use. And the vast majority of them are free! But there are also clues you can pick up on that indicate plagiarism has occurred. Yet another form of plagiarism you may discover is students outsourcing their assignments. And finally, as a student, you can use these resources to determine if you have accidentally plagiarized.
I created the following graphic to help you make sure that the answer to "Did my student copy and paste" is not a problem in your classroom. (And if it IS a problem, you can take care of it before it becomes a large problem.)
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Make Sure Your Students Understand Plagiarism
Often students don't realize that most of what they see online is not theirs to cut and paste. We live in a time when sharing on social media is constant. So it becomes very natural for students to also think its okay to cut and paste from their research online. Because they don't have to cite what they're putting on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever else they are using, it never occurs to them that their research assignment needs citations.
As soon as you start teaching your students research, you need to set aside time to explain plagiarism and citations. After a few practice runs with how to format citations based on the media you are using, your students will be able to easily do it.
Note: This does not get into the 3 major styles of citations--Chicago, Modern Language Association, or American Psychological Association. That will be a lesson for another day. This is referring to citations for research papers vs. citations for websites, videos, tweets, or whatever resources they are using.
Having a reference form available for them to keep in their binders will be a huge step in conquering the " did my student cut and paste" fear that many teachers have and hate to deal with.
The guide I used for my students was and amazing resource on Mendeley. They show how to do many different citations based on APA, MLA, and Harvard methods.
7 Clues That Your Student is Cutting and Pasting
There are lots of different ways to know if your student cut and pasted their work. Some of them come down to knowing your students and the ways that they tend to communicate. But many of them are based on anomalies found in the format of the report they turn in. Here is a good guide to get you started. I think that once you work with these, many others will become obvious to you over time as well.
1. If the Wording is Not the Way Your Student Tends to Communicate.
This one is hard to pin down if it is the beginning of the year or for whatever reason, you just don't know the student very well. It can also be tricky because as our students learn and develop over the year, their communication skills will improve and become more nuanced. So this is not necessarily an indicator or plagiarism. It could very well be development over time.
The red flag would be if you see a huge overnight difference in your student's communication skills. Then I would at least start looking into it.
2. If Students are Unable to Express The Concepts They Wrote About
If your students cannot give at least a rudimentary explanation of what they wrote about once they have turned in their assignment, it is a good possibility that they copied and pasted what is in their assignment.
It could also be that the student worked on the assignment minimally and put it together in a rush, learning little to nothing from it. That is not much better than plagiarism, and it is something you will need to address. But at least it isn't illegal!
Regardless of the the details regarding why your student cannot communicate the material (s)he wrote, you will need to investigate to solve the problem.
3. Certain Paragraphs or Passages are Inconsistent in Tone
If there are certain sentences, paragraphs, or passages that have a completely different tone or even theme from the rest of the work, it is very possible that it is due to student cut and paste activity.
Especially as students are learning to write, consistency in tone may not be overly consistent, but it will not be as obviously out of place as when a student has copied and pasted from other works online. That will be an obvious tip off to you to look into the matter.
4. Abrupt Changes in Person
Again, this is not necessarily something that young writers will be totally consistent with. But it will be obvious if the general tone is, for example, written in first person and then for just one isolated paragraph it is written in second or third person.
When students are learning to write and do research, you will definitely see inconsistencies in person. But the difference here is that if you find writing in which the person is consistent throughout except for the one section, you will probably want to look into it a bit more.
5. Subtle Changes in Font
Few students of any grade will cut and paste other materials in an obvious way. They certainly will not use significantly larger or bolder print. And you aren't going to see drastically different font styles, which you generally wouldn't see anyway because font styles for most online reports and articles are pretty similar.
What you will catch is very subtle changes in font that are just a small amount of the assignment--a paragraph or two generally. It could be just a font size of one or two points more or less. Or it could be one of a number of very similar fonts to Times New Roman for example.
The problem you will have with this is that the vast majority of us would not necessarily pick up the difference between these fonts because they are so similar. Here is an example of text from an excerpt of The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis:
While the first paragraph was written in Times New Roman with a font size of 11, the second paragraph was written in Calista with also a size 11 font. They are virtually indistinguishable. So unless cutting and pasting is coming from a blog post or other different format, many times you will not necessarily see this kind of plagiarism on first glance.
But on occasion, you may have the student that doesn't really care enough to change an obviously different font. And honestly, in those cases, students are probably unaware that they are breaking any copyright laws, hence the lack of trying to hide it.
6. Bizarre Dates or Events in Plagiarized Content
Occasionally, you will have a student write an assignment and cut and paste material that clearly doesn't fit into the time frame and events of what they are supposed to be writing.
For example, if a student is writing a piece on current unrest in the world right now and you find a section talking about injustices in Bosnia, especially in the early 1990's, you probably have some plagiarism issues to deal with.
While a student can certainly reference the Bosnian conflict in an assignment for today's world, it would be more of an example, a passing reference, or other such mention, and not a part of the narrative that the student is trying to communicate.
It will definitely be obvious to you if a part of an assignment is cut and pasted vs. a part of the actual assignment in these cases.
7. Lack of a Consistent Theme in Plagiarism
In this case, you may have a student that does pretty well in tying down the theme of most of the assignment, but one or two sections just seem drastically out of place with the rest of the topic.
Or it could be that the whole thing is all over the place. While it could just be a matter of a student that doesn't do a great job of sticking to the subject and developing it, it could also be that they are cutting and pasting from various sources to get the assignment done without putting any significant work into it.
As you get to know your students, this will actually be one of the easiest ways to determine if your student cut and pasted.
Some Free Plagiarism Checker Options
I had a hard time finding plagiarism checkers that were actually free. Most of the articles that featured free plagiarism checkers were capitalizing on the fact that there were free trials. The following list are actually free and not trials!
But in order to do that, do we have to sacrifice quality? It actually does seem so to a degree. There are a couple of okay options for free. Unfortunately, you or your school will have to shell out some money in order to get a really good plagiarism checker.
That being said, let's take a look at the free options that do a decent job even if they can't catch everything!
Quetext is a copy and paste plagiarism checker. It is super easy to use because of this, but you can't upload large documents to check.
So I tested it out with a guest post from my site. How do you think it fared?
Actually it did an excellent job! I copied and pasted one paragraph from the article and it immediately picked up on an original article by my guest poster. Fortunately, I won't be in any trouble for it since my article explicitly states that I had permission from the author and she even included a short blurb in the original article referencing back to mine.
So I decided to try one obscure paragraph from one of my own articles. And sure enough, it pointed right back to my site!
The one thing that it did insist was that after I did the first check, it made me register for free for the second one. But the fact that it picked everything up immediately was enough for me to be willing to give them my info!
It also gave (in both cases) a 100% chance of plagiarism rating, which was absolutely correct.
The final test I gave it was a copy/paste of this article before being published. It took a bit longer, maybe because there was no obvious plagiarism. It did give me a rating of 20% chance of plagiarism for the following two phrases:
One final plus was that it only took a few seconds to complete the search.
However, I did not try to do any extensive articles.
It said the first one could have come from a website called "Ilovefreesoftware.com" and the other one was attached to a trip advisor review. Since it is easy to see that both are random associations and not plagiarism, it was a good report.
One final plus was that it only took a few seconds to complete the search. However, I did not try to do any extensive articles.
I was pretty thrilled with its performance though!
After how much I loved Quetext, I almost didn't want to check this one out. That probably would have been fine because after accessing the site, I found it significantly less user friendly than Quetext. I copied and pasted one of the same paragraphs as above to get a good comparison. And I couldn't get it to initiate the search.
What I did get was the following page:
It first of all requires a subscription in order to get any results. And it also instructed me to email them in order to get the ball rolling. It turned out to be not user friendly at all. And as a result, I got no results.
I tried the site owners and students options and got this same result. And when I tried to click on the publishers and teachers options, I got a URL not found error on both of them.
Reviews also say that it gets a ton of false positives. That was enough for me to realize I would be wasting my time with this one.
Maybe if the sign up process was easier, I would have found a more intuitive program. But I just didn't get that far.
3. Plagiarism Detector
The final one I tried was Plagiarism Detector.
It was super easy to use. I immediately saw the box to copy and paste and started with the same paragraph from one of my published posts. After a few seconds, it came back as 100% plagiarized but didn't give me any sources to say what it was plagiarized from.
So then I took the same excerpt from this pre-published article that I used above. That search came back a few seconds later saying 100% not plagiarized. I was satisfied with that since I was writing that I had literally just typed and not published yet. It also didn't get the same hits as Quetext, but since even Quetext was just claiming similarities and not plagiarism, I was content with both results of both sites.
Of course, googling your text is also a great way to check on suspected plagiarized texts. Google literally has the largest database on the internet, so it would be a valid search.
The one disadvantage to Google is that you can't necessarily cut and paste a huge amount of text. But it certainly works quickly and efficiently for a small portion of text that you want to check on briefly.
So after reviewing these options, what would my recommendations be? I would definitely use Quetext first, both because of it's ease of use and it produces sources of plagiarized text. But Plagiarism Detector is a close second and certainly worthwhile. And Google will always be a great quick option.
The one thing that I was unable to do was determine if private articles and non-public texts were identifiable. And for those, it largely depends on if companies have permission from the author to determine that. This is same for even paid plagiarism checkers as well, so I don't necessarily see this as a detriment. This is especially true since I am not evaluating college level assignments.
The bottom line here is that we have some excellent options that are free and easy to use!
How Students Can Make Sure They Have Not Accidentally Plagiarized
It is pretty imperative that students learn from an early age that plagiarism is a serious issue. Teaching them that copying and pasting without giving credit where it is due is a huge problem will help to encourage them to not do it.
Another great way to discourage them from copying and pasting is to show them how a plagiarism checker works. They will first of all be pretty amazed at how easy it is. Then they will be struck with how easy it will be for them to get caught!
There are a few times, as I referenced above, that original work can be close enough to other writing that it gets a possible hit for plagiarism. And that is fine as long as it is kept in proper perspective.
A great way to help students to check their own work is to have a station in your classroom with a tablet or small laptop notebook that will allow students to check their own work before turning it in. Having the sites ready to go makes it even quicker and easier. And it could be a ground breaking advantage for your students as they navigate the world of writing.
So this is how to find out the answer to the question, "Did my student copy and paste?" It also gives some great advice on making sure our original work actually is original. It is a great tool for all of us to use as we are constantly improving our work in the world.
How have you dealt with the issue of students copying and pasting in your classroom or homeschool? I would love to hear your input. Feel free to comment below!