Plagiarism detection reports from companies such as Turnitin are the primary way that faculty identify cheating on written work. But my experience in working with hundreds of faculty has shown me that most misread these reports because they have not received proper instruction on how to interpret the results. In particular, faculty are not trained in how to distinguish cheating from ignorance of citation rules, and as a result students are often wrongly accused of cheating. Here I explain how to read plagiarism detection reports to both deter cheating and help students understand writing rules.
It is important to understand that plagiarism comes in two forms: intentional and unintentional. Intentional plagiarism is a willful attempt to deceive by taking credit for another’s words. A student who submits pages and pages from a book or article without any attempt at citation is probably committing intentional plagiarism.
But there is also unintentional plagiarism, which is ignorance of citation rules. Citation manuals such as APA are often hundreds of pages long, and few students have read through them in their entirety. This is a critical distinction as ignorance is not an integrity issue. My lack of understanding of how to solve a differential equation is not a lack of integrity on my part. Students come to us to learn many things, including how to write academic work, and so it makes little sense to sanction someone for not knowing what they come to us to learn. A student who commits unintentional plagiarism needs training on proper citation rules, not charges of an integrity violation.
Unfortunately, I have found that most faculty look only at the cumulative matching score at the end of the report to determine whether there is an academic integrity violation, using a baseline threshold as their measure, such as 25 percent. Students who score above that number are either sent to the academic integrity committee or told to rewrite the assignment to lower the score. Those scoring below that number are OK.
But this method makes no sense. First, the default setting on most systems is to flag all matching text, even that text which is properly cited. Thus, faculty might be telling students to fix work without any plagiarism. Second, and more important, using a threshold as the measure of plagiarism sends the message that it is OK to plagiarize a little but not a lot! Of course, this is wrong, as any amount of intentional plagiarism is bad. Third, it deprives students who did not intentionally plagiarize from getting the instruction on proper citation rules that they need.
It is important to keep in mind that the distinction between intentional and unintentional plagiarism is not based on the quantity of plagiarism but rather intent. The question is, Was the student making a willful attempt to deceive or instead making mistakes out of ignorance of citation rules? The former merits an academic integrity violation, while the latter merits education on citation rules. There are a number of things that faculty should look for to distinguish intentional from unintentional plagiarism.
When a faculty member finds an example of intentional plagiarism, they are obligated to follow their institution’s rules on how to handle it. I have found that many faculty handle these instances in house by asking for a rewrite or giving the student an F on the assignment. But most institutions require faculty to submit intentional plagiarism examples to a committee for a decision, and it is important for faculty to follow this policy. For one, the policy ensures that like violations receive like punishments, as faculty members may provide different sanctions for the same offense when handling it in house. Two, when faculty handle intentional plagiarism in house, there is no record of it, and students can keep committing the same offense in class after class.
As noted, unintentional plagiarism is a teaching moment, just as with any writing problem. But I have found that few faculty are willing to meet with students to discuss proper citation rules, often instead just telling students to fix their citations or read the APA manual. Given the complexity of citation rules and paraphrasing in particular, students need direct guidance on how to fix problems, and so faculty should meet with them to go over the problems and help them understand the correct processes. To be clear, the faculty member is at liberty to mark a student’s grade down for the errors, as they would for any writing errors, but unlike intentional plagiarism, the penalty here is for writing problems, not integrity issues. Understanding the distinction between unintentional and intentional plagiarism is critical for both deterring cheating and helping students learn how to write academic work.