Among the different types of academic misconduct that can land students in hot water with schools, plagiarism is by far the most common. An increasing number of schools and teachers are now turning to plagiarism detection programs like Turnitin to flag papers and assignments for evidence of plagiarism. Since the abundance of information online has made it incredibly easy (and tempting) for students to cheat, schools are cracking down on plagiarism like never before—to the point that students can face harsh disciplinary action even for plagiarizing unintentionally!
In the eyes of most school disciplinary committees, plagiarism is easy to catch and even easier to prove—especially when they don't have to prove intent. If you're a parent of a student whose work has been flagged by Turnitin for plagiarism, your child's academic reputation and professional future could be placed at risk—even by a seemingly minor infraction or a misunderstanding of the rules. For that reason, it's highly advisable to hire an experienced attorney-advisor to guide you and your child through the complex student discipline process. The involvement of an attorney-advisor can go a long way toward clearing your child's name and protecting their career prospects.
Why Is Plagiarism So Common in High Schools and Colleges?
There are a number of reasons why so many students face disciplinary action for plagiarism versus other types of academic misconduct. Let's go over a few of them:
- Plagiarizing is easier than ever before. Between the abundance of free information online and the constant academic pressures on students to turn in well-researched papers and essays, it's a constant temptation for students simply to copy/paste information retrieved online and turn it in as their own work.
- Plagiarism is easy to commit accidentally. The simple act of forgetting to cite a source or insert a footnote can constitute plagiarism in the eyes of most schools. Additionally, as students take in so much information while studying online, it's all too common for a student to accidentally regurgitate a phrase or a line from something they read—not realizing it's not their original thought or words.
- Plagiarism is the easiest offense for teachers to catch. Instructors have gotten really good at identifying work that has been copied from other students—or perhaps from a term paper that has been circulating for sale. With the added advantage of plagiarism checking tools, they can also run assignments through programs like Turnitin, which can flag plagiarized sections of a paper in seconds.
How Do Plagiarism Checkers Work?
Almost every published work is now available online in some form—and since most students use the Internet for research, certainly most of their source materials are also available online. Plagiarism checking programs maintain massive databases of published books, journals, magazines, and periodicals, as well as scientific papers, websites, and papers uploaded by other students.
When a teacher checks a student's work using Turnitin or some other plagiarism checker, the program compares the content of the paper or assignment with its entire available database to identify similarities in thoughts and words, as well as any sources that haven't been correctly credited. A little bit of similarity from time to time is to be expected—we all use the same language and share similar thoughts, after all—but when a phrase or thought is too similar to something else already written, the program will flag it for review. If the teacher believes the content is too similar not to have been copied outright, the student may be called out for plagiarism.
The Most Commonly Used Plagiarism Checkers
There is currently an abundance of plagiarism checkers available online—some for free, some for a fee, and some offering both free and paid versions. However, some programs are more popular with teachers than others, and some teachers may even run an assignment through more than one plagiarism detector because their databases might be managed differently. There are too many at this point to cover them all here, but let's take a look at a few of the most common plagiarism detection programs you're likely to encounter as a high school or college student.
Turnitin is arguably one of the most popular plagiarism detection services for institutes of higher education. It is currently used by more than 15,000 schools in 140 countries, with more schools signing on all the time. Schools love it for several reasons: first, it was designed specifically for educational purposes; second, it has developed one of the largest scholarly databases available anywhere; and third, it is only marketed to educational institutions, not directly to students, thereby making it more teacher-friendly for use in keeping students honest.
Yet another reason why schools like Turnitin is that it nurtures an “authentic learning” culture rather than a “gotcha” culture. It's not actually intended to entrap students for plagiarism (although it can certainly be used that way), but rather to encourage them to present original material. For that reason, many schools give their students free access to the program to check their work before turning it in!
Another plagiarism detection tool popular with higher education institutions, Unicheck presents itself as an all-in-one solution to detect and prevent plagiarism. Its features include an ability to detect “digital trickery” with suspicious text formatting, the ability to provide feedback to students, and even a student tracker function that allows teachers to identify students to develop a pattern of turning in suspicious work.
One of the reasons many schools like using PlagScan is that its database includes a large amount of non-public scientific content that researchers and publishers have made available to it. This means the platform is more able to detect plagiarism by students copying work from more technical or obscure sources that might otherwise fly under the radar.
This program utilizes advanced AI technology to detect not only material that has been directly copied but also content that has been paraphrased in an attempt to bypass the detectors. The program can also detect plagiarized content in more than 100 different languages. The free version allows for 20 free scans per month, while the paid version allows for unlimited scans. Teachers like CopyLeaks in particular because they say it is easy to use and quite thorough.
Another platform geared toward higher education, academicplagiarism.com scans billions of web pages for comparison while also maintaining a massive database of books, academic publications, and student papers. Teachers like it for its ease of use and because it is a completely online platform requiring no software installation. In addition, the site offers significant discounts on its paid plans for institutes of higher learning.
Instructors like to use Quetext because it offers color-coded feedback that allows them to identify outright plagiarized passages as well as “fuzzy” matches. Its advanced algorithms provide contextual analysis of the content, as well. Because of its in-depth analysis, if you turn in an assignment that gets flagged for plagiarism on Quetext, it can be difficult to prove to the school that you didn't intend to do it or that the software made a mistake.
Many students already use Grammarly to detect grammar mistakes (this is its primary purpose, after all), but some don't realize the program also includes a comprehensive plagiarism checker that cross-checks content across material from more than 16 billion web pages and ProQuest databases. For this reason, teachers often use Grammarly to check students' work as well.
This platform is primarily geared for students to check their own work for plagiarism, but teachers often use it, too—so it's wise to be familiar with it and even to use it. PaperRater offers both free and paid versions.
This plagiarism checker offers huge appeal to schools and teachers (and conscientious students) for two big reasons: First—it compares submitted content to a massive database of more than 14 trillion documents. Second—it's free for everyone to use with no word limits (although there is also a paid version with more features. Plagramme supports more than 120 languages and is popular for use in more than 80 countries.
Common Types of Plagiarism in High Schools, Colleges, and Universities
Most students think of plagiarism as simply copying someone else's work. Actually, plagiarism can occur in many ways and take many forms, some occurring more subtly than others. This is why many students get into trouble without realizing it—they are unaware they are plagiarizing until the content is flagged or until they are notified by the school. Let's take a closer look at the different common types of plagiarism.
Direct or Verbatim Plagiarism
Direct plagiarism is a word-for-word transcription of a passage of someone else's writing without quotation marks or any form of citation. (This is the type of plagiarism most people are familiar with.) In the age of the Internet, this type of plagiarism happens quite often when students copy/paste homework content taken from study platforms like Chegg or Slader.
This is similar to direct plagiarism, except that instead of an excerpt, you copy an entire document someone else wrote and credit it as your own.
Perhaps the most common form of plagiarism, mosaic plagiarism involves combining content taken from a variety of sources in a hodgepodge or patchwork manner, without giving proper credit, and often interspersed with your own original thoughts.
Yes, it's possible to plagiarize yourself. In a school setting, this occurs when you reuse something you have written for one assignment (or class) and turn it in for another. You might feel like this would escape notice, especially if it's a different teacher—but some plagiarism detectors keep a record of submitted work, and sending the same work through a second time will typically cause it to be flagged.
Hired and/or Borrowed Plagiarism
What if you have permission from another person to use their work as your own? For example, if you hire someone to write a paper for you? In the “real world,” we might call that “ghostwriting” or a “work-for-hire,” which is actually legitimate in certain professional settings. But in school, it's still plagiarism—hired plagiarism, to be exact. Likewise, if someone gives (lends) you something they wrote to turn in as your assignment, it's called borrowed plagiarism. Both are forms of cheating, not just because you're turning in someone else's work as your own, but because the assignment itself was supposed to be a learning experience that you bypassed.
It's not just plagiarism to copy someone else's words; it's also plagiarism to copy their thoughts. Paraphrasing someone else's ideas and writing them as your own without giving the person credit is still a form of plagiarism—especially if you cite the same sources behind those ideas. (This can also be referred to as aggregate plagiarism.)
Suppose you collaborate with a group of other students and compile your research together, then each of you writes their own paper based on that same research. Guess what? It's plagiarism. The reason: none of you is writing fully original work because the research was shared. It's a little more difficult to catch, but if the teacher runs the papers through Turnitin or some other detection software, it may flag all the papers by noting similar thought processes in each student's version.
Contributing Author Plagiarism
If you partner with someone else on an assignment or paper, but only one of you puts their name on it, that person is plagiarizing the other's work. In the same way, if someone makes significant edits to your paper and you fail to credit them, you're plagiarizing them, as well.
This is a broad category encompassing any type of plagiarism that was unintentional. In most cases, it happens when you cite a source incorrectly or simply forget to give proper attribution for your sources. In some schools, accidental plagiarism is not treated as severely as deliberate plagiarism, but since it is still considered academic misconduct, you may still be penalized for it.
Common Criticisms of Plagiarism Detection Programs
While Turnitin and other plagiarism detectors are intended to improve levels of academic integrity and help to “keep students honest,” they are not foolproof, nor are they above criticism. Some of the more common complaints include the following:
- Privacy and copyright concerns. Some plagiarism detectors (not all) automatically keep a copy of all submitted materials to add to their ever-increasing database under the pretense of ensuring these documents themselves will not be plagiarized. However, critics point out that this quite often happens without the author's (student's) permission, constituting both a copyright violation and a violation of student privacy. In effect, it presents itself as a double standard because the program displays a lack of academic integrity in the name of preserving academic integrity.
- “False positives.” In their zeal to prevent plagiarism at all costs, critics believe some plagiarism detection services have made their algorithms too sensitive, flagging students for commonly used phrases or jargon as “unoriginal content.” This makes it easier for students to be falsely accused of academic misconduct—and therefore, unjustly punished.
What Are the Possible Penalties for Plagiarism?
If you turn in an assignment and Turnitin (or some other plagiarism detection system) flags it for plagiarism, it's considered a significant violation of academic integrity in almost any school. It may result in some sort of minor penalty if the teacher suspects it was accidental, but flagrant or repeated violations can have serious repercussions for your academic future and even your professional career. Depending on the severity of the infraction, the school may impose any of the following sanctions for plagiarism:
- Failing grade. You get a failing grade or “zero” for the assignment and possibly for the entire course.
- Remediation. You may be required to retake certain classes or even make up an entire year of study.
- Probation. You may be monitored for a period of time and watched closely for any further evidence of plagiarism.
- Restriction from extra-curricular activities.
- Ineligibility for honors programs and societies.
- A permanent notation on your academic record. This can reflect badly on your future education or in the eyes of prospective employers.
- Dismissal or expulsion.
How Allegations of Plagiarism Can Put Your Future at Risk
Like any other form of academic misconduct, a claim of plagiarism can immediately put you at a disadvantage as a student. Here's why:
- Student discipline investigations are complex and tricky. While schools spell out their disciplinary procedures in their Codes of Conduct or Student Handbooks, the truth is most students are unfamiliar with the process. Meanwhile, the school is completely familiar with the process, which puts the student at a disadvantage.
- You may have very little time to come up with a proper defense. Sometimes a student will have to attend a disciplinary hearing within days of being formally notified. Similarly, if the school finds you responsible for plagiarism, you have only a few days to formulate an appeal of the decision before the punishment becomes final.
- Most schools apply the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This means that instead of proving your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as the court system does, the school only has to prove that there was a 50 percent chance or greater that you committed the act of misconduct. This effectively places the burden of proof on you rather than the school.
- Any negative action can adversely affect your career—even if you were innocent. Many disciplinary actions are noted on your permanent record, which can make it more difficult to enroll in continued education or to get hired by certain employers.
Tips for Avoiding Alleged Plagiarism
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as the saying goes. There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of being flagged for plagiarism, even by accident. Some tips that can help:
- Avoid the temptation to copy/paste at all costs. Never copy material obtained online or elsewhere and claim it as your own. For additional safety, avoid platforms like Chegg or Slader unless your instructor specifically okays their use.
- Always give proper credit. Cite your sources properly—even the sources you paraphrase.
- Run your own plagiarism detection. Many students proactively run their papers through one or more of the plagiarism detection programs mentioned earlier before turning in their work. Some platforms even offer “real-time” detection through add-ons and extensions in Google Docs or Microsoft 365 so students can identify suspicious areas and change them. If your school allows you access to Turnitin, use it on your own work before turning it in. If the school doesn't give you this access, try using Scribbr, which partners with Turnitin and accesses the same databases.
Attorney-Advisor for Students Accused of Plagiarism
Because it's so easy to plagiarize by accident, and because so many schools take such a hard line on it, it's far too easy for students accused of plagiarism to suffer unfair penalties and harsh punishments, often jeopardizing their careers in the process. In such cases, having an attorney-advisor can make a huge difference. An experienced attorney-advisor can help you navigate the complex disciplinary process, gather evidence and witnesses in your defense, and help keep the school accountable to its own policies to ensure you are given due process.
Don't let a simple mistake or misstep jeopardize your entire future. Joseph D. Lento is a nationwide expert in academic misconduct defense, and he can help you clear your name and keep your future bright. If you are facing allegations of plagiarism or other forms of student misconduct, call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to see how we can help.