National Writing Project

Book Review: Plagiarism: Why It Happens—How to Prevent It

By: Laura Brownell
Date: January 28, 2010

Summary: Laura Brownell, a teacher-consultant at Red Cedar Writing Project, reviews a book about plagiarism that examines the motivation behind student plagiarism and presents a preventative approach—with an abundance of suggestions and ready-to-use resources—for teachers to use with their students.


As soon as the students started their search for Greek gods and goddesses in the computer lab, I knew there was a problem.

"Can't we just cut and paste?" the students pleaded.

I thought for a moment. That would be more efficient, wouldn't it? After all, what I'm asking you to do requires no great thought—just collecting information on an assigned character. I shook myself back to teacher mode and responded with, "Take notes! Put it in your own words," followed by, "Don't forget your 'works cited' page!"

And, although I had explained "works cited" to them, their blank expressions revealed, "Huh? What's that?"

As Barry Gilmore makes clear in Plagiarism: Why It Happens—How to Prevent It , while consequence is important when dealing with plagiarism, prevention is huge.

The assignment I had given the students was ripe for the crafty, cut-corner-mentality of many high schoolers who have grown up in an era of fast food and time-saving gadgets, of quick communication and why-wait-if-you-can-have-it-now, of shared music, movies, images, and if-you-don't-know-the-answer-find-it-on-the-Web.

As a teacher, I cannot pretend that this population of students does not exist; therefore, I want to find ways to convey to my students a sense of integrity when dealing with originality, and the rewards that can come with personal effort. Learning from others' written words—researching what information and opinions are in our world on a given topic—is a profoundly important skill that I want my students to value, not abuse.

Thankfully, Gilmore has written his book for educators who, like me, want students to maintain honest academic work in a society that increasingly raises ethical questions such as, "Should it be okay for people to sell ready-made essays on Internet sites?"

Positive Solutions

Gilmore's suggestions are designed to lessen the teacher's job as a detective who tracks down plagiarism offenders and highlight the teacher's job as an educator who instructs students about plagiarism. Teachers can help students understand the concept of academic integrity and their responsibility to cite sources. If these ideas are discussed first and embedded in classroom and school culture, Gilmore maintains, then the need for the teacher to sniff out plagiarism will be greatly reduced.

Many students may not comprehend that what they are doing is not honest, academic work.

Gilmore examines ways that teachers have tried to make it more difficult for students to plagiarize. For example, he discusses the idea of specifying requirements by, say, limiting sources, audience, and topic questions, but he cautions that over-stipulating may restrict student thought.

He also advances the idea of creating assignments where the focus of the writing is more on independent student thought in order to lessen the ease of student "borrowing." He warns, however, that strategies focusing too much on student ideas may discount the skill of research.

Gilmore proposes many other means to reduce the desire to plagiarize, such as having students and teachers create topics together—which can build community and increase student investment in their writing. He suggests having students do some of their writing in class so that teachers can conference about writing while monitoring authenticity.

Gilmore also emphasizes the power of the writing process—especially revising and editing—as a teaching strategy to help students lessen the occurrence of plagiarism. If students are reevaluating their writing and making changes, their writing will have more personal input and originality even if their preceding drafts were not completely their own words.

Helping Students Understand Plagiarism

Gilmore wants teachers to understand that many students may not even comprehend that what they are doing is not honest academic work. Plagiarism may be an overwhelming concept to a 14-year-old, and students may need help to break down the term with specific examples. Gilmore includes many tables and lists that teachers can use to help students gain a clear understanding of plagiarism and the need for attribution.

He has put together Plagiarism: A How-Not-To Guide for Students , which includes the resources from his book in a more student-friendly format.

For schools that do not have a buildingwide policy to deal with plagiarism, or teachers who feel their policy is not working, Gilmore offers suggestions for creating or revisiting plagiarism policy. He proposes involving students in the process of creating a policy and informing all students what the policy is. A student who is guilty of plagiarizing, Gilmore asserts, needs an opportunity for learning from the mistake as well as a consequence for his or her actions.

On the Heinemann website is a supplementary Study Guide (PDF) that includes many questions to help both teachers and students consider their stance on plagiarism.

Technology Solutions—and How to Use Them

Gilmore provides a wealth of information to assist students and teachers in detecting plagiarism and in citing and evaluating sources. He discusses detection service technology, which teachers can use to search through students' work and identify "suspect" parts.

He cautions, however, that use of these services can work against fostering trust and integrity in the classroom. He suggests that a better way to use this technology would be to have students run their own papers through the services and rethink and re-do their work if necessary.

Gilmore includes information about programs that format bibliographical entries, helping students gain confidence and understanding when giving credit to sources they have used. Gilmore believes that without the know-how to do such things as take notes, find appropriate resources, and create a "works cited" page—all skills that lend to proper attribution—students are more apt to plagiarize or even to plagiarize unintentionally.

He also cites resources to assist students in determining the credibility of websites, and models to help students practice note taking.

He reminds readers that plagiarism is often the result of an ancillary problem such as unreasonable deadlines, pressure from parents for top grades, or unclear steps of an assignment.

A Vaccination for Plagiarism

From the moment in the computer lab with the ninth-graders when I realized that plagiarism was spreading like the swine flu, I began thinking, "How can I keep my students from plagiarizing?" Gilmore's real classroom experience and engaging writing style have provided me with answers.

I need to front-load my instruction and raise awareness about plagiarism so that students will not feel compelled to cheat, will have the skills they need to "do it right" when using information from others' sources, and will respect their own work as well as that of other authors.

For any teacher who has had to make even one uncomfortable phone call informing parents that their child "copied," or for a teacher or entire staff who want to examine their current policy surrounding plagiarism, Gilmore's book is a worthwhile resource.

About the Author Laura Brownell is a ninth grade English teacher at Marshall High School in Marshall, Michigan; a 2002 Cohort teacher-consultant at Michigan State University's Red Cedar Writing Project; and a past participant in the National Reading Initiative.

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