How Teachers can Detect Plagiarism in English Essays

When students submit plagiarized work, they are usually operating under certain assumptions. They believe that the teachers don’t really read their work, that the teachers don’t really care where the text came from as long as the student turned in something, or that teachers won’t check for plagiarism because they just want to pass students so that their average pass rates per course don’t drop. Finally, especially when it comes to English teachers, students assume that instructors have no technical savvy and will not know how to check for plagiarism. Unfortunately for the students, they are wrong on all counts.

Reading student work is the first step in detecting plagiarism. If a student submits average or below average writing assignments and exams in the first week, then suddenly begins writing like a PhD candidate, it’s time to check the students work for plagiarism.

Students who plagiarize will often copy and paste the text wholesale from a website without really reading it thoroughly. When the teacher reads their work and finds it ending with forum comments from other readers, or full of advertising links, it’s a foregone conclusion that the work is plagiarized.

If the text of the student’s essay changes font style or color or if there are odd formatting markings in the text when you turn on your paragraph markers, the text may be copied and pasted. Looking at the student’s text with formatting indicators (paragraph markers, etc.) turned on in your word processor can be very helpful in spotting plagiarism.

It is important to check that the reference listings in a student’s bibliography, reference, or works cited section are the same references that are cited in the paper. If they are not, it could mean that the bibliography and the text are both plagiarized from two different sources.

Finally, if a text seems to contradict itself or change tone often, it is most likely plagiarized using bits of text from different sources. To figure out which sources, teachers will need to turn to the World Wide Web.

Students sometimes don’t understand what constitutes plagiarism. If a student submits a paper with paragraphs lifted word for word from other sources, they are plagiarizing even if they have cited their sources. As a general rule, direct quotes in a paper should not take up more than fifteen or twenty percent of the paper’s length and all direct quotes must be attributed and cited. Images should also be cited.

Beyond a simple reading, teachers can use Internet search engines, free plagiarism detectors, and paid plagiarism detectors to find out if a student is cheating. Since students rarely plagiarize from print sources these days, instructors can usually discount them and concentrate on online sources. It is usually best to start with free types of detectors like search engines because the student is unlikely to spend money to find material when there is so much free material on the web.

The easiest plagiarism detectors to use are search engines such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. They’re free and they provide a comprehensive list of sources if material has been plagiarized. All the instructor needs to do is copy and paste one or two lines of the student’s text into the search engine field and hit “Enter.” If the search finds word for word instances of the text on one or more websites, the student has plagiarized the text. If the search returns random single words and one or two word phrases, the student is the author. When using a search engine test, searching the first couple of lines is alright, but instructors should also search chunks of text further into the work. Some students will write their own introduction, plagiarize the body of their work, then perhaps write a conclusion.

Free plagiarism checkers offered by such sites as and allow instructors to check large chunks of text all at once. Instructors copy and paste the entire essay into the plagiarism checker’s text box and hit the submit button. After a short wait, the plagiarism checker returns a list with sites where phrasing similar or the same as the text in question has been found, often with a the percentage of questioned text that matches the site. The higher the percentage, the more likely it is that the text has been plagiarized.

In addition to copying and pasting an essay’s text into search engines and plagiarism checkers, it is a good idea to copy and paste reference pages, works cited pages, and bibliographies into the testing fields as well. Students may decide to plagiarize a source without a bibliography, then add a bibliography from another source to meet an assignment requirement calling for references.

In certain circumstances, using a combination of search engine checks and free plagiarism checkers is more effective than relying on only one. Some sites, such as free and paid essay sites that cater to students looking to cheat, try to hide their sample texts and block their free and paid essay sites from web search scrutiny, but they still have to be open enough to searches to allow customers to find them. If the instructor is certain that the essay is plagiarized, but a simple search engine search doesn’t yield good results, combining it with searches on several free plagiarism checker sites should get results if the instructor’s hunch is correct.

Paid plagiarism-checker sites may or may not be more effective than the free methods. However, they often have access to more places to check than just the free and open sites on the web. Instructors may feel more confident paying a by-use or periodic fee for a dedicated plagiarism checker that is more than just a “sample” of what the hosting website can offer. However, unless the educational institution is willing to pay the cost, the fees come out of the teacher’s pocket.

Some institutions, particularly colleges and universities, invest in enterprise wide plagiarism checkers, such as Safe Assign by Blackboard or When the student uploads a written assignment for grading, Safe Assign returns the percentage of the text that has phrasing similarities to other online sources for both the student and instructor to see. As with the free plagiarism checkers and the paid services that individuals may contract, the higher the percentage, the more likely it is that the paper has been plagiarized. While services like Safe Assign are very effective and offer searches that include private databases such as Proquest and the institutional research paper archives of their customers, they are also far too expensive for individuals. Their use is usually found at the institutional level of plagiarism detection.

However, instructors should be aware, when using the paid plagiarism checkers that students sometimes find ways to defeat them. Doing a second round of checks using the free sources, instructor knowledge and observation, search engine checks, and free plagiarism checkers, will reinforce the paid checkers will catch students who are trying to cheat and assume that professors will accept a paid checker’s results unquestioningly.

Perhaps the hardest form of plagiarism for instructors to detect is plagiarism that students commit out of ignorance, such as “quoting” several pages from a source, then citing it or paraphrasing ideas that came from their sources, but failing to cite them. The best way to detect this is to check the student’s sources thoroughly, visiting the sources during grading, and evaluating the student’s citation practices regarding their sources.

Some students deliberately plagiarize; others inadvertently plagiarize. Using their own knowledge and instincts along with online search tools, instructors can catch most, if not all, plagiarists while grading assignments. However, dealing with those who have been caught is a different and sometimes very delicate matter.

Separating the cheaters from the merely ignorant may be a much greater challenge than detecting the stolen text. Instructors can meet that challenge if they consider each case of plagiarism on an individual basis, discussing it with both the student and school administrators. Some students see nothing wrong with plagiarism and cannot be dissuaded from doing it again, while others may just need proper guidance to understand what plagiarism is and is not. These are the students who can and should be guided into better writing practices. These are the students who can be “saved.”