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9 Detect plagiarism




Being aware of what you are up against is a useful starting point so think about the plagiarist’s ‘craft’. How could you shortcut the task if you had been given it?

Visit some homework ‘help’ sites and look at what is on offer. A May 2002 Google search for ‘homework’ returned 4.6 million sites; by September 2003 this had risen to 7.8 million! These sites vary from the laudable, eg, the National Geographic, to the exploitative ‘paper mills’, sites which have a huge range of papers for sale. You can even select a particular grade, presumably so you can stay in your own league and not make it too obvious it’s not your own work. The Kimbel Library maintains an excellent site tracking the ‘mills’. They note that, ‘in March 1999, it had 35 sites on it. In March 2003, there are over 250 general sites listed.’ There are also subject specific sites.

Lovers of irony should visit, providing ‘research papers to assist students studying ethics’. If they don’t have it, they'll, ‘write one as quickly as you need!’

Well known mills include,,,, or These sites may be filtered on school networks so try from elsewhere or have the site unblocked. Probably the best-known detection site is which checks student work against potential sources and then reports back to the subscriber. Students of subscribing schools can even submit work through this site so it has been authenticated before handing up.

Steps any teacher can take before going to this expense include the following. Search topics you set to acquaint yourself with what is available. Try more than one search engine as they throw up different results. Note that people rarely go beyond the first page or so of the sites returned. You might casually ask targeted students which engines they find most helpful. CD/online encyclopaedias are particular favourites of the lazy so check these if nothing else. Having assignments emailed to you saves the tedium of keying in suspect passages accurately.

Students may try to disguise plagiarism by changing the introductory paragraph or the first line of other paragraphs so start looking elsewhere. Look for technical terms and/or complex language and choose a ‘string’ of 5~10 words. Type or paste the suspect string into the search engine find field enclosed in double quotes forcing a search for the complete string. Search engines use different algorithms so some are better than others. I often start with because it looks for the string exactly as entered and will often return a single accurate hit. Google is currently the most popular engine and what a plagiariser finds with it will also be found by the righteous! Before giving up on a search try different suspect strings and different engines. Colleagues who tried this technique found the results ‘quite scary’, particularly as they were not initially suspicious and were simply experimenting. Remember, if you don’t find anything it does not mean the work is not plagiarised, only that you did not find it. Your intuition could still be correct.

You may wish to practise this technique using the examples you will find here.




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All original photographs © J G Taylor, 2005

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