All texts have a particular style that may be thought of
as a ‘signature’ or ‘fingerprint’. This style
will depend on the purpose of the text and the expertise of the author,
both as a writer and as an authority. Any discrepancy of styles between
work submitted and the student’s known ability is grounds for suspicion.
Consider two passages from an independent study task submitted for year
12 Design. The first is from the introduction and the second is from the
are among the most abundantly used article of office furniture to date
(along side desks and shelving). With more and more jobs involving computers
arise so does the demand for an ergonomic computer chair. ...
... Backrest angle adjustability allows the chair to support different
degrees of recline, which in turn transfers some upper-body weight to
the chair backrest and lightens the load on the lower back’s intervertebral
The style of first passage is everyday, conversational
language with simple structures typical of an inexperienced writer. The
second, in contrast, is far more precise and complex with a sequence of
consequences and use of specialist language. You do not need to be a forensic
linguist to deduce two authors. The teacher who set the task seems oblivious
however and made the following comments: ‘sound research –
reflection evident – clear understanding’, awarding it 9 marks
out of 10! A quick search revealed that, except for the poorly written
introductory and concluding paragraphs, the 8 pages were taken verbatim
from 3 unattributed websites.
The teacher does not seem to have followed any of the strategies recommended
but the real reason this has not been challenged is probably more complex.
There is a tendency for some teachers to confine themselves within their
specialist area. The belief that language is the sole and exclusive preserve
of the English faculty is not uncommon. This manifestly should not be
the case as all teachers, whether they acknowledge it or not, are literacy
teachers, having a responsibility to teach students to communicate in
ways that are powerful, particular and appropriate to their subject. A
carryover of this mindset is that many specialist teachers ignore the
way content is communicated and linguistics triggers that are clear indicators
of blatant plagiarism are missed.
There is a need for teachers generally to increase their awareness of
the linguistic markers that are the ‘smoking gun’ of plagiarism.
There are a number of features that experienced teachers look for. Plagiarised
texts may be taken from authorities including textbooks, journals and
reputable sites on the internet. These ‘encyclopaedic’ texts
are well structured at the clause, sentence, paragraph and whole text
level and are typified by lexical density, extended sentence length, complexity
and consistency. Notably, they contrast to the way most students write.
ESL learners in particular may have their own patterns of apparently quirky
English structures, often influenced by their first language, which can
contrast starkly with the flow of ‘borrowings’.