Plagiarism Instruction in the MLA Handbook

A great resource for teachers is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. If you go on to the MLA (Modern Language Association) website, you can email MLA to request a free copy. Besides all the information about MLA formatting and citations (the standard for all Humanities classes), the handbook provides a concise chapter on plagiarism—a clear definition, types of plagiarism, consequences of plagiarism, and tips on how to avoid plagiarism. I have created of the handbook which you can see at the end of this post.

The MLA Handbook’s section on plagiarism is very student friendly, addressing the student directly. I have culled a few insights from the chapter that I think is most helpful for teaching students about plagiarism:

  • Because research has the power to affect opinions and actions, responsible writers compose their work with great care. They specify when they refer to another author’s ideas, facts, and words, whether they want to agree with, object to, or analyze the source. This kind of documentation not only recognizes the work writer do; it also tends to discourage the circulation of error, by inviting readers to determine for themselves whether a reference to another text presents a reasonable account of what that text says. Plagiarists undermine these important public values. (52-53).
  • Plagiarists are often seen as incompetent—incapable of developing and expressing their own thoughts—or worse, dishonest, willing to deceive others for personal gain (53).
  • Student plagiarism does considerable harm. For one thing, it damages teachers’ relationships with students, turning teachers into detectives instead of mentors and fostering suspicion instead of trust. (53).
  • To guard against unintentional plagiarism during research and writing, keep careful notes that always distinguish among three types of material: your ideas, your summaries and paraphrases of others’ ideas and facts, and exact wording you copy from sources. Plagiarism sometimes happens because researchers do not keep precise records of their reading, and by the time thy return to their notes, they have forgotten whether their summaries and paraphrases contain quoted material that is poorly marked or unmarked (55).
  • If you realize after handing a paper in that you accidentally plagiarized an author’s work, you should report the problem to your instructor as soon as possible. In this way you eliminate the element of fraud. You may receive a lower grade than you had hoped for, but getting a lower grade is better than failing a course or being expelled (56).
  • If you have any doubt about whether or not you are committing plagiarism, cite your source or sources (59).

Besides these insights, the sections on “Forms of Plagiarism” (56-58) and “Summing Up” are also great for students. Check out the PDF file below and consider sharing these two sections with your students.



MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (New York: Modern

Language Association of America, 2009).



Plagiarism Professional Development

Professional Development season is upon us. This year I have the privilege of presenting at a couple of PDs. Below you will find my presentation. Feel free to use it for your own purposes. But, what I am really curious about, is your input, suggestions, or questions.

I have ordered the presentation around four questions. Am I leaving anything out? Do you have any suggestions to improve it?

Combating Plagiarism Professional Development

I Didn’t Know!!!: Students Claim Plagiarism Ignorance

Plagiarism CartoonI am the head of the Student Plagiarism Review Committee at our school (Yes, I know it is an awful name . . . any suggestions?). The committee is an ad hoc committee to determine student plagiarism and consequences. We are not quite six weeks into the new school year, and, unfortunately, I have had to oversee four committee meetings already. Each time, the student accused of plagiarism pleaded ignorance–“I didn’t know that was plagiarism!” This is an all too common occurrence.

The purpose of this website is to give teachers the tools to educate students about plagiarism so that they can learn how to avoid it. If you are a follower of, you know that my school has focused on this issue for over year with a blitzkrieg education program (see Nonetheless, students who sat through each one of these information session–one even wearing our stop plagiarism bracelet–pleaded a lack of knowledge about what constitutes plagiarism. I was baffled.

As I reflect on these four sessions, I have learned one thing–teachers need to constantly teach students about the gravity of plagiarism as well as the benefits from avoiding it (not just the consequences!). English teachers around the world are checking off the obligatory beginning of the class speech about plagiarism. They will not revisit the issue until the following year. Don’t do this, for the sake of your students. Every so often–at least once a month–briefly revisit something related to plagiarism to keep the issue at the forefront of the students’ minds. Remind them every paper to be original, creative, and critical and not cheat themselves by committing plagiarism. Only be constantly reminding our students can we help them see how serious an issue it is and help them avoid sitting in front of the dreaded plagiarism committee.

Now What?!: How to Reform a Plagiarizer

For my last post, I discussed the meeting with my student who had been caught plagiarizing. So, you’ve caught a student plagiarizing, now what. How can you follow through with the consequences while maintaining your responsibility as a teacher to help them learn from their mistake? The purpose of the consequences is rehabilitation. Turn the cheater into a conscientious writer who, hopefully, will not make the mistake of plagiarizing again. Below are a few of the extra steps I take with students who cheat.

  • Failing grade for the assignment that they will have to make up over one of their breaks (Fall, Winter, Spring) with the inability to score higher than a 75%.
  • If the assignment is a final assessment, then a failing grade for the unit/semester/course.
  • The student will handwrite the next two assessments in my presence and only in my presence. Thus, if they have to spend extra time at school, then they must make the arrangements.
  • This can be a pain for some teachers, but let the student know that they must work around your schedule. They made the choice to plagiarize. They must take the responsibility to fix it.
  • The student must write a letter to parents and administration—that will be shared only with them—explaining their choice to cheat and how they are going to make it up to the class.

These are just a few idea. There are lots of teachers on this site each week. PLEASE, give us your ideas.

Caught Red Handed: Meeting with a Student Who Plagiarized

This week, a student (let’s call him Student P) plagiarized his final essay. The student has been in my class for an entire year. He has completed the various plagiarism education assignments I implement in my classes—the plagiarism poster assignment, the plagiarism tutorial, the student training program. He even wears one of my stop plagiarism bracelets. Yet, he still decided to plagiarize. Student P submitted is paper to me through The paper came back with a 70% similarity rating. Student P used one website to copy and paste his words with a few changes here and there, what I refer to as patchwork plagiarism.


Now, I have to talk with him about his assessment. I am frustrated with Student P. I am frustrated with him because I focus so much on plagiarism in my courses, yet he still hasn’t learned. I want to yell at him and call him out as a cheater, yet I can’t and won’t do that as a teacher. This got me to thinking—how should a teacher approach these kinds of talks? What do they say to the student?


First, I think any respectable school and teacher needs to have a plagiarism section in their handbook which defines plagiarism, the process for addressing plagiarism issues, and clear consequences for the first and each successive act. Luckily, we have one that I wrote for the handbook. I will show Student P the handbook and let him know the consequences for his act—failing the assignment, repeating the work, and keeping his work on file for a year. If he commits the act again, he will be eligible for suspension and expulsion. Second, I will walk him through his paper which I have printed out for the meeting. I will show him why this paper is plagiarism and why it is unacceptable to turn in as his own work. Third, I will have him complete the plagiarism tutorial again (see post “Plagiarism Tutorial”).  Fourth, I will have him write a letter to his parents letting them know his actions, why they were wrong, what plagiarism is, and how he will avoid it in the future.


What else could I say or do? I thought it would be helpful to look up a few tools online to give me more tips. I didn’t really find much except bits of advice. Most was almost entirely useless. However, Professor Nate Kreuter of Western Carolina University wrote a piece for “Inside Higher Ed” that is very helpful. Here’s the relevant part:

I cannot see the value in confronting a student about the possibility of plagiarism without tangible evidence suggesting the wrongdoing. Even if a case of dishonesty does exist in such a situation, it is unverifiable and I know of no honor system or academic integrity code that allows an instructor or college to assess a penalty for academic dishonesty in the absence of evidence.

For some reason, some instructors have a tendency to take instances of academic dishonesty extremely personally. While I am not in any way trying to excuse academic dishonesty, nor suggesting that we turn a blind eye to it, I do feel that the individual reactions of instructors are sometimes out of proportion, even inappropriate. We make a mistake when we are personally offended by a student’s act of academic dishonesty.

Certainly the problem must be dealt with, but we must resist the immediate, knee-jerk impulse to personalize the issue. Students didn’t cheat or plagiarize to “get” you — they did it out of laziness or fear or ignorance, and I can assure you that “pulling one over” was only their objective insofar as the student thought it would help to shortcut work or secure a high grade. Taking the episode personally only potentially escalates the situation and confuses what is at stake, which is academic and intellectual integrity, not an instructor’s hurt feelings.

It makes perfect sense that we would react strongly, and possibly even overreact, to cases of suspected or actual academic dishonesty: academic dishonesty, whether committed intentionally or through some form of negligent ignorance, threatens the principles upon which academic disciplines and knowledge building are founded. Our own research and scholarship is predicated upon assumptions of honesty and integrity, and when peers in our profession violate this assumed virtues it can call into question entire lines of research throughout a discipline.

At least when it comes to writing classes, which are what I teach at the undergraduate level, cheating tends to come out in the wash.  A plagiarized paper is unlikely to respond directly enough to the writing prompt to merit a high grade. So, rather than bending over backwards to make a plagiarism case when something is suspicious, I do a quick Google of a few of the suspect phrases. If nothing turns up, I simply proceed with grading, with full confidence that plagiarized papers rarely directly address my prompts, and that Fs are Fs.

When you do catch a verifiable case of plagiarism, I think it’s essential, both for your own protection and the protection of the student, to follow through on your university’s policies for documenting and dealing with those situations. We do students no favors by turning a blind eye to verifiable cases of dishonesty, nor any favors for our departments, universities, or higher education writ large. At the same time though, students should be trusted until they engage in an action that warrants losing the instructor’s trust. Only by treating students as adults (which many of them already are in the legal sense, even if not necessarily in all senses) can students become adults. That means holding students accountable for their work, for their honesty or dishonesty. It also means approaching student work with an attitude less cynical than immediate suspicion (

Here’s the take away from Professor Kreuter:

1) Have airtight evidence of plagiarism before the student meeting.

2) Don’t take the student’s plagiarism personally (great advice!).

3) Follow through on the school plagiarism policy.

Resource: Richard Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism


For this post, I want to introduce you all to a great resource for addressing plagiarism in your classrooms—The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard Posner (Pantheon, 2007).  Posner is a legal scholar who currently teaches at the University of Chicago Law School.  A highly regarded figure in his field, Posner is often introduced as the most cited legal scholar of the twentieth century (cited in Wikipedia, source Shapiro, Fred. “The Most Cited Legal Scholars.” Journal of Legal Studies 29/1 (2000): 409-426. This book is a book for you, the teacher. It covers the nature of plagiarism, the history of plagiarism, and many famous cases of plagiarism before delving into a legal and political discussion about the issue.

Perhaps, the most important notion put forward by Posner for educators is his argument that plagiarism is an “embarrassing and second rate offense.” Posner dismisses plagiarism as a legal issue, declaring that though good art need not be totally original (he gives examples from the work of Shakespeare and Manet), rather plagiarism is a destruction of creativity and originality that has the insidious undertone of fraud and deception. Rather than taking the plagiarist to court, the act should be dealt with through public shaming. While public shaming an individual in school is not okay, educators can apply Posner’s argument by publicly shaming the very act of plagiarism. This is important because educating ourselves, our students, and our administrators about the cancerous effect of plagiarism on education is a must. Posner himself argues that schools MUST utilize plagiarism detector software. Not to do so is to be “naïve.” Instead, schools should consider all students suspect, even the good ones. Because, the truth is that the temptation to plagiarize is too great for many students to avoid it. Software like turnitin eliminates the temptation. Schools who utilize these tools are helping the world enter into what Posner refers to as “the twilight of plagiarism

This book is short, but it is not a quick read. Rather, it is a great book for a teacher wanting to focus on plagiarism for professional development or a book to read over your summer break that will help you be a better teacher. The book is worth the time and effort.