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Playing the Plagiarism Game

Margaret Tomlinson Rustick

Department of English
California State University, East Bay


When I introduce the subject of plagiarism in my composition classes, often a student will ask somewhat defensively, “How do you know somebody has plagiarized?” As their classmates begin telling stories, it seems everyone knows someone who was falsely accused, atrociously insulted, and unjustly punished.

Given statistics from the Center for Academic Integrity (CAI), these accounts of vigilante teachers indiscriminately stringing up students seem highly improbable, and rumors of mistreatment may be the academic equivalent of an urban legend. According to the CAI, more than 60% of the 18,000 high school students they surveyed admitted to plagiarizing. At the same time, the report notes, “Faculty are reluctant to take action against suspected cheaters. In […] surveys involving almost 10,000 faculty in the last three years, 44% of those who were aware of student cheating in their course […] never reported a student for cheating to the appropriate campus authority” (“CAI Research”). If these numbers are accurate, rather than unfairly condemning innocent students, teachers are far more likely looking the other way when they know students have plagiarized.

Detection Services and Their Limitations

Faculty concerns over the amount of plagiarism and their fears of wrongfully accusing students have spurred an increase of plagiarism detection services such as, to which CSU East Bay subscribes. These services provide a degree of certainty for teachers, and they may be useful for catching students who purchase essays from paper mills (Groark, Oblinger, and Choa). However, teachers who ignore their experience and tell students essentially that only a computer is capable of detecting plagiarism misrepresent the human activity of reading, and neglect the rhetorical awareness of language that students must develop to determine what “counts” as their own words and what needs to be cited.

Furthermore, since tools like depend on matching exact language, they are less effective at identifying summaries that have not been attributed to a source, and they are virtually incapable of recognizing original ideas that should be credited to an author. If we reexamine the question of how teachers know a paper has been plagiarized—or at least what causes us to suspect plagiarism, for I am not advocating that teachers take action based solely on instinct—we may find ways to help students learn how to work more effectively with ideas, information, and language from published sources.

Playing the Game

When my students ask how I recognize plagiarism, I tell them it’s as if someone is speaking French and then suddenly switches to Chinese. For an attentive reader, especially a teacher who has read volumes of student writing, the stylistic shifts between the student and the published source are usually obvious in the “cut and paste” essay. In the past, like many teachers, I tried to address this problem by teaching the conventions of citation through familiar activities like showing original passages followed by correctly and incorrectly cited summaries, paraphrases, and direct quotations.

Recently I began to wonder if students could recognize those stylistic shifts that are apparent to me when I read a plagiarized essay. In part, I thought if students could see how easy it is to spot plagiarism, they might be less likely to do it themselves. To test my hypothesis, I created a game in which the objective was for students to intentionally plagiarize, and to do it so well that their classmates would not be able to detect the plagiarism.

I began the activity by selecting an essay on the purpose of attending college, the topic of my students’ current writing assignment. I divided the essay into eight 200-word sections, each a paragraph or two that developed a topic sentence or a claim with some explanation and supporting evidence. I copied these for the students, using a single essay instead of printing passages from different essays so that they might gain some sense of the overall tone and purpose of the full-length article.

In class, I had the students work in groups of three to four, each group receiving a different passage. They were to collaboratively write their own paragraph, illegally using words and ideas from the readings they were given. As they began the activity, the energy level was very high, a stark contrast to their passivity when I reviewed the conventions of citation explained in their textbook. Most remarkable, however, were the questions they began asking me: “Is it paraphrasing if I change these words to these?” “Would I have to cite this, or is this my own idea?” “Is it plagiarism if I don’t put quotation marks around this word?” They often excitedly whispered their questions and pointed at their papers, huddled secretively over their writing so their classmates could not see, and the furtive glances around the room became a playful parody of the plagiarist at work.

The first time I tried this activity, I had each group simply read aloud the paragraphs they’d written, and I told their classmates to raise their hands when they heard something they thought was plagiarized, which they were able to do with about 90% accuracy after hearing the passage one time. Since the activity had worked so well, I tried it again later, adding to it by having groups write their paragraphs on overhead-projector transparencies. First, they wrote a paragraph in which they correctly cited everything, and then they copied that paragraph on another transparency without the necessary citations and quotation marks. When the whole class viewed the plagiarized version, we were able to look more carefully at the passage to compare it to the correctly cited paragraph the group had produced.

In subsequent versions of this activity, I have given the entire class copies of the introduction and conclusion of the article from which their individual passages are taken. We discuss these sections of the article, applying the “preparing to read” activities in our textbook (Bean, Chappell, and Gilliam 38-47), particularly emphasizing the rhetorical context and thesis of the original source. Next we discuss our existing knowledge and beliefs about the topic, which helps emphasize what writers already know before they begin their research. Each group generates four or five claims that serve as potential topic sentences for the paragraphs they are about to write. Including this step has helped prevent merely summarizing the passages, encouraging students to see the connection between their own ideas and what they read. I also review documentation conventions and remind students what needs to be cited, modeling what they are to do in their groups by showing them a paragraph I’ve plagiarized with information from the introduction and conclusion. Given the more extensive preparation, the activity now tends to take two class periods but provides a more thorough learning experience.

Applicability to Other Disciplines

Although I designed this activity for composition students, it can easily be adapted for other subject areas. Each time I play the plagiarism game with students, I choose articles related to topics we are discussing. In order to write their own paragraphs, students need some knowledge of the subject, and the articles I select are intended to build on that knowledge. It is also important for teachers in every subject to review their expectations for documenting sources. As Rebecca Moore Howard and Margaret Price note, conventions differ according to discipline, university policies are easily misunderstood, and ensuring properly credited information gathered from published material is much more complex than simply telling students to cite their sources. Furthermore, the emphasis on documentation as a way to avoid the crime of plagiarism misrepresents what academic writers do when they cite sources.

We credit sources not only to acknowledge the author, but also because we see writing as part of the ongoing conversation in our disciplines. We know our “original” ideas did not develop in a vacuum, as students sometimes believe, and we cite sources in part to identify scholars who have influenced our thinking. We imagine readers whose knowledge of sources we cite adds to their understanding of the texts we have written, and we envision readers as colleagues who may use those sources to continue investigating the questions we pursue in our fields. Composition teachers alone cannot be responsible for the ongoing development of students’ abilities to participate in disciplinary conversations by citing published material, nor can teachers across the university abdicate their authority to machines, using tools like as a “pedagogic placebo,” as Nick Carbone calls it.

One Step Ahead?

Plagiarism detection tools like may help combat the problem of those arguably few students who will go to any lengths to avoid completing a writing assignment, though the growing market of “custom” papers on the Internet suggests the thieves are determined to stay one step ahead of us. To teach students how to work effectively with outside sources, we cannot ignore deliberate plagiarism, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to software detection tools, either. By enlisting students as our allies rather than seeing them as potential criminals, by demonstrating how to avoid plagiarism instead of focusing on punishment, we can create activities that help students learn the conventions of citation that they need to engage in academic discourse.


Bean, John C., Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gilliam. Reading Rhetorically: A Reader for Writers. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

“CAI Research.” Center for Academic Integrity. Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University. 2006.

Carbone, Nick. “, a Pedagogic Placebo for Plagiarism.” Bedford/St. 13 June 2001. 17 June 2006. http://

Groark, Marie, Diana Oblinger, and Miranda Choa. “Term Paper Mills, Anti-Plagiarism Tools, and Academic Integrity.” Educause (Sept/Oct 2001): 40-48.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. "Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty." College English 57.7 (November 1995): 708-36.

Price, Margaret. "Beyond 'Gotcha!': Situating Plagiarism in Policy and Pedagogy." College Composition and Communication. 54.1 (2002): 88-115.

Posted November 6, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Margaret Tomlinson Rustick.

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