As a former high school Social Studies teacher, one of the most frustrating aspects of my job was to help students understand the concept of plagiarism. Especially in this day and age where information is so readily accessible to our students online, and the lines of plagiarism are blurred with the invention of social media concepts such as ReTweeting. I often found that without an explicit discussion on citing sources, many students would cite "Google" or "Google Images" as one of their sources.
We could get into a whole discussion about how important it is to help students understand the importance of not only giving credit where credit is due, but also that the whole purpose of the exercise is to see how well they can synthesize and analyze the information that they've found -- not just regurgitate.
But I digress...
The fact of the matter is, that some students will, for whatever reason, plagiarize an essay from time to time. And before you jump to conclusions, let me tell you that this wasn't always just those low-end, "lazy" students; in fact, many times it was students who were at the top of the class, and feeling the pressure of maintaining a good grade to get into the University of their choice, or win a scholarship. [again - a topic for another post about the pressure put on students with the current education system set up the way it is].
So how did I "catch" the plagiarism? Most of the time it was simply a gut feeling after reading a student's submission, whereby their writing voice had changed dramatically from their previous writing samples (one of the bonuses of teaching students for up to 8 semesters of their high school career was this intimate knowledge of not only their in-person personality, but also their writing style). But how to go about "proving" my suspicions? I mean, sometimes you gotta give kids the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they simply had a light-bulb moment and magically understood all of your suggestions with previous writing, and voila! Here's their new writing sample! Sadly, that probably occurs maybe only once per semester. More often than not, it's a gradual improvement of various aspects of writing that we've focused on in class.
That means that the question still remains: how does one prove that all or part of a writing submission is plagiarized? There are many online tools to do this, one of which I personally like: Doc Cop.
What I like about this site (besides the fact that it's free), is the following:
1. Easy to use
2. You can check a writing sample against the entire web or other files that you have on your computer.
3. You set the string length that it checks (the default is 9 words). This is particularly useful if there's a small section that you think may have been copied. The downside to this? When you decrease the string length, you increase the chance of false positives.
4. It highlights the wording that it finds duplicates of, so you can then use logic as to whether or not this item is concerning. Ex: "Once upon a time" being found on the web is probably not all that concerning.
5. It emails you a report, complete with the percentage of the submission that is identical to other sources on the web. If you click the search engine link beside the highlighted words, it will show the search results with links to those pages that contain the duplicate wording.
6. It can be used to show the importance of proper quoting versus simply citing references. This can be used as a GREAT learning experience about how if you like how the original author wrote some information, perhaps you'd be better off directly quoting them rather than trying to find another way to state the same idea.
My grievances with this site:
1. I'm not a huge fan of the name. I know this sounds silly, but it conjures up visions of an "us vs. them" mentality, as in, the teachers are set on tracking down all the bad students and punishing them.
2. Word limit. When you submit a file to check against the web, it will only hold 1000 words at a time...this can be time consuming if you have a 3000 word essay x 38 students in a class.
3. Because it uses string search, it's hard to find instances where students have copied 90% of the wording, and changed or deleted every third or fourth word to "make it their own". (insert beating head against the wall as you explain for the millionth time how this is not "putting it into your own words")
At any rate, this may at least open up the conversation in your class, and give you a tool to use when you just "know" that a student's work isn't in their own words.
Now if only they'd invent a way to tell when mommy or daddy have written the essay for their darling son/daughter...