Plagiarism – why students do it and how you can help

Alastair Horne

In the second of last week’s two webinars, Final Draft author Jeanne Lambert joined us to discuss the growing problem of plagiarism. Despite advances in detection software, plagiarism still takes a great deal of teacher time to resolve, and can have serious consequences – not least of which is the fact that if a student is plagiarising, then they’re not getting the practice they need in order to improve their writing skills.

Jeanne considered some of the reasons why students plagiarise, from language-related issues, and a lack of awareness of what actually constitutes plagiarism, to cultural factors, and the pressures of high-stakes courses and exams. She then explored the concept of ‘patchwriting’, which consists of copying from a source text and then making changes such as replacing some words with synonyms, removing others, and altering grammatical structures. It’s a writing strategy that has been traditionally seen as a form of plagiarism, but one that may actually have benefits for learners, according to academic Rebecca Moore Howard. Jeanne considered whether it might be a useful stage of a writer’s development towards adopting an academic voice, and asked whether we should try teaching it.

Jeanne also proposed three approaches to avoiding plagiarism: regular practice, treating plagiarism not as a problem to be solved but as the exercise of a set of skills, and linking avoiding plagiarism to a set of academic norms. Choosing the right texts is also vital – since students are more likely to plagiarise or patchwrite when faced with texts that are too challenging, when choosing texts for paraphrasing, you should consider picking texts that are actually a little below your students’ language level. Students should have opportunities to read the original texts more than once, ideally over a number of classes. It’s also a good idea to try paraphrasing a text yourself before asking your students to do so – it helps as a check that the task is realistic, and can flag up any likely problems your learners may experience. Practising note taking with your students is also a good way to get your students used to examining texts closely, making it less likely that they’ll plagiarise them.

The webinar finished with a Jeanne sharing a comprehensive four-step approach to teaching paraphrasing, before a lively question-and-answer session:

1. Raise awareness of how paraphrasing can help avoid plagiarism.
2. Provide easy-to-understand steps for writing an effective paraphrase.
3. Have students do noticing activities.
4. Practice paraphrasing (and more practice).

To hear Jeanne’s suggestions in full, click on the play button on the video below.


Buranen, L. (2009). ‘A Safe Place: The Role of Librarians and Writing Centers’ in Addressing Citation Practices and Plagiarism. Knowledge Quest, 37(3), 24-33.
Howard, R.M. (1992). ‘A plagiarism pentimento.’ Journal of Teaching Writing, 11 (2), 233-45.
Howard, R.M. (1995). ‘Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic death penalty.’ College English, 57 (7), 788-805.
Hyland, T.A. (2009). ‘Drawing a line in the sand: Identifying the border zone between self and other in EL1 and EL2 citation practices.’ Assessing Writing, 14 (1), 62-74.
Roig, M. (1999). ‘When college students’ attempts at paraphrasing become instances of potential plagiarism.’ Psychological Reports, 84 (3), 973-982.
Weigle, S.C. & Parker, K. (2012). ‘Source text borrowing in an integrated reading/writing assessment.’ Journal of Second Language Writing. 21(2), 118-133.

To find out more about Final Draft, our academic writing course, explore the website.

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