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Why Good Students Plagiarize—and How to Help Them Stop

Biologist Dr. Emily Holt observed confusion about exactly what plagiarism is. So she created simple tips and an assignment to guide her college students.


Emily Holt, PhD

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley

PhD in Botany and Plant Pathology, MS in Botany, BA in Biology

When Emily Holt, PhD, first started teaching (then at Utah State University), she was shocked by the prevalence of plagiarism in her ecology course. In a seemingly simple assignment, students were asked to find evidence in scientific literature to support topics they were studying. “When I started grading the [essays], I noticed some lines would be in a student’s voice and others were clearly not,” she says. “It kept happening, so I started tracking it.”

What Holt found baffled her. “In a class of 70 students, 85% of them had plagiarized to some degree on their assignments,” she says. “There were even a few cases where the students outright copied and pasted someone else’s work without any attribution.”

Through some research of her own, Holt discovered that many of these students were engaging in “unintentional” plagiarism. “They had never been properly trained to cite sources, or even to understand what plagiarism is,” Holt says. “Most professors assume students learn this in high school, but I found that’s often not the case.”

Holt immediately began seeking effective ways to implement student-focused anti-plagiarism training; she even joined forces with the school’s library and developed an online tutorial. Still, through her own data and personal observation, she learned that students understand and recognize plagiarism better through old-fashioned “citation homework assignments,” which she now provides in each of her upper-division courses during the first weeks of the semester.

“If a student balks at the assignment, asserting they already know what plagiarism is, I just tell them, ‘Then it will be easy for you!’ It truly is important for everyone to do. Students trained by the homework are better able to identify plagiarism.” And that, she hopes, will help them intentionally avoid it.

Below, Holt shares her basic citation homework assignment—adapted with permission from Paul C. Smith, Alverno College—followed by six tips for maximizing its impact.


“Students understand that it’s important for ideas to belong to people, and that words belong to people. They just need to learn to recognize when they may have inadvertently copied something, and how to avoid that—or cite it.”

— Emily Holt, PhD

Course: BIO 360 Ecology

Course description: Identify/describe plant and animal communities. Study of ecosystem structure and energy flow. Examine topics such as biogeochemical cycles, soils, population structure, species’ interactions and succession.

See resources shared by Emily Holt, PhD

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6 top tips to teach students the perils of plagiarism

Holt says that the citation homework assignment tasks students with selecting a journal article and writing their own paraphrase of its findings. “I want them to feel comfortable learning this skill,” she says.

Here are a few ways she sets the stage for this exercise.

1. Offer guidelines on quoting and citation

At the start of the semester, Holt provides students with detailed handouts on how to write about others’ ideas and words, and she provides guidelines from the Council of Science Editors (CSE). “Some of [these practices] may be common knowledge—for example, what comprises a quote,” Holt explains. She provides examples of both “good” and “poor” paraphrasings of an excerpt from a scientific paper, and she also shows proper citations of a quote taken directly from a paper. Her aim is to model how to be successful.

2. Show them what plagiarism looks like

In her handouts, Holt also provides a variety of examples of actual plagiarism to demonstrate how nuanced it can be—and, in many cases, how unintentional. “The first part of the assignment includes plagiarism examples and descriptions, so they can be armed with plenty of info,” she says.

3. Give them context

Many students want a black-and-white definition (“how many words”) of what constitutes plagiarism, but Holt says such “rules” can lead to trouble. “What constitutes plagiarism in a science class can differ from how it may appear in a creative writing class, because scientific phrases can be difficult to pull apart. It’s common to have multiple-word titles,” she says. And phrases of four or more words, such as “photosynthesis oxidation-reduction reaction,” are terms, not someone’s unique concept or wording.

The reality, says Holt, is that writing and paraphrasing means making a lot of decisions and applying critical thinking. She feels that ample opportunity and practice, rather than trying to apply some hard-and-fast rule, are the best ways to help students feel more comfortable with this skill.

4. Have them write it down

The citation assignment uses what Holt says is a core tool for learning: constructing their knowledge through practice. “There’s value in putting something down on paper, because it gets all aspects of your brain working,” she says. “It’s not just viewing and thinking about the material, but writing it as well. It can also help put the new citation skills into action.”

5. Make them offer good examples—and bad

For part of their citation homework assignment, Holt instructs students to write their journal-article paraphrase not only in a way that avoids plagiarism but also in a way that does not. “I have them write a bad paraphrase, too, and identify four reasons why it’s bad,” she says. “This can really help them see what plagiarism is.” It also helps Holt see where students may need additional explanation.

6. Build for failure and feedback

Throughout the process, Holt assures students they will learn from their mistakes early, when the stakes are low, as they increase their understanding of plagiarism. To that end, she provides in-depth feedback to help reinforce what students are learning. “I like to be pretty strict with this assignment,” Holt says. “By setting high standards early, when the focus is only on the skill of avoiding plagiarism, it allows them to develop it fully by the time—later in the semester—when they need to stack this skill with content application or analysis.”

Thus, Holt understands that students might not succeed at first. “My goal is not to be strictly punitive,” she says. “Students need to feel safe enough to fail. So if they fail this citation assignment, I often allow them to redo it.”

She wants to have students take the time to learn the skill now so that they do not end up failing in a future assignment (or course) because they did not cite something in a way acceptable for that field.

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