When reading submissions by students, for example coding assignments or bachelor theses, I stumble upon code or text not originally written by the students themselves, usually not referenced properly (see the edit below). After being confronted with this, I often hear or read statements like:

I usually tend to see these statements as lame excuses, because I thought it would be common sense how not to plagiarize, but maybe they are right that they really do not know it better. It seems like they think the correct way to avoid plagiarism is to modify the source even more instead of doing it on their own in the first place.

Our usual approach to tackle this problem is to state that we do not want plagiarism, search for indications of plagiarism and then have endless discussion about it afterwards.

There are methods to circumvent this partially, for example by providing individualized tasks, and our university also provides workshops that teach you for example how a reference list should be built, but I am searching for ideas for the everyday teaching (programming labs, supervising students writing a thesis...) to promote the mindset that taking the text or code from someone else and modifying it is not the correct way, especially when it comes to graded submissions or publications.

EDIT: After receiving multiple comments about what I am worried about is not plagiarism, I would like to explain this aspect a little more by means of some examples:

  • There is no reference at all: This is clearly plagiarism, period.

  • The reference is not sufficient: This is the Wikipedia case from above. Having only "Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/" in the list of references without any indication which part of the text is from which article and which part is written by the student does not help at all and is in my opinion nearly as bad as having no reference at all.

  • There is a proper reference: As others have noted, this is not plagiarism. Still, in the context of grading, we have to look deeper:

    • Written exam: Everyone should agree that a student should fail an exam if he copies the solution by another student even if he writes "This solution was copied from the student sitting next to me."

    • Code Assignments: I had cases where students wrote "I copied this part from ..., because I was not able to do it myself and the rest of the program would not work without it". This is totally fine for me, but the student should not expect to receive points for the copied part, but only for the other parts written by himself. The same holds for code copied from other sources and modified afterwards.

    • Lengthy text passages: This is the example of copying significant parts of a Wikipedia article, again. But this is already covered in several other questions.

  • 10
    For me, plagiarism is the act of quoting someones work without proper reference. Therefore, I'd say all your examples are perfectly ok and might well be done; as long as they are cited accordingly. Could you explain why you want to teach "not to plagiarize"? Because to me it seems like you should rather teach how to give proper credit to the original source; and maybe that a submission with 100% cited material is not good enough in some/many cases...
    – Dirk
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 12:24
  • 4
    @DirkLiebhold plagiarism is not only quoting wrongly, it's basically taking "ideas" from others and not disclosing the source making them look like your own.
    – user64845
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 12:49
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    I'm not sure code belongs in this discussion as it seems legitimate to me. When I'm fixing issues in my code, if someone is helping me fix those issues, there's a good chance that I'll end up using the same solution. Unless the language being used has room for stylistic differences and I actually prefer a different style than the person helping me, we're going to end up with the same code. Add to that the fact that in the workplace you want to avoid reinventing the wheel and just need to really understand the code...
    – Cronax
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:27
  • 8
    Taking that into account, I would advocate testing the student's understanding of the code they've written by having them explain what they are doing and how they are achieving it, since that's what you really want to assess.
    – Cronax
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 16:31
  • 3
    Your definition of plagiarism as "any use of someone else's work or ideas in any form for any reason no matter how it is cited" is very unusual in academia. Building on and responding to other scholars is what the scholarly conversation is all about, and it's how we build knowledge. Even Newton said (approximately) "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." If you want students to do everything from scratch for particular assignments that's fine, and there are methods to ensure that, but that's different from, in general, teaching about not plagiarizing.
    – 1006a
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 20:07

5 Answers 5


It seems to me that you have an "Academic Integrity" issue as opposed to a "Plagiarism" issue. Academic Integrity covers many areas including:

  • Plagiarism
  • Collusion
  • Fabrication

and so on...

In my personal experience the biggest 'excuse' that students will plead is ignorance. What this causes is the following cycle:

  • students submit work
  • work is marked
  • issues are found
  • issues are discussed with student
  • student pleads ignorance
  • student is educated
  • (sometimes) student is allowed to resubmit

The problem here is that education comes after the crime, and any resubmissions can drastically delay students receiving marks and feedback (which feeds into other assignments).

Now I do not have a solution that will stop all cases of academic dishonesty and personally I do not think it is possible. If people want to cheat, they will. The key is to remove the accidental plagiarisms so that the focus is on the intentional cases.

To remove the ignorance excuse the answer is simple: education. Now you are already employing education as your solution, however, you are doing it after the submission. The key is to do it as soon as possible. Personally, I use part of my first tutorial class to teach the students what Academic Integrity is, and then get the students to work through some examples and questions. Lastly, I require them to complete an "Academic Integrity Quiz" which is regulated by our University Library. Before the students can gain access to our assignment submission boxes they MUST have scored 10/10 on that quiz (this is automated). Unlimited attempts are allowed on the quiz as well.

The solution above forces students to learn about Academic Integrity and thereby removes the "I didn't know" (ignorance) excuse.

I hope this helps.

  • Interesting. Does your university have data showing significant benefit of such a scheme? I've heard various studies that people cheat less when they are reminded of it (they already know it but reminding them makes them think twice).
    – user21820
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 6:48
  • I really like this answer, especially the parts give examples to substantiate the usual common-sense drivel and let them do a quiz to activate all students, even if the quiz would be relatively easy for most students.
    – koalo
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 9:24
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    Thanks Koalo, when I do examples with my students my favourite thing to do is to make everyone stand up and then based on the example move to one side of the room if it is an issue, and the other side of the room if the example is fine. Then I will pick a few people from either side to discuss their position and why they are standing there. This gets people out of their chair (increased bloodflow, wakes up sleepy students) and it forces them to think about their answer and their position. If you want you can also put a neutral position in the middle of the room for people who aren't sure.
    – Reid Honan
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 9:45
  • @ReidHonan Sounds great, now I want to be one of your students ;-)
    – koalo
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 10:02
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    @user21820 im terms of data showing the benefit Me and my team is in the process of compiling the data into a paper detailing our methods and the output. When it is completed I will link it here.
    – Reid Honan
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 10:37

There is likely no silver bullet. However, I have found some traction with aggressively educating students in the first few sessions. (So: this echoes Reid Honan's answer, without depending on the outside-regulated quiz assessment.)

I have a statement on code plagiarism on the syllabus. Note: To my surprise, there was no crystal-clear statement that I could find online as a reference. In some sense this requires me to clarify exactly what will count as plagiarism in the context of my class. I also outline the exact penalties. This is handed out on Day 1 (of course); on Day 2 I verbally quiz the class together. "Is X plagiarism? Is Y? Is Z?" The answer to all is "yes"; include every excuse you've ever heard here.

Since I started this in the last year, it cut my incidences down by about half, especially on the first few assignments. (Previously lots of copying, now none in the first few weeks.) When copying happens, I apply the penalties precisely as stated, and then announce that it happened in the next class meeting (obviously not identifying individual offenders; but use this as a reminder and confirmation that the stated penalties are being applied). I tend to have a few more cases near the end of the semester when a few lagging students become hazy, have fallen behind, and/or get desperate with more challenging work.

  • 1
    Next year from student "Yes, my submission echoes Mark's code, but it's clearly original" :)
    – iheanyi
    Commented Dec 9, 2017 at 0:00

I ask my students to read this and paraphrase it as part of the first homework assignment. I have no evidence showing that it reduces the amount of dishonesty, but at least they can't say they didn't know.



I will add few words from student perspective. Others answers points out that providing education to students is very important. I think it is also important to show students that you care about this. Publish clear guidelines what is allowed and what is not. Explain to students reason behind this guidelines. Talk about it in class. Think if your grading encourages plagiarism. Answer student’s questions about plagiarism. Allow student to ask if specific example is plagiarism or not. If I am expected to provide perfect homework at the beginning of semester and cannot fix mistakes later I start to think that goal of the assignment is not learning. I think is better if you expect student to send homework few times so they could improve and fix mistakes over time. I also feel that that is not fair if assignments are poor quality or there are too many of them. Publish high quality assignments and say why you think that it is important to finish them. Say why you think that assignments are good use of time (instead of reading a textbook or other activity).

To summarize my answer – you can do something so students will find following rules meaningful and fair. I know about cases where the same student did not cheat when he had perfect opportunities and cheated where there was considerable punishment, strict checking and supervision.


I mention potential real-world consequences, because the proof of plagiarism never goes away:

  • tenured professors who plagiarized in their PhD have had their diploma retracted and consequently lost their job;

  • political nominees have had to withdraw their candidature after journalists found they plagiarized in their graduate thesis;

  • newspaper editors have been fired because plagiarism is a time saver, but it caught up to them;

  • companies have been sued and lost money over violation of intellectual property involving software source code.

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