In class, over the course of a semester, I tend to build up a mental model of individual students' communication abilities. For example, one student might seem more or less eloquent than another when they speak. One might make more cogent points than another.

Occasionally, I will receive an essay which appears exceptionally eloquent and cogent, from students who seemed distinctly average. Of course, I make the cursory checks for plagiarism (searching certain unlikely phrases, etc.), but if nothing comes up, I sometimes still remain unconvinced that the work is the student's own.

Some sites offer to sell the services of trained academics and graduate students for menial essay writing, and often the questionable assignments look more like the quick and under-edited work of a master than the polished work of a novice. Of course, if the essays are paid for, and original, it's naturally very hard to prove it.

Are there any techniques I could use to determine whether an essay that I suspect was written by someone else, but not published elsewhere, is a student's own work? Are there any steps I can take to ensure I don't receive questionable essays in the first place?

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    Ask them questions about their own understanding of the work that they supposedly made?
    – badroit
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 20:54
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    I would be a little cautious with your judgments of students' abilities. Maybe people are shy. Maybe their cultural background leads them to speak in ways that others may perceive as unintelligent, and this masks their abilities. This may be especially true of women who are pressured into a certain gender role. So you may be right, but realize that your own potential hidden biases mean you should give them the benefit of the doubt.
    – mbsq
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 21:33
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    I know many people that are able to write excellent, eloquent papers even though their English seems very limited in conversations. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 21:58
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    When you are submitting your papers to the journals or conferences, can people be sure that you have written that work and have not hired someone else to do this? Or if you have done some simulations/plots/graphs in your paper how would you feel if after the conference someone would stop and start to question your skills in C++/python/whatever to verify that you have the skills to build a simulation? Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 23:22
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    @SalvadorDali: in some sense the paper is either worth publishing or not, regardless of who wrote it. Of course the journal wants to get the author name right on it, but if someone wants to give the credit for their paper to me (or to Bourbaki!), then the journal may be very cross about the deception but still has a genuine paper. Graded assignments are not generally like that, the whole point of the exercise is that the student does it. The actual output is not what is of value, even if it's really good. So the motivations of both parties are very different. Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 0:01

9 Answers 9


Are there any techniques I could use to determine whether an essay that I suspect was written by someone else, but not published elsewhere, is a student's own work?

Ask the student to come to your office hours or a private meeting.

Then, say: "I was really impressed by your recent paper, it was an excellent piece of work! Let's discuss it some more."

Student who did the work will be able to discuss said work intelligently.

Student who didn't do the work is unlikely to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation about said work.

(This still isn't proof of any kind, and you can't accuse student of cheating without some evidence - but if you're lucky, student will at least be spooked enough to never do it again.)

Are there any steps I can take to ensure I don't receive questionable essays in the first place?

Assign essays that are a few steps beyond, but still closely tied to, what's been discussed in class, such that somebody who wasn't in the class will not be able to produce the kind of essay you're expecting (the effectiveness of this depends very much on the subject matter).

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    Some people have different speaking/writing skills. When I started to learn in English-speaking country, I was not even able to have a normal conversation (also I was able to read/write/understand everything). Also taking your argument to the extreme, this means that a person with voice disability is not capable of thinking intelligently. Would you be able to understand that Hawking is smart if he would be without his speaking device and you would be using your method? Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 23:00
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    Suppose you feel that they were not able to intelligently discuss the paper. This is still not enough evidence to punish them for cheating.
    – Akavall
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 23:33
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    Excellent answer. I've had some students who cannot compose a sentence well and stammer constantly when speaking English. However, the papers submitted are golden. I investigated only to find out this student would spend 80 hours per paper submitted while other students would spend 5-8 hours. As a counter-example, I've had other students who cannot compose a sentence in English and after they wrote an amazing paper I asked them a little about it and quickly realized there was no way that student could have done it. The solution, as you wrote, is to spend time with the student discussing it.
    – earthling
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 23:33
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    @Akavall In my university it is enough evidence.
    – earthling
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 23:34
  • 34
    @Salvador: "Taking your argument to the extreme" is one of the more tedious of rhetorical devices. Has anyone in sight claimed that a person like Stephen Hawking who is physically unable to speak is necessarily unable to think intelligently? Your followup question is a waste of people's time. Any argument has a range of validity; showing that it breaks when you push it absurdly far out is not showing much. Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 3:38

First, begin any essay assignment with clear instructions on the amount of outside assistance that is allowed.

Many universities have "drop in writing tutors" who are paid (albeit often rather modestly) to help students with their writing assignments. These tutors are well-trained on how not to help too much: e.g. they probably do not write down as much as a complete sentence that the student has not already suggested.

Having students expressly acknowledge the outside help that they get, even if absolutely legitimate, helps towards fostering good academic practices.

Thus if they go to the university's writing center or some similar entity, that's fine (assuming that above it has been clarified by the instructor to be fine; but if your university has a writing center then it seems like a bad idea not to allow your students to use it in at least some ways), but they should still acknowledge it. This goes a long way to combating the problem of "mysterious diction", i.e., the isolated turn of phrase that you just don't quite believe came from the student.

You should really enforce this practice: if it turns out that a student went to the writing center and didn't report it, lower their grade at least slightly: this helps to reiterate that this is very important to you. In fact:

Communicate absolutely clearly that in academia there is no sin worse than passing off someone's ideas and/or work as your own.

I think that most undergraduates know that this is something they are not supposed to do, but many don't seem to understand that this is a very serious crime. To me at least, the crime is so serious that -- in light of the difficulties of definitively "catching" the student -- the penalties should be clarified in advance to be quite severe. At my university, the absolute minimum penalty for this is a grade of 0 on the assignment. I would say though that a student who paid someone else to write a paper for them and is caught deserves to fail the entire course. Make this clear.

Structure a written assignment more than just asking for a full-blown paper at the end.

This has the merit of being a good practice for other reasons. Even in mathematics courses I sometimes ask students to write papers, and I have learned from hard experience that if you don't check in with them while they are doing the work then the final quality of the product is going to be ridiculously spotty: e.g. it will turn out that some students simply didn't understand what you were asking them to do to the extent that you do not recognize what they turn in as being a specimen (however poor) of what you asked for.

For a significant paper in an undergraduate course it could be appropriate to meet with the student several times before they turn in the final version: once to determine and have you sign off on an appropriate topic, and at least once to show you their partial work, giving you a chance to adjust them back on track if need be.

If you break the assignment up into pieces like this, then it becomes at the same time harder for a student to pay someone else to do it and also easier for them to do it themselves. I have to imagine that a lot of this professional paper-writing is done when a student realizes that they have waited until the last 24-72 hours before the paper is due. Someone can write a good paper under those severe time constraints, but they can't.

Consider having a classroom component accompany any significant written work.

This works better in some courses than others, depending on both the size of the course and the subject matter. Hearing 25 different presentations on whether and in what way Madame Bovary was a proto-feminist sounds like a rather dreary use of class time. But let me say that in every graduate (math) course I teach, whether I assign written homework or not I always have a "problem session", usually about once a week and lasting at least an hour, in which the students present their solutions to me and to each other (with whatever written notes they want, of course). I don't do this because I'm worried that their written work will not be their own, not really, but it is definitely a different thing to cobble together a solution from two different texts and a website (this is a totally legitimate thing to do, in my courses: in fact this sounds like a reasonable description of some of my own research!) than to actually present it in front of other people. (Again, I've learned this from hard experience: in many of the courses I teach, the course text is my own notes, sometimes written on the fly and sometimes already written. It is remarkable to me how I can give a better or worse rendition of something that I looked up from my own lecture notes on any given day. Sometimes I don't succeed in getting the material as firmly in my head as I would like in the time allotted to prepare that day's lecture.)

If there is both an oral and a written component, then layering is again a good thing: maybe the student turns in some preliminary written thing, then they give a presentation on it, then they improve their written work based on the feedback they got from the presentation. Again, this seems more appropriate in some courses than others, but when it is appropriate the students learn a lot: perhaps they will even be too busy learning and working to think to get someone else to write their paper.


I wish these random thoughts can supplement the other good answers and comments. Mainly, I wish to address the second question: "Are there any steps I can take to ensure I don't receive questionable essays in the first place?"

Don't start off with negative thoughts/suspicion so soon: Some introverted people can perfectly blend into the background in class, but produce very thoughtful written work because they actually put good amount of thought into the piece. It's like you have never noticed this person's existence until you have read the student's written work. For this reason, I'd suggest taking a more trusting approach.

Set up a code of honor: In some professional degrees students often have to sign a code of honor. You may check with the department head if something like this can be set up for all the students. You can also create your own and have the students read, discuss, question, and sign on the first day of the class. A code of honor will help clarifying what is and is not expected in the course, and will help to i) remind students to be honest, and ii) serve as a foundation contract in case someone really does cheat.

I do believe there are students with malicious intention, trying the cheat their way through. However, I also believe there are some of them who did it because "Well, the lecturer never said I can't." It is saddening that nowadays teachers have to lay out all these criteria, but I also would see this chance as bringing the students, who may be from diverse backgrounds, onto the same page regarding ethics and professionalism.

Downplay the grade proportion of the paper: The incentive to hire a ghost writer is likely proportional to the percentage of the final grade attributed to that piece. Try lower it, and introduce some other forms of assessment that are less likely to be done by someone else: In-class exercise, individual/group presentation, etc. are some possibilities.

Similarly, give smaller and/or more frequent writing assignments: In questionnaire design, if one asks more questions on the same construct, the reliability tends to go up. Basing on this idea, you may consider giving more than one written assignment. This can let you i) detect within-student fluctuation (How did this person suddenly write so well?) and ii) perhaps allow students to express their thoughts or work on somehow different topics/from a different angle. Higher frequency may also introduce less incentive to hire a ghost writer.

Implement a progressive assignment to foster the sense of ownership: You may also consider modifying your assignment so that students will need to work on it and report to you step by step, from concept to review, from review to analysis, from analysis to draft, and from draft to final version. Spread them out across the course. This method will allow you to first get a sense of their thought process (which is a lot more objective than checking their in-class behaviors), and it will also enhance the student's sense of owning the piece as well as understanding of the contents. This can likely decrease the need or urgency to seek ghost writers.

Be very clear what is and is not allowed: I'd just put this in as a food for thought. We may often encourage people, especially those with English as second language, to either let native speakers look at their work or seek professional editors' help to improve their written piece. Is this allowed? Sometimes a run of very simple edit can make the piece quite eloquent, and some editors may either go to town in their editing or help the student to flush out their ideas more clearly during the face-to-face meeting. Is this allowed? I am not pro or against this practice of getting an editor's help; I just wish to point out that there can be much grey area when judging if no clear rules are laid out.

  • +1 for excellent notice that the student may be using services to improve his/her writing, while leaving the contents intact. It's a common practice, how many articles in scientific magazines are translated (and not written in target language)? The question arises, how much English fluency you want to enforce in your university? Do you expect students to be able to write dissertation in English by themselves, or just to concentrate on their field of research, leaving 'language issues' to the others?
    – user5657
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 10:56
  • Don't forget peer review. I always liked when a friend looked over, that can sometimes drastically change elements of a paper.
    – Mallow
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 16:12
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    +1 for both assuming good faith (Maybe this assignment just hit one of the student's personal areas of interest) and for mentioning that it may only have been edited for English skills... In which case do you actually care? I'd look mostly at whether the CONTENT is reasonable for that student, not the WRITING: they may have just had a friend proof read it (widely regarded as acceptable), and perhaps that friend got over-zealous. Of course, this only applies to subjects that aren't English, Creative Writing etc
    – Jon Story
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 10:19

Many schools require papers to be submitted electronically, and then they are checked by a service like turnitin.com which will find the sources of any parts copied from on-line.

I once came across some text that seemed familiar. Picked up a very old book and found that they had copied the preface (with several typos). But the copy was a pre-written term paper for sale!

“No, sir, I would never plagiarize. If it’s plagiarized the guy I bought the paper from did it.”


One tip:

Take a sample of text and do a search in google surrounded by double quotes " " This tells google to search for that exact phrase. It can also find paraphrases.

Be careful when interpreting the search results, it should be very obvious if the work is stolen or not.

I usually do about 1 sentence worth at a time and about 1 sentence per every 3-4 paragraphs. I usually wait to bother on a search until I read something that I am suspicious of.

I catch people all the time, this way, buying other papers (the sampe paper is often sold multiple times, or resold again later!) but mostly not-quoting properly. A clear letter to the student detailing my findings and asking for an explanation usually leads to a: 'I forgot to quote it'. I like small frequent assignments, because when the whole thing is copied and pasted, there is no where to hide, the student clearly cheated. (I let them slide the first time, but I don't make it look that way)


  • 2
    Thanks. I do think all ready, but sometimes still receive work that has all the signs, but doesn't show up in a Google search. It's this special case I was more interested in. Commented Mar 16, 2014 at 17:12

I remember one year when I was at university an exam in anther department had two sections, the 2nd section had the same number of questions as students, and each question was related to something in the student’s project. One question had to be answered from that section.

Each year having a section like this, based on one essay would give the students a good incentive to at least understand what they handed in regardless of who wrote it.

  • This still doesn't solve the initial problem, though. How do you tell if the student wrote about that work, or if they paid someone to do it? It's certainly less likely they'll pay someone to do write about their own work, but when there are six other papers to write at the same time in various classes, the student might farm one out. Commented May 20, 2014 at 12:53

Probably not helpful to your specific case here, but maybe schools could do what is increasingly common in other industries and aspects of law enforcement:

Offer whistle-blower awards.

E.g., if you provide information leading to a student being issued with a citation, you get $1,000. If you provide information leading to a student being suspended, you get $3,000. If you provide information leading to a student being expelled, you get $5,000.

Promise to keep the identity of the whistle-blower completely confidential.

And if the whistle-blower was involved in any wrongdoing, he is automatically exonerated (e.g. if two students were cheating on your test, the one who reports it first gets off the hook while the other is expelled).

Make your whistle-blowing policy well-known and public. Then many of these online guys who are paid to write these papers will be tempted to submit evidence.

The money to pay for this could be simply taken as a fine from the student. It could all be written into the Academic Honor Code that the student must sign in order to enroll at the school. E.g.,

"I agree that if I am given a citation due to a violation of the Academic Honor Code, I may be fined up to $1,000. Such funds will be used to pay any whistle-blower involved."

  • This is an interesting idea. On the one hand, I believe this would decrease the plagiarism rate, if only because it would reduce repeat offences. On the other hand, my experience is that many instances of plagiarism are somewhat inadvertent (i.e. they genuinely don't understand what they've done wrong), and that students in general, even when they do it deliberately, do not expect to be caught. The effect of this policy then, amounts to charging a substantial portion of the student body, most of whom are quite poor, a very large and unexpected fee. I'm not sure that's a good solution. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 17:49
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    Well, just like with any legal enforcement procedure, it must be done sensibly. We could do it so that it applies only to severe infractions of the Honor Code. So just like we distinguish between someone in possession of a little marijuana, vs someone selling crack.
    – user10885
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 19:18

A piece of good work will ordinarily be part of a "trend."

It's possible that a formerly indifferent student will have a "lightbulb" moment, and suddenly start producing good work above the former trend. If that's the case, the student's subsequent work will reflect this.

If you want to find out "right away," you might talk to the student and ask about individual points in the paper. You might compliment him/her on the substantial improvement. If it is genuine, evidence of the "lightbulb" will be in the conversation.

Actually, this happened to me, as an undergraduate, when I once produced an uncharacteristically brilliant paper for a class. So the professor asked me why the one paper was so much better than the others. The answer was that I had done a paper using the same concept in another class, and had benefited from the corrections. I showed the professor the other paper, which was "different," but had clearly laid the foundation for the one paper.


Proving that cheating has occurred in this situation is virtually impossible. Making an accusation without solid proof simply isn't worth your time and trouble.

Instead, I focus on designing the assignment in ways that make cheating more difficult. In my graduate level math courses, students do term projects that count for 25% of the course grade. I grade parts of the project separately and require the students to submit an abstract and meet with me to discuss it, submit a draft paper, submit a final paper, and give an oral presentation. At each of the earlier stages, I provide feedback to the student and require changes (fixing things that are incorrect, expanding the discussion of parts of the paper that are unclear, etc.) The oral presentation includes Q&A, and students are downgraded if they can't answer questions about their work.

It's unlikely that a student could simply purchase an existing paper from a database to satisfy all of these requirements. In order to use a contract cheater for the project, the student would have to keep in touch with their helper over a couple of months as the abstract is developed and the paper goes through a draft stage before becoming final. They would also need to prepare to give the oral presentation and answer questions.

I've had some cases where students plagiarized parts of their papers- this can be easily caught using tools like TurnItIn. I've never had a situation where a student had difficulty answering basic questions about what they had done in their project and I don't believe that any of my students have ever hired someone to write their project for them.

  • I have used structures like this as well, and I believe that in a graduate mathematics class, it would be effective. In undergraduate courses though, it is entirely possible for a student to read (and understand) a paper they themselves did not write. It's also the case that students cheat in quite sophisticated ways now. There exist online clearing houses where you can pay to hire, e.g. an English PhD living in Pakistan to write a bespoke paper for you, perhaps even incorporating your thoughts on the matter, typically for a few hundred dollars. I'm much more interested in detecting that. Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 12:54

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