How to Suspect Plagiarism

Academic twitter has been abuzz with the story of Tiffany Martinez, a student and aspiring professor at Suffolk University. Martinez was called out in front of her whole class for suspected plagiarism because she used the word “hence.” Martinez described her own story here. I join many others in at least suspecting that if Tiffany Martinez were a white male, she would not have been questioned and humiliated for using a word like “hence.”copy-paste

Sadly, I’ve seen so many academics who are minorities commenting on the Martinez matter discuss how, while students, they felt that had to be super careful about citations, because they were always suspected of not doing their own work.

This is unacceptable.

Look, of course plagiarism is a plague. Like most college-level instructors, I’ve caught plagiarizers. But we should be extremely wary of falsely accusing students in general, especially if, as seems to be the case, we are disproportionately accusing minority students.

So here I’ve outlined a few ideas to help professors avoid a similar situation to Tiffany Martinez’s.

  1. Unlike Martinez’s professor, never, never, never announce to other students your suspicions of plagiarism. It is no other student’s business.
  2. Never, ever suggest a student plagiarized due to writing style alone. Not only is this immoral, this is incomprehensible to me. Has this teacher not had a variety of students of all apparent racial, ethnic, economic backgrounds who are amazing writers, or formal writers, or overly dramatic thesaurus denizens, etc.?
  3. Some possible rare caveats to number 2: I’ve had cases in which the writing style switched strikingly mid-paper for a couple of paragraphs, or from one paper to the next. I’ve also had students use philosophical jargon that I never used while teaching. These have been red flags, and occasionally following up on such has led me to find plagiarism. Note: it’s unthinkable that one word alone – especially one that’s unrelated to course subject matter – should itself count as a red flag. If it passes a plagiarism checker (see #5 below), I’d either let it go or – in the case of technical jargon only – Google around a bit. If you still find no evidence, I’d personally give it up at that point. But if you feel certain there’s a problem despite lack of evidence, you can ask students to visit during office hours and talk about the paper and sources without accusing them. I worry about even doing this, since it might have a chilling effect on students (especially minorities). But I suppose it’s better than evidence-less accusations, private or public.
  4. Most schools have a means by which you can grade your students’ assignments anonymously. If you can take advantage of it, it’s a good idea, in part because you won’t fall into any traps of second-guessing matches of student with writing style.
  5. If your school does not have a plagiarism checker, use a free one for all your students’ papers.

I’d love to hear more ideas and/or criticism of these ideas in the comments.

Elizabeth Picciuto

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I’d go further than you. You *don’t* suspect plagiarism. You either prove it or keep your suspicions to yourself. If you have strong internal suspicions, you can tell your spouse or other close confidant. You can politely decline to write a recommendation letter. You can sabotage her candidacy for a distinguished student award. But don’t make accusations until you personally know what precisely was plagiarized and from what source material. I would follow this rule no matter how many red flags I saw.

    Note that I believe this is important both to protect the student and the professor. You don’t want to make such serious, career-ending accusations that may turn out to be untrue. Similarly, none of us want to be stuck in the place of the professor who made this accusation where there is suspicion without clear evidence. If you as a teacher don’t have the time to figure out where the original source material came from, then just suck it up and grade the assignment as is.

    • There were times when I absolutely knew something was plagiarized but didn’t have the time or know-how to prove it. I’m talking of the late 1990s, when I was an MA student and didn’t really know about using browsers to track such things. The two examples I’m thinking of were almost definitely journal articles lifted mostly word for word. Even though I “knew” it was plagiarism, I gave them A’s because at the time I didn’t know how to prove it.

    • Alsotoo, FERPA very likely requires that disciplinary and academic performance matters be kept private absent an affirmative waiver on the student’s part. Plagiarism strongly implicates both disciplinary and academic performance. Therefore, I’m very unhappy with the story of a professor calling a student out in front of the entire class regarding suspected plagiarism. My presumption is the instructor is legally required to handle the matter privately.

  2. Right, this is what I actually do (per #3). Without evidence….let it go.

    • Considering the cost of a charge of plagiarism to the student/writer, I agree. I’m not sure how often such unsubstantiated claims are made against writers, but I’d be OK with students being able to file formal complaints against instructors who are too quick to make such a claim.

  3. I largely agree with your list, especially the “needs evidence” parts, although I have some reservations about plagiarism checkers (not their effectiveness, but whether it’s right to use them).

    A bigger question for me, though, is what counts as “proven” plagiarism and what the penalties should be. I’ve said it around these parts before (and apologies if it’s old hat from me by now), but I’ll say it again. To me, downloading a paper is different from, say, lifting a paragraph from the assigned textbook is different from lifting (or lifting and rephrasing but only poorly) several sentences from Wikipedia is different from citing poorly but demonstrating a willingness not to pass one’s thoughts off as one’s own, is different from….etc., etc. And what about the circumstances of plagiarism? To me, plagiarizing on a term paper is not quite the same as plagiarizing on the two-page response paper I might require from my students every week (when I taught).

    To call all those Plagiarism is correct (though in some cases that might be stretching it), but I don’t think they necessarily all merit the very severe consequences that can come from the accusation and proof. To be sure, in my experience, very few (actually, none in my experience) got the full book thrown at them when I reported it (to my professors when I was a TA), but they got pretty severe repercussions and risked expulsion.

    To me, accusations of plagiarism and “prosecuting” plagiarizers seem to have something in common with hypocrisy. I’m not saying people who “bust” their students for plagiarism are hypocrites and are plagiarizers themselves, but the mentality seems similar and I don’t quite know how to pin it down. There also seems something….not wrong, but discomfiting…with taking punitive measures against someone who’s basically paying me to be their instructor (I know it’s more complicated than that and that standards are standards and credentials need to be earned, but that’s just my mentality).

    All of which is to say…..teaching isn’t my strong suit and my inability to get a grip on how to handle plagiarism is one of the reasons why.

    • Let me start with this: why are plagiarism checkers wrong?

      • I have two reservations about plagiarism checkers.

        First I wonder what they do about students’ control of their own work. If a student writes something, it’s “theirs,” but with a plagiarism checker, isn’t it being used by a third party (the instructor and other people who use the checker’s services) in a way that the student might not want it used? Now this is based on speculation and my own ignorance of how plagiarism checkers are used. If someone in the know explains to me that the use of students’ work is minimal or that the students don’t meaningfully lose control over their own creation via the use of plagiarism checkers, then that’s good enough for me.

        Second, the decision to use/require plagiarism checkers seems rest on the automatic assumption that students are presumed guilty of attempting plagiarism instead of presuming the students’ good faith. That strikes me as wrong. Of course, that’s not the only reason to use plagiarism checkers. Any writer–a student or a professional–might very well want to check to make sure they’re not inadvertently plagiarizing. And in the one class I TA’d for that used them, plagiarism checkers seemed to exercise a pretty strong self-policing attitude among students.

        These are reservations about using plagiarism checkers. I’m not prepared to say I think they’re wrong, just that using them doesn’t seem quite right to me.

        • A paper submitted for class has the right to be checked in every possible way. You clearly don’t know what you are talking about and your statements should be disregarded.

        • This was a cause of some in-class controversy when I was a student – which was right around when the plagiarism checkers were coming out. Some instructors were using the checkers without notifying students in advance. I suspect if they had made it clear in advance that registering for the course required accepting the terms of use of the plagiarism checking service, it would have been less controversial.

          The checker my school was using at the time kept, effectively in perpetuity, copies of all works submitted to it, so as to check for future reappearances of the same text. In addition, the agreement granting that use of the presumptively copyrighted works, was between the service, and the person uploading them, i.e. the instructor or marker – who, having failed to collect such consent from the authors, was redistributing the copyright work in a somewhat questionable way.

          • Yeah, that’s largely what I was getting at. (I have no idea how copyright works in such circumstances and, with my reservations, only a sketchy idea of how it ought to work.)

  4. You don’t have the professor’s account. From experience busting plagiarists, they all describe it in melodramatic terms and never prove that the words were their own. Instead, they go on the offense to try to hide it.

    Notice how she didn’t show her paper? That is evidence right there that her story is bunk.

  5. I’m not sure what to think, without knowing all the details. But I have often had problems with the attitudes of professors. As a student, I saw them routinely disrespect janitorial and food staff. Later in life, I worked as a secretary in a university to get through the recession, and the things I heard were appalling (“I can’t fix the jam I made in the copier because it’s below my pay grade” and “you’re being too picky about the toys you’re donating to those kids, they’re orphans” come first to mind). They often stole small things – pencils, staplers, etc. – and didn’t seem to comprehend that this was against the rules. They violently over-reacted when they found out they had to watch one mandatory safety video every three years. In short, they didn’t feel that the rules applied to them, only to others. They were also ridiculously blind and/or biased in all cultural matters, and made offensive comments about religion all the livelong day. One came in loudly and casually talking about how he heard on TV that most men who went to prison got raped, not stopping to realize that some of the people present had family members currently incarcerated.
    That a professor was so absolutely blind to realizing that you can’t tell a person of Latin decent “this isn’t your language” without sounding like the biggest racist on Earth, doesn’t surprise me. I really think they need to start getting more of the sensitivity training and anti-harassment pressure that all corporate jobs push so much. This is mostly a vent comment, I know, but the arrogance on college campuses really, really needs to be brought under control.

    • I’ve met a lot of professors such as you describe. They may not be a majority (at least in my experience), but they are kind of grating on the nerves, and they help foster a culture of disrespect toward others.

      And to be clear, I’ve known many who are not like that. But even with some of them, the attitude of professional courtesy seems to militate against them calling their colleagues out on their behavior.

      Finally, as an ex-graduate student and a current non-tenure track (but non-teaching) faculty member, I’ve engaged in some of those behaviors or behaviors similarly disrespectful. So I’m not clean either. I hope I’m getting better.

      Like you, I don’t know what to make of these allegations without hearing more of the story, but if the instructor really did say “this is not your language” after circling the word “hence,” at best that reflects a certain degree of cluelessness.

  6. I remember having a conversation with a prof that was fairly clearly the non-accusatory conversation under #3. It made sense too – I am terrible at in-class essay writing, and my first in-class essay had been a disaster compared to all the assignments written at home.

    I felt he handled the conversation well – I didn’t get the feeling he had already decided I was a plagiarist, but just wanted to account for the very real discrepancy between work provably mine and work I could have been faking.

  7. Just an observation — in my profession, there is no bar whatsoever to what in an academic setting is called “plagiarism,” and it is frequently deployed. The argumentative language and legal research supporting a motion to exclude an untimely-designated witness in the case of Athos v. Porthos (known to have prevailed in that case) will be the same as a motion to exclude an untimely-designated witness in the case of Aramis v. D’Artagnan. One could even argue that, having the Athos v. Porthos motion at hand, I would be doing my client in Aramis v. D’Artagnan a disservice by not re-using that same, previously-successful work and instead inventing the wheel all over again every time.

    I’ve been told that some of my successful motions have been copied, wholesale, by other attorneys and at times have even seen my own words thrown back at me in cases where situations reverse. I consider it a compliment, albeit one which wouldn’t be recognized as one in the academic setting from which lawyers emerge.

    Law, however, is not academia. Part of what makes academia special is the need to instill the ethic of doing new research: the price of entry to the ultimate ranks of a particular discipline is typically making a significant original and novel contribution to the corpus of scholarship within that discipline.

    • The argumentative language and legal research supporting a motion to exclude an untimely-designated witness in the case of Athos v. Porthos (known to have prevailed in that case) will be the same as a motion to exclude an untimely-designated witness in the case of Aramis v. D’Artagnan.

      Especially if it’s written by a dumass.

    • Law is closer to programming in that regard – seeing your legal writing in use by someone else is like seeing someone using your library, or converting your application into a library. Plagiarism is meaningful in a teaching context for both disciplines, I think, but it’s a bit different. After all, if your students are supposed to be drafting a motion in order to learn how to do so, you want them to actually draft the motion in question. Similarly, classes that teach the implementation of certain algorithms generally forbid students from using the parts of standard libraries that implement those algorithms (so, for example, if you’re writing a parser, you usually just call out to a parsing library).

  8. I’d be really careful about putting students’ papers in plagiarism checkers if they haven’t consented to such, or if they aren’t warned in the syllabus; because of the license terms of such checkers, you will normally be agreeing to waive rights that you don’t actually have, and thus can’t waive. Which is, although I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, probably a violation of the students’ copyright (which comes into existence immediately when they write the paper). I’m not saying you’re likely to get sued for it, just assuming that one generally would not want to break a law in the service of seeing whether someone followed an ethical code or not.

    • I was reading a couple of schools’ and universities’ guides to ‘copyright for students’. I was very disappointed that they were only about not violating other people’s copyright, with not a word about what rights the student has in their own work once it’s finished.

      I am cynically tempted to believe that this is because the school doesn’t want to arm students with the tools to call the university’s staff on their own copyright violations.

      • @dragonfrog

        It’s a shame for another reason, too….one way to get people interested in copyright is to alert them that they own the copyright in what they produce.

  9. It occurred to me while reading this that there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.

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