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Preventing and responding to plagiarism

How can I help students understand and avoid plagiarism?

  • State your expectations explicitly and be aware that avoiding plagiarism is not as straightforward for students as it seems to academic researchers who are used to their own disciplinary norms. Conventions and expectations for attribution of sources vary across disciplines. They also vary across courses. As a result, you can't assume previous coursework has taught your students how to work with sources the way you want them to. All students need to be clearly introduced to your specific expectations for attribution and citation, as well as the rationale behind your expectations. Remember that learning how to attribute sources is linked with a number of complex values held within each discipline about what role the ideas or findings of other thinkers should or shouldn't serve in writing, and novice writers need to be taught about working effectively with texts in your field. We strongly recommend beginning the conversation with your students about how to work with sources in your field and course in your syllabus, but we also advise you to revisit and discuss these expectations when students begin writing. Here are some of the questions you should consider answering for your students.
    • What citation style should students use? Must they use the most recent version of that style? If a student is unfamiliar with how to use that citation style, where can they find reliable resources to learn about it?
    • Where is the line in your class between kinds of information that should be explicitly cited and kinds of information that do not require citation? What is considered "common knowledge" and what is not? (This varies from course to course to a surprising extent, which is one reason students are often confused about this issue.)
    • Will the expectations for citation vary from assignment to assignment? (Should informal response writing be treated differently from a formal final draft of an essay?)
    • Must drafts of an assignment include complete, correct citation, or is it ethical to omit all or some citation until the final draft?
    • What is the policy on students re-using ideas or language that they previously composed in other contexts?
    • Are there sources that you would forbid students to consult at all, even if they do not incorporate them in their writing, such as text summary websites like Sparknotes or essays written by former students in your class?
    • Are there sources you expect students to consult or include in their writing? This comes up in the assignments themselves, but it may merit mentioning here as well.
    • How should students cite material created through use of generative AI, if your policies allow them to use those tools?
  • The faculty in the HSS division have developed a statement of Guidelines and Expectations for avoiding plagiarism in their courses. This statement could be a model for other divisions or individual instructors who wish to offer their students clear guidance about how to work with sources effectively.
  • Consider consulting professional resources on this topic. There are many books and scholarly articles about the causes of and responses to plagiarism. The Writing Program Administrators' Council very helpful statement of Best Practices for Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism distills current research findings into practical advice for faculty. It offers a number of concrete steps you can take to make sure your students understand what plagiarism is and do not commit it.
  • Ask students to read about how to understand and avoid plagiarism on the HWC website.
  • Share models of correctly cited writing in your field with students.┬áThese could be student writing samples or professional scholarly writing in your field.
  • Encourage students to see you with questions about working with texts before submitting their work. Make time and space in class and in office hours for questions about writing when appropriate.

Does Caltech have any definitions, rules, or policies regarding plagiarism?

Caltech's undergraduate honor code handbook states that plagiarism is "the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit." (Our faculty handbook contains the same definition.) The HSS Division provides students with Guidelines and Expectations for avoiding plagiarism. Cases of plagiarism by undergraduates should be reported to the Board of Control.