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Let No One Else’s Work Evade Your Eyes…

October 17, 2010

Could you spot an essay that had been partially lifted from the internet? Would you know how or where to check that a pupil’s work was actually the pupil’s work? If you think you can, read on.


Words Layers

Image CC: Pink Sherbet Photography


The Problem

Last week saw me attending a Workshop with the SQA to look at the new Writing Folio that has been introduced to Higher English. As part of that process, we are handed exemplar scripts which we then mark before being given a walkthrough of the grades the SQA would award. Such is the way we learn about the standards that we are to apply to the pupils’ work.

The first couple of examples were fairly straightforward and I was relieved to be spot on with my attempts to grade them. Then we were asked to look at a new example: a discursive essay on Animal Testing.

I began to read it and thought it started OK, though with a few glitches in expression. Nothing serious. Then about half-way through it, I became uneasy. My teacher ‘bat-sense’ was kicking in. Something didn’t ring true about the essay. It just didn’t feel ‘right’.

I was sure that the style was ‘wrong’ so I pulled out my iPhone, opened a browser and typed in one of the sentences I was suspicious about – remembering to first place it between quotation marks so that I would only get exact matches.

I got 52 exact matches on a sentence that a pupil had submitted for assessment, and which had then been presented to us as an example essay. The first hit was from Yahoo answers… 4 years ago.

To make matters even more interesting, that first hit also had a reference where the person posting the answer had pulled the information from. It came from a site called which has the wonderfully ironic subheading “It’s not cheating, it’s collaborating”.

I alerted the SQA team and after a discussion, they quickly informed us that the essay had evidence of plagiarism. What happens next to the writer of the essay will be up to SQA, but I realised that this was a watershed moment for a lot of reasons.

When I got home, I typed up the whole essay and submitted it to a couple of sites I use to check pupil work: Plagiarism Checker and The Plagiarism Checker. I wish I could share the text with you so you could carry out the same exercise.

The Plagiarism checker returned the following:

Plagiarism grab

I’ve blurred the sentences being checked to prevent identification at the moment. The ‘Possible Plagiarism’ links will take you to a Google search result which compares sentences/phrases from the essay with the internet. This horrified me:

plag 02

In 0.15 seconds, Google had found 1,370 instances of a sentence from the pupil’s ‘original’ essay scattered across the internet.

Almost the entire essay had been copied and pasted from the net… and no one had noticed until I looked at it.

To put that into context, this was an essay that had been selected for inclusion as an example at a given level, and which had been used at several workshops before the one I attended. In short, I estimate that somewhere between one and two hundred English teachers had looked at this essay before I noticed there was something wrong with it. If this is the case, what chance does an average classroom teacher or exam marker have of catching plagiarism?

I think there is much we can learn from this. I also think this is a problem for all teachers of all subjects. The internet is here to stay so we need to learn to adapt our practice to accommodate it.

The Lessons

  1. I think it is imperative that the SQA keep the essay as an exemplar to highlight the issue. This is not something that is going to go away.
  2. We need to make sure teachers know how to check the provenance of every piece of coursework submitted by pupils;
  3. We need to make sure pupils are taught from a very early age how to use the internet wisely for research, and especially, how to synthesise what they find into new forms which are not merely copied and pasted;
  4. We need to accept that all pupil work should be submitted electronically so that the basic checking of scripts can be carried out automatically;
  5. We need to teach all pupils how to attribute and link their work to the sources from which it originated; and lastly,
  6. We need to start developing an online presence for every pupil where they can keep a log of the stages of production for all their work so that, if required, this can be compared to the final submission.
  7. What else? (Please post your suggestions in the comments!)

What this incident has shown me is that this is a problem of our own making. For too long we have encouraged the pupils to ‘use the internet’ without teaching them how to do so, or what using the internet means. We cannot really be too surprised that, given the pressure pupils are under, they resort to the ‘easy’ way out. Plagiarism is a fact of life. People have always copied, but to say that it is ‘too easy for pupils to copy because of the internet’ is a cop out. It is just as easy for us to find and adopt strategies to combat this if the teacher has sufficiently good ICT skills… but that is a completely different question.

introlehrerIf you want to introduce the topic of plagiarism to your pupils, you could do worse than letting them hear and read the great Tom Lehrer singing Lobachevsky. It is freely and legally available at the National Curve Bank, and contains the immortal lines:

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don’t shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize…
Only be sure always to call it please research.

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PS: This post is available under a CC license! 😉

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2010 8:04 am

    Great post – and well spotted! I think you’re spot-on with your suggestions, and that 3, 4 and 6 are essential, not only for school and university students, but also for the adult learners with whom I’m currently working. I know of at least one mature student who is now in post as a result of a whole tranche of cut-and-paste jobs; the irony here was that the marker suspected it but didn’t know how to deal with it and couldn’t bear to ask outright.

  2. October 18, 2010 8:32 am

    Hi Neil,
    Great post, and very timely. I think your ‘Lessons’ section is spot on. I think it also reinforces the notion of having kids (of any age) read or speak their work as they progress it. It’s difficult to sound convincing about something you have lifted wholesale and don’t really understand. A minor point – your SQA link is to the Advanced Higher rather than the Higher page.

  3. October 18, 2010 9:09 am

    @Chris: I think the point you make is so true. Far too many educators (of all subjects) do not know how, or have the confidence, to challenge suspicious submissions. I really do think the SQA are some of the best in the business at spotting dodgy pupil work (I’ve been involved in a handful of cases where pupil work has been rejected for plagiarism in my 20 years at the chalkface), but they should not be the last line of defence. It is clearly a responsibility for all.

    @Bill: I’ve started making the need to read essays out loud an integral part of the drafting process with my classes. Admittedly, I ask them to do so as a means of checking expression and punctuation, but it’s a great test for work which isn’t the pupils’ own. On a related note, I have always insisted that pupils taking part in Debating have written their speeches completely from scratch. Over the years, I have seen numerous exceptionally talented debators of mine be beaten by other teams who have ‘copied and pasted’ a speech together. Frustrating, but a very public acknowledgement of the endemic nature of the problem. We have to address this.

    And thanks for pointing out the wrong link! My fault for having too many tabs open in my browser when (ironically) copying and pasting it! 😉

  4. October 18, 2010 7:27 pm

    I’m delighted to add this link to a page Joe Wilson created a LONG time ago to help pupils/students avoid plagiarism:

    Just goes to show that some people have been way ahead of the game all along!

  5. Mrs B, permalink
    October 18, 2010 9:07 pm

    I read this post with great interest as it is a subject close to my heart. Your last sentence ‘It is just as easy for us to find and adopt strategies to combat this if the teacher has sufficiently good ICT skills… but that is a completely different question.’ – too true – but remember schools have their very own information literacy experts in post – their school librarians/library resource centre managers. These are the people supporting teachers across and up the school, delivering lessons both formally and informally to pupils about appropriateness, reliability and responsibility, particularly with regard to web sources. And crazily some authorities are considering removing this post from schools entirely, and having unmanned school libraries …
    I was a school librarian in a former life, now an NQT, so see both sides of the fence.

    • October 18, 2010 9:28 pm

      Hi Suz,
      I think removing librarians is tantamount to getting rid of the library itself. I have this fear that, in many secondary schools, the librarians are not accorded the respect they deserve and so are seen as ‘lesser’ in the eyes of the pupils. This is a fatal mistake in my view because, as you correctly point out, these are people who can support the teachers, and more importantly, the pupils to prevent them making serious errors of judgement.

      Thanks for posting!

  6. Alex B permalink
    October 20, 2010 4:56 pm

    Time for schools to start using the same tool that their higher education counterparts do

  7. MrsS permalink
    October 20, 2010 7:53 pm

    Great post – it made me frustrated that we live in such a technologically advanced age, but pupils in Secondary schools are stunted by ‘our’ ways of working. Submitting things on-line is easier, safer and can stop things like this happening. How many more have slipped through the net? Freat points to note: I especially liked no3 – we need to teach these kids how to use the information they find to make it legitimate. So many opportunities missed!

  8. October 20, 2010 9:26 pm

    @Alex: Our problems are twofold. At the moment, not all work is submitted electronically… because we can’t afford to provide 1:1 tech for pupils… and also Turnitin costs money… which schools genuinely do not have to spend. It may come, and being honest, I think it is just a case of when, but for the time being, we’re still a long way from that.

    @MrsS: I can’t say it enough. We need to start teaching pupils from the minute they start using computers that they need to turn it into their own words. If nothing else, this is a brilliant means of helping pupils with their vocabulary and literacy! Simples!

  9. April 12, 2011 4:33 pm

    Removing librarians is a big mistake.


  1. links for 2010-10-17 « doug – off the record

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