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TL v63n2: Plagiarist Patrol
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Plagiarist Patrol: How Librarians Can Collaborate with Online Instructors to Promote the Ethical Use of Information


Rachel E. Scott, Assistant Professor and Catalog Librarian, University of Memphis Libraries

Jennifer Schnabel, Assistant to the Dean for Community Engagement, University of Memphis Libraries

Originally presented at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Chattanooga, TN) in April 2013.

Conference Abstract: Rampant plagiarism is inevitable in online classes, right? It shouldn’t be! Two former college instructors who are now librarians share their experiences with plagiarism and explain why the problem is so pervasive in online settings. Read to learn how you can support online instructors and be an advocate for ethical information use at your institution.

Who We Are and Where We’ve Been

Rachel: I taught multiple sections of a research methods course at National Louis University over the course of three semesters. Students typically took the course in the first three semesters of their program and the course was required in several programs. The course was offered both in a traditional classroom and online. My sections were entirely online and asynchronous and I found it challenging to cultivate close relationships with my students. Multiple students in my first semester plagiarized their final project. Most of the infractions were easy to recognize; when a student shifts from using his or her own voice to that of someone else, it is obvious. I was glad that I had collected several casual writing samples at the beginning of the semester for each student’s portfolio. I was also glad that I had required my students read and agree to the university’s policy on academic honesty. This provided hard evidence that plagiarism had been covered and that they had agreed to the definitions and consequences.

I called the adjunct coordinator to ask about the procedures involved in filing a complaint. He told me that mine would be the first to be filed; other instructors had come to informal agreements with students on a case by case basis.  Because there was no precedent for reporting plagiarism in these new courses, the actual process was very complicated and time consuming. I spent hours on the phone with the adjunct coordinator, library director, and senior academic officer. Two of the students failed the class and one received a failing grade on the final but passed the class. My hope is that none of the students will claim in the future that they have never understood what plagiarism is. 

Jennifer: I taught a variety of face-to-face and online literature and writing courses over the course of six years at several institutions in the Philadelphia area. Despite frequent references to the college or university’s academic honesty policy and stern warnings against cheating in my classes, several students elected to plagiarize their writing assignments from online sites like SparkNotes and I found that most instances of plagiarism occurred when the assignments asked students to argue one side of a controversial issue, like legalized abortion, or focused on a well-known novel, short story, or play.

Unlike Rachel, I never pursued official channels after discovering instances of plagiarism. I did leave myself the option to do so when I outlined the penalties of academic dishonesty on my syllabus, but instead I offered offenders two choices: accept a failing grade for the course or drop it immediately. Most students chose the second option, losing tuition money and time, and I believed they learned a lesson without having to carry a permanent blemish on their record.


Figure 1. Programs such as highlight sections of plagiarized papers and identify sources of stolen material. Red text, as seen here, is an exact match to content found on the internet. 

Consequences of Plagiarism

Librarians, as advocates of information literacy and responsible research, should be concerned about lapses of academic integrity in the online classroom. Plagiarism is a pervasive problem that affects both students and instructors. Offenders risk a failing assignment grade and/or course grade. Depending on the institution and the instructor’s willingness to report the infraction to administrators, students may fail the assignment or even the course, a mark that may appear on their permanent academic record. One of my schools required professors who failed students because of academic dishonesty to submit a grade of “XF,” which informed all future transcript examiners of the offense. If the administration considers the infraction serious enough, a student who plagiarizes may face expulsion. Finally, and perhaps most sobering to educators, students who choose to steal another’s work instead of creating their own stifle the development of crucial independent and critical thinking skills.

Instructors are also negatively affected by occurrences of academic dishonesty in the classroom. Busy online instructors, many of whom work part-time at several institutions, do not always have the time to police papers for plagiarized paragraphs. Following the institution’s policies for reporting dishonesty is laborious, especially if cases reach as far as a judicial committee. When students ignore instructions and steal material from existing sources instead of applying their time and intellect to fulfilling an assignment, dedicated instructors are frustrated and disappointed. They often blame themselves, questioning their teaching methods and quality of the course design.

Plagiarism in Online Settings

Before teaching online classes, I (Rachel) had taken a few online classes as part of my Master’s program in Library Science. My experience as an online student made me appreciate how challenging it is to stay engaged as an online student. I assumed that a lack of engagement might lead to other problems, including plagiarism. Although studies (including Grijalva, Nowell, & Kerkvliet, 2006; Stuber-McEwen, Wisely, & Hoggatt, 2009; Watson & Sottile, 2010) show that plagiarism is not more prevalent in online courses, the perception that it is persists among both instructors and students.

This perception is due in large part to the fact that online instructors have no means of getting an unmediated measure of a student’s knowledge. From day one, the student’s parent or friend could be doing the student’s work. Students create and submit assignments online and the process is invisible to the watchful eyes of the instructor. The perception is also substantiated by several other characteristics of the online setting.

Online classes tend to be taught by adjuncts or non-tenure track professors with less institutional buy-in. These instructors have less of an incentive to invest in the academic integrity of the institution, especially considering how time-consuming and emotionally fraught the process can be. These courses are perceived as less serious than in-person courses. When students do not come face to face with instructors, a certain amount of accountability is lost.

While they should not be subject to different institutional policies, online courses are still somewhat new. Auxiliary services like advising are often less focused on the primarily online students and online courses. This means that these courses are sometimes marketed as an easy and convenient way to complete one’s education. Jennifer and I found that students may take three or four online courses in addition to working a full-time job and raising several children.  It is unlikely that students would attempt as many in-person courses with the same personal and professional responsibilities.

The unique circumstances of students in online courses can also be conducive to plagiarism. Students can remain anonymous to both instructor and peers. Students may or may not be engaging in inappropriate behaviors, like cheating, without betraying these behaviors to an anonymous professor. A common complaint in online courses is that the instructor often feels anonymous to the students. Many students requested office hours via phone instead of my preferred methods of email or chat. Students also complain that they feel isolated from resources and help when taking an online course. When they have to come to campus for courses, the library, writing center and other student services are convenient to them. When they choose the convenience of an online course those services must be offered virtually.

How Can Librarians Help?

Librarians must take a proactive role in promoting academic integrity in their institutions. The first step is to familiarize yourself with some of the best practice documents and research pertaining to plagiarism in an academic library setting (including Chuda & Navrat, 2010; Greer, K., et al., 2012; WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, 2009). This should prepare you to become a campus-wide advocate of academic integrity. Most academic institutions will already have an official policy on academic honesty that outlines the responsibilities of both students and instructors. However, if your institution does not, the library needs to promote the writing of such a document. Reach out to your student affairs office or any branch of the administration that will listen. 

After the campus policy on academic integrity is established, the library should respond with its own policy on academic integrity. The policy should explain how the library will support students and faculty in their endeavors to research and write with integrity and honesty. Another way to insert the library is to ensure that the library has a representative on the Academic Integrity Committee, or a similar committee charged with investigating plagiarism charges. Librarians have a unique insight into information use and abuse and they will be able to contribute immensely to the committee. Their involvement will also enable them to keep the library apprised of current, institution-specific academic integrity problems and challenges.

Collaborate with Instructors

Librarians should initiate a discussion with instructors across disciplines about the best way they can support and promote academic integrity in the online classroom. At the University of Memphis, each librarian serves as a liaison to several departments, ensuring that all faculty members can identify an information professional who can assist them. Liaisons can create help guides to information about academic integrity; ours is found at

Librarians or graduate assistants can create video tutorials to help students with topics such as identifying the difference between quoting and paraphrasing. Many offer real-time instruction on how to use the internet and/or library databases for research. Liaisons can also help faculty members create assignments that are difficult to plagiarize by including more specific steps and unique requirements so students will not find a ready-made paper to submit.  Embedded librarians can offer a host of services to students and faculty, but most importantly they serve as an ever-present resource, should a question about plagiarism arise.

Librarians should investigate any plagiarism detection software available to teaching faculty. If your institution uses Turnitin (see Figure 1), figure out how it works and discuss using it as a pedagogical device with instructors. Turnitin and similar programs garnered a bad reputation for being employed for entirely punitive purposes. Several instructors and programs are now using these programs for plagiarism-prevention and not just plagiarism-detection. In addition, librarians and instructors can learn together by taking an open online course themselves, such as Dr. Bernard Bull’s recent MOOC, “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses,” offered through Concordia University (New, 2013). Regardless of the chosen method, librarians need to be part of the conversation on how teaching plagiarism can actually deter academic dishonesty.

The Librarian's To-Do List: 

  • Become the campus advocate for ethical information use.
  • Learn about any campus policies on academic integrity. If none exist, help write one.
  • Create a library policy in response to the campus policy on academic integrity. Explain how you'll help!
  • Secure library represenation on the Academic Integrity Committee (or similar committee).
  • Create a LibGuide or webpage that provides institution-specific details and best practice documents.
  • Make videos and tutorials that focus on specific aspects of ethical information like paraphrasing or creating a MLA Works Cited page.
  • Collaborate with online instructors. Find out how you can reach out to them and listen to what they need!
  • Offer to serve as an embedded librarian.
  • Work together with instructors to design plagiarism-proof assignments.


Chuda, D., & Navrat, P. (2010). Support for checking plagiarism in e-learning. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(2), 3140-3144.

Greer, K., et al. (2012). Beyond the web tutorial: Development and implementation of an online, self-directed academic integrity course at Oakland University. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 38(5), 251-258.

Grijalva, T., Nowell, C., & Kerkvliet, J. (2006). Academic honesty and online courses. College Student Journal, 40(1), 180-185.

New, J. (2013, May 2). MOOC teaches how to cheat in online courses, with eye to prevention [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Stuber-McEwen, D., Wisely, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3). Retrieved from:

Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: Do students cheat more in online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(1). Retrieved from

WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. (June 2009). Best practice strategies to promote academic integrity in online education. Retrieved from



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