How Do Universities Detect Plagiarism?

Students often don't see verbatim copying as plagarism.
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The Information Age has forced universities to adopt new strategies for combating plagiarism, which occurs when a student passes off another person's work as his own. Instead of reviewing numerous term papers, professors can use specialized software checking programs to evaluate suspect words and phrases. When time permits, comparatively old-fashioned methods -- such as reviewing references or writing styles -- are employed. In other cases, the university may hire a service to safeguard academic integrity.

1 Analysis of Writing Styles

Familiarity with a student's writing style helps in determining if a term paper is plagiarized. One indicator is an uneven mix of amateurish and sophisticated sentences, according to anti-plagiarism guidelines posted for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Writing and Humanities Program. Unusual phrases and diction choices that seem inconsistent with previous writing samples are also good indicators. If doubts persist, the professor may request a conference to assess a student's familiarity with his own paper's material.

2 Electronic Screening Software

During the 1990s, universities increasingly embraced special software programs as a defense against plagiarism. These programs allow professors to search billions of Web pages, periodicals and books for similar passages that surface in research papers. Instructors can also determine if the material comes from an online essay or term paper mills. Although popular as a cheating method, many of these sites also recycle similar content and references, which significantly raises the student's risk of detection.

3 Plagarism Search Services

Subscribing to search services like is another popular option. Instructors can have students submit papers to a service's site, which generates an e-mail if plagiarism is detected. The services scan student texts against Web searches and its own database of previously submitted papers. Matching phrases and Web links are then compiled into reports for an institution's review. One drawback is the expense, since most services charge an annual subscription fee, plus a cost for reviewing each document.

4 Reference and Format Reviews

Suspect papers contain many inconsistencies that instructors can train themselves to spot. One sign is the presence of mixed subheading styles, skewed tables and odd margins that don't follow requirements, according to "Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education." Mixed paragraph styles are another telltale indicator, suggesting that the student has cut and pasted verbatim blocks of text onto a page. Other tip-offs include outdated references or the inclusion of source material that's unavailable at the institution itself.

5 Other Applications

Anti-plagiarism initiatives have applications beyond academia. According to "The Los Angeles Times," more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide also use programs like to review essay statements in admission packages for plagiarism. Much of this scrutiny occurs at the graduate level, although roughly a dozen institutions -- such as Stanford University -- also rolled out similar reviews in 2012 for freshman applicants. The university must then decide if the plagiarism is serious enough to reject the applicant.

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.