A Story About Plagiarism Detection

The conversations about online proctoring of… excuse me… online surveillance during… exams has caused me to take a deeper look at the technology tools we use to ensure academic honesty. By the way, The Manifesto for Online Learning (Bayne, 2020) has a wonderful and brief discussion of this issue.

Specifically, I started thinking about plagiarism detection tools and this got me thinking about my entry into education in January 1988. During my first week as a student teacher in a 9th grade Earth science classroom—for those unfamiliar, student teachers spend some time observing and participating on the margins until they assume responsibility for the lessons—the teacher collected short research papers. I don’t recall the exact topics, but my guess is they were on types of rocks or some other topics studied in the first half of the school year. He explained that he had students write a 3-5 page papers every marking quarter. I was looking at the ones collected at the end of the second quarter.

The teacher gave me a sample of the papers to take home and read. One I remember caught my eye. It seemed (even to me who had never read students’ papers before) not quite right for a ninth grader. When the I told the teacher the next day what I thought of the papers, he confirmed that one student had copied his first paper. In my journal from the time (which I still have!) I recorded “[the teacher] assigned me the task of helping the student rewrite the paper. It was interesting as [the student] knew the stuff, but just had a hard time writing it. We rewrote a couple of paragraphs in the study hall.”

That is a long story to get to my point. I was had never read a paper before, but I could find the plagiarism! When I am in a snarky mood (and usually only with colleagues with whom I have a strong relationship), I will tell this story and then conclude, “If you can’t pick out the plagiarized paper without [whatever tool is under consideration], then you have no business grading the papers.”


Bayne, S. (2020). The manifesto for teaching online. The MIT Press.