Plagiarism Education Canada


Credit Where Credit Is Due

How to prevent plagiarism in the 21st century classroom

Plagiarism remains a hot topic in the 21st century. The 2017 case of former Toronto District School Board director Chris Spence, who was found to have plagiarized his PhD dissertation,[1] brought discussions around plagiarism to the forefront among educators, researchers and members of the general public. There is no question that plagiarism is a serious academic and professional issue.

The question is: What can we do about it?

The term plagiarism means “theft of text,” but that doesn’t quite cover modern-day understandings of what it means to steal from someone else’s original work. Scholars and policymakers today agree that plagiarism goes beyond merely copying written text. It can include stealing another’s ideas, text, music, images, art, computer code, multimedia and so on. There is no single definition of what constitutes plagiarism in modern educational institutions.[2]

Plagiarism can be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional plagiarism is when an individual knows they are doing something wrong but does it anyway. This is generally considered more offensive than unintentional plagiarism, which happens when someone lacks the understanding of how to cite and reference others’ work appropriately.

Given the lack of a consistent technical definition of plagiarism in a world where the copy-and-paste functions of computers make it easy to lift just about anything from an online context and use it somewhere else, we need to flip our thinking to keep up with the times. Instead of focusing on plagiarism after it has happened, it is more productive to proactively teach children why it is important to give others credit for their original work and how to do that. Teachers can be agents of change when it comes to teaching children about Creative Commons[3] and copyright, for example. A key lesson for 21st-century students is that not everything on the Internet is open access. Opening up conversations around ethical ways to use others’ work can help students develop more refined decision-making skills for themselves.

5 tips to prevent plagiarism in your classroom

What else can individual teachers do to build students’ understanding of plagiarism?

  1. Talk about plagiarism openly.

    Just as we talk about how to make responsible choices in other areas of life, talk to your students about why it’s important to give others credit for their work. This is not limited just to text. Many people have been trained to cite other people’s written work, but it does not occur to them that we also need to cite photos we find on the Internet, for example. The key principle to convey is that we give others credit for words, images, music, code and any other work created by an individual or a group. It is important to teach students that some things online are proprietary (not to be used without express permission) and others can be shared (with credit). The topic of copyright is complicated and it can be easy to feel too overwhelmed to even talk about it. The point is not to get lost in legalities, but rather to raise learners’ awareness that even when material is online, we start with the intention of giving credit to the creator.

  2. Do hands-on activities.

    Learning what plagiarism is can be a good first step. Learning how to avoid it is an even better one. Interactive lessons convey key concepts in a powerful way.[4] There are some excellent online learning games for plagiarism prevention[5] that allow students to learn about the topic in a fun and non-threatening way.

  3. Scaffold writing projects.

    Making writing a multi-phased activity that gives students a chance to talk about why the topic interests them and what they want to focus on. Foster emerging ideas through drawing, mind maps, outlines or other activities that help students to develop their own ideas before they begin a writing project.

  4. Write in class.

    Providing dedicated in-class writing time gives students a chance to practice their writing skills in a supportive learning environment. Make your classroom a space where it is fun for students to write.

  5. Include formative assessment with writing activities.

    Emphasize that learning is a process, not just a product. Offer feedback on drafts of writing, making sure to point out what students are doing well and how to strengthen their work (including crediting their sources). Remember, formative assessment is all about helping students to improve.

Educators play a key role in helping students to understand what it means to cultivate a personal ethic of academic integrity. Preventing plagiarism is just as important, if not more important, than imposing punishments after it has happened.

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[1]As highlighted in news reports like this one:

[2] S. E. Eaton, “Comparative Analysis of Institutional Policy Definitions of Plagiarism: A pan-Canadian university study,” Interchange: A Quarterly Review of Education (2017): 1-11.


[4] An excellent example of a hands-on plagiarism workshop can be found here:

[5] See, for example:

Meet the Expert

Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD

Faculty member and researcher at the University of Calgary

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