Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Preventing plagiarism

Developing a study climate that makes cheating and plagiarism unthinkable can help to foster loyalty to the university and to the standards it assures. Students hate unfair assessment and are more inclined to cheat and plagiarise if they consider it to be happening all around them.

We need to be confident that the work submitted is the students’ own. A chilling anonymous article in the Times Higher Education Supplement of 1 August 2013 describes the work of a ‘freelance ghost writer’ who writes essays and dissertations to order, with little risk of discovery. All writers are carefully vetted by the agency (they must be Oxbridge or elite UK Russell group graduates and submit sample assignments before being accepted for work) and rely mainly on Wikipedia and Google Books to write assignments for a pre-specified grade, as outstanding work submitted by a mediocre student would raise suspicion. The ghost writer is well-versed in avoiding plagiarism detection services which, because these assignments are personalised for each client, are unlikely to show up through Turnitin or other software. Some clients are lazy, others are desperate and yet others know their written English isn’t up to scratch to get good marks. From time to time spelling errors or short poorly written sections are added in, just as a cabinet maker faking antiques will rough up the edges of a piece of furniture to age it.

So what kinds of actions can assessors take to ensure the veracity of authorship of assignments? This is particularly an issue with distance and online learning, where impersonation is a recognised phenomenon (although impersonation happens in every kind of assessment context, including parents attempting to sit exams for their adult children). While there are no proven means to be certain of veracity, since clever but unscrupulous students can often outwit us, particularly with large cohorts, precautions taken can include:
  • Requiring students in face-to-face contexts like computer-based exams in PC labs to log on to computers with their student ID numbers and show the invigilator their photo ID cards (although this won’t prevent identical twins helping each other out!).
  • Requiring students to submit with their work statements confirming that the assignment represents entirely the student’s own work, clarifying penalties for cheating, and enforcing them publicly when cases of poor academic conduct come to light.
  • Requiring students to submit work incrementally, for example for a dissertation, with regular conversations between the tutor and the student to discuss the work and suggest future directions.
  • Undertaking live, in-class assignments and tests where the tutor can identify the student.
  • Using assessment design to make cheating difficult.
  • Fostering a culture of student engagement, where there is an ethical climate that makes cheating out of the question. This is particularly important in some programmes leading to professional qualifications with high ethical requirements such as medicine, social work, nursing, childhood/early years training, police studies, law and so on, but can be very valuable across the subject range.


Adapted from Chapter 8 of Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives, London: Palgrave.

Carroll, J. (2002) A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.