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Using Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism

Two students working in the library.

Research on plagiarism demonstrates that definitions of plagiarism vary between (and within) cultures, institutions, disciplines, professions, instructors, and even assignments within the same course (Haviland and Mullin, 2009). A simple “don’t plagiarize!” provides little guidance for a student who is navigating these varying and sometimes contradictory definitions. Because plagiarism is an important issue for you as an instructor, in addition to designing assignments that deter plagiarism, engage your students in one or more of the following in-class activities so that the understand the issues at stake in your particular course and discipline.

Learn about strategies for responding to plagiarism once it's already happened.

Discussing context-specific examples of plagiarism

At the beginning of the quarter or when assigning a new project, have a conversation with students about what does and does not count as plagiarism in the context of the specific class or project. If you have had problems in the past with instances of plagiarism, use those examples as a starting point. During this conversation, consider the following:

  • Why is plagiarism an important issue for you, for your academic discipline, or for your professional community?

  • What counts as common knowledge? Are students expected to cite the textbook, course lectures, and assigned readings, or is this content considered common knowledge among the course community?

  • Are citation expectations the same for informal writing and in-class exams as they are for formal research papers?

  • If a student chooses to pursue a research topic similar to one she studied in a different course, is it acceptable for her to cite some of the same sources? Is it acceptable to repurpose a portion of her past paper for use in this one?

  • In upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses, are there differences between your expectations for citation and source use and expectations in professional writing contexts?

Applying the Academic Integrity Policy

Have students read over the DePaul Academic Integrity Policy in class or as a homework assignment. Working in groups of three to five, students create a list of the three most important or surprising takeaways from the policy. Each group reports their top three takeaways to the class.

Next, ask students to work in pairs with a handout listing potential situations where the Academic Integrity Policy might apply (see an example list ). Students must identify if the situation counts as plagiarism, cheating, both, or neither according to the official DePaul policy. After working through the situations in pairs, the class reviews the responses as a large group. This conversation is a good opportunity to stress that what counts as plagiarism in one context might not apply in another.  

If time remains, have students create their own situations which they are unsure would count as plagiarism or cheating. Have a few students share, then talk through the situation as a group to work towards consensus.

Lesson idea courtesy of Stephen Skalicky of Georgia State University.

Citation Model Analysis

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to the citation practices of an unfamiliar genre they they are assigned for the course. Select a model text that successfully uses the same citation practices you would like to see in your students’ projects. This model text could be a scholarly article, professional report, or another target genre.

Have students work in small groups to identify and analyze the citation features of the text. Have students consider the following:

  • What types of sources are cited? Are they scientific research studies, historical documents, popular news sources?

  • What purpose(s) do the sources serve? Do they provide factual background information? Are they objects for interpretation and analysis? Does the writer dispute or otherwise engage with the sources’ arguments? Do the sources provide model research methodologies or theoretical frameworks?

  • How are the sources used within the text? Does the writer primarily use summary, paraphrase, quotation, or some combination of these?

  • Find an example of in-text citation. What information is included? How is the citation formatted?

  • Does the genre use end-of-text citation? If so, what form does it take and what information is included?

Review the findings of this analysis as a class, and ask students to use them as a guide when drafting their own papers.

Citation Style Comparison

The purpose of this activity is to have students consider how citation practices are tied to disciplinary values:

  1. Provide examples of two different citation styles, such as MLA and APA, and explain the disciplines where these styles are used (download an example handout).
  2. Ask students to brainstorm the differences they notice in the in-text citations and end-of-text citations (if applicable). Differences might include information given, order of information, representing author names, and formatting titles.
  3. Once the class identifies multiple differences, go through each and explore possible connections between these citation practices and the differences in disciplinary values. When comparing MLA and APA, for example, the class might observe that APA places more importance on publication dates, while MLA places more importance on the titles of sources. This difference is consistent with disciplinary values given that a researcher in Psychology would attribute great importance to the timeliness of a study while a literature scholar might value the cultural cachet associated with the title over the date when it was first published.

Working with Sources

Research done on how college students use sources suggests that students are not reading long, difficult texts, that they struggle to summarize the sources they use, that the sources they select are only sometimes appropriate for their purposes, and that their sincere attempts to paraphrase source material are often unsuccessful (Howard et al., 2010). Given these findings, use class time to engage students in guided practice with researching, evaluating sources, reading, summary, and paraphrase.

In-class Workshops through the UCWbL

The University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) offers customized, hands-on in class workshops on any topic, including using sources effectively, avoiding plagiarism, and citation styles. A small team of experienced workshop facilitators will visit your class to lead a workshop on any aspect of writing. The UCWbL's Workshops Coordinator will work with you to tailor a 45-90 minute workshop to fit your course goals, help your students succeed with particular assignments, and practice skills that can transfer to future assignments in your course and beyond.


Haviland, Carol P., & Mullin, Joan A. (Eds.).  (2009). Who owns this text?: Plagiarism, authorship, and disciplinary cultures. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.

Howard, Rebecca, Serviss, Tricia, & Rodrigue, Tanya K. (2010). Writing from sources, writing from sentences. Writing and Pedagogy, 2(2), 177-192.

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