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Dealing with Documentation Issues in the Classroom

  1. Introduction
  2. Maintaining Academic Integrity in the Classroom
  3. Responding to Plagiarism

All scholarly research necessarily draws on a structure of previous research. Scholarly documentation allows students to give credit where it is due and clearly indicate the basis of their work. Consequently, the ability to properly use scholarly documentation is essential to the academic enterprise. However, some students do not understand the seriousness of documentation or recognize it as a hallmark of good scholarship. This document suggests tips that instructors can use to deal with documentation issues in their classrooms.

Assistance with documentation issues at Penn


  • provides an online guide to scholarly documentation and examples of several styles.
  • can help instructors identify sources of undocumented information.

Learning Resources Center

  • can work with your students to improve their time management, study and learning skills.
  • provides online guides to aid students with the process of documentation and the research process more generally.

Office of Student Conduct

  • can suggest ways to minimize the possibility of academic dishonesty in your classroom.
  • can advise you of steps for addressing possible cases of academic dishonesty.
  • can investigate suspected cases of academic dishonesty

Blackboard and Canvas

  • includes the plagiarism checking tool Turnitin
Maintaining Academic Integrity in the Classroom

Various factors lead students to improperly document sources. Fortunately, many of these factors can be addressed in the classroom or by academic support services on campus.

Confusion about documention: Some students believe that only direct quotations need to be cited or think that information on the Internet is in the public domain. Others do not understand instructors' expectations or the implications of not documenting sources.

Educate students about proper documention:

  • Discuss the process of scholarly documentation in class, refer students to documentation aids such as Penn's PORT website and mention support groups around campus that provide assistance.
  • Explain that confusion is not an excuse for inadequate documentation. Explain your policy regarding plagiarism at the beginning of the semester.
  • Explain why you believe in the Code of Academic Integrity.
  • If your course has recitations, have TAs discuss documentation issues at greater length.

Panic: Some students wait until the last minute to start their work and then panic. These students may improperly document resources in the heat of the moment.

Design assignments to include both the process and the result of research:

  • Require students to identify, describe, and submit a topic well before the paper is due.
  • Require students to submit an annotated bibliography well before the due date.
  • Require students to submit a rough draft.
  • Remind students that academic support services around campus can help them develop time management skills.

Temptation: The ease of taking material from digital sources coupled with the belief that instructors are unable to track them down lead some students to risk getting caught.

Decrease the temptation:

  • Indicate that you know the ways students plagiarize and that you can track down materials.
  • Mention that you have antiplagiarism software at your disposal. Explain the possible consequences of improper documentation.

Pressure to achieve: Lack of self-confidence or disappointment with previous grades may lead some students to believe that their only chance to excel is to plagiarize.

Tell students about academic support services on campus and point out that plagiarized papers are often of low quality:

  • Students might not resort to plagiarism if they understand that they can learn better academic skills and will be hurting themselves by taking information from the Internet.

Lack of research skills: Students who have little experience with scholarly research may be unable to locate appropriate resources. When it is time to synthesize information, students who have not been able to locate scholarly material may become frustrated.

Help students learn appropriate research techniques:

  • Clearly define and explain research expectations for the class.
  • Share your own research techniques.
  • Refer students to research support services such as those provided by the Library.
  • Give assignments that teach research skills.

Fear of appearing unscholarly: Some students believe that citations detract from the quality of their own work. Rather than document sources in a scholarly fashion, they modify texts to avoid plagiarism without using citations. The attempt to avoid plagiarism sometimes fails.

Explain to your students that thorough documentation is a sign of good scholarship:

  • If a student hands in a rough draft, use the occasion to remind the student about the importance of documenting sources.

For more suggestions, see the Office of Student Conduct's Web site.

Responding to Plagiarism

The University of Pennsylvania has an Office of Student Conduct that "deals with alleged instances of academic dishonesty and other student misconduct, in order to determine how best to resolve these allegations consistent with the goals and mission of the University as an educational and intellectual community." You may want to schedule a confidential consultation with the OSC before making any decisions. The Guidelines for Faculty on Academic Integrity provides an in-depth explanation of how to handle academic integrity issues.

Locating Plagiarized Sources

Much plagiarism involves copying full-text resources that are found on the free Internet or on Library databases. Librarians and members of the Office of Student Conduct are available to help locate the original source. Although many students plagiarize from the Internet, it is not uncommon for students to plagiarize from physical books and articles. Keep in mind that the location strategies listed below are unlikely to detect plagiarism from physical resources.

Free Internet
Select unusual phrases from a paper to search on an Internet search engine. The best search engine for locating material is probably Google, which is the most comprehensive and highlights words corresponding to the search in the list of results.

Online Scholarly Resources

Some scholarly databases provide full-text material that is easy to plagiarize. Search for materials by searching full-text databases with unusual phrases. Unlike Internet search engines, Library resources do not always search for words throughout an entire document by default. In OneFile, for example, you must select 'TextWord' to search for phrases in the text.

Prominent full-text databases include Ebsco, ABI/Inform, JSTOR and LexisNexis.

Papermills collect papers and make them widely available. Some provide free papers, but many are restricted and require users to pay for access. Restricted papermills cannot be searched with Internet search engines, but some of them can be searched with Anti-plagiarism software. Kimbel Library of Coastal Carolina University has compiled a list of over 250 paper mills.

Antiplagiarism Software
Turnitin is a plagiarism tool available through Blackboard and Canvas that checks student work against a number of online sources. Turnitin reports can be used to detect plagiarism and also shared with students as a teaching tool.

Turnitin checks student papers against the current and archived internet, scholarly databases, a global repository of student papers, and a Penn-only repository of student papers.

For directions on how to use this tool, see the Turnitin for Instructors documentation.