How to prevent plagiarism and other forms of cheating

Maintain academic integrity by deploying technology and engaging students more deeply

“Contract cheating,” among all forms of academic dishonesty, poses the most serious challenge to higher education today. Making matters worse, the internet has draped a shroud of anonymity over the process by which students find others to do their work or take tests for them, says David Rettinger, president of the International Center for Academic Integrity (

“Contract cheating is an existential threat,” says Rettinger, who is also an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “It can turn any university into a diploma mill.”

Colleges and universities can work to prevent plagiarism and other types of academic dishonesty with technology that analyzes writing styles and verifies identities. But, Rettinger adds, good teaching also plays a key role in dissuading students from cheating.

High-tech defenses

Content-tracking service Turnitin ( provides the software most widely used to spot and prevent plagiarism in higher ed. Its tools reveal cheating by matching one student’s writing with somebody else’s work. The company’s more recently released Authorship Investigate ( platform was specially designed to identify contract cheating.

Online education has, of course, raised a host of new challenges around ensuring that students are who they say they are when they enroll in courses, complete assignments and take tests. Identity management, remote proctoring and biometrics—which use vocal, facial or keystroke recognition—can be used on their own or together.

Read: An insider’s view of online proctoring

Online proctoring can be deployed live (with remote proctors watching students as they test) or via a recording. Some services use the students’ webcams to record audio and video during the test. They also require students to scan their work area to show they don’t have any books, devices or other methods of finding answers. The recordings are reviewed and flagged if anything suspicious occurs.

Other products can lock down web browsers and hard drives during exams, so students can’t access any other information while taking the quiz.

On the test creation side, new assessment management systems allow instructors to develop, schedule and deliver online exams and quizzes in a highly secure environment. These programs restrict students’ access to the exam until test day, and limit the number of times a student can take the assessment.

Companies providing online proctoring, identity management and assessment tools include Examsoft, ProctorU (, PSI (, Questionmark ( and Respondus (

Pedagogical protection

Relying solely on technology to prevent plagiarism and spot cheating, however, creates an arms race between institutions and those determined to break the rules. Both sides will continually strive to outdo each other with the latest tech tools, Rettinger says.

“Ultimately, we also have to address cheating from a prevention standpoint—with good teaching,” he says. “We have to make assignments harder to cheat on and help students understand why they’re worth doing.”

Much of this goes back to the basics of good teaching, including doling out assignments in small parts, providing lots of timely feedback and giving students some control over their projects. In his classes, Rettinger says, he lets students choose what to write about and offers them regular feedback on outlines and drafts of papers.

“There’s nothing that’s cheat-proof, but the more opportunity we give students to make the work about them, the better they’re going to learn,” he says. “At the same time, they’re understanding how it’s relevant because they’re the ones who are making it relevant.”

Rettinger warns, however, that some of the larger currents in higher ed—such as increasing class sizes and the use of adjuncts to teach more courses—will make it difficult for instructors to find the time to give students the level of attention that counteracts academic dishonesty.

“The broader international trends in higher education,” he says, “are working against academic integrity in many ways.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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