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Plagiarism Resources for Emory Law Faculty: Detecting Plagiarism

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Detecting Plagiarism

Plagiarism is not easy to detect.  It can be subtle.  And it can be particularly difficult to recognize in legal writing.  So much of what students write is based on previously written ideas found in judicial opinions, statutes, agency reports, law review articles, etc.  The language used by the student isn't necessarily the problem - it is the failure of attribution that crosses the line into plagiarism.   While it is true there is plagiarism detection software out there, none have been specifically developed for legal writing.  None of the software currently on the market can reliably and consistently detect plagiarism in nuanced (and well cited) legal writing.  Emory University does subscribe to Turnitin, a plagiarism checker software, and has integrated into Canvas.  Tips for using Turnitin for legal writing assignments can be found below.

Unfortunately, for the time being, the best way to detect plagiarism is the good old fashioned way of critically reading papers to detect clues that plagiarism has occurred.  The librarians at the University of Michigan School of Law have created an excellent plagiarism guide which includes the six-step process to detect plagiarism outlined below.

How to Detect Plagiarism - University of Michigan Law Library

The librarians at the University of Michigan Law Library have created an excellent guide for detecting plagiarism - How to Detect Plagiarism.  They recommend the following six-step plagiarism detection process when plagiarism is suspected.

Step 1: Start with the article itself.  
Read through the entire article and identify any text that seems to be inconsistent from the rest if the article in terms of tone, structure, and choice of words, as well as any obvious grammatical mistakes, typos, or different fonts.  Look for anything that seems like it does not come from the same author.

Step 2: Check the cited sources in the article. 
Many times, when an author plagiarizes from another source, including both primary and secondary sources, he or she may cite the source at least once or twice.  Compare the article with the sources that it cites to see if there are any similarities.

Step 3: Search in full-text journal databases. 
Once you identify a particular part of the text that looks suspicious, you should enter that text into a full-text journal database as a keyword search.  Subscription databases can be accessed via MacMillan Law Library's website.  Examples of databases you may want to search include Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline, JSTOR, Google, Google Scholar and SSRN.

Step 4: Search in books. 
Authors may plagiarize material from books.  Google Books is a helpful tool to identify where authors copy from a book chapter or an essay from a published book.  In addition, commercial databases, such as Lexis, Westlaw and HeinOnline include books and treatises in search results as well.

Step 5: Search primary sources of law.  
Authors may also copy from primary sources of law, such as cases, statutes, or regulations without appropriate citations.  Therefore, be sure to search relevant primary law databases as well.

Step 6: Use plagiarism detection software.
Emory University provides Turnitin plagiarism detection software which can be accessed for all courses via Canvas.

Turnitin Plagiarism Checker

If you decide to use Turnitin to detect plagiarism, there are a few things you need to know.  First, Turnitin is not a perfect tool to detect plagiarism in academic writing in general and is especially difficult to use in legal writing.  Turnitin’s issues stem from the fact that it may be too sensitive in some instances and generate some false positives.  It can pick up commonalities of even three words in a row from other articles and from websites.  Second, there is no quick fix for plagiarism detection in legal writing.  Hence prevention is by far the best strategy. 

Additional information on using Turnitin can be found in the Using the Turnitin Plagiarism Checker guide created by Emory's Learning and Teaching Technologies team.  Professors should also know that after they have submitted a paper to Turnitin and received a report, the professors will need to investigate the flagged portions of the paper further.  Any flagged portion that has a corresponding citation in a footnote IS NOT plagiarism and CAN BE RULED OUT.  Plagiarism concerns will only apply if the flagged portion is not cited with a right of attribution and the student is claiming the language and idea as their own.

Once the professor has ruled out the flagged portions in a student paper that have a corresponding citation, he or she will need to look at the remaining portions that are flagged and determine whether these possibly borrowed sections constitute plagiarism.