Signals of Possible Plagiarism in Written Work

Renoir Gaither
Shapiro Undergraduate Library
University of Michigan


  • Lack of references:  Long passages, typically well written, may be taken from general sources both print and online.
  • Unusual references: Outdated references or ones taken from sources that are not available from the library (missing, not held in collection) should raise flags.
  • Irrelevant references:  Sources cited may not be related to the student’s points or assertions; references may be fake or incomplete.
  • Predominance of online sources:  A prevalence of online sources may suggest fraudulence or problems with proper citation, especially if links to the sources are broken or material appears irrelevant.
  • Mixed citation styles:  Is there consistency in the citation style, both parenthetically and in the bibliography?  Be wary of papers where there are two or more citation styles!
  • Quotations improperly cited:  Are the quotations cited?

Prose Style
Though not a tell tale sign of inappropriately “borrowed” material, dramatic changes in writing level or diction, as well as changes in tense, voice, unusual sentence structure or spellings (British vs. American) may alert instructors to plagiarism (intentional or otherwise).

Odd margins, no paragraphs, strange headings, or abrupt transitions between ideas or paragraphs may signal cut and pasting.  Curious subheadings or odd capitalization may also be cues.

Dated material
References or data that are long past (assignment dependent; i.e. exceptions for historical papers, etc.) may suggest an old paper.  Be wary of papers that speak of long past events as current:  “President Clinton’s administration should be working to solve this problem.”

Straying from the topic
If the content of the paper shifts dramatically and/or the topic strays from the stated subject of the paper, these may be signs of a cut and paste job.  Also, watch out for students whose early drafts on a topic shifts suddenly to a completely new topic.



Culwin, Fintan and Thomas Lancaster. Centre for Interactive Systems Engineering / Plagiarism Prevention and Detection
Web Page. URL: 19 September 2004.

Harris, Robert.  Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers.  Oct. 19, 2001. Web Page.  URL:  25 February 2002.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Detecting Plagiarism. Handout from “Intellectual Property in Academia” workshop.  Contact Rebecca Moore Howard at 2001.

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Last modified: 05/17/2011