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Check your bias at the door

When addressing student plagiarism, it is easy to react emotionally, but as educators we need to keep a growth mindset even when we find ourselves in ethically challenging situations.
FEB 22 2022

Check your bias at the door

When addressing student plagiarism, it is easy to react emotionally, but as educators we need to keep a growth mindset even when we find ourselves in ethically challenging situations.


The issue of academic integrity has been on the mind of Sarah Elaine Eaton ever since, as a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary, she was asked to help prepare an internal report on the subject for the then vice-provost of teaching and learning. She quickly discovered there wasn’t a lot of research being done in Canada on academic integrity. So when she received tenure, she decided this would be one of her areas of research. In 2021, she published Plagiarism in Higher Education: Tackling Tough Topics in Academic Integrity. “The book is for faculty members, higher education professionals who work in student affairs, librarians, policymakers, basically anyone who works in higher education,” she says. “We need to stop demonizing students. Addressing academic integrity requires a multistakeholder approach. We’re all in this together. Students have responsibilities, but so do educators and administrators.”

Through her research, Dr. Eaton found that students often shoulder most of the blame in circumstances involving breaches of academic integrity. However, in many situations, students are often uninformed or misinformed about what exactly constitutes plagiarism. She would like to see more training for faculty on how to accurately identify plagiarism as well as how to explain it to students, so that they can do their best to avoid it. “Just about every academic out there encounters academic misconduct at some point in their career, and knowing how to address it would be really helpful before it happens.”

Dr. Eaton says university teaching and learning centres are starting to provide more professional development for academics, which is helpful because she has found that most academics generally learned how to deal with issues of academic integrity from those who taught them. This in turn can lead to preconceived ideas about plagiarism, instead of approaching situations with a growth mindset.

She highlights this idea in the following excerpt, provides advice on identifying any personal biases faculty might have clouding their judgment, and offers tips on how educators can recognize when a student has plagiarized. – Tara Siebarth

Maintaining an educator’s mindset

As educators, we are often situated within departments, which are nested within faculties that comprise the larger learning organization. Educators might appear to work in insolation but are in fact part of a larger system, which exists, at least in part, to teach and provide learning opportunities. Identifying and dealing with plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct are related to institutional mandates of upholding quality assurance in education, but we cannot disentangle misconduct from the teaching and learning contexts in which it happens.

Many educators espouse the notion of a growth mindset or the belief behind the growth mindset is that “intelligence is not fixed and can be developed.” Carol Dweck, a leading scholar in this area, defines it this way: Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning. Many educators find this approach to be a positive and productive way to approach learning. They will carefully invest time and energy in learning how to cultivate a growth mindset in their learners and promote this approach in their classrooms, only to throw the entire belief system out the window when they encounter a case of plagiarism or other academic misconduct. There have been a number of studies about faculty perceptions of plagiarism and responses to it, but there has been less research examining educators’ emotional and psychological responses to plagiarism. The reality is that educators react in emotional ways when they suspect or confirm a case of student plagiarism. It can be confusing, frustrating, and disappointing to realize that a student has plagiarized. Finding a case of plagiarism need not disrupt the belief systems that have guided an educator’s entire professional practice. If you are an educator who subscribes to the notion of the growth mindset, it can be helpful to keep that at the forefront of your mind as you find yourself confronted with the complexities of plagiarism or other breaches of integrity. It is crucial to avoid a mindset of “Gotcha!”, also known as being the “plagiarism police” or pursuing a witch hunt. It is imperative for educators who suspect or can prove plagiarism to resist a knee-jerk reaction to judge students as being morally corrupt or guilty. It is problematic if we trade our identity as an educator for that of an enforcer, discarding all the aspirational elements of teaching and learning that brought us to the profession in the first place. Do not bypass due process and proceed directly to judgment. Instead, focus on understanding what happened, how it happened, and why it happened before jumping to conclusions. Keep your growth mindset even when you find yourself in ethically challenging situations.

Checking our biases

We often ask our students to engage their critical thinking skills, and it is incumbent upon us, as educators, administrators, and support staff, to lead by example and do the same. This starts with being aware of the cognitive biases that we bring to our work, and then take steps to mitigate them. When students plagiarize, professors and others can see this as a blatant disregard for educational expectations and norms and assume that all plagiarism is deliberate, even if that is not the case. Academics can be susceptible to a number of biases when it comes to academic misconduct:

Confirmation bias

This is the tendency for people, including trained scientists, to look more favorably at evidence that confirms their already established point of view. Confirmation bias could lead someone to insist that students who plagiarize do so intentionally, or because they are lazy. Although this may be true in some cases, there is ample research to support that this is not the norm.

Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias, also called “focalism,” occurs when someone relies heavily on an initial piece of information to make a judgment, a decision, or a conclusion that may be inaccurate. For example, a professor could erroneously conclude that students who plagiarize do so intentionally, based on an institutional report about academic misconduct that presents information about plagiarism cases and how they were dealt with. Institutional reports can provide important information to understand patterns of how academic misconduct is reported and how cases are dealt with through official institutional channels, but they often omit important information. For example, they do not summarize research findings showing that a high percentage of academic misconduct cases, including plagiarism, are not officially reported and that faculty members tend to bypass formal policies and guidelines in favor of dealing with plagiarism directly with students. Even though institutional reports may present accurate information about the cases handled through official channels, they may still be incomplete in terms of presenting accurate information about actual rates of incidence or reasons why plagiarism has occurred.

Self-serving bias

Self-serving bias can lead people to conclude that when good things happen, it is because they did things correctly and they are responsible for their own success (internal attribution), but bad things happen as the result of external factors (external attribution). With regard to plagiarism, self-serving bias could lead a professor to conclude that a student plagiarized because she or he was lazy or deceitful, without taking into account whether the professor provided clear expectations about how to cite references, or where to seek additional guidance. Further, self-serving bias can lead professors to absolve themselves of any responsibility for students’ plagiarism, despite ample evidence showing that explicit instruction can help students understand the expectations for how to undertake the assignment.

Bias blind spot

The bias blind spot phenomenon suggests that individuals see biases as applying to others but not to themselves. In the case of plagiarism, it could lead someone to think that his or her conclusions about why students plagiarize are unbiased and objective, whereas other people’s ideas are flawed. It is imperative that those of us who work in education check our biases and refrain from generalizing about why students plagiarize, and even more important to check our assumption that all plagiarism is deliberate. This applies even when we are frustrated or exasperated because we must, as higher education professionals, lead by example and base our understanding on evidence, rather than basing our assumptions on emotional responses or opinions.

Recognizing plagiarism

The process of identifying plagiarism is often called “detection,” but this term is problematic because it conjures up notions of the teacher as a detective, which brings with it connotations of policing student work. In turn, this propagates the kind of moral binaries and adversarial relationships between students and teachers that we need to avoid. The words that we use to talk about academic integrity and its breaches matter enormously. For this reason, I prefer “identify” or “recognize” instead of “detect,” to avoid subtle underlying connotations of “Gotcha!” or assumptions of guilt. Identifying and recognizing are more neutral terms that can facilitate a growth mindset, rather than a punitive one. There are two main ways that a potential case of plagiarism can be identified: by humans and by software. I say “potential case” because identifying plagiarism is a process rather than a singular moment, and it involves careful analysis, not jumping to a conclusion. Here, I explore several common methods used by educators to recognize plagiarism in student work. I use the term “educator” here inclusively to refer to professors, TAs, librarians, and others who might engage with students and their academic work.

Educator identification of plagiarism

Identifying plagiarism often begins with a hunch or a suspicion that something is not right. When an educator asks if the work that they are reviewing was really created by the person who submitted it, this can be the first sign that something is not right. Educators should trust their instincts and use the hunch as an awareness tool to determine if a deeper investigation is warranted. If something does not seem right with a student’s work, do not ignore it or make assumptions about what happened. Trust that as the educator, you are the person who is most likely to be able to identify if academic misconduct has happened, because you are the person most closely connected to the student and the course content. Here are some telltale signs to help you recognize plagiarism in student work:

– Abrupt changes in tone or style: Whether it is prose, design, music, art, or computer code, sudden shifts in tone or style can signal that different individuals were involved in the creation of the work. If parts of the work are poorly written, especially the introduction and conclusion, and the rest is flawless, it could be that the student did not write the majority of the work.

– Changes in font type or colour: If the font changes abruptly in a paper, it can signal that that portion of the work might have been lifted from somewhere else.

– Obscure vocabulary or jargon: The use of specialized professional or technical jargon that the student might not reasonably be expected to know can be a sign of plagiarism, as can the use of archaic words that have fallen out of use.

– Citing and referencing errors and mixed bibliographic styles: It is quite common for students to copy citations directly from the source material and paste them into their work. I encourage approaching this particular sign with some caution, as sometimes students who lack confidence in or knowledge of citing and referencing trust that whoever wrote or signed off on the source material likely knew the rules better than them. This can be an indicator that the student’s intentions were honorable, but their skills or confidence need more work.

These are just a few ways that educators can recognize plagiarism in students’ work, but this list is by no means exhaustive. Recognizing and then confirming plagiarism in student work can involve careful analysis on the part of the educator.

This is an excerpt from Plagiarism in Higher Education: Tackling Tough Topics in Academic Integrity (ABC-CLIO, March 2021). It has been edited and condensed for length and has been republished with permission.

Sarah Elaine Eaton
Sarah Elaine Eaton is associate professor at the University of Calgary, where she also serves as the university's inaugural educational leader in residence, academic integrity.
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  1. Chandrasekar raman / February 25, 2022 at 20:32

    That sounds great Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton

  2. Stewart Manley / February 26, 2022 at 07:03

    Thank you for this insightful piece. I might add that one should not rely solely on the software’s similarity score.