Cheating on Tests

“How to Cheat Good.”

Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

This is my Number 1 piece of advice, even if it is numbered eight. When you copy things from the web into Word, ignoring #3 above, don’t just “Edit > Paste” it into your document. When I am reading a document in black, Times New Roman, 12pt, and it suddenly changes to blue, Helvetica, 10pt (yes, really), I’m going to guess that something odd may be going on. This seems to happen in about 1% of student work turned in, and periodically makes me feel like becoming a hermit.

Posted on May 25, 2006 at 12:26 PM41 Comments


Zwack May 25, 2006 1:18 PM

But sometimes I cut and paste information from one source into another… Even though I wrote both.

Sometimes I decide that only one or two small pieces were worth keeping and so I copy just those bits into a new document…

Of course, I personally am interested in moving the contents over and not the formatting. Whoever decided that I should keep the formatting needs to get out more.


Lukas May 25, 2006 1:25 PM

Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

People actually turn in papers with different colors and fonts in the paper?

Dont rite to good.

An instructor once accused me of plagarism because something I had written was “too good”. However, the sentence – yes, just a sentence! – he pointed out was not much different from the rest of the paper in terms of tone and quality. He had no response when I asked him what source he thought I had plagiarized. However, he still took several points off my otherwise perfect score on the final and in the class.

I think it is great to use the quality of writing as an indicator of possible plagiarism – especially if the level of writing is drastically different from the usual quality generated by the student. However, those suspicions should be followed up with actual evidence.

Milan May 25, 2006 1:27 PM

At the school where I did my undergraduate degree (the University of British Columbia), all essays are now being thrown through TurnItIn, a piece of software meant to detect copying, to try and foil such tactics as these.

The only really disagreable part is how TurnItIn then adds your papers to its database – without any compensation to you or your school – and then sells access to that database, for verification purposes, to other schools.

metapundit May 25, 2006 1:35 PM

Lukas’ point is a good one: my brother was once accused of cheating in class the local Junior College because the quality of his turn-in essays differed dramatically from the quality of his in-class work.

He had mild learning disabilities when he was younger and even as a college student had atrocious spelling and penmanship. He thinks just fine, however, and given access to a computer with spellcheck is capable of turning out a decent college essay. If I recall correctly he got the instructor to back down by pointing out his excellent scores on in-class tests or something – some proof that he was capable of doing the work…

I’m with Lukas on this one – quality differences are an indicator (a hint to try googling texts to find source materials) but are not proof and absent other evidence should not be used to make accusations…

AG May 25, 2006 1:41 PM

Just dont cheat. The simplest reason to not cheat is that we’re all connected. Not in the Haight-Ashbury/Timothy Leary/late-period Beatles kind of way, but in the sense of the Kevin Bacon game.

Schism May 25, 2006 1:58 PM

@AG :The simplest reason to not cheat…

That’s odd. I always found the simplest reason not to cheat was so that I could get the highest score.

The not so simple reason: Pride.

Mike Sherwood May 25, 2006 2:03 PM

I never had any incentive to cheat because I learned early on how to play the system. Cheating is a lot of work, especially if you want to do it without getting caught. It’s easier to just do the work, but based on your interpretation of the assignment, ignoring those pieces that make the project much more difficult. Too many people focus on the painful part and end up doing a poor job all around.

Cheatless cheating: I got through all of the schooling I can remember(elementary through college) with 4 topics. Computer security, Hitler, WWII and nuclear weapons. I was able to keep reusing the same topics, often sitting down to write a 5-10 page paper in an hour. My greatest achievement was an art history term paper. I had to write a 4-5 page paper on a piece of art I saw in a museum. I wrote about 1/2 a page about a painting of the “little boy” atomic bomb, and spent the next 3.5 pages talking about the history of nuclear weapons. Good thing I found that painting, because I couldn’t think of any other way of generating so much BS.

Now that I’m in the corporate world, I think I learned the right lesson out of all of that busywork. I frequently take what people ask for and restate their requirements in terms that will be (relatively) easy to implement. Then again, I also see a lot of people who probably cheated their way through school and that approach to life seems to be working for them as well.

Anonymous May 25, 2006 2:19 PM

@Milan, re

I’ve often wondered about the intellectual property implications of I suspect that UBC, and other universities that use the service, might be in potential hot water for violating students’ IP rights in their own papers…

A classmate of mine once put a copyright notice on some code for a class assignment, and the instructor then used some snippets of his code as examples of a good solution – without attribution, as the notice called for. Made for a thought-provoking in-class row, and ate a good half a class’s productivity. Unfortunately I don’t think the instructor ever acknowledged he could have been even slightly in the wrong. He probably felt backed into a corner, so wasn’t really able to take advantage of the debate as a learning and teaching opportunity.


The same has happened to me – I wasn’t out and out accused of cheating, but the instructor wanted to talk to me. I explained how I use the time for take-home essays – I write very brief arguments and arrange them like a jigsaw puzzle to make a coherent whole (takes a lot of floor space), then put together an introduction once the structure of the essay appears… What I can’t do is write a decent essay from start to finish – I often don’t know what I’ll write until it’s written.

It was all quite fair – my in class work was considerably worse than my take home work, and he had to check that there wasn’t anything fishy going on.

RepetitionMan May 25, 2006 2:31 PM


Yes, he did. And the simplest reason you could catch him is that we’re all connected. Not in the Haight-Ashbury/Timothy Leary/late-period Beatles kind of way, but in the sense of the Kevin Bacon game.

Johannes May 25, 2006 2:40 PM


But there’s also the case of the other way around: a student handing in an essay that was for the most part machine-translated from articles on the web… and us wondering wtf. it was all about before figuring out that half the words were translated incorrectly…

Mary R May 25, 2006 2:52 PM

Actually, Anonymous, classroom use is one of the largest and broadest categories of fair use.

A teacher can use a portion of anything they choose as educational materials in the classroom, regardless of copyright. Note: rights clearances are required for showing more that clips from films, or posting on course internet sites.

Shura May 25, 2006 3:13 PM

Wait, he seriously says that you can’t use British spelling, and that if you do, he’ll suspect that you’re cheating?

I’m sorry, but… what an ass. Maybe someone should tell him that the language is called English, not US-American. And some of us are British and would rather not butcher it like he does…

Matthew Skala May 25, 2006 3:21 PM

It doesn’t have to be plagiarised to be poorly translated. I recall an AI assignment which confused one of my colleagues a great deal before I explained to him that the student who wrote about “ethnic issues raised by artificial intelligence” probably meant “ethical” issues.

Anonymous May 25, 2006 3:25 PM

becoming a hermit

Bruce, this is just a specialized denial-of-service attack, you need to protect against that!

D May 25, 2006 3:26 PM

re AG:

Did no one notice his comment came from somepace else? I leave it to you to figure it out…

Benny May 25, 2006 3:36 PM

@ Shura:

I don’t think the author was saying anything very seriously. Also, the way I interpreted his comments, he wasn’t saying that using British spelling automatically flags you as a potential cheater. What would make it suspicious is if British spelling all of a sudden appears in something turned in by an American teenager who’s never used British spelling in anything else before.

Anonymous May 25, 2006 4:50 PM

@ Mary R

That’s a good point about classroom use provisions of fair use, etc.

In this case, the applicable law would have been different, as this was in Canada. There probably are
similar provisions though.

The instructor didn’t bring up any such provisions though – if he had, the argument wouldn’t have gone on so long. He might well have been on firm footing, but he probably hadn’t checked beforehand, or he could have brought up that fact.

Nam May 25, 2006 5:12 PM

Actually, if you read university policy at many schools, the work that is completed as part of your coursework belongs to the school. If you receive a patent as a result of research funded by the school, done as part of an assignment, or using school equipment, the school sometimes has the right to take a slice of that pie. IP rights, indeed!

Also, a little known fact (I was reminded of this by the comment of the gentleman who was flagged for quoting his own website in his paper), it is possible to actually plagiarize yourself. I didn’t believe it when I was told this, but if you’re paid to do research and then present the research at a conference, and then double dip by using the same work for another paid research presentation, you can be considered guilty of plagiarizing yourself. I know, it sounds absurd. But google search:

plagiarize yourself

Many schools consider turning in the same paper to two different classes, without securing the permission of both instructors first, plagiarism!

Matthew Skala May 25, 2006 7:24 PM

Re self-plagiarism: If you’re submitting your work to a refereed conference or journal, then (depending on the particular venue) it may be reviewed anonymously. The referee looking at your submission theoretically doesn’t know that the previous-published source you copied from was something you yourself wrote; the referee only knows that you’re submitting something as new that was actually published somewhere else already, and that that’s against the rules.

The claim you’re making when you submit isn’t just “This is my work; I wrote this”; it’s “This is my original work; I wrote this and it is new.” If you lie about the “this is new” part, then you’re guilty of academic misconduct even if you’re telling the truth about the “I wrote this” part.

Jon Sowden May 25, 2006 8:31 PM

@ Lukas: “>> Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text

People actually turn in papers with different colors and fonts in the paper?”

Tragically, yes. It is always good for a laugh though, in a “do you think I’m so frigging stupid that I’m not going to notice these tecctonic fault lines running through your paper” kind of way.

@ Jo_Ava
For the third time, it isn’t British or American spelling per se that is the indicator, it is sudden unexplained shifts from one to the other that is.

After you’ve marked sereal foot high stacks of turgid prose, the linked artcile suddenly becomes much funnier.


Jo_Ava May 25, 2006 8:51 PM


After you’ve marked sereal foot high stacks of turgid prose, the linked artcile suddenly becomes much funnier.<<

I have marked SEVERAL (and that’s with a “v”, and an “e” that comes before the “r”) foot-high stacks of turgid prose; I am a high-school English teacher. Make that several dozens of stacks.

I still contend, humour (with a “u”) aside, that this prof makes an unfair assumption in this ARTICLE about his (?) students based on something so tenuous as whether they can legitimately use British spelling or not. What if they are using a British text, from which they are quoting, paraphrasing, or taking notes? Especially in a stressful situation like a test or exam (open-book, for example), a student may not be too concerned about whether the spelling is American or British, and may use the word as-spelled.

Of course, the student should be consistent in his or her spelling, because that shows attention to detail in proofreading. I would expect as much from my own students in a carefully proofread paper. But the prof doesn’t mention consistency — he just makes a blanket statement. Funny? Perhaps. Lots of humour is based on blanket statements. Fair? Not really.

Roger May 25, 2006 9:03 PM


Many schools/conferences may consider this to be against their rules, but it isn’t plagiarism. Every formal definition of plagiarism which I can find agrees that you must be copying the work of ANOTHER person.

And in the field in which I work, most conferences are generally happy so long as the recycled paper includes at least some novel results. They couldn’t care less about recycling the prose used to present the new results, so long as it is clearly written, and in passive voice…

Julian May 26, 2006 3:57 AM

We had a system at University that marked computer coursework. It also attempted to detect plagarism. The problem came one day when the lecturer decided that one students answer was actually better than the model answer, so took that as the new model answer.
The student was then flagged up as having copied the model answer!

zulu May 26, 2006 5:10 AM

I’ve submitted parts of the same work twice, I personally do not see a problem with it. The questions for two (business) modules were essentially the same and I used the same company for each…. why regenerate the wheel! (I’m not keen on business modules anyway.)

As for Edit > Paste Special > Unformatted Text, I can’t seem to find that option in gedit…. (/LaTeX) 😉

bob May 26, 2006 6:40 AM

I had an instructor in a programming class (introductory machine language) claim the entire class (~10 people) cheated because all our assignments looked similar. It was our first assignment – print out the values from 1 through 10.

bob May 26, 2006 6:44 AM

Reusing your own work counts as plagiarism? Makes as much sense as Las Vegas considering it cheating when you keep track of what cards have already been played.

Ukko May 26, 2006 9:16 AM

RE: self-plagerism

I academically grew up with Citeseer (now at ) and the idea of self plagiarism as an issue in published works never occurred to me. When you look up a paper it provides a list of papers under the heading “Similar Documents (at the sentence level)” with entries like “52.6% — A Perturbation Theory of Flange Frobbing”.

At least from the data there is no hesitation to reuse text when moving research from a conference paper to a journal article, or when taking a longer technical report and chopping it up into conference sized (8 pageish) chunks.* I just assumed that everyone knew that others would know how much they had self copied, and self-regulate if nothing else.

Now submitting the same thing to two different venues is obviously bad, but forcing someone to rewrite the same section describing their experimental setup or the section summarizing pervious work seems a bit extreme.

The important part is the new science, the new knowledge documented. If we push the definition of plagiarism to include me copying my lab description from my grant proposal, to a conference paper and finally a final report to the funding agency. Well then we have removed all the meaning from the word plagiarism and we will need to start afresh, maybe with an acronym like NKCOW (Non-Kosher Copying of Other Works).


  • Discussion of the MPU (Minimal Publishable Unit) aside.

Another Kevin May 26, 2006 3:10 PM

Hmm. Reusing material from an unpublished technical report in a conference paper, or a conference paper in a refereed journal submission is usually considered fair game if you disclose. What’s not appropriate is simultaneous submission of the same material to two places, or attempting to republish the same material in the same type of forum. (Resubmitting rejected material to a more appropriate venue is, of course, acceptable.)

Am I the only one in this discussion to whom the phrase “self-plagiarism” brought John Fogerty ( to mind? Sued for plagiarism from himself, forsooth!

Jon Sowden May 28, 2006 4:57 PM

” SEVERAL (and that’s with a “v”, and an “e” that comes before the “r”)”
Yes, thank you for that. In the next message I acknowledged that my spelling in that post was abysmal. My mad typing sk!llz suXorz, so sue me :rolleyes:

“What if they are using a British text, from which they are quoting, paraphrasing, or taking notes?”
Then they should reference it, and the completely problem goes away. The difference between plagarism and legitamate use is referencing. Anyway as the original author made clear, and has also been made several times in this thread, random flops between US and UK spelling is an indicator of plagarism, not proof alone.

This is what Halavais put at the end of the bit about US/UK spelling:”Otherwise, fair or not, it somehow appears that you have copied your work from another author.” (emphasis added by me)

What is so blanket about ‘appears’? Also the problem being addressed, clearly, is copying/plagarism, not the use of foreign sources. Using a CW author is as a referenced source is not the problem. Trying to pass off the work of a CW author as your own, AND being too lazy/stupid to correct the spelling is.

Sheesh Trying to explain humour is always such a fruitless task.

FWIW, I often used the reverse as an indicator – ie US spelling when ‘my’ students should have been writing in UK. If anything it was possibly easier since the large bulk of the relevant material was in American.


Jon Sowden May 28, 2006 5:00 PM

More typos:
‘Then they should reference it, and the completely problem goes away.’
should, of course, read
‘Then they should reference it, and the problem completely goes away.

Apologies for any others.

KimJ May 28, 2006 8:54 PM

My brother was in hot water at his university for self-plagiarism. He was an engineering student and took two “gut” sociology courses in two consecutive summer sessions. The assignments were so broad in both courses that he turned in the same paper for both. Turns out the two TAs compared notes, and his grade was lowered in the latter course. Oops.

Tom July 23, 2006 9:35 AM

My sons girlfriend was just kicked out of the University for plagerism. We found out about it and have serious concerns about his choice of a life partner. He is in his fourth year at a Tech school and was raised no to cheat. It is rampent in this school too. The checks and ballances should help weed out these cheats.

WTF? December 6, 2006 5:03 PM

You “have serious concerns about his choice of life partner,” just because she plagiarized one essay? I highly suggest you abstain from adherence to whichever ethical ethos you subscribe to. If you believe an individual’s character can be adequately seen within the scope of one immorality … well … simply said, I feel bad for you.

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