WikiHow is not exactly a site known for its serious and rigorous handling of difficult subjects.
In fact, it’s best known for the opposite including having guides on absolutely insane topics such as “How to Act Like You’re Possessed” and having comically bad artwork. Even at its best, the site focuses on providing simple, step-by-step guides that often leave out a lot of the nuance of completing more complicated tasks.
However, one thing the site does have going for it is that its guides are frequently updated. To that end, a recent update to their How to Check an Essay for Plagiarism guide caused it to pop up in my news feed and I was, understandably, very curious.
There I found not only did the work have some 33 co-authors, it had been viewed over 80,000 times despite only earning a 2 star rating from the small number of votes it had received.
Steeling myself for the worst, I decided to check out WikiHow’s guide on this topic. However, what I found wasn’t a guide that was either amazingly great or laughably bad, it was somewhere in the middle. It contained some useful information and advice, but definitely left a lot of the detail and nuance out.
So it’s worth a deeper dive to understand both what the guide got right, where it fell short and where those seeking this kind of information may want to go instead.
Overview of WikiHow’s Guide
The guide itself is aimed primarily at teachers. It refers repeatedly to dealing with student work and is focused on academic issues and tools. To that end, WikiHow’s guide is in three major parts. Those parts are:
- Looking for Warning Signs in the Style and Grammar
- Checking for Other Signs of Plagiarism
- Confirming Plagiarism
The first section includes seven steps and basically gives advice on what to look for in a paper as you are grading it normally. This includes looking for changes in the student’s style, phrasing and spelling (in particular UK vs US English differences). It also tells you to look at how well the paper stays on topic or is too sophisticated for the student. Finally, it encourages you to keep an eye for similar phrasing across all student papers noting that students may plagiarize from each other or common sources.
The second section is really much of the same. It includes various other warning signs that teachers may spot when grading a paper. Those include changing citation styles, the inclusion of dated information as well as changes to fonts and formatting.
The third section is, in many ways, the most interesting. Though it only includes four steps, those steps are to check the work with a search engine, use a plagiarism detection tool and then information about confronting the student and determining the consequences.
The guide also offers a few tips including holding a class about plagiarism early in the semester and educate students about how to avoid plagiarism. It also has links to the main sources for the guide, which include guides on the MIT website and a similar one on the Carnegie Mellon University website.
What the Guide Gets Right… and Wrong
The first two sections of the guide are, in general, pretty sound. Though they easily could have been combined into one section and far fewer steps as they are virtually the same thing, the list of items to look for is accurate.
Many teachers are first alerted to something being wrong with a paper not by a plagiarism analysis, but due to changing language, odd formatting and other inconsistencies within the paper itself or with the student’s earlier work. The things WikiHow encourages teachers to look for are all excellent things to note.
While these might be very obvious things to many instructors, this is meant as a very basic guide so it’s important to understand that this isn’t intended for those that are already veterans of checking for plagiarism.
However, that’s part of what makes the third section more worrisome. Though taking an essay to a search engine or a plagiarism checking tool is a great idea, it includes a mention of Plagiarisma, a very sketchy free plagiarism detection tool. Given the dangers of using such tools, this seems to be an unwise recommendation.
Disclosure: I am a former paid consultant and blogger for Turnitin.
The article also mentions Turnitin. While Turnitin is a great plagiarism checker, if the teacher already has access to the service the paper was likely submitted through it and they already have that report. In short, the guide misunderstands how Turnitin is most commonly used.
But the bigger problem I see is the issue of what to do with the student. While I agree with the teacher sitting down with the student to see if they actually did plagiarize or if they have the understanding of the subject, teachers should not be in the business of determining what punishment the student receives, at least not on their own.
This was actually a major point of discussion at the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) conference in 2019. There, research showed that teachers underreport plagiarism to school officials, often opting to handle the matter in-class. This results in repeat plagiarists not receiving either the punishment they deserve or the support that they need.
Though the guide does tell teachers, “how you proceed is determined by your school’s policy”, as we’ve seen in surveys, teachers often don’t know what those policies are or where to go about learning them.
In short, for a guide that spent two parts and 11 steps discussing ways to spot plagiarism, it blew through the aftermath of finding it in one part and four steps. It really shows.
I have to admit, I expected MUCH worse. Depending on who you ask, the reputation of WikiHow is either that of a joke that should never be taken seriously or of a spam site that produces tons of low-quality content.
To that end, WikiHow did better than its reputation in this area. However, that’s an incredibly low bar.
In the end, I don’t really see any reason why one should use the WikiHow guide and not the ones they refer to. Both the guide on the MIT and the CMU website are much better and are from much more reliable sources. Other than the images, which aren’t very helpful at all, WikiHow doesn’t offer much that is unique.
The biggest compliment I can give it is that it is much better than what I expected, but that’s only because my expectations were so low. There’s no reason to read this guide, there are much better ones out there and, to be honest, it wasn’t even worth this review.
Still, with 80,000+ visits, it’s clearly a guide that a lot of people are reading so it is somewhat comforting to know that it is, at the very least, better than what most people expect from WikiHow.