Plagiarism

by Kieran Healy on June 4, 2004

Teresa Nielsen Hayden takes a contrarian line on a story about Michael Gunn, an English student who got caught for plagiarism but is now suing because claims he was not informed it was wrong and was shocked—shocked—to be told it was. “I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise. I never dreamt it was a problem” says the guy, “but they have taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks, and no one spotted it.” Teresa says:

My first reaction was “Nice try, kid.” On second thought, he does have a point. It’s not enough of a point, but he has one.

I don’t think he has a point.

Teresa argues that (1) Students don’t read the rulebooks, (2) Handbooks are crap anyway—“a mixture of hot air, vague benevolence, pious wishes, counsels of perfection, slabs of prose copied from earlier handbooks, stern warnings inserted by the legal department” which produce only FUD, and besides (3) If he’s a serial plagiarist “Kent University is not only entitled to feel embarrassed about it, but is arguably obliged to do so. They should have known.”

Well, it would be nice if ignorance of the rules—especially rules written in dry, boring statute books—was a defence that you could sell to the local Circuit Court Judge. “Your Honor, I never knew it was illegal when I shot him. I should have been told in a snappy and accessible PowerPoint presentation, is all I’m saying.” I’m more sympathetic to the argument that the University should have caught him sooner. It’s not clear from the news stories just how good a plagiarist Gunn was. As I’ve written before there are different kinds of plagiarism and students with different kinds of goals. Certain combinations are difficult to spot. Google plagiarism is usually easy to spot, as Teresa says. Obviously weak students who turn in brilliant essays arouse suspicion. The sadly more common (because more stupid) phenomenon of weak essays suddenly growing brilliant paragraphs is also manageable. But other types are harder. The worst is the student who does not want to get more than a C or a B minus and who plagiarizes from some private stock, such as the papers in a drawer at the Fraternity House or equivalent. You can fight this kind of plagiarism indirectly by setting precise essay questions and not recycling them. But students who cheat intelligently to attain middling results are difficult to catch and more common than you might think. Just because it takes a long time to catch someone doesn’t mean they should be allowed to get away with it.

Teresa asks, “Has there been a revolution in student handbooks since the 1980s?” that makes them interesting to read. Of course not. But there has been a minor revolution in teaching practice. Students are now routinely informed about plagiarism in many different ways, whether via handbooks, the syllabus, talks from the instructor, declarations on cover sheets or warnings from advisors. They used not be. So while further details about the story might make me shift the balance of blame—if it turned out that he really was the very easy-to-catch type and the University were just on autopilot, for instance—my third thought is still “Nice try, kid.” Besides, if we had to tell students everything they aren’t supposed to do—cheat, lie, kick the professor, set their classmates on fire—we’d be here all day.

{ 47 comments }

1

Peter Cuthbertson 06.04.04 at 10:50 pm

Well, exactly. So far as this is a problem, it’s only because a healthy dose of common sense is missing on one or both sides. For that matter, I think a university is entitled to argue that anyone who displays the stupidity described in not even knowing what is wrong with plagiarism is quite unqualified for its degrees anyway.

2

John Quiggin 06.04.04 at 11:28 pm

My favorite response to plagiarism was that of a lecturer, faced with two identical essays who called the students in and told them “This essay is worth 60 marks. How do you want me to divide them up between you?”.

On the C student who slides through with borrowed material, I can’t say I’m too concerned. Contrary to proponents of screening theory, I don’t think that assessment is a core function of the university. And if C students think they can get through life without the benefit of the education we offer them, but with well-developed skills in borrowing/cheating, who are we to say they are wrong? The President of the United States daily proves them right.

3

liberal japonicus 06.04.04 at 11:31 pm

There’s a wrinkle that I think you are missing. The course work was judged satisfactory, and just before the final exam, he was told it wasn’t. Quite possibly, the notifications that he received would constitute evidence that an exchange had taken place. What the university has done is set up some plagarism detection software and run older materials through. This may hinge on differences in the UK and US system, but I can’t imagine a school being able to retroactively delete credits, as they are transferrable. (at least in the US)

(sarcastic interlude)However, this approach holds a lot of promise. Perhaps the university could, in an effort to reduce the supply of graduates in particular fields, run this software on various course work and pull people’s diplomas. Or force the now unapproved candidate to retake (and repay) for course work acquired under false circumstances. The repeat rate would then be a sign of the institution’s financial security. /sarcasm

I don’t disagree with the idea that there may be a lack of common sense here, but the law is really not about common sense, it is about establishing minimum procedures. The university undertakes the task of educating people, and it can’t put such things off till the last minute. It is the teacher’s duty to catch plagiarism and teach the student that it is wrong (which may involve giving a warning and then, if that warning is ignored, punishing the student) and it is the administration’s duty to support the teachers when they make this judgement. I don’t know the UK situation in detail, but my impression is that teachers are not often supported in these sorts of judgements unless they can provide incontrovertible proof and the work framework for teachers, which prizes research over teaching, makes it less and less likely that a teacher is going to take the extra time to educate the student that it is wrong. Thus, the university turns to a software program, which is a lot cheaper to run and certainly doesn’t need tenure. Though I’m sure that if the student wins, it will result in less attention to plagiarism rather than more, I kinda hope he does, if only to suggest to the academy that something is wrong with its priorities.

4

DJW 06.04.04 at 11:35 pm

I was going to object to your last paragraph, John, but the last sentence just took the wind right out of my sails.

5

Giles 06.05.04 at 12:01 am

I take the opposite view –if plagiarism is useful strategy it is as much a sign of a weak course as a weak student; plagiarism is only a useful strategy if the questions are obvious and the grading doesn’t encourage initiative and risk taking. And if it really concerns you the perhaps far greater emphasis should be placed on exams as opposed to course work.

But in relation to course work I don’t have nay problem with plagiarism. In many professions, such as law and finance, (unacknowledged) copying is an integral and accepted part of the job; it is only in academia htat plagiarism is “a serious crime”. To the extent a course is designed to get a student a good job (as opposed to an academic job!) I don’t think plagiarism should be treated as any thing more than a misdemeanor – i.e. punishable with no marks for the essay if caught before its handed back. But after that I think you have to apply the Doctrine of Laches – equity aids the vigilant – not those who procrastinate in enforcing their rights. If you don’t hold someone up for plagarims as least before the end of the course then the problems yours and theres nothing cokcy about it. And my view is that the law is going to favor the student on this one too – especially since the judge will have been through a course – law school that is almost entirely centered around copying!

6

Alex Halavais 06.05.04 at 12:12 am

It is interesting to think what would happen in the vanishingly unlikely case that the suit were successful. My bet is that administrations would begin holding professors accountable for passing plagiarized work, without providing the kinds of teacher/student ratios that would make real evaluation possible. Then professors would stop using written work for evaluation, in order to defend their careers. Then students would begin graduating with four year degrees and absolutely no ability to string together a letter, let alone an essay or report of research.

And that would differ from the current situation in… no discernable way.

7

h. e. baber 06.05.04 at 1:21 am

I caught students cheating in an ethics class and had them write essays explaining why they cheated and argue why or why not it was morally ok with reference to ethical theories considered in class. Two I remember raised serious points:

(1) My career goal is pre-school teaching. I’m very good with little kids–I like them and they like me. I don’t need the stuff I’m learning here at college to do that job, I don’t like academic work, and I’m not good at it but the rules are that to teach pre-school I have to have a college degree.

She had a point. In the US a BA is a prerequisite for virtually anything beyond minimum wage work. A liberal education, quite apart from vocational training is a good thing but not everyone wants it or can benefit from it. Making it a requirement for jobs that don’t really take much book learning is wasteful, imposes a needless burden on students with modest abilities and aspirations and, if anything, turns them off of the whole idea of education.

(2) I work full time. Some students don’t have jobs. They work at writing papers for school. I work at McDonalds and use the money I make to buy papers for school. I don’t see why I should be penalized: I worked just has hard flipping burgers to pay for the paper I bought as students who wrote their papers.

Is this the screening theory? This guy assumed that a BA is reward for hard work, and it doesn’t matter what kind, signaling to potential employers that an applicant a hard worker. Or possibly he regarded getting a degree as something like buying a commission.

The students at this college where I first taught years ago were largely working class inner city kids, most the first in their families to go to college and on the whole they weren’t in college either for fun or self-cultivation. They were after jobs in sales or child care or jobs that were essentially secretarial and the kids I caught cheating didn’t see any connection between the school work they had to do to get their working papers and the jobs they were going to college to get. They were right.

8

Tod Westlake 06.05.04 at 1:38 am

I’ve no idea what is the current Zeitgeist at universities in the UK when it comes to the issue of plagiarism, but here, in the US, there has been so much of it in recent years that practically every instructor I have encountered has made a serious effort to outline not only the parameters of what constitutes plagiarism, but also the dire consequences for the student should plagiarism be discovered.

I would also like to note that an individual’s intent is irrelevant when it comes to the issue of plagiarism. I cite Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen E. Ambrose as two prominent authors who were caught plagiarizing the work of others. The fact that they weren’t cognizant of the theft mitigated their guilt slightly, and only because they paid others to do their research.

Michael Gunn doesn’t have a similar pot to piss in.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden, on the other hand, is way off the mark in her defense of this kid. It is the responsibility of the student to understand the rules. Rules which apply to every friggin’ accredited university in the friggin’ universe.

Sorry Teresa. No dice.

9

mjones 06.05.04 at 1:57 am

To H.E. Baber: I sympathize with your students’ situations, but I sure as hell don’t want that first one teaching MY kid. Or any kids.

10

Frank Wilhoit 06.05.04 at 2:01 am

This had best be a hoax. If it is not a hoax, then I may at any moment start having illusions that I understand where Tony Blair came from; and you don’t really want me to start having illusions like that.

11

Gwen 06.05.04 at 2:15 am

At my Canadian university, I have yet to take a course that involved any sort of written assignment where we were not informed several times that if we were caught cheating or plagiarizing, there would be no second chances and absolutely no mercy. I don’t know the UK rules, but I find it hard to believe someone could miss all the dire implications of expulsion on the spot, no chance of *ever* attending another university, and the general sentiment that plagiarizers are evil people who mess up the class average and kill kittens in their spare time.*

*Not, of course, that any of these things necessarily happen, but boy, after a plagiarism talk, one sure feels like it.

12

david 06.05.04 at 2:45 am

I hate the need to redesign paper assignments to account for plagiarism. It bears no relation to what should happen in a class of undergraduates who are all taking the class for the first time, it’s torture to have to worry so much about plagiarism when designing worthwhile assignments, and it makes me resent the wretches, all of them, not just the brats who buy papers from mills or take them from fraternity houses. But there is nothing worse than the student who, once caught, insists that they just didn’t know what they were doing. What shit.

That goes for Goodwin and Ambrose too, who were lazy but enough already about how they didn’t know. They knew, they just went to the instructors office with their best innocent face, and the threat of wealthy parents calling the dean.

13

Dave 06.05.04 at 3:11 am

If there’s one thing I remember about Harvard’s disciplinary policy, it was this:

You could kill your roommate, then get caught naked doing heroin with the President of the University’s underage daughter, and they’d ask you to take a semester off to re-evaluate your academic priorities. But God forbid you got caught plagiarizing, and you’d not only be out on your ear, but blacklisted from every other prestigious program in the Northeast.

Illinois has a different – but no more rational – policy. The instructor has the ability to do anything from slapping you on the wrists to failing you for the entire class and recommending to the administration that you be hung upside-down by your toenails (after being summarily expelled). Most instructors, myself included, have a policy that a plagiarized paper is worth the grand sum of zero points, and leave it at that.

14

Shai 06.05.04 at 5:14 am

In every single class I’ve had in the two years I’ve been in university there has always been an announcement or handout about plagiarism. If Kent University doesn’t have a similar policy for professors, instructors, and teaching assistants to follow, it should.

15

liberal japonicus 06.05.04 at 5:36 am

Just to note another point, obviously teaching about plagiarism doesn’t begin one’s college freshman year. However, if this link is representative of the situation in junior high schools, and this situation is mirrored in the UK, it is no surprise that the point is not getting across.

(the url is http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2004/05/teachers.html in case the html doesn’t come through)

16

q 06.05.04 at 5:39 am

Shame on him. He cheated. He got caught. It is as simple as that. You make your choices: You take your chances. He is an embarassment to the UK, an embarassment to Kent University, and an embarrassment to his parents and family.

Award him zero for all his courses. Suspend him from attending any funded educational course in the UK in the future. That’ll send a clear signal to the rest of the country that cheats will not be tolerated.

17

q 06.05.04 at 5:58 am

A true story from a friend.

Last year, in 2003 at a reputable institution, course instructors discovered a small group of 6 students in class of 300 all handed in similar work. Mass copying had taken place. Students were informed they would score zero. Students were paying high foreign-student fees. Father of one of the students phones up the university and threatens legal action. All student marks were reinstated.

18

Chris Jones 06.05.04 at 7:34 am

At my Canadian institution, each course syllabus is required to have warnings about plagiarism, what constitutes it, and the dire penalties attached. In addition, instructors have been advised that if they so much as suspect cheating going on, it is to be kicked upstairs to Faculty administrators. It’s unclear how much good this does, but the “going rate” for cheating seems to start at a one-year suspension on a first offence.

Of note is that the discipline process includes an appeal to a board composed of two students and a professor [all from outside the Faculties of the accused and the accuser].

19

still_shaking 06.05.04 at 7:37 am

I was accused of plagiarism as an undergrad for using an African proverb as a preface to some essay on the Green Revolution. I didn’t cite it, as a proverb or otherwise. I had never read the handbook on plagiarism, but I surely knew that what I was being accused of was far more threatening to my future than any of my proceedings in front of criminal judges. The point being that if you are smart enough to get into college, then you are smart enough to know when you are cheating.

I still do not think ‘common knowledge’ — or in this case proverbs — need to be cited; however, I now judiciously error on the side of caution.

20

Chris Bertram 06.05.04 at 8:48 am

Two points: (1) Has there been a revolution in course handbooks since 1980? Well, maybe not one that makes them interesting to read! But there has been a pretty comprehensive change in them because of the UK’s regime of “Quality Assurance”. As a result, every possible detail gets made explicit in such handbooks. I’d add that, in my own department, we have 19 different undergraduate programmes all with different coursework and exam requirement. Our policy is therefore to refuse to answer questions about whether unit A can be combined with unit B, when the deadline for students taking Philosophy with Maths with a years of study in continental Europe is, etc. Far better to tell the student “look it up in the handbook” – everything is there and it is more accurate than my memory of it (and I don’t want students saying “But, but _Chris said_ the deadline wasn’t until the 29th and that I could take an optional unit in the English department.”

(2) British universities are scared to death of lawyers, so, in the past, they’ve settled and compromised with students making threats of legal action. The judges, otoh, have been more than willing to back our acacdemic judgement and common sense. If this idiot brings the case, which he will lose, and which everyone will know about, it should put some backbone into British uni administrations.

21

Lance Boyle 06.05.04 at 11:33 am

At my Canadian institution, each course syllabus is required to have warnings about plagiarism, what constitutes it, and the dire penalties attached. I have yet to take a course that involved any sort of written assignment where we were not informed several times that if we were caught cheating or plagiarizing, there would be no second chances and absolutely no mercy. There has been so much of it in recent years that practically every instructor I have encountered has made a serious effort to outline not only the parameters of what constitutes plagiarism, but also the dire consequences for the student should plagiarism be discovered. If Kent University doesn’t have a similar policy for professors, instructors, and teaching assistants to follow, it should.
I think a university is entitled to argue that anyone who displays the stupidity described in not even knowing what is wrong with plagiarism is quite unqualified for its degrees anyway. If you are smart enough to get into college, then you are smart enough to know when you are cheating.

22

q 06.05.04 at 11:55 am

Lance: A++

23

Elaine Supkis 06.05.04 at 1:37 pm

When I was in college many years ago, many many students, mostly the frat rats, didn’t plagerize, they bought fresh essays hot out of the oven from the poorer but smarter students.

This is far worse. The University knew of this but didn’t stop the frats. If a poor student was caught selling his wares, he was expelled but no one tried to track down the buyers.

24

Ian 06.05.04 at 1:39 pm

I’m currently doing an Open University Course. Each assignment I submit has a statement which I sign saying it is my work and not plagiarised. Simple – no argument.

I don’t believe he didn’t know what he was doing. I do believe he didn’t see it as wrong. (‘Copying from one source is plagiarism, copying from two or more is research’) I’m not completely sure about retrospectively pulling his grades but if he has been cheating over the full three years I can live with that, although his tutors and those marking the assignments have some culpability too.

25

andrew conway 06.05.04 at 2:34 pm

In a discussion of this case elsewhere, it was suggested that the University of Kent’s guidelines on plagiarism are not, perhaps, as clear-cut as they ought to be. If a university tells its students that plagiarism is “hard to define” and “often hard to prove”, is it any wonder that students faced with a plagiarism charge will try to argue their way out of trouble?

26

raj 06.05.04 at 3:01 pm

The child’s plaint is similar to the “stop me before I sin again” plaint.

Yawn.

27

Brett Bellmore 06.05.04 at 3:15 pm

Had a class once where the teacher purely despised my writing style, and I her tastes. I set out to craft an essay she’d actually like, since I needed to pass, and got accused by her of plagiarism. However, since she couldn’t produce the original I’d supposedly plagiarized, the charge didn’t stick.

The joke was on her; Actually, it was a pastiche, of her own writings!

28

Ralph Luker 06.05.04 at 3:59 pm

True Story: I was teaching at a reasonably good private liberal arts college here in the States some years ago, when one of my senior departmental colleagues designated himself as responsible for coming up with a departmental advisory to our students about plagiarism. Of course, he contacted a number of other departments. Finding a statement that he liked, he simply replaced the name of its department and college with our own. It never occurred to the poor man that he’d committed plagiarism.

29

Grand Moff Texan 06.05.04 at 4:38 pm

Ignorance of the law is, uh … um, help me out here.

Lessee. Catch a cat-burglar on his third attempt. He gets off because he hadn’t been caught the first two times, so how was he supposed to know it was a crime?

The student is either ignorant or lying, neither of which should be rewarded.

30

Grand Moff Texan 06.05.04 at 4:41 pm

Teresa asks, “Has there been a revolution in student handbooks since the 1980s?” that makes them interesting to read.

Ah, the argument from entertainment. Law students (I forget where) a few years back argued that they should be allowed to surf via wireless internet on their laptops during lectures on tort because, they “argued,” if the lecture were interesting enough, they wouldn’t be doing it.

See? It has to be entertaining or it’s not going to happen, and then all bets are off. More consumerist gangrene.

31

Chris Blakley 06.05.04 at 8:07 pm

If his university is anything like mine is, then it doesn’t matter if nobody caught him. Isn’t it the responsibility of the student to know the policies of the university?

32

Chris 06.05.04 at 8:29 pm

“Law students (I forget where) a few years back argued that they should be allowed to surf via wireless internet on their laptops during lectures on tort because, they “argued,” if the lecture were interesting enough, they wouldn’t be doing it. “

This was at Yale Law School, sadly enough.

33

clive 06.05.04 at 10:31 pm

The problem I have experienced is that plagiarism is pretty hard to prove. In the course I teach the issue is more one well-written piece compared to three badly-written. And I suppose I could spend hours and hours surfing the net to find the piece they’ve nicked (I’m prepared to spend a few minutes, but otherwise life’s too short).

But if it’s just a suspicion, what are you supposed to do?

34

agm 06.06.04 at 1:06 am

At the school where I did my BS, my old boss ignored the school policy of reporting cheaters to the administration because no one in memory has been punished for cheating and plagiarism. Instead we just carefully evaluated, and if more than one section of an exam was the same* as someone else’s, no partial credit was given. Leaving aside that most of those copying still wouldn’t pass after cheating, this is devastating to a course grade, even for the brightest students. While slightly shady, it does an end-run around the circumstances that let students get away with it.

* You can easily tell if someone copied more than a quarter of a physics exam when they turn in their work: physical layout of the equations, argument, copying down the original student’s name…

35

bryan 06.06.04 at 1:42 am

hmm, well I used to sell essays. I have no conscience about the matter because I find the U.S educational system contemptible and deserving of being gamed. Then again I would never have plagiarised anyone else’s work, out of a sense of smug superiority.

There is of course a difference between the most commonly encountered form of plagiarism and plagiarism involving content that one has paid for with the understanding that the content is to be passed off as the sole work of the client.
I’m smirking sarcastically here if you can’t tell.

‘But if it’s just a suspicion, what are you supposed to do?’
One highly creative solution (and one that was at least as ethical as plagiarism itself) was hit upon by a professor of one of my ‘clients’. The professor was very impressed with some essay I wrote attacking “On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata, and Its History” and gave it an high grade.

She then changed her mind in the next two days because she had come to the conclusion that my client had not written the essay; this was of course true, but not provable. Given that my client could not have written the essay she was unwilling to pursue the matter and took the lowered grade.

The main error was my client’s in not rewriting the essay in her own words. I suppose I also provided a poor service by writing at a higher pitch than the case demanded, prodded by my interest in the subject.

36

bryan 06.06.04 at 1:53 am

That particular essay was 10+ pages long, written in approximately 5 hrs, and it paid $80 which went towards one night at the local punketeria, three hits of really good acid, breakfast at village inn, and also some support of a very nice punk rock girl as my companion. Oh and 7-11 nachos the next day.

37

q 06.06.04 at 2:09 am

_I have no conscience about the matter because I find the U.S educational system contemptible and deserving of being gamed._

Bryan-
Why is it particularly contemptible?

38

bryan 06.06.04 at 9:43 am

I don’t know that it’s particularly contemptible, that is to say possessed of a higher degree of contemptibility than most things classifiable as contemptible, but the things that arouse my contempt against it are as follows:

1. I have noted in different institutions that constitute the system a tendency to allow a pass to sports figures necessary for the greater glory of the institution.

2. A similar pass can be given to students from wealthy and influential families.

3. It often struck me that students I dealt with in the humanities were less informed about their particular specialty than students in other subjects. This is of course an anecdotal observation, no doubt prejudiced by my not much liking the idea of matriculation in such diverse subjects as philosophy, literature, fine arts, and so on. From the courses I have taken, audited, or observed from without it seems that often the relative importance of making oneself personable to the teacher is greater in such than is the case in courses dealing with more quantifiable subject matters, I make a general causal connection between this observation of the importance of personability and the stupidity of the students where their specialty was concerned.

It may be that my contempt on this point is an outgrowth of my general misanthropy (or indeed my contempt on all points), and it may be that I don’t want to make myself personable to any teacher because I have a rather big chip on my shoulder where authority is concerned.

Obviously these things can be considered to be problems with individual components of the system, that I see them as hurting the validity of the system itself is probably related to my hierarchical views on realtiy.

39

bryan 06.06.04 at 10:01 am

“Ah, the argument from entertainment.”
ah, the argument that intellectual interest is a form of entertainment combined with the argument that entertainment is a debased activity.

If a document is devoid of intellectual interest it is likely to be untruthful, and to be ignored.

40

q 06.06.04 at 12:10 pm

Bryan-
Don’t underestimate the fear which you arouse because of your intellectual ability. When you demonstrate the healing and positive benefits of such ability, you will find some key people have an affectionate response.

41

E. Naeher 06.07.04 at 6:24 pm

Like Bryan, I am sufficiently misanthropic and disillusioned with higher education to admire anyone who successfully plays the system.

However, I also can’t understand why plagiarism is an issue even to those who still have faith in our educational institutions. What is the purpose of a university — to spit out diplomas with a certain market value, or to educate? If the latter, who gives a damn if a student is idiotic enough to forfeit the education for which he’s paying a significant chunk of change?

Of course I’m also opposed to grades in general on the same principal.

42

HP 06.07.04 at 7:04 pm

At my Canadian institution, each course syllabus is required to have warnings about plagiarism, what constitutes it, and the dire penalties attached. I have yet to take a course that involved any sort of written assignment where we were not informed several times that if we were caught cheating or plagiarizing, there would be no second chances and absolutely no mercy. There has been so much of it in recent years that practically every instructor I have encountered has made a serious effort to outline not only the parameters of what constitutes plagiarism, but also the dire consequences for the student should plagiarism be discovered. If Kent University doesn’t have a similar policy for professors, instructors, and teaching assistants to follow, it should.
I think a university is entitled to argue that anyone who displays the stupidity described in not even knowing what is wrong with plagiarism is quite unqualified for its degrees anyway. If you are smart enough to get into college, then you are smart enough to know when you are cheating.

43

Alex Fradera 06.07.04 at 7:24 pm

We have declaration sheets on the front of all coursework that counts towards final grade – ‘I confirm the enclosed report is my own work’ etc – and yet this year I’ve had a string of students acting utterly bemused when I’ve called them in, due to large tracts of their reports being identical. I don’t know if this is just a favoured first line of defence: if you act ignorant you get a free pass; general naivety is hard to swallow. The trouble is that if work cannot demonstrably be shown to be copied, it’s a hard position for a teacher to be in, especially, if like me and many other individuals involved in student assessment, you’re a postgraduate with only a year or two of authority behind you. None of our work is currently handed in electronically, so it’s down to strategic allocation of marking to group students who took the same topic to research. Essays, which thankfully do not go toward final grades, we rely on guts and glaring mistakes. But there are no resources to systematically exclude plagiarism. We do our best with a bad situation, and for the onus to be further put on us and excuse the student who does try and milk the system seems plain wrong.

44

Giles 06.07.04 at 7:43 pm

I think alex has a pooint here – the increase in plagarism is tied to the decrease in respect for educational – the sturdent knows that in many cases the course work will be graded by someone looking an answer key i.e. copying not making up their own mind – why should then have any respect just because someontes put a defiintion of plagarism on their sylabbus?

45

Another Damned Medievalist 06.07.04 at 9:07 pm

There’s also the little problem that all the work is not turned in to the same people. In the US, there are even privacy laws that protect student confidentiality — to the extent that legally, faculty are not allowed to discuss a student’s performance with each other — even if they believe there is a real problem with plagiarism or even (although I’ve seen this one ignored, since there are few protections available) if they feel a particular student may be physically harmful to others.

There are some ways of getting around this, I think. I know of one private university that asks faculty to turn copies of all plagiarized assignments and their documentation in to the Dean of Students, who keeps a file. The does help to catch repeat offenders. The legal difference is that private schools can demand that students sign releases of information of this kind to certain school offices if they want to be admitted.

Still, if a student only turns in 2-3 papers a quarter, and they all seem to be fairly consistent and don’t show any of the earmarks of plagiarism, I can’t blame the university, and I certainly can’t agree with Teresa Niel Hayden — Gunn was lucky not to have been caught, not cheated because he wasn’t.

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mccoll 06.07.04 at 10:32 pm

I taught a course in rhetoric and composition for 2 years at a state university in the US. (I was a TA.) All TAs were given a very general syllabus, which we had to flesh out and teach independently, that required 8 papers over the course of the semester. Out of the 180 or so students I had in those 2 years, I was able to catch and confirm 5 instances of plagerism. One student’s paper wasn’t obviously plagerized, but she complained to me that the grade I gave was lower than the one “my other teacher” gave. Another turned in a paper of much higher quality than previous papers, and when I asked him to tell me more about his interesting topic, it quickly became clear that he didn’t understand many of the words in the essay. I’m certain that many more students plagerized. Perhaps I could have caught more cheaters if I weren’t overworked and underpaid–does anyone have any tips on how to cheat at grading?

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Lisa 06.08.04 at 4:06 pm

An effortless way of catching plagiarism from online sources is to google a sentence or phrase from suspicious papers. I discovered eight plagiarized papers that way last semester. The great thing about catching students this way is that there is absolutely no doubt about the plagiarism, which makes it possible to fail students without guilt or worry about complaints or (except in a case similar to that of Gunn’s, of course) lawsuits.

Some students at my institution use secondary sources excessively, without quote marks or sufficient attribution; in most cases, these students are simply unaware of the proper way to write a paper. I treat these cases of plagiarism as learning opportunities. That kind of ignorance is not their fault.

Some of the above commentators, those which excuse student plagiarism because of the morally questionable nature of the academy, do not adequately acknowledge that students themselves are hurt by their acts of plagiarism. Perhaps the commentators are thinking of the sort of highly qualified and already sufficiently educated sorts of students that attended school along with them, I don’t know; but my students, who come to college underprepared, need the practice that we give them to be ready for future employment or graduate education. They may think that cheating is the easy way out, because writing is very difficult for them. They need ethical education (obviously) but also a institutional framework in which cheating is not clearly easier than addressing their educational deficits. Allowing them to cheat shortchanges them of the education they are often too immature to know they really need.

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