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Plagiarism

posted: 5.18.11 by Barclay Barrios

Sometimes I feel like plagiarism is some sort of irresolvable residue, built into the system of writing programs like a haunting remainder. As Director of Writing Programs at my school, every case of suspected plagiarism in the English department’s writing classes comes to me. We have a zero-tolerance policy in our program: any bit of plagiarism on any assignment at any time and we pursue charges of academic irregularity.

I stand behind that policy, mostly because in my experience as a teacher cutting any sort of “deal” with a student who has intentionally or unintentionally plagiarized always comes back to haunt me.

And yet.

This semester one of my strongest students—an international student—turned in work with sentences from sources woven into his text but not cited or acknowledged.  I should have pursued charges but used it as a teaching moment instead. Since this particular class is focused on researched writing, it gave us as a class a chance to discuss citation, paraphrase, and plagiarism; for that student, it was a second chance.

Still, I’m not sure how I feel about the disjuncture between my actions as an administrator and my actions as a teacher. How do you handle plagiarism?

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3 Responses to “Plagiarism”

  1. Kenneth, SMU Says:

    This seems like a better way to handle it than simply going the punishment route. We live in a very confusing era, with the Internet, and it seems that we’re going to have to treat plagiarism, more and more, as an intellectual issue that has to be dealt with at length in writing classes (what is intellectual property?, etc.). We can’t assume that our students know what constitutes plagiarism. With that sort of discussion having taken place, students who plagiarize have no excuse.

  2. Traci Gardner Says:

    There’s a difference between plagiarism as error (and I mean that in the Mina Shaughnessy sort of definition of errors) and plagiarism as cheating. When plagiarism is error, it shows us what the students does (and doesn’t) understand about writing research papers. It presents us with a teachable moment–like the one you describe.

    Plagiarism as cheating is the kind that deserves some sort of punishment. It’s only showing us a lazy, stressed, or time-crunched student who took a shortcut. It’s not a writing error. It’s an issue of time management or academic ethics. Still something to teach the student, but not the same kind of lesson.

    Unfortunately, you don’t mention what happens when you pursue charges of academic irregularity, so it’s hard to know the right call. So much depends upon the student and the situation, which is always going to cause problems with a zero-tolerance policy. If the system sorts out the legitimate errors and helps the student understand the error, then fine. If any plagiarism is treated as criminal, I’d have a problem with a zero-tolerance system.

  3. Brad Zakarin Says:

    This is the second time this week I’ve read a professor publicly reflect on a decision to circumvent school policy for responding to an apparent violation of academic integrity or act of academic dishonesty/irregularity. (See David Barash’s CHE blog post at http://tinyurl.com/3lqbuvc .) I’ve taught many writers as a faculty member and adjudicated many plagiarism cases as a dean. No matter which hat an educator wears, he should follow his school’s policies. Here are a few reasons why:
    -Faculty send a mixed message about ethics by skirting the rules of the school (referring a case of suspected plagiarism) in response to a student’s skirting of the rules (failing to cite sources).
    -Faculty may deny the student a full hearing. Most students will take an instructor’s first offer (no matter how punitive in terms of grade penalties and extra work) because they fear an administrative process. Thus, they may quickly concede guilt without confronting extenuating circumstances (e.g., mental health struggles) that can inform an administrative process (including the provision of support moving forward).
    -Faculty may act without knowledge of past offenses that would be recorded by the administration. By the same token, they may be denying colleagues and the administration a record of vital information in case the student plagiarizes in another course.
    -Faculty expose the school to legal liability by imposing sanctions (even if limited to grade penalties) for transgressions that have not been confirmed by the process outlined in the student handbook, which is effectively a contract.

    A few other points:
    -At most schools, referring a case to the appropriate administrative unit is not tantamount to sentencing a student to a particular sanction. Moreover, I’ve facilitated many a “teaching moment” during administrative processes. (Calling it “the punishment route” obscures this reality.)
    -Can an instructor truly discern a student’s intent? No, which is why it’s not fair to assume “a lazy, stressed, or time-crunched student” has plagiarized intentionally. Honest mistakes can happen at 3AM.
    -Standards for academic integrity (or “regularity”?) will vary across schools because of different cultures, student bodies, and more. Focusing on what is “reasonable” to expect from your school’s students is a better starting point for maintaining those standards than trying to figure out whether a particular student’s plagiarism was “intentional.” (I’ve written about this at http://bzeducon.com/1/post/2011/05/intentional-vs-reasonable.html).