Plagiarism: From Bad to Worse

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following exchange took place this weekend on my personal Facebook page.  What would you do in my shoes?

Siobhan: Colleagues and others, I need help. A student has clumsily copied a definition from Wikipedia into his introduction without attribution. His essay is otherwise his own work. My inclination is to let him off with a 0 in “expression” and a stern warning. However, I have already given one of his classmates (and a friend of his) a 0% for copying a couple of lines into his essay from the novel publisher’s website. That seems like a more egregious offense to me, but I’m having trouble explaining this to myself. Thoughts?

Ms. A.: I think it’s equally egregious. Both were unattributed quotations from websites, no?

Siobhan: I think my hesitation is because it’s so common for students to do this with definitions. They seem not to understand that a definition is a set of carefully chosen words, as opposed to a Platonic form that belongs to everyone.

Ms. B.: If you can’t explain it to yourself, you can’t justify it to them, either. Copying and pasting from a different source without attribution is plagiarism. Also, isn’t it questionable to be quoting Wikipedia anyway?

Siobhan: Wikipedia wasn’t used as a “source” per se – the student needed a grabber in his introduction, and we talked about definitions as weak but acceptable grabbers, so I suspect he took it from there. His essay-writing skills are poor, and I’m pretty sure this was an essay-writing error and not a deliberate attempt to pull something over on me. In the other student’s case, copying from the website added nothing to the essay except to fill out the word count. Thus my dilemma.

Here’s the relevant passage in the college Cheating and Plagiarism policy: “Plagiarism versus incorrect or incomplete documentation of sources: Many… college students have not yet developed the academic skills necessary to correctly and completely document sources used in an assignment….Teachers should endeavour to distinguish between students who incorrectly or incompletely document source material and students who attempt to cheat, through plagiarism, by copying source material and presenting this material as their own original work.”

Ms. C.: In similar cases, I have let the student fix the error but told them that I would grade them on 80 instead of 100. It looks like you are accomplishing the same thing by grading a portion of the essay at 0%. I do this in cases where I really do think it was a question of simply not understanding that what they did was wrong.

Siobhan: Ms. C., would you do the same for the student who copied from the publisher’s website?

Ms. C.: If it was their first essay, and it was the only instance of plagiarism in the paper, I would let them fix it for a reduced grade.

Siobhan: I’m tempted to write to the student and say, “Give me a reason not to give you a zero, taking into account the fact that someone in your class got a zero for a similar offense. My feeling is that your offense is less serious, but I can’t figure out why, so convince me.”

Ms. C.: Sometimes what I do when I am uncertain is I set up a face to face meeting with them. I let that interaction help me decide whether to let then redo for a reduced grade or assign a 0.

Siobhan: I think that’s what I’ll do. In the meantime, I’m giving him a zero and will see what he says.

Ms. D.: I like the end of this exchange: I think I too would start by assigning a zero (or no mark at all) and then arrange a meeting. I try to explain things unemotionally and objectively, and also I don’t make any final decision on the spot, while the student is there with me. The passage you cite from the policy leads me to believe that there is plenty of wiggle room here for you, and I completely understand your desire to find that ‘wiggle room’ and use it, but on the other hand, really, students often learn very little from the ‘stern warning’ if there are no actual consequences to their actions. I have certainly had occasion to give a student a 0 knowing that they are fully capable of passing the course with the rest of the work, but what remains with them is that they could have had a significantly better grade, had they made better decisions. Now, if this is a 1st semester student, I would tend to be more lenient; but for a post-intro student, less so.

Siobhan: Yes, one of the considerations here is that this is a post-intro student. To his classmate who earned the zero I said, “You didn’t just arrive in college this minute. You know what plagiarism is. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Ms. E.: At my school (I teach international students who want to go to university, and plagiarism is a huge issue), after the first instance of plagiarism, the student can rewrite the plagiarized parts and resubmit with no penalty. But their name (and details of the offence) goes into a database, which teachers can check. Each subsequent offence (in any class) carries a heavier penalty. They’re let off easily for the first offence because they often don’t connect the ‘theory’ of what plagiarism is to their own practice until they’ve actually screwed up.

Ms. F.: Well, Siobhan, since you said the essay was the student’s work with the exception of the definition, it seems that his intentions were not to plagiarize. How old is this kid? As the mother of a teenaged boy, sometimes all they need is for things to be pointed out to them. I’d give the student the option of fixing it up which I hope he would gladly do. Tell him that you do not expect this repeated action again. I would allow him to redo that part, then mark him. Like I said, I have no idea how old these students are but I’m all about helping them learn and grow from their errors. If this continues, of course, the consequence would be different.

Siobhan: These are college students, and they’ve all been in college for at least a year. They’ve had plagiarism explained to them many, many times by many different teachers. My approach to a first-semester student is always considerably more lenient, but at this point, they’re expected to know these things.

Ms. F.: College student – totally different ball game. Thought they were younger. Yup, I’d have no tolerance for plagiarism at that level.

Ms. G.: I think I might dispute that they all fully understand plagiarism by second semester. Some students in some classes are encouraged to do just what these two students have done and documentation isn’t stressed or even covered. I think with a definition students assume a second party, as you mentioned. Unless the student blatantly says my definition of this is… I don’t know that I would fully penalize either student for just a couple of lines, though reducing their possible grade seems fair.

Siobhan: I would never suggest that they all fully understand it – I would only suggest that they SHOULD, and are responsible if they don’t, especially as it’s already been discussed in our class. Also, this is not second semester but second year for most of these guys. If a student were able to demonstrate to me that he/she had been misguided in another class as to what proper documentation is, I’d certainly take that into account, but if we don’t penalize students for a “couple of lines,” then the concept of plagiarism is not very meaningful. There are of course exceptions and blurry areas, but a student in his second year of college who copies sentences from an online plot summary into his essay needs to feel the full force of the consequences as far as I’m concerned. The fact that some others are not enforcing these consequences is part of the overall problem.

Ms. G.: I’m not advocating being soft on plagiarism; I’d just go with your gut on this one.

Readers, what should I do?

Image by John Nyberg

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20 responses

  1. To start off: I’m still a college student. Where I’m going, there is a fairly strict policy that first time offense is a minimum of a zero on the assignment. This seems to have the desired effect of deterring plagiarism in most cases.

    If you are lenient with this one, others may be more encouraged to plagiarize when they are short on time rather than submitting under the word count or submitting a sub-par paper. Less punishment means less risk.

    • Emallson: in general, I agree. Do you think there are any grey areas? With students who have just arrived at college, for example, I sometimes impose lesser penalties and work with them to help them understand the problem.

      • I think the argument for a grey area and for leniency could have been made had another student not already been given a zero for a similar offense and if this were a freshman class.

        Every professor in my freshman year of college and most in my sophomore year were very specific about what would happen if we plagiarized. From the sounds of it, things are similar where you are. If a student still insists on plagiarizing at that point, they knew the risks.

        It sucks, but one zero can’t make-or-break you in college (thankfully). Even failing a class can be overcome. If the student is given a zero now they will almost certainly never try to plagiarize again – the risk would be too great. However, if they get leniency this late in the game, the temptation next time will be that much greater.

  2. Here’s a question for you: during your class, did you ever explicitly go over what constitutes plagiarism and what doesn’t?

    If you did, then give the zero.

    But, if your gut tells you that one student did this purposefully and that the other did it by mistake, that’s worth something. If nothing else, the fact that you stated it leads me to believe that you think that this person has wiggle room. I doubt that you’d feel that way if you also felt that you had fully communicated your expectations to your students.

    I think that, if you went over the rules and this person broke them, the student deserves a zero. But, if you haven’t communicated your expectations, why assume that the student picked this up elsewhere from another professor?

    Certainly, I think that most people understand plagiarism by this stage in their schooling but we all know that there’s plagiarism and then there’s Plagiarism. If you have a zero tolerance policy then I think that you should make an effort to say that, strongly, just once.

    Given my understanding of what’s going on, I think that your idea of starting this person with a zero and then having a conversation is a good one. I wouldn’t tell him that there may be a path to talk his grade up a notch but think that it may be okay to give partial credit based on your talk.

  3. Since your school’s official policy gives you some leeway to distinguish between deliberate plagiarism and unintentional insufficient citing of sources, I like the idea of having a face to face meeting with the student.

    I have a gut feeling that you’re right–that it’s entirely possible that students don’t understand that a definition, even a seemingly basic one, is still somebody else’s (or an editorial board’s) creative work and not some kind of universal, Platonic *thing* that exists without human intervention.

  4. Keep your meeting with the student. Cite the college handbook definition to him. Ask him if he realizes he copied the definition without attribution. Ask if HE thinks it was plagiarism or inadvertently failing to cite a source. I see this as a teaching moment. Sure, a zero could be one of those “natural consequences” life hands down, but will the student understand how he plagiarized? If he doesn’t know his mistake, it will be repeated.
    I see this as failure to cite a source and using a faulty source (since Wikipedia is hardly scholarly).
    Trust your instincts. Don’t bring the other student into the conversation. Deal with that issue separately and only if it comes up. I might even spend a few minutes at the beginning of the next class session discussing the two occurrences (authorship remaining anonymous) and explain what you see as the difference between plagiarism and lack of attribution. That way, everyone benefits from the mistakes of these two.
    Let us know the final outcome.

  5. Ever quipped something like “Wikipedia is not a source.”? I’m sure some profs have, and, given the understanding of plagiarism most undergrads display, I’d be surprised if none of them thought “Oh, so I don’t have to cite it!” Citing Wikipedia is an exercise in of itself – who are you citing?

    But I do agree with the commenter who typically grades the paper at zero and has the student convince her otherwise. We don’t learn what plagiarism is in high school because teachers accept anything that’s been paraphrased, without any citation. Hard consequences are really the only way to convince people they need to go to all the work of adding the citations until they really start to love research and begin to recognize the value in giving credit and providing a road map for their readers to follow.

  6. I often turn severe errors into opportunities to make deals regarding future work. I point out what is wrong and give the full penalty, but I then offer to reduce or remove that penalty if all work for the remainder of the term corrects the error. With things like lateness or insufficient revision of drafts, I have found this can be effective.

    I’ve never offered a deal like this for plagiarism (and have some hesitations), but I offer it up as a possible alternative.

  7. Well, interesting dilemma. Since the rest of the work is his, and seemed to be a good effort I say you talk to him, give him the paper back for him to fix it. And make it clear that he has used up his ONE do over. I myself took forever to get it together as far as citing correctly. I had resorted to just putting everything website and all behind the quote so I could go back, go through and properly cite. That was a job in itself, I’m thinking I probably made it more difficult than it needed to be. This is why in the area I am feeling a little generous.

  8. My school has a very strict policy as well. First offense is a letter in your file and a letter home to parents. Parents are called in on the second offense and told the 3rd strike is expulsion. 3rd strike…well…you know already. Because we are an IB school we take this pretty seriously. If a student intentionally plagiarizes or unintentionally fails to cite work, they could lose their whole diploma from the IB. (Students at my school learn about citing sources in the 5th grade, the requirements for citations increases by the 9th, and by the 11th, it’s hard core.)

    That being said I have a few new students this year. They are new to our school and our system. I said numerous times what the consequences were of not citing work, not having a work cited page, etc. The librarian had two days with them to discuss how to cite and when to cite. These kids somehow didn’t get it. One filled out her citations on a program called “Noodletools”. She thought because she entered them there, that I would see them. No need to print them out. Another one knew he wasn’t citing, but he didn’t know where to turn for help. (cop out, since all of it is posted online for them) The third ran out of time, turned in a crappy draft with no citations. He only used the textbook so figured…didn’t need to cite. All recieved zeros and a stern talking to. I then said, “I think you all didn’t quite get it when we went over these policies. You have one day to rewrite and get it back in.” The excellent student handed one in the next day. The other two handed in that same copy with a works cited page attached…and not a correct works cited page. ARGH!!

    My advice is to give this kid a zero for the one category, then have a chat about it. You need to make it hurt, but also give them an opportunity to explain. Don’t bring the other student into the conversation. That never helps. It sounds like you have a good read on this situation. Trust your instincts.

  9. Thank you all so much for your responses on this. I spoke to the student yesterday morning. He was upset, but calm and reasonable. When I pointed out the copied definition, he agreed that it was unacceptable and that, although he he didn’t think it was a problem at the time he added it to his essay, he should have known better and thought it through more carefully. He has received a zero and a letter in his file. We had a long talk about his general difficulties with essay writing, which he is well aware of.

    I’m still uncertain that bringing the full force of the law down on him has been the best response. However, he said that he’s not going to give up, and I said that I hope that means he won’t give up even if he fails this course (which is quite possible, given his skill levels.) Your comments have given me a lot to think about, and helped me find a response I’m (more or less) comfortable with. Thanks again.

  10. Oh boy….not easy but surely a common problem. Not sure what I’d do…..all I can say is fairness is key. I think that you have gotten lots of great feedback and insight from the other people who commented…wish I could be of more help! :-)

  11. On the first day of class I address this. I once let a student slide with a warning and an F on the assignment as opposed to an F for the class; however, the student did it again. Now I maintain a zero tolerance policy. It’s better they learn from me instead of in the “real” world. Moreover, just because something is common it does not follow that it is okay.

    I’m glad you posted this. The subject deserves attention.

  12. Taking an absolute stand on plagiarism makes things easier for the students (and their parents) but, as you demonstrate, can be hard on the teacher who wants to see the student learn and grow. Thanks so much for sharing your dilemma, uncomfortable as it was.
    I teach my students how to cite correctly and why it’s so important to do so. We look at examples of intentional and accidental plagiarism and learn how to avoid them. As an IB school, we don’t have degrees of plagiarism, so it’s important that all of us here teach all of our kids every year.

  13. I’ve had experience grading students who write essays. Without going into details, I used to work for a company as an online English tutor grading English essays written by Korean kids. We were compelled to tag essays as plagiarized if the copied part reached a certain percentage; didn’t matter if it was just part of a hook to begin the writing or if the rest of the essay was obviously well written and original. It was frustrating for a lot of us tutors to penalize students without discretion, especially if the copied part was used only as a springboard for the student to launch into his or her own discussion using his or her own thoughts. I’m a soft guy by nature, and always assume the best if there’s reason to, so if I were in your shoes, I’d let the student slide with a warning.

    But given that your students are English speakers already, I probably would bring down the hammer and spook him with a zero like you did. :D I agree with the suggestion of one of the other commenters too: giving the student a chance to convince you that he deserves more than that by having a face-to-face chat would also be good.

  14. I think the key here is something you mention up toward the top of the comment conga line. It’s about understanding the concept of intellectual property. Concepts can be difficult for some to understand, and punishing someone who doesn’t understand what she has done wrong is a pretty worthless exercise. I’ve never supported zero-tolerance policies, because they beg the ideas of redemptive action and living with consequences, and they don’t demand education. I didn’t mean to write a new War and Peace, but as an English teacher (albeit at the prep school level), I struggle on a quotidian basis with whether students grasp concepts and can thus be held accountable or whether I need better to explain things (often the latter, by the way).

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