Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I spent the entire day yesterday grading long final essays in one of my courses. Throughout the semester, there were several instances of plagiarism, so I had to give a number of talks on what constitutes plagiarism and why it is wrong. I asked students to avoid using the Internet for any purpose whatsoever while they are writing the essay. Apparently, that didn't work because six of my 35 students handed in plagiarized papers. When I say that they plagiarized, I mean that they copy-pasted some stuff they found on-line into the essays, without, of course, attributing these stolen parts to any source. The saddest thing is that 3 of them plagiarized the same rubbish from the same racist, lying anti-immigration website. Imagine how it feels to keep encountering the same idiotic passage word-for-word in three different essays.

My policy on plagiarism, as I explained to students on numerous occasions, is that the moment I see a plagiarized sentence, I stop reading the essay and give a zero for the entire assignment. The problem with plagiarism is that - as much as we try to conceal it from the students - the college system is not designed to punish plagiarists. When I was teaching my first college-level class, I was still fresh out of my undergraduate studies. So I honestly believed the entire "this-university-takes-plagiarism-very-seriously" spiel we had been regularly offered as students. The moment I caught somebody cheating on the very first test I administered, I took the test away from the cheating student and sent her to the administration to be punished accordingly. Nothing much happened, and two weeks later I caught the same student cheating once again. This time, I took her to the administration personally. And that was when I discovered that college administrators don't want to know about cases of student plagiarism. Teachers who try to bring cheating to the attention of the authorities are considered trouble-makers and treated like tiresome fusspots.

A corporate university is only interested in the number of bodies it can sign up and charge tuition. The quality of those bodies, as well as what they do in the classroom and in their assignments, is of secondary (if that) interest. As a result, as much as I threaten the cheaters that I will inform the administration of their plagiarism, I know well enough that I'm not likely to do that. Many professors even feel obligated to reward plagiarists by offering them an opportunity to redo the assignment. This gives cheaters an extension that we normally eny to our good, honest students

There are many things that can be done to reduce plagiarism on campus. I would propose a university-wide database of cheaters. Every time a student is caught plagiarizing, they would be entered by the professor - bypassing the useless administrators altogether - into the system. When a student cheats for the third time, they should be automatically expelled. I have no doubt that after a few well-publicized expulsions, the number of plagiarized assignments would drop dramatically. Of course, this would only work if administrators were excluded from the process. Obviously, that is not likely to happen, and student cheating will keep flourishing.

P.S. Just discovered a student who plagiarized from the textbook we are using in this course. Of all the stupid things to do, inserting entire paragraphs from the textbook that the professor obviously knows by heart is truly the winner of the stupidity prize this semester.


V said...

I do not remember how much I told you about my plagiarism cases. Anyway, after certain group of people managed to produce identical midterms (in class!!!) I approached the administration unofficially and asked their advice on how to deal with this issue. The advise was not to deal with it unless I can prove 100% that plagiarism has taken place, otherwise the university is not risking to be sued. I do not know if that happened before, but they do not want to take a risk.

What worked though - I promised those students that on the final exam they will be sitting as far away from each other and as close to the invigilator or myself as possible . That scared them :) :)

Clarissa said...

Yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about. maybe we, the professors, should sue the university more often.

Anonymous said...

"A corporate university is only interested in the number of bodies it can sign up and charge tuition. The quality of those bodies, as well as what they do in the classroom and in their assignments, is of secondary (if that) interest."

The sad truth.

Sungold said...

My university punishes alcohol infractions harshly, but most professors don't bother to take their plagiarism cases to Judiciaries. My husband did this early in his career when a grad student turned in a "book review" that was 95% copied verbatim from the book under review. That's outrageous enough. But my husband's career was actually threatened by both his immediate superior and a powerful colleague who was the student's adviser. He prevailed in the end, but I don't think he or I would ever willingly take a case to Judiciaries in the future.

I'm in complete agreement about creating a database. At a minimum, the student's adviser should always be notified, but that obviously doesn't address the problem of unethical advisers!