Caught Red Handed: Meeting with a Student Who Plagiarized

This week, a student (let’s call him Student P) plagiarized his final essay. The student has been in my class for an entire year. He has completed the various plagiarism education assignments I implement in my classes—the plagiarism poster assignment, the plagiarism tutorial, the turnitin.com student training program. He even wears one of my stop plagiarism bracelets. Yet, he still decided to plagiarize. Student P submitted is paper to me through turnitin.com. The paper came back with a 70% similarity rating. Student P used one website to copy and paste his words with a few changes here and there, what I refer to as patchwork plagiarism.

 

Now, I have to talk with him about his assessment. I am frustrated with Student P. I am frustrated with him because I focus so much on plagiarism in my courses, yet he still hasn’t learned. I want to yell at him and call him out as a cheater, yet I can’t and won’t do that as a teacher. This got me to thinking—how should a teacher approach these kinds of talks? What do they say to the student?

 

First, I think any respectable school and teacher needs to have a plagiarism section in their handbook which defines plagiarism, the process for addressing plagiarism issues, and clear consequences for the first and each successive act. Luckily, we have one that I wrote for the handbook. I will show Student P the handbook and let him know the consequences for his act—failing the assignment, repeating the work, and keeping his work on file for a year. If he commits the act again, he will be eligible for suspension and expulsion. Second, I will walk him through his paper which I have printed out for the meeting. I will show him why this paper is plagiarism and why it is unacceptable to turn in as his own work. Third, I will have him complete the plagiarism tutorial again (see post “Plagiarism Tutorial”).  Fourth, I will have him write a letter to his parents letting them know his actions, why they were wrong, what plagiarism is, and how he will avoid it in the future.

 

What else could I say or do? I thought it would be helpful to look up a few tools online to give me more tips. I didn’t really find much except bits of advice. Most was almost entirely useless. However, Professor Nate Kreuter of Western Carolina University wrote a piece for “Inside Higher Ed” that is very helpful. Here’s the relevant part:

I cannot see the value in confronting a student about the possibility of plagiarism without tangible evidence suggesting the wrongdoing. Even if a case of dishonesty does exist in such a situation, it is unverifiable and I know of no honor system or academic integrity code that allows an instructor or college to assess a penalty for academic dishonesty in the absence of evidence.

For some reason, some instructors have a tendency to take instances of academic dishonesty extremely personally. While I am not in any way trying to excuse academic dishonesty, nor suggesting that we turn a blind eye to it, I do feel that the individual reactions of instructors are sometimes out of proportion, even inappropriate. We make a mistake when we are personally offended by a student’s act of academic dishonesty.

Certainly the problem must be dealt with, but we must resist the immediate, knee-jerk impulse to personalize the issue. Students didn’t cheat or plagiarize to “get” you — they did it out of laziness or fear or ignorance, and I can assure you that “pulling one over” was only their objective insofar as the student thought it would help to shortcut work or secure a high grade. Taking the episode personally only potentially escalates the situation and confuses what is at stake, which is academic and intellectual integrity, not an instructor’s hurt feelings.

It makes perfect sense that we would react strongly, and possibly even overreact, to cases of suspected or actual academic dishonesty: academic dishonesty, whether committed intentionally or through some form of negligent ignorance, threatens the principles upon which academic disciplines and knowledge building are founded. Our own research and scholarship is predicated upon assumptions of honesty and integrity, and when peers in our profession violate this assumed virtues it can call into question entire lines of research throughout a discipline.

At least when it comes to writing classes, which are what I teach at the undergraduate level, cheating tends to come out in the wash.  A plagiarized paper is unlikely to respond directly enough to the writing prompt to merit a high grade. So, rather than bending over backwards to make a plagiarism case when something is suspicious, I do a quick Google of a few of the suspect phrases. If nothing turns up, I simply proceed with grading, with full confidence that plagiarized papers rarely directly address my prompts, and that Fs are Fs.

When you do catch a verifiable case of plagiarism, I think it’s essential, both for your own protection and the protection of the student, to follow through on your university’s policies for documenting and dealing with those situations. We do students no favors by turning a blind eye to verifiable cases of dishonesty, nor any favors for our departments, universities, or higher education writ large. At the same time though, students should be trusted until they engage in an action that warrants losing the instructor’s trust. Only by treating students as adults (which many of them already are in the legal sense, even if not necessarily in all senses) can students become adults. That means holding students accountable for their work, for their honesty or dishonesty. It also means approaching student work with an attitude less cynical than immediate suspicion (https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/07/10/essay-how-deal-and-not-obsess-over-student-plagiarism)

Here’s the take away from Professor Kreuter:

1) Have airtight evidence of plagiarism before the student meeting.

2) Don’t take the student’s plagiarism personally (great advice!).

3) Follow through on the school plagiarism policy.

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