The dilemma of catching plagiarism.

I’ve already wrote a post on how to avoid plagiarism, but now let’s look at it from a teacher or teaching assistant point of view. If the course you’re involved with involves written assignments, there’s a good chance that you will run into students who don’t understand (or don’t care) about avoiding plagiarism.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of these students “getting away” with it. I’d rather they be caught, and held accountable – even if being held accountable end up being a detailed lesson on how to avoid it. People who are allowed to continue by doing so, are setting up themselves (and people they are acquainted with) for failure in the future.

For example, imagine a graduate student who has always plagiarized (although, they may not call it that) and they are tasked by their supervisor to write a paper. After writing the paper, they pass it off to their supervisor who goes through and does some corrections. Next, it gets sent off to a journal/conference. There, one of the assigned reviewers recognizes a paragraph from their own work. Now, it’s unlikely that the reviewer will see the names of the people on the paper. But they’ll report their findings, the conference chair and others will make the connection. This makes everyone who has their name on the paper look bad – not just the student who did so. It also makes the University the paper came from look bad. By one student thinking they were being clever or that it’s not worth the time to put it references, they have now put a black mark on multiple people and a university!

So, as a grad student, it’s your job to both make sure you aren’t plagiarizing, and correcting/catching people who are. Of course, even better, you could be proactive and before the assignment give them a quick lesson on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

How do you catch plagiarism? Sometimes it can be really easy to catch. For example, you’re reading a paper and finding that the author has difficulty ever correctly using “a”, “an”, and “the”. Then you come across a paragraph where all three of these are used perfectly. Grab a sentence from the paragraph and stick it into Google and see what comes up. This works particularly well in the sciences where almost all sources a student will use can be accessed online. This is harder to catch if they are taking words from a book.

Some schools prescribed to various “anti-cheating” software/sites (like TurnItIn) where you run the essays through it and it attempts to determine if the paper plagiarized. I’ve never used this myself, as the university I’m at does not have a subscription. However, my sister, R, has and is using it. Many of her assignments have been written group projects. Her groups have used it to run their assignment through before submitting it, just in case. Why is this important in a group project? Well, not only may there be a student who is less than careful with their use of sources, but someone could correctly reword sentence X and then someone else comes along editing and rewords the sentence closer to the original without knowing.

I have, in my experience, come across a problem with catching people. Specifically, this is considered a zero tolerance offense in most universities. They want you to report it to the professor, who should report it to the dean, who takes it to the Faculty of ____ (whatever they’re in), and the student will be harshly penalized, possibly expelled. However, the problem is that most professors don’t want to deal with it. It involves paperwork – lots of paperwork. It involves proving (which apparently is not so easy even if you can hand them the source and their paper). It involves a lot of people. If the student is a grad student, the school has already sunk money into this person and don’t want to admit/believe that they’ve admitted a problem. They want the student to just correct their ways and in return they’ll forget about it.

Plagiarism seems to be a dirty secret in academia. No one wants to really admit that it happens, but most people I’ve talked to have run into it over the course of their career (or grad studies). However, often it’s dealt with in secret – with the student getting allowed to take a small penalty (or no penalty) and a light slap on the wrist. I’m not advocating that you announce to a class that so-and-so had cheated, but that professors follow the rules and report it – especially if it’s serious. By pretending it doesn’t exist, students feel like they can get away with it. And by pretending it doesn’t exist, students who don’t know better, aren’t hearing about it and being motivated to learn how to avoid it.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of just letting someone change their behaviour in cases of big errors. But I know that I have high standards for people. If the mistake involves small errors, like not properly citing an idea in a sentence or not putting quotes around a phrase taken from a source, then sure, correct them, tell them where they went wrong, give them a penalty on the assignment and move on. If the error is HUGE, multiple sentences/paragraphs/examples taken from a source or sources, then the professor should be willing to move forward with the above process. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, all you can do is show what you’ve found to the professor teaching the course and see what s/he decides.

Have you experienced plagiarism in your classes? Have you seen plagiarism? Do you think it was dealt with fairly? What would you have done differently or the same?

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2 thoughts on “The dilemma of catching plagiarism.

  1. As a college professor, I was searching the net to get an idea of how people handle plagiarism. In my last class I failed a student who I discovered copied verbatim every assignment in the class. Then I had a student who plagiarized one paragraph, but when I called them out on it admitted it and said he thought it was OK because he had it in the bibliography. In this case, I just deducted points (even though the university policy is technically “to fail” them.

    Now I’m on a tricky situation. A senior who is supposed to graduate in 5 days turned in a final paper with 1/2 of it copied verbatim from another source. They used in text citations, but it had 4 pages straight copied from an article with one citation at the end of it. I challenged them and they said they didn’t plagiarize, they used citations, and I can’t figure out if I should submit it to the university and block his graduation, or if I should give him a zero on the assignment, or something in between. My instinct is just to fail his assignment which will give him the lowest grade he’s ever had, but I can’t help but wonder “how can a senior get through college without having a clue what plagiarism looks like?” He had to have done the same before?

    • Ugh. What a crappy situation to be in. I think if it was me, I’d report the student. Because I agree, by the time you’re ready to graduate from college, you should have a clear understanding of what plagiarism is. His excuse comes off more as “I didn’t have enough time to finish, so I threw something together, and threw in some citations to hopefully cover me.” If he was able to complete earlier work without plagiarizing as he did this time, then it’s very doubtful that he doesn’t know what he did was wrong.

      I think it’s so unfair of students to put professors/ta’s in a position where they have to make these calls. Especially knowing that either way, whether you make what feels like the right call (reporting it) instead of the easy call (failing him on the assignment), he’ll probably go around bad-mouthing you and blaming you for what happened. I had a student come to me in tears wanting to change her grade so she’d pass. Plagiarism needs to have consequences. Otherwise everyone will just do it (more then they already are).

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