01 February 2006

Feedback Please: Plagiarism

Not that readers of this blog are a representative sample of any known population, nor, for that matter, are there enough readers of this blog to form a large enough sample anyway, but nevertheless I'm very interested in knowing what you all think.

The topic is plagiarism. The givens are as follows: a student writes an essay and presents material verbatim (with no quotation marks) from an unattributed, unreferenced, source. The question is where is the line crossed from doing something inappropriate that should lower the student's grade, to doing something fundamentally wrong that should warrant extreme penalties for plagiarism. And your options are:

1. Minimum of one paragraph stolen, from a minimum of one source.
2. Minimum of 25% of the paper stolen, from a minimum of one source.
3. Minimum of 25% of the paper stolen, from a minimum of 3 sources.
4. 50% of paper from 1 source.
5. 50% of paper from 3 sources.
6. 75% of paper from 1 source
7. 75% of paper from 3 sources.
8. Other (please explain)

Once we've met the threshold for serious plagiarism then what should (ideally, forget the practicalities for now) the penalties be?

A. Rewrite paper with lowered grade.
B. Failure on paper.
C. Failure in course.
D. Failure in course, plagiarism on permenant academic record.
E. Failure in course (or worse) plus suspension.
F. Expulsion.

Please respond in the comments, if you will, with the appropriate number and letter. I'll give my own answer, and reflections on yours, in a follow-up post.


Rebecca said...

1 and D.

Any cheating is cheating. You take someone else's words and try to pass them off as your own, that's called lying at best and stealing intellectual property at worst. Information wants to be free--I'm with you there. But say it again in your own words. That's called writing. Cutting and pasting, of however short, is called stealing, cheating, lying. It's not okay.

I think it's okay to use someone else's bass-line, riff, or even passage from a song as long as you notify the copyright holder, cite them in the liner notes, and pay them whatever they ask for. But plagiarism is not citing someone else's work. It's passing it off as your own, original work. Not okay. In the academic world, you cite people you quote. And as in the music world, you don't quote things that are lame-o summaries of historical facts or even drawn out opinion pieces. you quote things you want to reference, that are important, that resonate with your reader. Enough said on that.

D. because I think that there should be more of a penalty than just failure for the course. for me, failure in the course is a given. I let people know this up front, which helps, and I try to scare the crap out of them. That way if they plagiarize, it's clear that they didn't make some sort of "honest mistake" but that they purposely tried to fool the reader into thinking that the words on the page are theirs when in fact they are not. Certain procedures should be there in between failure and censure on the transcript to protect students from ridiculous faculty members, but in my (and Sam's) experience, if you let it slide the first time, the student will try it again, whether through ignorance, laziness, or a pattern throughout his/her academic career of getting away with this sort of thing and not even realizing it's stealing/lying/cheating. In some instances students can re-take a course they failed and overcome that "F" on the transcript, and so I think the additional censure is key, if only to stop that practice.

Mark Salada said...

My thoughts:

first offense (1): rewrite (A)

any subsequent offense (1): fail paper (B)

There should be no slippery slope for the amount of un-credited text in my opinion... And more than one failed paper should warrant a D or F in the class as a whole...

I know this requires more effort on the part of the educator (you), but I'm cautious of some tricky issues. What if, perhaps, the copied text is from another (unpublished) student? Or from a previous student? Then I think immediate failure of the course is too extreme...

I think expulsion is warranted in some cases, however the logistics and reality of college/university life make that option way more strenuous on you than anybody else, including the offender.

Can you just smack 'em hard?

tenaciousmcd said...

I largely concur with Rebecca:1 and D. The issue would be a little tougher if it were just one sentence, which I could see as a simple snafu, but for me one full paragraph clearly crosses the line.

Now for my caveat. Although D is my preferred policy, C ends up as my de facto position. My official policy on syllabi is that plagiarized papers get a "0" rather than an F, which almost always means failure in the course. But I typically prefer to handle these matters myself rather than turning them over to the university administrative process. Why? Simply put, my experiences with the student Honor Council while at Vanderbilt were so ludicrous and enfuriating that it soured me on the "permanent record" process. Sam, I know you remember some of these stories, so I'll spare the detail, except to say that the whole ass-covering operation was designed to protect students from facing consequences for anything but the most egregious offenses. MTSU doesn't have a student-run system, thank God, but it still doesn't have the most reliable reputation. At best, it's hit and miss depending on what low-level administrator happens to be running things in any given year.

dan said...

I fully respect the zero-tolerance approach, but I guess I feel like it's not always the most productive approach. This is from someone with no experience reading plagiarized student papers. Maybe it gets really old, really fast.

Are we throwing out ignorance? Sometimes its tough for students to know how to properly cite and quote works, or maybe even they "meant to" go back and do it, but ran out of time. So, say it's a paragraph quote here and a paragraph quote there. Verbatim, no cites. I assume that if it appeared that the student was intending to quote from the text he was writing on, and didn't do so or didn't do so properly, but is otherwise making a decent effort in the paper to engage with the assignment, that the professor would stop at making a huge deal about the improper cites, refusing to grade it or "failing" it until it is resubmitted in a form that is not plagiarism.

But then, if a student seems to be obviously trying to take credit for other people's words/ideas, that is fully wrong. It’s just that can't imagine it. "I'm just going to lift whole paragraphs from the textbook that my prof assigned me for this class and hope she doesn't notice, but instead thinks that I'm a total star student." I suppose if there is indication that this is what the student was up to, I'd first feel pity for how stupid he is, and then I'd fail the paper & and let the student know that he’ll receive a failing grade, and then forward it to the dean of students (or whomever) for further action and wash my hands of it. (There should be some way for a prof to submit a report of academic dishonesty if only to strengthen a future prof's same accusation.)

I guess my point is that (based on nothing) I perceive out-and-out plagiarism to more-often-than-not attributable to a student's ignorance on how to refer to a previously stated argument or introduce someone else's idea to strengthen their paper overall (maybe they view it as “conventional wisdom” or “understood” within the framework of class discussions & knowing that their professor is their audience. Um, the grammar and rules of citation make the difference between plagiarism and solid academic writing, you twit!

In most cases, I feel like I would fail the paper, give the student a very harsh, accusatory "talkin' to," and if it seems that they were really trying to pull the wool over my eyes, fail them from the class and forward their paper to the dean.

In other words, to the extent possible, not "let them get away with it," but instead try to get a very clear line of communication about what makes something plagiarism, why this in particular is plagiarism, and what the consequences will have to be (re-write this paper; fail this paper; fail this class; be reported).

I think overall I'm siding cautiously with the benefit-of-the-doubt assumption that the student didn’t' fully know what he was doing, even if I might know that, in fact, he's trying to get away with whatever he can get away with.

Too naive? Not harsh enough?

Transient Gadfly said...

it depends, and it depends.

if the first day of class you stand up and say, "if you use somebody else's words in your writing, in any quantity from a phrase to a paragraph, and don't properly cite them, that is plagarism. if you are not sure how to properly cite something, please talk to me," and somebody then plagarises, well...jeez, then i'd still say it depends. if somebody plagarises because they're stupid, i don't think you want to ruin their academic career. and i don't think you can divine intent without knowing the particular student, situation, and/or talking to him or her after the fact.

(if you've done this, and it's a repeat offense, fine, throw the book at him or her).

add to this the literary dichotomy of stealing from someone (theoretically) unknown = plagarism, stealing from Shakespeare = genius.

if it were me, i'd announce the harshest plagarism policy that i felt comfortable with on the first day of class. and then i'd take it on a case by case basis.

Transient Gadfly said...

isn't it interesting everyone says 1. but then the punishment varies a-f? also, do you like how P. was pretending to be me there by not using caps after i said he always uses caps? he's a tricky one.

anyway, 1. for sure. and some combo of A and D. i usually let them rewrite on a first offense just to give them the benefit of an assload of doubt. but i think it should be reported anyway so that if it turns out that i am, say, the third instructor who has reported that this student seems to have simply not understood the rules and made a mistake and surely did not really mean to plagiarize, then someone in student services or advising or wherever can take more appropriate measures (it's not a first offense then is it?)

while we're on the topic though, i'd just like to share my favorite plagiarism story EVER: i once had a student hand in a paper she had copied in its entirety off the internet BY HAND. i said first, you fail because it should be typed, duh. second you fail because how freaking stupid are you? cut and paste. jeez. so plagiarism was really well down on the list of offenses. as you might imagine, she wasn't going to pass the class anyway.

we have Buffy season six, disk two in the house at last. so we must leave you all....

dan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Transient Gadfly said...

you'll note that i actually did capitalize one word...

dan said...

The deleted comment was from me. I was trying to make a funny about how the real punishment should be that the plagiarist’s Buffy privileges should be taken away. However, I didn't spell check the comment before it posted, and I later realized that I was giving myself away as an embarrassingly bad speller. I wasn't trying to be mysterious, or anything.