Should Students Be Allowed to Get Away with Plagiarism?

Teacher's Lounge Archives

Mr. Warshauer is an assistant professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.

Editor's Note: Mr. Warshauer participated in a Faculty Senate Committee focused on rewriting Central Connecticut State University's Academic Misconduct Code. His work on this subject prompted him to launch a National Survey on Faculty perceptions of Academic Misconduct/Plagiarism. To participate in the survey, please link to http://www.history.ccsu.edu/Form/Plagiarsm_Questionnaire.htm.

After having spent some two years on a committee dedicated to rewriting Central Connecticut State University's Academic Misconduct Policy, never for a moment did I anticipate that one of my students would be a test case for the new policy. Even more disheartening, the policy, in my opinion, was undermined by the Judicial Hearing Panel that ruled on the case. The members of the panel and I were simply not on the same page when it came to identifying and punishing Academic Misconduct. Moreover, I soon came to find that many members of the very committee upon which I had worked came to markedly different conclusions when I asked for their opinions. I considered the student's conduct an excessive, blatant instance of plagiarism, yet other committee members felt it was a case that required more student education, rather than academic sanctions and disciplinary proceedings. Clearly, I needed to learn more about faculty perceptions of misconduct and to what extent students should be held responsible.

Now, let me back up for a moment and explain the basics of CCSU's new policy, as well as the student's conduct that sparked the aforementioned debacle. The policy is rather straightforward. When professors suspect and or conclude that misconduct has occurred, they initiate a meeting with the student, who can either deny or acknowledge an act of misconduct. This allows the professor to pursue a variety of academic sanctions - from rewriting the assignment, failure of the course, or something in between. The professor must also file an Academic Misconduct Report with the Judicial Officer, the Department Chair, the relevant Dean, and the student. If students acknowledge misconduct they are required to attend a mandatory Integrity Workshop. Additional Reports filed on students may result in disciplinary actions on the part of Student Affairs. Essentially, the Report form is a tracking mechanism. Finally, if students deny engaging in misconduct or if professors, even after an admission of guilt, feel that a student's actions are particularly egregious, a formal disciplinary hearing can be set in motion.

Enter my student. I'll call him John Reprobate. As a junior, John enrolled in a Historical Methods course required of all History majors, and which gave special attention to how history is written, read, researched, and cited. Plagiarism was discussed extensively, both through the course syllabus, class discussion, and a required text with subtitles that included"Avoiding Plagiarism,""The Art of Paraphrasing,""The Dangers of Plagiarism," and"A Note on Plagiarism: A Serious Offense." Foolishly, I expected that this amount of detail would clarify the subject.

Nevertheless, John presented a paper in which I immediately recognized passages from a book that I utilized in another course. I called John in, asked if he had perhaps"mistakenly" borrowed another author's or authors' information without properly citing, and received in response a forty-five minute run around in which John did everything but answer my questions. Tired of John's banter, I bluntly announced that he either confirm or deny the work as his own, and added that if he claimed authorship and I found out otherwise I would file formal charges and request expulsion. Just as bluntly, John stated,"It's mine." I must add that I all but directly told John that I recognized certain passages, though I hadn't had time to check on them prior to our meeting. (The CCSU policy mandates that faculty speak with students before engaging in any action. It was the end of the semester and I technically could not give John an incomplete without discussing the matter with him first.) Additionally, I told John that if mistaken I'd gladly write a formal letter of apology.

John received an incomplete for the course and in the ensuing weeks I hit the books and found every single passage, about 75% of the paper, that John had either copied directly or paraphrased closely. Believing the case to be a blatant violation of the Misconduct Policy, compounded by John's brash lies and refusal to accept responsibility, I filed formal charges and prepared for the Judicial Officer a detailed case which included a color-coded explanation with original sources from which John had stolen material. The Judicial Officer as well as my colleagues in the history department considered the case"open and shut."

When the day of the hearing arrived John did not even bother to show up. I testified before the Panel, which consisted of a faculty member, a sister university's Judicial Officer, and a graduate student, explained that the case was particularly serious considering the amount of plagiarism, the consistent lying, and degree to which I had addressed the problem of misconduct in the course. The Hearing Panel returned with a guilty verdict, but merely suspended John for one semester. Some faculty may feel that this is an adequate punishment. John had no prior academic violations, and many feel that expulsion should be used only for repeat offenders. My problem was that I viewed this case as a serious test for the future effectiveness of the new Misconduct Policy. I was not really necessarily interested in John's expulsion, but I certainly wanted him to feel the repercussions of his actions. Unfortunately, I don't believe that he learned a thing. John has never acknowledged wrong doing, his father wrote a letter to the university complaining about my"lies" and"persecution" of his son, and the Hearing Panel didn't even bother to impose probation or the Integrity Workshop upon John's return. Both the Judicial Officer and I were amazed. My conclusion was simple: where is the professor willing to spend valuable time investigating and proving plagiarism when Hearing Panels impose sanctions that not only fail to support a professor's time and judgment, but send no clear message of punishment for particularly egregious cases.

Dismayed, I turned to my fellow committee members, emailing them the information pertaining to the case and asking their opinions. Was I acting too harshly, I wondered? Some of the reactions astonished me."This is not the student to threaten with expulsion and a hearing. This is a time for true education, bumping the student up to a new level of thought and writing," expounded one colleague. Another noted that,"It sounds like he needs to attend the Integrity Workshop. It's very possible he doesn't really understand plagiarism.""My general reaction," wrote another professor who agreed plagiarism occurred,"is that this doesn't look to be nearly the worst-case scenario of a student downloading a paper and turning it in." This professor's conclusion was to merely fail the paper. To say the least, I was dumbfounded. Here were my fellow committee members, people who knew about the importance of a strong policy, presented with a clear case of misconduct and a recalcitrant student who had received extensive training on plagiarism.

My next step was to widen the circle of advice. I sent an email to the entire faculty asking the same questions put to my fellow committee members. The responses were varied, though certainly more punitive in nature. Still, only about 9% of some 400 faculty responded, leaving me with even further questions about how faculty view Academic Misconduct. I imagine that the faculty reading this now are arriving at wide-ranging conclusions on John's case, in part due to the limited amount of information provided in a short article, and in part because faculty have different ideas about Academic Misconduct.

And here is where I am left. The varied and meager responses spurred me to learn more. Yet the majority of Academic Misconduct research focuses on student rather than faculty perceptions. Hence the reason for this story and the link to the national survey that follows. I want to determine how you, as a professor, feel about particular issues related to Academic Misconduct. I'm sure that we all have numerous stories, but it's our willingness to share our perceptions that will perhaps lead to solutions. Thus please take a few moments to fill out the survey and feel free to e-mail me with your thoughts.

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More Comments:

Seth Cable Tubman - 5/28/2006

I'm a student just finishing a two-year associate's program, and about to transfer to a four-year school to complete my B.A. in history. At my school, plagiarism is taken seriously but progressively. The professor must talk to the student and determine if it was intentional or not. They must report the offender to Student Services regardless of intent, and may fail the student for the assignment, lower the course grade, or fail the student for the course.

As someone who is a history major, and desires to be in academia someday, I would say the case described here missed some pieces. The student was TAKING the course in Research Methods when he committed plagiarism. In addition to the one-semester suspension, he should have been ordered to attend the Workshop, and been put on academic probation for the remander of his tenure at CCSU. ANY further act of plagiarism (even neglecting to include a period in the proper place on a Works Cited Page at my college consitutes plagiarism, let alone copying the majority of a term paper), should result in dismissal from the college. Any action lesser than that degree would be academic dishonesty itself. It would disregard the core values that a college education should provide: respect for life-long learning, and respect for one's own work.

David Lee Russell - 11/5/2004

I have flunked two students in the last fifteen years for plagiarism. Both of them were third and fourth year students who were warned, in writing, on the first day of class. One of the students copied word for word from the text book we were using. He was a near straight A students. Too bad I was the guy to not only fail him for this choice, but to turn the evidence into the college Dean (this is required for us to do at this particular institution). I say tough love and NEVER let them get away with it. I hold myself to the same professional standards, they can too.

Dana Loewy - 8/5/2002

I agree with Edwin Moise. At Cal State Fullerton we impose similar punitive measures, depending on the gravity of the students' offense. Typically, a student will receive an F for the assignment and that usually results in a failing grade for the course. Then the instructor writes a letter to the judicial officer who sends a letter of reprimand to the student and keeps the case on file for seven years. If the same student is caught again, suspension and/or expulsion are considered. I like to assign essays on the topic of "Why Plagiarism Is Wrong" to the culprits. In my business communication course we go over proper documentation and acknowledgment of sources, so students really have no excuse. I must say, though, that I was overruled once by a university committee after a student's appeal. This committee ruled that my punishment had been too harsh. I was outraged! When it comes to plagiarism (and other values, really), the standards of ethics just aren't universally shared.

Edwin Moise - 3/27/2002

The student who plagiarized the paper was suspended for a semester. I presume the student also got an F in the course (I would presume that the incomplete that Matthew Warshauer gave the student before investigating the case would have been converted to an F after the investigation revealed gross plagiarism).

An F for the plagiarized paper could reasonably have been considered a slap on the wrist. An F for the course, going on the student's permanent transcript, would have been a serious punishment. An F for the course plus a semester's suspension looks to me like an extremely heavy punishment. Warshauer says he wanted the plagiarist "to feel the repercussions of his actions." I don't see why he considers the penalties imposed in this case inadequate to achive that result.

Edwin E. Moise
Professor of History
Clemson University

Gary Ostrower - 3/26/2002

This story reminds me of the old(?) aphorism: if at first you don't succeed, just lower your standards.

Plagiarism? Let's just call it ignorance, assign Kearns and Ambrose next time, and sell the cheater's paper to SchoolSucks.com. Welcome to the 21st century.