Friday, March 16, 2007

On Plagiarism, Punishment, And the Surprisingly Futile Power of Zero

I suspect you’ll get a lot of support for the New Instructor in the Brambles, and I’d like to add mine to it. The way my university is set up, when a student is caught plagiarizing (which is a tiny fraction of the amount of time students actually plagiarize), the professor has a choice: Either spend hours pursuing punishment (calling the Incompetent Dean of Ethics, gathering evidence, having the uncomfortable conversation with the student, presenting the evidence to said Incompetent Dean, deciding on a punishment, and enforcing that punishment), or drop it. The sheer amount of work required to prosecute a plagiarism case is a flagrant disincentive for instructors to report ethical violators.

A friend of mine, who works as a TA for a French course, discovered that a certain student’s essay was entirely plagiarized (copied verbatim from two online sources). She reported the offense to the professor, and the professor—who didn’t happen to have hours free to pursue disciplinary action—opted to merely let the student rewrite the essay. That’s not punishment. That’s nothing. (The I-told-you-so epilogue is that the student rewrote the essay, got a “C” on the new version, and complained bitterly to the professor that his grade wasn’t higher. Appalled, the professor has now vowed to report future cheaters.)

The workload for professors who detect plagiarism should be minimal. They should be able to photocopy the evidence, give it to a Competent Dean of Ethics, and be done with it. The evidence should speak for itself, and it should correspond to a preordained punishment (or choice of a few similar punishments) based on the severity of the violation. I’m told that, at certain colleges, this is the way it works—after finding out that something is plagiarized, the professor’s role is minimal. But at my school, the professor acts as judge, jury, and executioner, even deciding the nature of the punishment (“It’s up to you!” the Incompetent Dean says cheerfully). No wonder so much plagiarism goes unreported.

One more story along the same lines: One of my students last semester (I was a TA) plagiarized an answer to a take-home midterm from an online source. (Students were allowed to use online sources, but they had to cite them—this student’s answer was taken verbatim from Wikipedia with no citation.) I reported the incident to the professor, who typically prided herself on actually following through with reporting ethical violations. Since it was only a couple sentences, the professor decided that the punishment should be loss of credit for that particular question—in other words, a loss of four points out of 100. The student, of course, knowing how much worse it could be (and thus not knowing this university very well!), agreed to the punishment with pleasure. While she was at the office signing her “I agree to this punishment” pledge, though, could she ask about something else? She thought her answer to a different question was valid, and the TA had not given her credit. Could I please reconsider her answer?

I reread the answer, and in a flash of inspiration, I Googled a few choice phrases. Behold. Plagiarized too. (And no wonder she had gotten it wrong—she answered a question about the Chesapeake Bay with a response plagiarized verbatim from a web page about streams in Vermont.) Clearly the student did not pick up on the seriousness of the situation, because hey, if the punishment for plagiarism is so minimal, what’s to lose when you point your instructor to another example of it that didn’t get credit in the first place? By this point, the professor was so exhausted from going through the ethics process that she opted not to punish the student for the second instance of plagiarism. The student was simply told, “No, you don’t get credit for that question, because your answer was plagiarized.” So instead of getting zero points for that question, the student received zero points for that question.

See why they think it’s okay?