where to draw the line?

The recent post about how background characteristics and former experiences shape people’s behavior reminded me of a case that raises questions about where we should draw the line in being sensitive to people’s various circumstances.

In a plagiarism case with a graduate student, a colleague once told me: “Well, this is cultural, where he is from [insert country], this is common and often allowed.” My colleague thought that therefore we shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. I found this approach very frustrating. For one thing, the graduate student had already spent over four years at American institutions. Wouldn’t that amount of time be enough to teach someone that plagiarism is not okay at American universities?

How far can/should we stretch sensitivity to different types of behavior based on differences in background?

15 thoughts on “where to draw the line?”

  1. “Well, this is cultural, where he is from [insert country], this is common and often allowed.”

    Barf. Try awarding all the female students in your classes Cs, defend yourself by saying, “Well this is cultural, because where I am from the belief that women are not very smart is common,” and see how far it gets you.


  2. “Wouldn’t that amount of time be enough to teach someone that plagiarism is not okay at American universities?”

    Yes. Problem is, so many faculty don’t want to take on the work it requires to pursue plagiarism cases. So, find some “technique of neutralization” (Sykes and Matza?) to minimize the issue…


  3. What Kieran said (barf)… being French, this, of course, always reminds me of the veil controversy in French schools. I have had long and frustrating discussions with my American colleagues as to why banning the veil in French schools was perfectly appropriate and did not actually generate the hostility and disorder that the cultural relativist were promising us.


  4. I’m with Kieran & Jay. I always require a letter to the dean as a part of any academic dishonesty case, because I learned early on that a significant number of students cheat often and always claim “first offense.” Creating a record is the scariest thing you can do to a student and is much more likely to deter future crime than anything else. Issues about “cultural difference” can be dealt with by statements on syllabi and at new student orientation. But the “cultural difference” part is mostly about how much you are supposed to piece together what other people said, rather than writing your own argument. I don’t know of any educational system that actually approves of overt cheating — turning in other people’s work as your own, collaborating on tests, etc. Cheating is rampant in the US too, but that does not mean that we approve of it.

    What worries me is that I have seen huge variability in how much punishment there is for a given level of offense. I have seen some faculty treat one sentence of cited paraphrase that should have been in quotes with as major a punishment as some other faculty give for an entire paper downloaded from the Internet. I consider turning in an entire paper that was written by someone else to be a different order of magnitude than a short cited paraphrase that should have been in quotes. In my official “cheating policy,” I explicitly distinguish between clear dishonesty and relying too much on cited sources — which gets you a low grade but not a dishonesty charge. There have been cases in which I’ve seen punishments that seemed to me to be too harsh for the level of offense, and other cases in which faculty either tolerated a huge transgression because it was “too much trouble” to follow the due process procedures for punishing or just quietly gave the student a lower grade without explaining why or following due process, and thus providing the student no opportunity to answer the charge of cheating. “Zero tolerance” policies that fail to distinguish among levels of criminality just reduce the level of reporting that faculty are willing to do. My university’s policy that expulsion should normally be the punishment for a first offense for a graduate student for any academic dishonesty seems to me to border on the “zero tolerance” model.


  5. i worked as an advisor for the office of student conduct at my last university, and my last case was one where a senior undergrad international student was charged with plagarism. he’d stolen whole pages of published material without citation. he also blamed “cultural” differences. i took the same stance as the colonel – after 4 years, there was no excuse.

    re punishment: this wasn’t his first offense, and it still didn’t stop him. the sanction was originally expulsion, but after he wrote a letter and his mother called a thousand times, the office reduced the sentence to 2 years suspension and, of course, a mark on his record. didn’t really matter to him – he was going into investment banking, had already secured a job who didn’t care if his degree wasn’t going to be conferred for 2 years, and never has plans to apply for graduate school.


  6. frenchdoc: Surely you are not equating wearing a veil with cheating? Cheating is central to the academic enterprise. Your clothing is not. Dress regulations are about cultural dominance. In the US, with its Constitutionally protected guarantee of religious freedom, wearing the veil has to be understood as a protected right because it is tied to religion. However, US schools are quite comfortable imposing dress codes and banning “gang regalia.” It is always interesting when you ban a minority clothing choice on the grounds that it will provoke the majority into attacking minorities. Similar to keeping women home at night so men will not rape them. At least with the gang regalia ban, the argument is that the minorities will be attacking each other. “Showing colors” is a real part of gang activity, but a lot of the clothing regulations in many schools are, in practice, simply banning anything that is fashionable among minorities. If you want to impose uniformity to avoid inter-group conflict, why not impose a fashion that is equally unpopular with everyone? This is why I would not oppose school uniforms, but tend to dislike dress codes. As a way of avoiding discriminating about whose jackets were banned, my children’s school banned all jackets and coats, this in a part of the country where it gets very cold in the winter and the children were required — due to overcrowding in the main building — to cross a parking lot to get to some of their classes. It was a pretty stupid rule, but at least it had the advantage of uniformity.


  7. Cases of plagiarism and other types of cheating are clearly written in university codes of conduct for students as offenses against academic integrity (although the punishment for such behavior is usually vague). Unwritten, unspoken, and/or generally understood norms (for some) that play into the etiquette of making oneself look appealing in the interview process is different. But, I’m not arguing against interviewing as being beneficial in the hiring process for everyone involved. Excusing plagiarism based on the excuse of cultural background doesn’t do anyone who cares about academic integrity any favors, although it may be easier in the short run.


  8. Olderwoman: of course not. I was talking about the reaction that involves the culture argument (“in their culture, it’s acceptable”).

    As for plagiarism, my rules are:
    first strike: F for the assignment, strong warning
    second strike (yes, there are second strikes): F for the course, report to the dean of students.

    But then, most of the plagiarism I see consists in copying a few sentences or a paragraph from some other source without quotation marks. I have never had full work plagiarized.


  9. I was talking about the reaction that involves the culture argument (”in their culture, it’s acceptable”).

    Um, I must be missing something. But that was OW’s point. In their culture wearing “the veil” (which is actually usually not a veil) is acceptable – in fact it’s seen by many who wear it as a religious obligation. It strikes me that what you call the “cultural relativist” orientation to veils is actually a cultural pluralist one – allowing for the expression of cultural difference.


  10. Of course the question with plagiarism… is usually, ‘is it plagiarism?’ for it could be many other things. Many contemporary French theorists allude to many different ideas without actually citing them, but only cite when they are being specifically precise. Is allusion without citation, plagiarism? or should you know, as a scholar to what is being referred without the citation? Plagiarism, I’d argue, is not as clear cut in some cases, but granted most undergraduate plagiarism is just that, direct quoting or paraphrasing without attribution. However, attribution isn’t the only role in citation, you also have reference.

    But reference, which is a different function than attribution, in citations, is not always attribution, sometimes people give references without attribution and attribution without reference. So you can cite things and still plagiarize by giving reference without attribution. There was a nice discussion about this on savageminds a while ago in regards to the case when people cite a block quote that someone else cites without reading the original. Without reading the original, one can argue that there is no way to properly attribute the idea, because attribution requires context, however, you can reference the original, keeping in mind though that the only context you have is the one provided by the citing text.

    I am consistently amazed that people treat plagiarism like an absolutist sees obscenity… they know it when they see it and all must agree, instead of the very fluid category with a very historicized context that it actually is.


  11. Buridan, just to clarify, my case involved several paragraphs shifted out from a book word-for-word without quotes.


  12. col den: Was there a citation to the book/pages that the material was copied from? I’d treat this as a lesser crime than if the answer is yes rather than no. And I’d consider the proportion of the total work that is unattributed quotation or paraphrase. Just as the law recognizes the difference between petty theft and grand larceny or simple assault and aggravated assault, I think we need to recognize degrees of academic dishonesty. Back to the original question, I would not use cultural relativism as a benchmark, but intent and impact of the misdeed.


  13. No, there were no page numbers. The only reason it even occured to me to look into this was because the English was uncharacteristically good in those few paragraphs.

    I do think it’s a slippery slope though as to what is okay or not. I see your point about intent vs ignorance/laziness, but am not sure how far to take that. After all, this person was in his fourth year of graduate study in the U.S. on an academic track. Is the implication then that such responsibility falls on the editors to catch in the future if we are lenient about how we deal with it? (That is, the message to the student is that this is not that big of a deal and so they are likely to do it again.)

    For the record, a similar incident came up with this same student a couple of years later. I knew him better by then and am willing to consider that it was not intent, rather, more likely sloppiness. Nonetheless, it seems it’s unacceptable behavior that far along in one’s academic career.


  14. The absence of the page numbers makes it more culpable and I would escalate the penalty for repeat offense. You only get to plead ignorance once at most. Saying I see a continuum of guilt is not the same thing as saying I don’t think there should be a penalty.


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