how does your university deal with student plagiarism?

I’m sure I’ll end up posting more about this as time goes on, but at the moment I’d just like to get a read on others’ experiences.  I just got done with a very frustrating experience with UNC’s honor court, in which (IMHO) they devalued my expertise as a faculty member and the central importance of intellectual integrity by dealing slowly and insufficiently with a blatant case of plagiarism in a class I taught last spring. Any discussion is of course welcome but I’d be particularly interested to hear from folks who have had students commit academic misconduct/dishonesty in classes and how that’s been dealt with.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

18 thoughts on “how does your university deal with student plagiarism?”

  1. almost every time i teach undergrads (at UCLA) i discover plagiarism and i send it to the dean. it amazes me that the students plagiarize when they know i am using anti-cheating software — they seem to believe that paraphrasing every few words will trick the software (it doesn’t, the only thing it does is demonstrate culpability). almost every time the punishment is one or two quarter suspension, and if i recall correctly, a note on the transcript of academic discipline. it usually takes them about a month or two to for the dean to adjudicate it.

    i print out and highlight the submission and the source material to show overlap and paraphrase and write a detailed cover letter because i suspect that otherwise the dean’s office might by the plagiarist’s argument that it was an honest mistake. i seem to have a reputation for this as the last time i dropped off the packet to the dean’s office the desk clerk said “oh yes, we know professor rossman,” apparently not realizing that i was delivering it myself (i’m young and often mistaken for a grad student).

    i should add that the dean’s office shows integrity and impartiality in handling cases that a minor trope in popular literature has them handling shamefully.

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  2. Up here, the first case filed by a faculty member is a letter in the student’s file, plus a consequence within the course, such as zero on the assignment. That’s it, unless there is a second case filed. The letter disappears, I believe, upon graduation.

    A second case is a major deal, with failure of the course, suspension or expulsion as possible penalties, as well as a permanent mark on the student’s transcript that they were found guilty of academic dishonesty.

    This policy, I suppose, has its pluses and minuses, but one effect from my perspective is that I have stopped altogether the practice of disciplining students on my own, without filing the case with the university (in other words, whenever I take an action against a student for plagiarism, I also file with the university). I think this is one of the intended effects, but I don’t know that my colleagues also have reacted this way.

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  3. At Wisconsin, rules were you had to talk to the student first. Indeed, rules said you were supposed to be involved in the process when it went up to the Dean’s level, which resulted in an INCREDIBLY awkward and stressful situation for me when I was untenured and there was a case that involved someone who had an association with a senior colleague.

    At Northwestern, rules are you have to refer it to the appropriate authority and not talk to the student about it.

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  4. I filed a cheating and plagiarism case with the dean’s office last year. (On the first exam I gave in my first semester on the job, a student cheats *and* plagiarizes by having a printed out cheat sheet. Welcome to the big leagues, kid!).

    In short, they handled it well: put him on probation, and required him to pay a couple hundred dollars to go to a day-long class on academic integrity, and write me a letter of apology. The “judge” in the case reamed him and let him know that both of us went reasonably easy on him, all things considered.

    Colleagues from other universities seemed impressed by how seriously the dean’s office took the issue, as that hasn’t been the case at their institutions.

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  5. I put one phrase on every syllabus, “Any act of dishonesty will result in failure of the course and a letter to your dean.” It’s handy. Of course I don’t fail everyone who cheats. But I read it out loud on the first day and make sure everyone says they understand. And it gives me more options when dealing with academic dishonesty.

    The one thing I do, even for small acts that I deal with “in house” is tell the dean. No matter what. OW gave me this advice once: “you just don’t know if the small act of dishonesty is in fact many acts in countless classes. Some people seem to be cheating their way through college. So it’s a good idea to make sure that you go on record with the deans office. They can tell if it’s a blip, or a pattern.”

    My only experience here at Columbia was for something small – a student claimed to have written and handed in a paper on time and lied about it. I contacted the deans and they basically told me that they would prefer not to get involved. There is a glorious feature to word files: time stamps. Every time someone tells me they handed something in that I didn’t get I ask them to email it to me. And more often than not I find that the file was created after the due date.

    I hate the feeling that I run a small police state. But I can’t think of any other way to proceed. When in college (Haverford – whose main marketing campaign is their “honor code”) I was once brought into a professor’s office about an exam. He was new at the school; I was a senior. We had self-schedule exams (taken them any time you want over the course of the week). He said to me, “Shamus, there is a problem with the exams…” I panicked. And then he said, “No, no… you’ve got it all wrong… You’re the only one who didn’t cheat. Everyone else had their files open for at least twice as long as the allotted time. What should I do?” I replied that as long as I did well, I didn’t care. And that it was up to him if he wanted to deal with the headache of brining some 15 students before our honor counsel.

    It was at that moment that I realized that honor codes can work in one of two ways: (1) almost everyone is honest; (2) almost everyone cheats. It’s a tipping model. And I suspect OW was right: many people cheat their way through school.

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  6. While in graduate school, a student plagiarized a paper in a course I was teaching. (Effective use of the word “agentic” was my tip-off.) I asked for counsel from supervisors and advisors and was told not to report it to the dean or student honor counsel, but to deal with it myself. After much thought, I told the student she would receive a zero on the paper IF she completed an acceptable 5-page research paper on plagiarism, using the relevant research in education, sociology, and related disciplines. She turned it in and…you guessed it!…it was plagiarized. And no, she wasn’t confused about what constituted plagiarism.

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  7. The system here (a large public university) is similar to what Tina describes. A faculty member discovers plagiarism, presents the student with evidence and gives the student a choice 1) admit the offense and accept the penalty or 2) deny dishonesty and the case goes up to the dean. If the student chooses 1, a note is added to the student’s file so that the University can detect when there is a pattern. A second offense brings severe penalties.

    Given that dishonesty exists, I like the system pretty well. In my experience, every student so far has taken option #1 and it only took one uncomfortable meeting.

    @6 Jenn — yes, effective use of jargon is often how I catch it too. That plus a quick google search on especially well written phrases.

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  8. At SIU, it’s up to the professor, with right of appeal for the student. I think that’s the best and most efficient way of dealing with the problem. At Vanderbilt, it was awful. You had to take the kid to the “honor council” which is a kangaroo court of frat boys and sorority girls–literally dressed up in tux’s and ball gowns–meeting late at night in the attic of an old building. This group of future Republican leaders of the South gets to decide if a kid gets kicked out of school. So, the frat boys and sorority girls get off, and the poor independent kids get kicked out of school. The professor has to sit through the ordeal and accept the judgement of the children.

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  9. I’m not a professor, but advised students who got in trouble because of conduct issues at the school I used to work for. There, the professor usually submits a complaint to the office of student conduct. The OSC notifies the student that a complaint had been filed. The OSC then conducts its own investigation as to the veracity of the complaint. If they deem it’s credible, then the student is officially charged. In the charge letter, the student is given the sanctions, which range from community service to suspension to expulsion (for multiple charges). The student can then accept the sanctions or provide a counteroffer. The OSC can then accept that or the case goes to a hearing. The panel for the hearing consists of a few faculty members and a few students. The OSC presents it’s case, with the faculty member and his/her witnesses and the student is allowed to present his/her case, also with witnesses. The panel then makes a final decision, in which it can dismiss the charges, give the same sanctions, or give lighter or heavier sanctions. Until a final decision is made, the grade for the assignment or the course is incomplete. If the student is not found guilty, then the faculty cannot penalize him/her. If the student is found guilty, then the faculty can fail him/her.

    All this is to say that the faculty just submits a complaint. The OSC has the total authority to dismiss a complaint if they don’t think the faculty member has enough evidence. I liked it, because faculty would sometimes accuse students of cheating based on subjective evidence, as little as “I don’t think this particular student could have done this well on the test.” But they have no idea of how the student cheated. So bringing all the evidence to an objective body seems to me to be the best process.

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  10. I have caught plenty of plagiarizers, but never as the instructor of note for the course. The professors I worked for often just choose to take off points, talk to the student, and figure it was a mistake. She would tell the student that if they did it again, they would fail.

    I don’t like this approach. At my university, as I can see from many of the comments, nothing really happens unless there are recorded accounts of cheating in their file. I strongly believe, then, that it should be reported to discourage the behavior from being repeated. So, in my syllabus for my first course I have:

    I have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to plagiarism and cheating. If you are caught plagiarizing or cheating, you will receive a zero on the assignment and be reported to the Dean of Students. If you are in doubt whether you need to cite or not, err on the cautious side and include a citation. The format for citations should follow the ASA Style Guide.

    With the link to the university policy (and the place to buy the ASA Style Guide). We’ll see how it turns out, because I’ve heard that the University won’t always support the instructor.

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  11. My university encourages but does not require professors to report cheating to the deans. This is because FACULTY objected to being required to report!!! Some faculty do not want the “hassle,” or so I was told. Faculty don’t have to report if they just reprimand the student or have them re-do the assignment; they are supposed to report if they give any penalty from a lower grade on the assignment on up. A first offense reported to the dean usually garners no further penalty, although the handbook says that graduate students can be dismissed for a first offense. Some professors I know refuse to even charge cheating because they think it is too much trouble; they’ll just give a lower grade (even an F) and the student usually does not complain. (Note that they are not only not creating a record of dishonesty, they are failing to give the student due process.)

    Another problem with our policy (and that of many other schools) is that there are no official standards or guidelines for relating magnitude of penalty to magnitude of offense. This is the part that bothers me the most. One professor may flunk you in the entire course for paraphrasing four sentences (with a citation to the source) in a ten page paper, and another may give you a no-penalty chance to rewrite the whole paper when you submit something from your frat house’s paper bank. Nothing in our elaborate procedures suggests any concept of penalty proportionate to the offense.

    As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I follow an “always report” policy and have never had a student appeal. I have heard of some bad cases, one where a high administrator responded to a phone call from parents and put pressure on a professor to change an F for cheating; in that particular case, the administrator ended up apologizing to the professor, but that didn’t make it any less bad along the way.

    Once I called the dean when I was trying to decide whether to give a penalty that would have prevented a student from graduating. I wanted to know whether the student had any other incidents in her record. The dean did not want to tell me, saying that it would violate due process and prejudice the case. I argued back, saying that the evidential part of the process (the trial) had already happened, we knew the student had done the crime, and we were now in the sentencing phase, where prior history plays a central role. She finally relented, checked the records, and told me that had nothing on the student. I decided to give her the bad grade anyway.

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  12. There is an interesting set up at my SLAC. It is incumbent upon the student to turn herself in. They never do. I am not allowed to speak to the student about it when I find evidence of plagiarism (proper usage of semi-colons is always a hint for me, but so are ‘smart quotes’ (those that automatically point towards each other as they do on scatterplot) and ‘dumb quotes’ (quotation marks that are straight down) interspersed with one another. The second one is always a giveaway that they have taken text from somewhere else.

    So, I have to go directly to the Honor Board, and they notify the student and judge the case. The assumption is that if a student weasels out of a minor case with one faculty, they can do it in any number of other classes. The faculty has to make the case to a committee that is comprised of faculty and students, and then the student has to make hers. (Neither in the room at the same time.) The committee decides–depending on the degree and whether or not it has been the first time–the student should fail the assignment, be docked a letter grade on their final grade, fail the course, or get kicked out of school.

    The upside is that I don’t have to adjudicate and hear student’s pleas, the downside is the large amount of paperwork, and I have no autonomy on the issue. I used to have a line in my syllabus like Shakha’s, but now I just warn them in class. For now–and I have taken five plagiarism cases to the Honor Board in two years–I’m satisfied.

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  13. Thanks, all, this is really helpful and interesting, and I’m amazed how many distinct ways there are to handle this problem.

    Here at UNC, the honor court is an undergraduate body endowed by the Chancellor with the power to handle all student discipline issues, from on-campus infractions like drug and alcohol stuff to academic dishonesty. There is no other channel; faculty are required to go through the honor court for any such issue. The students involved seem more thoughtful than the Vanderbilt ones Sherkat describes, but they remain young, inexperienced, and not particularly invested in the intellectual mission of the university. Guilty verdicts may be appealed by the defendant; not-guilty verdicts may not.

    Parts of the UNC system I like are (a) it is quickly removed from the direct student-professor relationship; and (b) it treats intellectual dishonesty as a crime against the community instead of against the specific professor or class.

    Things I don’t like about it are (a) it took FOREVER; (b) communication with both me and the student were virtually nonexistent; (c) the judging is exclusively in the hands of undergraduate students who, frankly, don’t grasp what’s so breathtakingly wrong about cheating; (d) these students continue to go to school with the people they’re judging, which introduces some perverse incentives; (e) the professor (moi) is involved only as a “witness” and is not allowed to be privy to the rest of the proceeding; (f) there is no “discovery” process, so a defendant can dream up a brand-new defense that morning with little or no evidence. Informal chats with colleagues in my building suggest that few have positive experiences with the honor court.

    Beyond the immediate annoyance, I am concerned that the lack of legitimacy the Court enjoys among faculty increases the likelihood that faculty will underreport, or not report at all, academic dishonesty, which would qualify as a Very Bad Thing ™.

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  14. Update four years later. I have now had one student appeal a plagiarism charge. It was pretty pathetic. The offence had been clear-cut plagiarism of part of a book summary from a web site, but of modest magnitude — the evidence was that he had not plagiarized other assignments. I had given a slap-on-the-wrist penalty that did not actually change his final grade coupled with my “always report” policy. The student was offended at the language in the first draft of my letter of report and appealed even though I changed the language before sending in the letter. I think he really wanted to charge me with insulting him in the language in the first draft of the letter. The appeals committee was half students, half staff. The student was totally confused when asked (as the materials he’d been sent told him he would be) whether he admitted guilt or not, i.e. was he appealing the guilty finding or appealing the penalty? After some confused hemming and hawing he eventually denied guilt on the offense itself, but as there was a damning Turnitin.com overlap report and his own prior email admission of guilt, he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Really what he wanted to do was complain about me and the class. I actually felt pretty sorry for him by the end. The appeals board upheld my decision and penalty and privately commended me for my straightforward policies and handling of the case.

    The one thing that did bug me about the process was that he was allowed to make assertions about things that I had said in class that the procedure did not allow me to respond to. So I can imagine a confrontation with a more hardened and prepared criminal could have been more upsetting.

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    1. You are pathetic. Turnitin is not damning evidence, it’s a software that draws on it’s huge database on anything similar. Do you really think it’s oh so noble to end a student’s career because they didn’t reference properly? WEAK teachers rely on turnitin. I know a friend who is a 1st student being accused of plagiarism because SOMEBODY COPIED HIS WORK. You can actually sit up there talking about technicalities and criminalizing people based off of a SOFTWARE. The kid’s probably right to complain about you personally, you sound like an ass.

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  15. I guess that’s why you all teach… You’re all pathetic, so concerned with someone copying a few words.
    Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. So true! Some of us that are actually in the work force for many years could care less if they copy and pasted work when they were in college. They are only doing themselves a disservice, and that’s what proctored tests are for, finding out who knows it without looking in a book or on the internet.

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