Plagiarism and the teacher-student relation?

Scriblerus, thanks for the note to the last.  While I was working out my presentation tonight for this Thursday, I found myself writing the following paragraphs, which I thought I’d share with the blog, to see if others have had similar reactions to their student plagiarists.  Thoughts, anyone?


In an academic setting, plagiarism, or the use of unacknowledged sources in one’s own writing or research, is damaging because it undermines one of the foundational compacts between teacher and student: that the writing evaluated by the teacher represents the student’s own work.  Not only does an act of plagiarism undermine the trust necessary for any sustained pedagogical relation, but it also mocks the teacher’s own investment of time and energy spent evaluating, –and presumably, improving–a student’s written performance.  For this reason, plagiarism is a species of fraud that, when discovered, provokes powerful feelings of personal betrayal, followed of course by urgent desires for really punitive treatment of the guilty. The feelings provoked by plagiarism are so embarrassingly raw that we tend to deal with it either by negotiating with students one on one, not the best approach to serial plagiarists, I’d argue, or by moralizing plagiarism to the point where we no longer feel threatened by it.   

Yet plagiarism deserves serious reflection, and study, and thoughtful responses, precisely because it is an important indicator of our students’ ability (or inability) to handle the information they need in an academic setting.  Its ubiquity is a sign that, for whatever reason, considerable numbers of students, though they may be inside our academic institutions, still remain outside academic discourse, and are either unwilling or unable to make that internal transition.   And though our retributive fantasies tell us that we should simply expel anyone and everyone capable of such fraudulent behavior, the low probabilities of detection tell us instead that the best institutional response to this kind of shortfall remains better teaching, to bring the maximum number of people into genuinely academic discourse.  And this means teaching people about information: how to acquire it, how to assess it critically, how to integrate it with one’s own understandings, how to use it, and how to make sure that one’s uses of information remain honest and ethical. 


It is this last sense of information literacy that I will focus upon in this presentation, because I think that the benefit of talks like these is not from focusing on the punitive aspect of plagiarism, meaning issues of detection, policy, and so on, as important as these are, but to show that dishonest or unethical uses of information defeat the social or communicative aspect of knowledge-production.  In other words, we can use the ubiquity of plagiarism as a way to teach ourselves, and our students, something about the use and abuse of information in an academic setting. 

Let me give you an example that I found in a librarian’s writings on this subject: a footnote, when properly handled in a scholarly essay, is not just a token of the personal labor that went into writing that essay, but represents a specific point of entry into an existing scholarly debate, and an invitation for readers to join that writer in engaging that intellectual debate.  This is as true of the properly footnoted freshman paper as it is of the scholarly monograph.  The citation is a communicative act, and many senior scholars acknowledge this when they say that they no longer read essays, but go straight to the footnotes, if they wish to see what contribution a piece of scholarship makes.[See John Russell’s]

Now the act of plagiarism, meaning the missing or artfully garbled footnote, or the footnote that is designed to lead nowhere, or to mislead the reader, is a profoundly un-communicative act.  It is a closed door, with nothing behind it but the bad faith of the writer.  Neither the writer nor reader can learn anything from such a piece of writing, and this is one of the reasons why academic responses to plagiarism are so much stronger and more negative than responses outside the academy.


How to run a plagiarism-free classroom (Some hints, with thanks to respondents at the Long Eighteenth): 

  • Clear Statement of Plagiarism Policy in Syllabus, accompanied by appropriate definitions, information (common-place problems), and demonstration of commitment.  In other words, teach the policy, and teach the rationale behind the policy.
  • Assignments: switch them up, make them more specific, and inflect them with secondary criticism or specific texts to require less “generic” responses.  Go to paper mill websites, and see what kinds of topics are popular on those sites: avoid those topics.
  • Use some regular method of detection: Google,, whatever.  Random or specific.  Watch for sudden changes in vocabulary, strange syntax, or out of sequence footnotes, for indications of web materials abruptly introduced into their prose.
  • Take the time to teach methods of research and citation in all your courses, at every level.  Reinforce the message, and be sure to take students to the library, so that they understand how important their handling of information is to their writing. 
  • Teach the differences between quotation, paraphrase, and summary, and how those are to be incorporated into their own writing.
  • If you suspect a case of plagiarism, investigate until you have evidence one way or the other.  If you detect a case, report it.  Serial plagiarists will do it in every class, for the rest of their college careers, until they are caught.  Plagiarism is also an important indicator of what our students either do not know or what they are not willing to do. 



5 responses to “Plagiarism and the teacher-student relation?

  1. Better teaching? I don’t think so.

    Plagiarism exists because the university (like society itself) is set up to reward the few and not reward the many. Plagiarism is a short cut to success, if it succeeds. For this reason, low performance students will take the risk, rather than putting in the necessary effort to raise their skill level. (I suppose some of them even consider the ability to cheat their professor a skill anyway. It probably is, if you think of the many forms of fraud that exist in the wide world. I don’t often fail students who plagiarize, just give them low grades; I do tend to fail students who get other students to write their papers for them. I figure that the transcript needs to bear some relationship to ability.

    But you will never get rid of plagiarism unless you reform the university (and society too) to get rid of competition and the winners-take-the-A’s set-up. This will be a long time coming, unfortunately, and it may not be a good thing when it does come.

  2. I disagree with Tony here. There are certainly ways to organize a classroom so that everyone is rewarded for hard work; there is never a need to apply a curve and come out with a certain number of C’s. In my classes, students tend to fall out pretty evenly among C’s, B’s, and A’s, with at least half of the A and B students having had to work mightily to get there, not resting on talent alone.

    Better teaching never stops all plagiarism. It discourages it, and I am sure that writing new assignments and assigning new texts helps take plagiarism off the table as an option. But there has still been at least one instance of plagiarism, either truly accidental (poor citation) or totally egregious (copied directly from a webpage), in every class I’ve taught. Students are determined to shoot themselves in the foot, for, it seems, one of the following reasons:

    1) Assuming that the teacher is lazy. Despite all evidence to the contrary, students who have had lazy or overworked teachers in the past will assume their new prof also doesn’t read the papers. A great number of my students attended overcrowded, underfunded high schools where their teachers taught too many students in too many classes for too many years to grade all assigned writing thoroughly.

    2) Extreme perfectionism. Most of the cases of plagiarism I’ve seen have been from students who have never felt terribly challenged by essay writing before. Their response to being caught plagiarizing is horror, shame, and disbelief, as if they can’t even remember having done it. These students have to be approached, at first, gently, and usually respond well to offers to build up the grade some other way. (I often fear suicide attempts with this kind of student.)

    3) Parental pressure. In New York, most of our students live with parents who could not attend college, and so tend to focus on the GPA to the exclusion of understanding the learning experience as a process. My students often say they lack the time, at home, to do the writing processes we’ve discussed in class, because their parents want them to just sit down and get it done, and get an A.

    4) Poor instruction. By the time a student gets to an upper-level English class, she rarely arrives having never learned to do research or give attribution properly, but it happens. We must insist that our freshman-level classes do not assume the students understand the process of including the voices of other writers. (My whole composition class is about moving through the rhetorical modes while introducing other voices, one by one, through an interview paper, then an application of a theory to an observed phenomenon, and lastly, a research project.)

    5) Cannonballing. Occasionally, there are students who will plagiarize out of a perverse desire to fail. I don’t know if it’s just that they like to know what grade they’re getting, or if it is just a response to feeling inadequate in a difficult class, but these students are the hardest to deal with, for me. They are not likely to admit what they did, no matter what the consequences, and they certainly won’t take the opportunity to build up their grade some other way. These tend to be students who never talk in class, but seem to be perfectly sociable outside class. They seem to believe you can’t see them while they txt-msg their friends or sleep, despite repeated warnings.

    That is, not one student I have ever had or can imagine plagiarizes out of a desire to undermine the very structure of collegiate education by dragging their classmates’ diplomas through the mud of their dishonesty, and they don’t respond to language like that when we use it. I have tried. Plagiarism stems from what seem to be systemic educational problems, unbearable social pressure, or deep-seated emotional problems. All of these are in the realm of Things an English Teacher Can’t Do a Damn Thing About. We can try to fill educational gaps, recommend tutors, suggest academic or emotional counseling, and make sure that all our students know we know they exist, and plagiarism will still happen. But it’s still important for us to have both a language and a gameplan for preventing and responding to it.

  3. I’d also add that most college students are serious, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist true believers. They read Ben Franklin in high school and believe that keeping their noses clean and working hard is how you get ahead in life. Even the ones who cheat believe that, which is why confronting them so often results in tears. You take away the grade carrot, you get nothing.

  4. Dave Mazella

    Tony, I do agree that one cause of plagiarism is the competitive, winner takes all mentality that drives much of higher ed. The plagiarist has focused on that to the point where real education is no longer possible.

    And when I say “better teaching,” I’m not intending the kind of voluntarism where just one teacher can singlehandedly defeat an entrenched system that is working against her aims.

    The reason to target plagiarism is to bring to everyone’s attention the social dimensions of knowledge, the fact that we’re doing this through th ethical uses of others’ contributions, and by communicating our findings to still more people. Plagiarism violates that, and we can use the ubiquity of plagiarism to teach that principle.

    So better teaching comprehends better curriculum (collective structures again), and a more comprehensive view of how our classes, are or are not helping to produce better (meaning more capable) students in the course of their college careers. The winner take all attitude, unfortunately, is as prevalent among faculty (and TAs) as it is among students, and it hinders their efforts, too.


    Thanks for the cogent analysis of the motivations behind the student-plagiarist. I can’t add much to it, except to say that I agree that our job is to reduce its presence in our classrooms, to whatever degree possible.

    I conceive of this as recapturing a portion of the inside/outside students, so that we are left dealing with the unwilling, rather than the incapable, when we face the student-plagiarist in a hearing.

    At a plagiarism hearing, I feel a whole lot better dealing with the student who clearly could have completed an assignment, than the one who seems as clueless about plagiarism as he is about everything else.


  5. Carrie:

    At the university where I teach, a grade curve is enforced by the powers-that-be.