Essay Question: You are a faculty member at a small liberal-arts college in the Northeast. You are grading papers from your "Introduction to Literature" course late one night, working through a stack of 50 essays, each of them three to four pages in length.
In a paper on Kate Chopin's story "The Storm," you come across writing that seems especially sophisticated for the student -- too sophisticated, in fact, for any freshman you've ever encountered. You hop onto Google, the Web search engine, and type in a phrase from the paper. The third site listed contains an essay on "The Storm." A quick check reveals that the student has lifted approximately a third of her paper directly from the posted essay.
The assignment sheet specifically forbade the students from using any outside sources for this paper. The course syllabus states explicitly -- and you have reinforced this statement orally in class -- that any form of plagiarism means failure for the entire course. This particular student has no extenuating circumstances that you know of: no dying relatives, no illness of her own, no special extracurricular role on campus.
- Fail her for the course?
- Fail the paper but allow her to remain in the course, on the condition that she signs an acknowledgment of the plagiarism that will remain in her file until graduation?
- Give her the opportunity to rewrite the paper, and penalize the final grade by a full letter?
Explain your answer.
A year ago, I would have selected option 3, giving the student the benefit of the doubt and allowing her the opportunity to rectify her mistake with only a small penalty. I had pursued similar courses of action with student plagiarists in the past.
Last fall, though, I helped to sponsor a teaching colloquium for faculty members in which we discussed strategies for both preventing and responding to plagiarism. We advertised the colloquium as offering the opportunity to think about one of those moments in teaching when you feel totally alone: because each case, like each student, is so different. No rules -- and no advice from colleagues -- can determine the appropriate punishment for you to administer.
At the colloquium we had faculty members from a variety of disciplines, all of whom had seen plagiarism in their courses. I came into the discussion prepared to defend my generally forgiving attitude toward the offense. By the time I left, I had changed my mind completely.
A colleague in the sciences persuaded me to change my approach by making a very simple point: If each of us were to forgive our students their plagiarism offenses, and give them a second chance, this meant that it was theoretically possible -- for a student taking a normal course load -- to plagiarize, get caught, and get a second chance 40 different times: once in each course she took in her college career.
In light of that scenario, my policy didn't seem to make much sense anymore.
Is that scenario likely? It depends upon how rampant you think plagiarism has become in the academy. A few days after the colloquium, I was chatting at the photocopier with a colleague from the philosophy department who told me that he believed that about 30 percent of college students were plagiarists in one form or another.
He supported this estimation with a bit of information that astonished me: He assured me that students are able to purchase, on the Internet, papers at all different levels of quality. I count on my being able to catch plagiarists when they write with an intellectual sophistication above their usual level of work; I now was faced with the prospect that even the C papers I am getting in my classes may still be plagiarized.
Even with that knowledge, though, I find his estimate a high one. I am not willing to hazard a specific numerical guess, but I would put my estimate much lower.
Still, after the colloquium, and perhaps traumatized by his estimate, I decided to crack down. On the remainder of my writing assignments for the fall semester, I included a warning -- reinforced orally in class -- that any instances of plagiarism would mean failure for the entire course.
Naturally, I was grading papers the evening after this colloquium and discovered a plagiarized essay. By the end of the fall semester, I had found two more cases of plagiarized essays in my class.
For the first student, who did it on a shorter paper midway through the semester, I relented and simply gave him no credit for the assignment. For the second and third, both of whom plagiarized on their major final paper for the course, I did what I promised: I failed them for the entire semester.
For all three cases I notified the appropriate dean about the violations and received her full support for my decisions. Two of the three students made some attempt to plead for their grades, but they had no case; they had received full advance warnings and I was able to confront them directly afterward with the evidence.
Still, failing the two students did not sit well with me.
Even though I know they deserved it, I also know that those F's will follow them for the rest of their college careers, into their parents' homes, and maybe even while they are out on the job market. I have a hard time knowing that I made that permanent a mark on someone's life.
So I have settled into the middle ground: option 2. Our college has a form, available from the dean of students, that amounts to a confession of plagiarism. Accused students are not required to sign the form; they can contest the charge of plagiarism if they wish -- almost guaranteeing that the accusation will become public. If they do agree to sign it, I agree to give them only the penalty that I spell out on the form -- which, for me, means that they receive no credit for the assignment.
That form stays in their file for five years, so that if a student should plagiarize a second time, the college has a record of it. More serious action would follow a second offense.
This solution seems the best alternative to me. The student does receive a serious punishment for the crime: In the case of the student who plagiarized from the Chopin essay on the Internet a few weeks ago, she lost 150 out of 1,000 possible points for the semester. But I can safely give her a second chance in the course, knowing that she will not have a third chance should she plagiarize again.
This solution has one design flaw: It works only if all of my colleagues are doing it, so that we truly do know when a student commits a second offense.
This potential flaw has led me to yet another solution -- this time, a preventive, rather than a responsive, measure: Give assignments that are impossible to plagiarize.
In the first assignment I gave to the students in my "Introduction to Literature" course, they had to write a three-to-four-page analysis of a poem they had never seen. I gave them three choices: a poem by our departmental poet, which has not yet appeared in print; a poem from a recent issue of a literary magazine; or a newly published poem from a well-known contemporary writer. I am fully confident that I had no plagiarized papers on this assignment, since nothing has been published -- yet -- about any of these works.
I used the same tactics with two of the three short stories I assigned this semester. I made one exception, and gave them the third option of writing about the well-known story by Chopin.
I won't make that mistake again.