Sunday, December 04, 2005

Plagiarism, gah!

I detest plagiarism.

I barely slept last night. I was grading a few papers, and ran across one that felt completely out of the norm for the student who turned it in. I couldn't even finish grading it, and went to bed instead, but of course, didn't actually, you know, sleep. Then instead of just being irked at the student's plagiarism, I got irked that the plagiarism was messing with my beauty rest. (And yeah, I need all the help I can get on that front.)

Background paragraph: The assignment asks students to write a review, and requires them to use two professional reviews in the process. We spend a day in class working on using quotations appropriately, introducing author's, giving context, quoting, citing. We spend additional time talking about appropriate paraphrase, again, introducing another's ideas, giving context, and citing. One of the things the assignment does is to help students practice using other peoples ideas/words to agree/disagree, give background, context. Just to be clear, my syllabus has a clear statement about plagiarism which we've discussed in class. We've also discussed questions of plagiarism at other times in class, emphasizing the importance of representing someone else's work and ideas fairly and ethically.

I reread the essay this morning. There are a couple complications. First, the opening paragraphs of the essay don't sound like the student's usual writing. Now, I know this student has been going to a tutor. The opening paragraphs sound like a tutor took over the paper a bit more than s/he should.

The bulk of the paper sounds much more like the student's previous writing. (I'm not usually the master of individual student styles, but this student has an easily notable style for reasons I won't go into here.)

The transition area involves one of the reviews the student uses. First, the student uses one of the reviewer's exact words without acknowledgment. One of these words stands out like a dystopic thumb, if you get my drift. It's just not a word students use. A few sentences later, the student introduces the critic and then uses almost a full sentence of his without quotation marks.

My general read on the student is that he's earnest and needy, smart but behind in some ways, not as attentive in class as I'd like (I consistently have to repeat instructions for his benefit). I don't think he was trying to fake the paper. I think he made some mistakes. First, the tutor probably took over the paper and the student let that happen because he's a first year student and the tutor is helping him and so on. Second, he didn't use quotation marks when he should have. Third, he missed our peer revision day, and didn't turn in a required rough draft.

Now, of course, I'm second guessing myself. What if the student's inattention isn't inattention but a comprehension problem? So maybe he understands a lot less from class activities and discussion than I realize? What if the quotation/citation day wasn't nearly enough for his understanding?

So now, what to do? I can clearly demonstrate the lack of quotation, and technically it's plagiarism. But it's petty plagiarism, if that makes sense. It's the kind of first year student mistake that deserves a little generosity and instruction rather than seriously punitive measures.

And yet, our first year writing class is the single writing requirement on campus. A passing grade in the course is supposed to somehow certify that the student is competent at writing at the first year level. And this paper doesn't show evidence of that level of competence.

So, I think I'm going to fail the paper, have a talk with the student to make sure he realizes that he must use quotation marks and cite appropriately, and that he can't let his tutor take over his paper too much. Then I'm going to call the tutoring centers to ask the directorial type to remind tutors not to take over papers. And, of course, I'm going to have to document the plagiarism so that if the student complains, I can demonstrate clearly to the powers that be that I've behaved appropriately.

(Failing a paper is one of the acceptable things we faculty can do in the face of plagiarism. We're given a lot of leeway. We can also fail the student in the class, or pursue measures up to and including expulsion. I've gone to the fail my class, suspension, and letter in official file stage once since I've been here, for a really blatant misrepresentation of work. But, rightfully, we have to document the problem and how we handled it.)

Considering how much I hate plagiarism, I generally take a teacherly stance towards it when I can, and make sure the student recognizes the problem and corrects it. At least that's what I do when the work seems misguided rather than purposefully deceitful.


  1. (Hooray! Suddenly I can comment on your blog! I tried over the weekend and the system just wouldn't accept anything I submitted.)

    I think you're doing just the right thing. I too have a "if-you-plagiarize-you-will-fail-this-class" policy, but this doesn't sound like a deliberate act of plagiarism; just someone who doesn't fully understand what he's doing and isn't getting quite the help he needs.

    Not that it's fun, either way.

  2. What a difficult situation...
    I *hate* plagiarism

  3. Anonymous10:19 AM

    You should not fail the student. Why? Because if the student was using a (college-sponsored, college supplied) tutor, the tutor would have signed off on the paper. That's what tutors DO.

    When he produced a paper which was inappropriate and/or illegal, he didn't do so through deliberate intention. In fact, he may have thought he was properly following advice. Many students are confused about the proper roles and 'rankings' of the folks at school: do you follow what the admin says, or what your advisor says, or what the R.A. says, or what your professor says, or...? This confusion is not his fault. In the legal world, we'd call it "reasonable reliance" and "agency": you're both employed by the university, and the student was entitled to rely on the tutor's advice.

    As such, your real furor should be with the tutor folks. THEY should receive the "f" grade, and you'd be entirely appropriate in--for example--writing a negative performance review for the file of the tutor/director in question. But you should leave the student's grade alone (though of course he should rewrite the paper).

  4. Anonymous,

    Thanks for responding. I appreciate your input.

    I understand your concern. However, our tutors don't sign off on student papers and aren't responsible for the grades students get on their papers. We do a lot of peer work in our writing classes here, at least I do, and I make clear on several occasions that even with peer input, students are responsible for their own work. If a peer makes a suggestion, a student has to weigh and evaluate how useful it is. Students can always talk to me about their work as well.

    Just to be clear, the paper didn't get an F because the tutor over-tutored. The paper got an F because it used the words of a source directly without acknowledgement or citation.

    If this were done on the one of the early papers in the term, I'd explain the problem to the student again and ask him/her to revise. But at this point in the term, after several class sessions devoted to acknowledging, citing, and using sources, there's no time for revision.

    I did talk to the student, though, and s/he seems to understand the issue now.