How do you fight academic plagiarism if accused? What effects on your academic future if found guilty?
May 13, 2005 4:57 AM   Subscribe

How do you fight academic plagiarism if accused? What effects on your academic future if found guilty?

Here's the story my goddaughter writes a paper (1 of 7) for her eng lit class. She inadvertently leaves 3 sentences unattributed on paper #7 and her professor has formally started academic plagiarism charges against her! (And her friend for 1 sentence) She knows a boy in her class who had the same professor last semseter who was also caught plagiarizing. He was given a zero but no academic charges were filed against him. Will that help her? She wants to teach on a college level in the future. What effect will this have on her goal? Will it effect her entrance into graduate programs? It really was an error/oversight on her part.
posted by dsaelf to Education (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The best thing to do would be to talk to the professor himself to see if she can work out a deal. Personally, I would talk to a student before charging them with anything, but this guy seems to be a hardass. If that doesn't work, then fight it tooth and nail. Schools are reluctant to punish first time offenders too harshly. In this case, I think the worst they can do is give her a zero for the assignment. If this is the seventh paper , then she should have some sort of track record for making proper citations and has probably shown herself to be a solid student. They will take that into account when deciding the punishment.

If she can pull a 'B' in the class and all her other grades are stellar, then no harm done. There are different kinds of academic charges, some go on school records and some don't. Again, if this is the first time she did this, then it will probably be the kind that does not ruin her record. Charges of plagiarism on a transcript can be a career killer for graduate school.

Good luck to her!
posted by Alison at 5:16 AM on May 13, 2005

Agreed, she needs to have a lengthy discussion with the professor ASAP. Obviously I have no idea how much 'three sentences' might be--but it could be quite a lot, and the professor is not wrong per se for being hardass about it. It will be by no means clear to him that this was an honest mistake unless she makes that clear at great length, using the evidence of the other papers.

As for long-term effects; as long as this results in a grade change instead of a mark on the 'permanent record' it won't be a problem for graduate school at all (although high grades are better, obviously, for applying to graduate school).

Good luck to you both!
posted by josh at 5:30 AM on May 13, 2005

Firstly: the institution should have a stated policy on this. There will be an official line which will define plagiarism, define penalties and define procedures. It will be in the taught student's handbook or maybe even online.

Where are you based? Your profile does not say. In the UK there is a lot of debate about plagiarism and proof, and a student is unlikely to be formally charged with minor slippages like omitting to quote a sentence or two: the module/course grade would take a serious hit for poor scholarship but tied up in the question of plagiarism is also the notion of intent. If she can convince whoever investigates the case (and this need not necessarily be the professor in question) that it was a genuine accidental error things should go her way.

Also, here in the UK the student union will have a welfare officer who can act as a guide and spokesperson. Also, there will be some sort of pastoral care system (at least I assume there is - some member of faculty to go to when things go wrong).

So here's the practical advice:
  1. find out what the institution's official line is
  2. find another member of faculty - not stinky prof but preferably someone in the same department - and explain the situation
  3. use any student support networks or unions and find out if there's any way they can help
  4. speak the the professor in question - but only after she's clear what the rules are and what support she's got
The JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service based at the University of Northumbria have a fairly compresentive set of links you might want to peruse - it could give you an idea of what other institutions do, at least, and inform you about the various issues in the area. Academic misconduct is a fairly complicated field. And in the case of undergraduate issues, almost certainly involves institution specific regulations.

Good luck to her - it sounds like an innocent mistake and I hope she doesn' t get penalised unnecessarily.
posted by handee at 5:33 AM on May 13, 2005

Don't forget that most colleges have an official Ombudsman for negotiating differences between the student body and the faculty/staff.
posted by alan at 6:07 AM on May 13, 2005

It's also quite helpful to pull together all of the rough work, drafts, articles, etc that were used in writing the paper. This way, she can show the appropriate people that she did the intellectual work involved in writing a paper and the three non-cited sentences were the result of an honest oversight.
posted by lumiere at 6:35 AM on May 13, 2005

Dunno where you are, but:

In this case, I think the worst they can do is give her a zero for the assignment

Depends on the school. Where I went, Virginia, the worst that might happen for a single incident of plagiarism was expulsion. This was also the lightest punishment that school could formally invoke (a low grade for the assignment or course being below the level of punishment). The Honor Court would almost certainly refuse to punish anyone for something as minor as this, at least now.

Firstly: the institution should have a stated policy on this. There will be an official line which will define plagiarism, define penalties and define procedures.

For a formal punishment procedure, sure. But beyond the formal process, the professor will probably be free to impose whatever grade (s)he wishes for the assignment and the course.

The best your goddaughter can do is impress upon whoever is running the pseudo-trial that this is obviously simply an error, and an utterly minor one at that. Her past track record in writing properly-cited papers in that class and others will probably be useful there.

Assuming that this ends up resulting in a lower-than-optimal grade for the course, but no EVIL PLAGIARIST SCUM note on her transcript, it's unlikely to be at all relevant in grad school admissions, especially if this is her first year.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:40 AM on May 13, 2005

The professor should understand the difference between academic sloppiness and academic dishonesty. In the professional publications I read (various IEEE journals) you'll often see statements in the letters section that "the author forgot to include a reference to so and so's work." It's not an accusation of dishonesty it's an accusation of sloppiness.

Your goddaughter needs to make sure that the professor understands that this was a lack of rigor, not plagiarism. Official plagiarism charges are usually very serious and could involve expulsion and at the very least would ruin her reputation even to other professors. It doesn't take much for an innocent mistake tagged as plagiarism to pave the way for any future innocent mistake to be branded the same, with a past track record to back it up.
posted by substrate at 6:44 AM on May 13, 2005

Some good advice already. She should have a long talk with the professor, and if he still insists on persuing charges then she should take it up with the ombudsman, if the school has one.

Here's a little context that might explain why the prof is being such a hardass (I'm a college prof myself). Plagiarism is extremely common on college campuses, and it drives professors crazy. To exacerbate this, most colleges are all too lenient on plagiarizers (this may be to your daughter's advantage). I have brought or heard of a number of cases of plagiarism much more severe than your daughter's in which the school administration essentially looked the other way despite formal policies saying that plagiarism would result in immediate failing in the class and/or expulsion. And most students are less than apologetic when confronted.

I imagine that your goddaughter's prof is at the end of his rope about this, and has decided to take matters into his own hands and prosecute/persecute every single case that he encounters.

When your goddaughter talks to him, she should stress how seriously she takes the issue of plagiarism and the importance of correctly citing sources. If possible, she should show evidence that on her other papers she cited sources correctly, and that this was an accidental oversight. If she has notes or rough drafts or other materials that prove that she did genuine ressearch, then she ought to bring those along too. But she needs first to convey to the professor how seriously she takes this, and how much she respects the standards of academic integrity. That might assuage some of the prof's anger (unless he's just a jerk).

As for future reprecussions, its difficult to say without knowing her school's stated policy. But for a first offense with three measly sentences, I would be surprised if she received any punishment that would mar her permanent academic record (e.g. failing grade or expulsion).

Good luck.
posted by googly at 6:46 AM on May 13, 2005

Speaking as a professor, I'd say formal charges for three unattributed sentences is probably a bit much--but, if it's the seventh paper out of seven, her instructor may presume that she knew what was what. (Since even otherwise outstanding students have been known to plagiarize under pressure, the "I'm really a good student!" argument won't necessarily go as far as you think it might.) And yes, she needs to see the instructor ASAP, before trying to take a grievance higher up the administrative level. Many schools do not make exceptions for "accidental" plagiarism, so she may be on thin ice there. If she has a works cited page with the works she forgot to cite on it, then she'll have an easier time demonstrating that she made an innocent mistake; it would also help if the sentences had quotation marks around them, or at least some sort of tag indicating that they're paraphrases ("As John Sutherland notes...").

ON PREVIEW: And what googly says.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:52 AM on May 13, 2005

Aside from the excellent advice given here, remember that if the prof does insist on a formal inquiry (which, honestly seems doubtful), this is the kind of story that college newspapers loooooove.
posted by mkultra at 6:54 AM on May 13, 2005

mkultra: Yeah, because then, this accusation, which would have been private student information will now be in the public record forever.
posted by grouse at 7:09 AM on May 13, 2005

I think some context here would be helpful. Could you post the offending paragraph here and perhaps the one before and the one after?
posted by mischief at 7:24 AM on May 13, 2005

Another professor replying here.....

Your god daughter is guilty of plagiarism, however inadvertent. This is a serious academic offense for good reason. What the professor may have done with other students in the past is absolutely irrelevant, those circumstances may have been different in ways we cannot know.

The best strategy now is for her to go see the professor, hat in hand. Apologize, be contrite, and acknowledge guilt without excuses. DO NOT refer to how other students may have been treated. DO NOT have a parent intervene. She might bring her notes and outline that she used to construct the paper to show how the plagiarism happened.

I take it she is an undergraduate? If so, it isn't likely she will suffer any long-term consequences beyond failing he class. And one failed class as an undergrad is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
posted by LarryC at 7:28 AM on May 13, 2005

I actually ran into this situation this semester in an essay course. I dropped the student two letter grades for the assignment and wrote a strongly worded "SEE ME!" note. All this happened after we had a few weeks of lectures about proper citations and bibliographies. If it had happened again, then there would have been bigger consequences.

In computer science the general policy is a zero on the assignment for the first offence, suspension for a year and a zero in the course for the second and expulsion for the third. While it is plagiarism, it sounds like your goddaughter did this unintentionally. Usually zeroes are reserved for more severe sins like stealing entire papers.

I know nothing about your daughter's university, but this is what I've seen at the three universities that I've taught at. I've seen more severe, intentional plagiarism cases receive a slap on the wrist. Two students of mine plagiarized so early in the course that they were able to drop it and avoid the zero. Crying in front of male faculty also seems to work.

If talking to the professor does no good she needs to find an ally in the department and figure out what the university's procedures are for academic charges. I would be really really surprised if this resulted in an expulsion.
posted by Alison at 8:20 AM on May 13, 2005

I disagree strenuously with advice that your God-daughter ought to, in essence, confess to the professor and throw herself at his mercy. That confession could easily be held against her if he decided that he still wanted to pursue disciplinary action, and any of her qualifications that the violation was inadvertant be lost.

A solid rule of thumb is never to admit fault until and unless a binding offer to settle the charges is on the table.

A lawyer might be helpful. Believe it or not, most every college town has a lawyer or two with a sideline practice in campus disciplinary hearings and investigations.

They can help with three very important goals: understanding the lay of the land (past penalties, which investigators and adjudicators are tough, and which ones are sympathetic), assuring no disciplinary mark on the transcript, and making sure that there's no disclosures to the campus paper, etc.
posted by MattD at 8:33 AM on May 13, 2005

MattD's advice may indeed get your god daughter off the hook, but she will be burning all her bridges at the university, especially with the professors in that department. Word of the student who cheated and then hired a lawyer to avoid the consequences will spread like wildfire among the faculty. Is she going to need letters of recommendation from anyone?
posted by LarryC at 8:43 AM on May 13, 2005

I disagree strenuously with advice that your God-daughter ought to, in essence, confess to the professor and throw herself at his mercy. That confession could easily be held against her if he decided that he still wanted to pursue disciplinary action, and any of her qualifications that the violation was inadvertant be lost.

I don't think that applies here, because the proof of the act itself is right there in black and white in the paper. Here's the student's paper, here's the source material, here's the lack of citation. M-O-O-N, that spells plagiarism, even if it's inadvertant. She doesn't need to confess to plagiarism; all the proof the professor needs is in his/her possession already.

That is, there's no "I didn't do it" defense, to which a denial would usually apply. Whether or not she plagiarized will not be up for grabs, only the severity and intentionality of it will be.

Whether or not it's smart to go hat-in-hand to the prof is hard to say from here; only the student knows how the prof has been behaving. If (s)he's been reasonable, maybe it would defuse things to go in, show the work and the history of work on previous papers. If (s)he's been a vindictive dick from the get-go, it might be better to just wait for the formal procedure to tick through and make her case there.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:00 AM on May 13, 2005

One of my grad students downloaded an article from an online journal, changed names and submitted it as final assignment for one of my courses last year. I filed a formal complaint to the university with adequate documentation (the submitted paper, the article that was plagiarized, etc.). A week later the University Ombudsman called me and explained the process to me. A university committee will conduct a formal hearing. I will have to appear before the committee. The student also will have the opportunity to defend himself. After the hearings, if the committee finds that there is adequate evidence of plagiarism, appropriate penalties will be handed out. In this case, the student agreed to the plagiarism charges and the formal hearings did not take place.
My point is: Several universities have very strict policies and procedures to deal with plagiarism. Both the instructor and the student get an opportunity to present their case.
As an instructor, I am not going to deal with the hassle of filing a complaint if I did not have solid evidence of grave wrongdoing. I would certainly not take the trouble for three unattributed sentences. Perhaps a personal meeting with the student and a mutually acceptable penalty such as writing another paper. The formal inquiry process is an inconvenience even for hardass professors. So I would suggest that you make sure that your god daughter has not 'actually' done anything more than 'inadvertently' include 'three unattributed sentences' in her paper.
posted by gazoo at 9:37 AM on May 13, 2005

LarryC, in many cases consulting a lawyer is just that: you consult with him, paying a fee to get the lay of the land, and then act accordingly, on your own. The faculty (and the administration) need never know that your actions are being supported, or at least informed, by professional advice, or that a lawyer was reviewing and critiquing your submissions to the Honor Board or Dean of Students (or whatever).

If the alternative is a disciplinary mark on your transcript, than burning all the bridges in your department is a price worth paying, without any doubt.
posted by MattD at 9:53 AM on May 13, 2005

M-O-O-N, that spells plagiarism

Haha... am I the only one who got this reference? Hey! You didn't attribute your joke!

On-topic: Pray she has a rough draft. If she composed it in Word, I believe Word saves older versions of the document within the document itself (though I'm not familiar with the method used to suss this info out of the file). It's vitally important that she prove her intent was not to decieve. If the three sentences are in-line with the rest of a paragraph, I would find it very difficult to believe that the student just "accidentally" forgot to enclose it in quotes at the very least.

Has she already spoken with her professor? It seems strange that a prof would jump directly to academic discipline without having said something to her. When was she informed of this? That would have been the time to come up with an excuse/mea culpa. If the gears of justice are already groaning, the time for a pleasant conversation is over, and her best bet is to hire a lawyer.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:01 AM on May 13, 2005

I concur with earlier posters - while handling this mano a mano would be preferable, once the prof made this a larger matter that stopped being a good call.

You state "started academic plagiarism charges" - she should get the college policy on this (should be in the student handbook) and see what the 'letter of the law' is on this. If this is as clear-cut a bad attribution and not a usurping of ideas as you say it is I'd make a strong and firm stance with the Powers That Be.

I don't agree that coming in with a firm defense would be 'burning bridges.' Some nutzo giant damages lawsuit would get a lot of attention but the likelyhood in a general ethics matter is that 99.999% of the campus will never know anything about the whole proceeding.

Which isn't to say her whole approach shouldn't revolve around a firm "this is a simple technical mistake that I wish I hadn't made but I will not let you sandbag my academic career over it by calling me a cheat." If it's all as you say/she has led you to believe then this gasbag is wasting everyone's time. He may wish that his only purpose as an instructor in that class is to teach literature but undergrads need guidance in many other areas as well, including attribution and other technical areas.
posted by phearlez at 10:36 AM on May 13, 2005

At my university there is a Dean who handles all plagiarism cases and metes out punishments (expulsions, notes in the transcript, etc). The goal of centralizing the function is because teachers are not aware if a student has done this in the past in other classes, and so this Dean is the only one to know. In general, my observation is that at this school first-time offenders, even those with really egregious plagiarism cases, get off lightly at the university-level with just a warning. Of course, the instructor is free to give whatever grade the instructor wants.

As for how this will affect her in the future: My guess is that if she avoids expulsion or notes that make it on the official grade transcript, it may not matter much. What is more important is that before she moves on to the next level she will need recommendations from professors, and her current troubles may or may not affect those recommendations depending on the size of the department and seriousness. But my guess is that if it is an honest mistake the affect should be negligible.
posted by Tallguy at 10:41 AM on May 13, 2005

As someone who had to deal with this situation from the professor's side just two weeks ago, I agree with the rest that it is surprising to think the professor wants to press formal charges. Usually, appealing such charges won't help because the appeals only test whether the plagiarism occurred rather than what the sanctions are. (Schools vary somewhat, but it's a common practice.) And many schools allow professors to have whatever sanctions they wish.

So here's what I would do: show the professor previous assignments and try to explain that it was an oversight. If he/she doesn't buy it, admit that it technically was plagiarism and that because of your god-daughter's lack of intention to plagiarize she was wondering if you would accept the following sanctions off the record 1) receiving a zero on the paper, 2) re-doing the paper without credit, 3) taking an F in the course. The last one may seem draconian, but it's better than having it on your record going into grad school applications. Plus, some schools have an option wherein students can retake a course they have an F in and get the grade replaced.
posted by ontic at 10:42 AM on May 13, 2005

My school is the same way as Tallguy's.

Each semester I've taught Freshman English, I've turned in at least one plagiarizer. I might have suspected others, but wasn't able to prove it.

At my school when you turn in a plagiarism case to the dean, it's totally out of your hands. In all my situations, the student received an F in my class, was put on academic probation, and had to write a letter of apology to me.

The English Department tells us that we should formally submit each case, no matter how small, because even though it's easier to just give a zero on the assignment and/or make the student redo it, that ends up condoning plagiarism.

Kind of off topic, but I think the threat of abrupt university action, no matter how small the case, is the best deterrent. My students tend to like me and find me a reasonable instructor- when I say to them, "Once I turn you into the dean there's no telling what will happen to you!" it usually scares them into not plagiarizing.

Except, of course, those one or two students a semester who are either lazy or think they are smarter than I am.
posted by elisabeth r at 11:38 AM on May 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

A question for the poster: Did you get the details you posted in your question from your goddaughter or from her parents?

"She inadvertently leaves 3 sentences unattributed..." suggests that she just left out proper citation for a three sentence quotation. Are you sure this isn't some amount of under-exaggeration from god-daughter to parent?
posted by nobody at 12:02 PM on May 13, 2005

The faculty (and the administration) need never know that your actions are being supported, or at least informed, by professional advice, or that a lawyer was reviewing and critiquing your submissions to the Honor Board or Dean of Students (or whatever).

This depends, to a large extent, on what kind of school we're talking about. Public schools might be cowed by legal representation, as they have to conform to all sorts of state laws and regulations. Private schools, not so much. The courts have confirmed consistently the right of private schools to set their own disciplinary standards and procedures, and if they want to exclude lawyers, they can do so. I think you'll also find that trying to go "over the head" of the school by taking the case into the legal system will do nothing but invoke the fury of the school's legal department. It will be difficult and expensive for you.

This is based on my own experiences, however, and may not be relevant to your situation. It may very well be worthwhile to consult a lawyer, but be cautious about how you use your representation.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:54 PM on May 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have served on an academic dishonesty committee (that is, judging cases of academic dishonesty and deciding on consequences), and I have to say- CONTRITENESS. Your goddaughter must be contrite, if she did make the mistake. What professors and committees want to know most of all is that the student understands why what they did is not appropriate in academic work - the less contrite the student, if guilty, the harder they were punished.

If it hasn't gone to a formal committee, she should see the professor, and be completely contrite. Apologise for the mistake, bring rough work with her, apologise again. (I'm really serious about this - there is no denial possible, but if it's an honest mistake she should have no problem apologising and telling the truth that she had no intention to plagerise. However, if she quoted at all without quotation marks, that won't look good - every university student should know that.) At my university, plagerism didn't go past the professor if the student confessed and they agreed on a punishment below failure for the course.

In most other cases of open and shut plagerism (TA found the text online, etc), getting a lawyer and prolonging the process would just make the committee think you were trying to get out of your responsibility, and they would give a much harsher punishment.

It may be in this case that the committee will decide that the professor has been too harsh, and that this deserves a cut in grade or failure for just this paper. But she should still be as honest and as contrite about her mistake as possible.

I probably have not been hard enough on my students - they cite quotations, but half of them don't understand that you have to cite all opinions and facts (except for commonly known, of course, but I never took the chance myself) that you get from secondary sources, not just those that you quote. I should probably be giving them a harsher run down at the beginning of the semester.
posted by jb at 11:18 PM on May 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

What nobody said. (Er, I mean: what nobody said.) It surprises me that everyone is so willing to take the student's side here; sure it's possible it was inadvertent, but it's at least equally possible she thought she could slip it past the teacher and pleaded inadvertence when caught. (N.b.: almost all plagiarists claim it was an accident, even when it involves huge chunks of text in numerous places. "I copied it down on index cards and then forgot it wasn't mine! I would never knowingly plagiarize!" Just as prisoners all swear they're innocent.) I'm not saying "she's evil, burn her," but I think LarryC's perspective is the right one here. (And, on preview, jb's.)
posted by languagehat at 2:40 PM on May 14, 2005

Thanks to all who replied! I'm at her house 3 to 4 days in a week. I was there when she was writing this paper and when she came home with the academic charge. As my goddaughter told her physics professor "I'm not smart at all." Actually, she is bright but has to work very hard for her grades. She struggled very hard with this course and when to the prof for help on every paper. I am absolutely sure this was a mistake! Your replies have been excellent and I'm marking this as a "best".
posted by dsaelf at 5:24 AM on May 16, 2005

My daughter was just accused of plagiarism that affected all her grades on her report card.
She was working on a paper that counted for 30% of all her classes because she is in an Academy.
The computer was having tons of popups that made it very difficult to do anything right and then the computer crashed . In the meantime my daughter turned in her paper without rechecking her work so it would be in on time.
She had a section of the paper that she had not put in her own words yet and at that time had not learned how to do citations so she would not have left this section in on purpose.
She is a excellent student and no one bothered to check on this factor just gave her a 0 .
One thing that she did to wrong was keep her report card from us because she didn't know how to explain this to her dad more than myself. He is always on her to get high grades.
Now a cople of weeks has lasped and I want to go to the school for an appeal but I don't know how to sent up a defense.
I know my daughter and other teachers know her not to do something like this but they can't do anything alone.
My daughter was told that if anyone cheated on their paper they would be punished so why would she do this on purpose?
posted by fit59clag at 4:57 PM on April 8, 2006

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