Academic offence related to plagiarism suggestions
May 8, 2012 5:25 PM   Subscribe

My name is David. Currently, I am enrolled in a PhD program at a well reputed university in USA. At the very beginning of the semester, one day I talked with the Prof. (Very new in the department, first time he is offering this course) after finishing lecture because he is copying everything from a website even the assignments. He did not change anything in the assignment even the numeric values. I draw his attention. He did not take it seriously but giving me hard time throughout the whole semester. He accused me of copying four sentences from Wikipedia in one of my assignment. It’s a 12 page assignment completely based on experimental result. I got the result and then I described the results while I was describing the result four of the sentences exactly match with Wikipedia. I totally forget to add reference. However, I added references everywhere as it requires. During coding in C++, I did not copy a single line from anywhere all of my own codes but Prof. accused me that I modified some codes from online sources that even I do not know.

Again for the final project (60%), he sent my report to the disciplinary committee according to him I copy some sentences and equations from a website even though I put all the reference everywhere and the site he is mentioning too (Properly cited). Now, I am really worried, I need to face the disciplinary committee. Please suggest me what can I do?. This is serious question for my whole life.
posted by david01 to Education (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your school should have a student advocacy group. Seek them out.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:42 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Does your school have a law school? You may be able to get someone to represent you in front of the committee.

Having represented a person in a professional degree program regarding plagiarism charges, I think you need someone to represent you. If you have the funds, a lawyer would be a good choice. I'm going to guess that English is not your first language. I suggest you get a representative who speaks English as a native language as well.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:44 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Hi David. I teach in higher ed, and am familiar with this kind of problem. This is a very serious situation. If you were my student, I would be very suspicious indeed, and would have required you to re-do the assignment or get a zero.

I suggest that you look at your university's definition of plagiarism, if they have one. For example, at my school, in order to be charged with plagiarism you have to intentionally pass off someone else's work as your own--so if what you did was legitimately an accident, it would not meet the definition and not be subject to severe penalties.
posted by Tesseractive at 5:46 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Definitely contact the student advocacy group the graduate student association or faculty of graduate studies could also be helpful.
Make sure you have a good understanding of the process, what exactly you are accused
of doing and what the possible penalties are.
posted by colophon at 5:47 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your university has an Ombudsman, you could contact them as well. They might be able to help you mediate with your professor.
posted by Tesseractive at 5:49 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a few things off the top of my head:

1) It sounds like you're an international student, or at least that English is not your first language. You should get in touch with whatever student services office your university has that is specifically looking out for international students' interests, and ask for their advice. (For example, University of Michigan has an office called the International Center. Most schools have some office of student services that can direct you to the right person.)

2) You may need to talk to the head of your department or another professor who has been there for a long time, and explain the situation to them, and ask for help. Be clear that you did not violate the academic integrity policies, or that if you did, you did so by accident. Tell them you are nervous and you don't know what to do. You need a faculty member on your side. You are their student; they are supposed to be your advocates and to look out for you.

3) Do you have a copy of your school's academic integrity policy? Do you fully understand exactly what is required under the policy? If not, get a copy and read it, and ask a student who's been there for a few years if you have any questions. If you do have to go before the disciplinary committee, then you'll be better prepared to show that you didn't do anything wrong--or if you did do something wrong accidentally, you'll be able to show that you understand what you did wrong, and that you've taken steps to be sure that never happens again.

There are a few things that I don't quite understand about your situation. When you talked to the professor at the beginning of the semester, were you telling him that you knew he was copying the course from a website? Were you telling him this because you thought he didn't know? Do you think that he is retaliating against you now? These are very important things for the disciplinary committee to know, but they are things that you really must talk to someone else about (either a tenured professor or the student services office) before just bringing it up at the hearing. It sounds like it's entirely possible this professor is retaliating against you for suggesting that he was plagiarizing, and if that's the case, you need a student advocate.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2012 [18 favorites]

Agreeing with everyone who is encouraging you to ask for help from whoever at your university coordinates services for international students. Something that many US universities encounter is a fairly large culture gap between what is defined as plagiarism in the US educational system and what is defined as plagiarism in other countries' educational systems. If this is an honest mistake, and your judgment was influenced by your previous experiences of it being okay to copy without citation from reference sources in the preliminary matter of a paper (I have had students in whose home countries that was absolutely standard practice) this is probably a mistake other students have made.

The thing is that what you did is not acceptable. Copying four sentences from Wikipedia isn't acceptable in a US Ph. D program. It's probably pretty clear to the professor that you did it, because your grasp of English is (though clear and direct, and I applaud you because I know how hard it is to learn English as a second language) clearly not that of a native speaker. Now the professor thinks you copied the substantive part of your paper, and obviously that's even more serious.

I recommend that you admit to having copied from Wikipedia, admit that you were unclear about exactly how a US university plagiarism policy works, show your work in arriving at the substantive part of your paper was original (by sharing drafts of your code or whatever), take an incomplete for the course, ask to withdraw the paper and complete a new paper, do a really good job on this paper, and hope for the best.

Of course this would be easier if you hadn't alienated the professor at the beginning of the semester by complaining (even if you weren't complaining, my guess is that he thought you were complaining) that he was reusing material from another course that was available on the web. The thing is that that has already happened, so you have to enlist everyone possible on your side in sympathy with your having made an honest mistake and doing your best to make things right and move forward without violating any university policies in the future.

Trying to push back and say things like "four sentences happened to match" isn't going to work. Nobody is going to believe that. Be honest, be contrite, ask for mercy, give a clear plan about how you're going to make things right, promise that you will take whatever steps the department or university administration deems necessary to ensure you won't do it again, and learn from this. Best of luck to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:08 PM on May 8, 2012 [21 favorites]

University ombudsman. The student judicial board may also have resources.
posted by elizeh at 8:08 PM on May 8, 2012

Another thing to be aware of, rightly or wrongly, international students studying in the USA have a reputation for plagiarism. It has a very broad definition including quoting from a source without citing it, buying papers online, paying another student to do the work, or even copying ideas or sentence structures too closely. Before you talk to the professor or speak to the committee, I recommend that you learn all you can about American standards for plagiarism. It's important to understand the difference between 'accidental plagiarism' and 'ignorance of plagiarism standards' before you defend yourself!

(Also, if it wasn't explained at the beginning of the semester, your professor probably has access to tools that automatically scan assignments and papers for sections that appear in books, articles, websites, or work previously submitted by other students.)

If you're interested in learning about it from an instructor's point of view, here is a question about a similar situation from a professor.
posted by Gable Oak at 8:20 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Speak to your department head if he or she is someone you think you can trust. I am also in a PhD program and our department head is fantastic in that respect -- he takes his job very seriously and does everything he can to fairly resolve conflicts within the department and if I were in this situation I would not hesitate to seek his advice because I know it that, even if he could not help me, our conversation would remain confidential.

I don't know if what I described above is the norm for a department head, but I sure hope it is.

Also, I'd like reiterate that there is indeed a stereotype of international students plagiarizing. In my own grad school career I've heard of this being a very common occurrence simply because they aren't trained that it's not OK when they were in college. In the instances I heard of the students were from India. If you are indeed an international student this is a stereotype you may be faced with so please make sure you can prove you cited all the contentious content.

One final thing to consider is that it's likely they can't prove you maliciously plagiarized and so the consequence will be a slap on the wrist. At least, that's usually how it goes for undergrads... I am not so familiar with graduate students in this situation.
posted by imagineerit at 9:39 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Again for the final project (60%), he sent my report to the disciplinary committee according to him I copy some sentences and equations from a website even though I put all the reference everywhere and the site he is mentioning too (Properly cited). Now, I am really worried, I need to face the disciplinary committee.

Are you aware that even if you include the reference, copying words exactly from a website without putting quotations around them is still considered plagiarism?
posted by leahwrenn at 10:37 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

He did not take it seriously

Yes he did; he marked you as a threat, and decided to nobble you before you could expose his slackness. He's deliberately playing on the stereotype of the cheating international student. You need to find an advocate, or this prick is going to crush you.
posted by flabdablet at 11:17 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Hi David,

I feel extremely bad for you. What's happening doesn't sound like your fault, and from the sound of it, you may be able to prove it:

* If you recognized that the professor was "copying" everything from a Website, including the lectures and the assignments (!), can you print out pages from the Website (print out as much as you can), and put together a packet, including all the Web addresses (references!, references!!, references!!!). If you go to a school where lectures are transcribed, for the blind or hard of hearing or even just absent students, see if someone at the International Center will help you get copies. Also, include in your packet copies of the assignments, and print out of the Web pages with the exact same assignments on them! Make sure the entire packet is neat, tidy, and very very well-organized!

* Then can you print out all the copies of your own papers, including original coding, notes, textbook names, anything the professor has seen and claimed to be "copied" and put together another packet proving your original work, again, including as many references (!) as possible?

If you can, I would then take these neatly bundled and well-documented packets to the International Student Center, and see if they can direct you (as well as provide a native Speaker to accompany you because a native speaker will probably be your most persuasive advocate) to an actual student advocacy group, a student ombudsman, in order to embark on a complaint process.

Again, from the sound of it, you didn't do much wrong, but the professor is pretending you did in order to cover his own wrong-doing. The Wikipedia incident isn't going to help your case, but if you can prove everything else, it need not be your undoing. I'm sorry you had to learn not to be so trusting the hard way.

Good luck, and report back if you can!
posted by Violet Blue at 12:48 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to find an advocate, or this prick is going to crush you.

Going into this situation with the belief that you did nothing wrong and the professor's out to persecute you is one of the worst things you could do. If you haven't done anything wrong and have cited everything correctly, the disciplinary committee will not be able to punish you. If you have accidentally plagiarised by not realising that what you did counts as plagiarism, you can still get in serious trouble for that.

I've been part of the disciplinary panel for students accused of plagiarism before. We realised that sometimes international students had different expectations of plagiarism, and we tried to be understanding in all cases, but we could only do that when the student was prepared to accept they'd broken the rules and show they wouldn't do that again going forward. I understand that it's tempting to say that the sentences 'exactly match' by chance, but the disciplinary committee have heard that many, many times before, and won't believe it. I understand it's tempting to tell them your professor copied his work too, but that's not what your disciplinary hearing is about, and it doesn't make a difference to whether or not you plagiarised.

Your best bet is to follow Sidhedevil's advice above. Be honest, be apologetic, prove that most of your wirk is really your own, and prove to them that you'll work to make this situation right (by speaking to the international students' office for help on cross-cultural issues with plagiarism, and by offering to withdraw and redo your paper). The students who took this approach always did better than the students who refused to accept any wrongdoing, in my experience.

Good luck with this.
posted by Catseye at 1:41 AM on May 9, 2012 [9 favorites]

He accused me of copying four sentences from Wikipedia in one of my assignment. It’s a 12 page assignment completely based on experimental result. I got the result and then I described the results while I was describing the result four of the sentences exactly match with Wikipedia. I totally forget to add reference.

I teach at a university. At our university this would count as plagiarism. We do distinguish between accidental plagiarism and intentional plagiarism, and a student who has not plagiarised before and who claims they "forgot" to add a reference might get the benefit of the doubt. People might wonder why there were no quotation marks, even if you forgot the reference, though. And I suspect that citing Wikipedia in a PhD course would also not be looked on favourably, but it's not against the academic honesty policy at least.

Accidental plagiarism at our university STILL gets the student a 0 for the assignment and a note in the permanent record. But it does not lead to expulsion (unless it happens a second time). Your university will have a policy, anyway, so I suggest you find out what it is.

I agree with the suggestions that you should try to find an advocate. The international students' office will definitely be able to tell you who to talk to if they can't help you more directly.

I don't recommend you put too much time and effort into fighting about the professor having copied his course. Strangely, many universities do not care about plagiarism in teaching (or even define copying teaching materials as plagiarism). I know this is a double standard, but it is what it is, and there is a high chance that what your professor is doing is not against the university's rules the same way what you did was.

You should spend your time instead documenting the fact that these other assignments and the rest of that one assignment were your own work. Being able to provide earlier drafts and notes will help with this. Maybe even get screenshots of the properties of the documents you handed in. They would say "created on X date" and "modified on Y date", which might help, although maybe that is easy to forge - I don't know.

My experience with student plagiarists is that disciplinary committees are quite careful about what they decide, because they are worried about students fighting them with legal cases. So they are unlikely to decide that there is evidence for code being copied if yours is just similar in ways that could come about by chance. They are more likely to decide it is copied if you have made unusual mistakes that are also in the supposed model code, or if you have chosen some other very non-standard way to program something that also matches (or if your comments in the code match the other code, or something like that). They absolutely will not believe that four sentences could match a Wikipedia article word for word by accident without you having copied them, though, so you absolutely have to own up to that.
posted by lollusc at 2:25 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

In my experience, explanations like 'coincidental resemblance,' 'accidental actions,' 'forgot to include the references,' 'did not understand the policy,' will probably not be treated as reasonable excuses by anyone at the university, mainly because they have heard them many times before.

I'm not sure of the point about the professor 'copying' the course. Professors do that all the time, and in fact are required to do this in many circumstances. A course syllabus, curriculum and materials are not the same kind of intellectual product as an assignment. The purpose of a course is to teach students, and if a good copy already exists, then that is useful for both professors and students. I give my syllabi and materials away to anyone who wants them. The purpose of an assignment is to demonstrate understanding of the materials and independent intellectual thought; you are supposed to do all the work on your own. Anyway, saying the prof copied the course materials has absolutely no bearing on your case.
posted by carter at 5:47 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Talking with someone at your institution who understands the system is crucial. If English is your second language, the student group of your nationality may be able to help find someone who understands how the disciplinary action works and speaks your primary language; clear communication with your advocate will be important.

There is a natural tendency in these situations to reach for all the possible explanations which might excuse the claimed plagiarism, possibly overstating things, but that's a bad idea. Some of the defenses you can offer will be treated as mutually exclusive (even if they really aren't); you don't make a very clear case here and need to get your story straight.

For example, if the sentences matching wikipedia are non-consecutive short sentences or definitions, claiming a coincidence or accidental recall is somewhat plausible. That makes the professor's actions largely irrelevant. The professor's copying is only relevant if you claim that you did not understand the plagiarism policy and interpreted your discussion with him as meaning that kind of copying was acceptable (that may not excuse your actions!). Some people will take bringing the professor's copying up as admission that you knew you were copying. Claiming accident or sloppiness (you cited the relevant source, but put the note in the wrong place or used an incorrect citation style) may or may not be acceptable as an excuse, but definitely indicates that you understood the need for citation.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:04 AM on May 9, 2012

I work at a university as well, and so wanted to give my two cents on this:

First, the professor did nothing wrong in using course materials that are also posted online. As carter mentioned above, this is a typical practice and in fact makes lots of sense if a good model of the course exists. There's also nothing wrong with re-using problems that are posted online or have been used in a previous semester - I have seen this done all the time.

In fact, I wonder if the professor may have interpreted your looking up problems/answers online as another form of academic dishonesty. Particularly in a PhD program, it is expected that you won't go out of your way to try and get answers via older students, online sources, etc. but will simply do the work yourself because you care about learning it (even if there are solutions available from another source). Professors have limited time to devote to teaching, especially at research universities, and particularly for graduate classes where there is less expectation of cheating, it would be a waste of their time to make up new problems every semester. Most of the math classes I've taken in my PhD program have taken this "on your honor to do your own work" approach and have re-used old assignments.

I mention this because I wonder if your early-in-the-semester confrontation with the professor was interpreted in this manner and set the professor up to be worried about academic dishonesty later in the semester. "Giving you a hard time" may have been mostly about this issue. Thus, I wouldn't push this issue of the early conversation too hard, since a) the professor did nothing wrong, and b) by American academic standards (especially at a PhD program), admitting that you looked up solutions online may be seen as tantamount to cheating, in spirit if not by the letter of the law. Admitting to a pattern of this behavior is definitely not going to help your case.

As far as dealing with the charges now: whether you understood the rules or not, you have done something wrong and you need to own up to it. As several other commenters have noted, these types of judicial boards will have heard all the excuses in the world and will not be sympathetic to them. Be honest, admit where you did something wrong or didn't know the rules, and most of all educate yourself so that you never allow this to happen again.
posted by cupcakemuffin at 8:26 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I used to work for at a university, but not in your field. There are not enough specific details here for anyone to tell you definitely what to do, I would not advise you to add any.

If that is your real name in your profile, you should remove it.

You need to talk to your advisor. You need to know what the definition of plagiarism is for your department/institution and what the disciplinary process entails. You need to get a copy of any course documentation that explains the parameters of course assignments and/or policies regarding plagiarism.

At both of my former institutions:
It’s a 12 page assignment completely based on experimental result. I got the result and then I described the results while I was describing the result four of the sentences exactly match with Wikipedia. I totally forget to add reference.
is plagiarism.

The professor will probably not be punished for copying from the web unless he is claiming it incorrectly as his own work.
posted by sm1tten at 10:39 AM on May 9, 2012

Two points, parts of which have already been mentioned in earlier responses:

(1) The professor using material from elsewhere, and the implicit connection that you make of the form "they copy lots and get away with it, I copy a little and its an offence" is a red herring. The role of the professor is to provide the best possible presentation of the material to help you develop an understanding of it; if this is best done using existing material, then so be it. By contrast, your role as a student-under-assessment is to provide evidence that you understand the material or can perform the skill at hand - therefore your relationship to the material is completely different. You shouldn't use this part of the argument in your complaint to the University.

(2) Be sure that you understand exactly what "referencing" means. A lot of students are under the misapprehension that putting a reference in the list of references means that they can then use chunks of text from that source throughout their material. Referencing is much more precise than this - you need to ensure that each time you take a direct quotation you make it clear (using e.g. italics, quotation marks, whatever the style you are using specifies) what words belong to the quotation, followed by an explicit reference to that source. Again, this links to evidencing your understanding - you have selected a specific quote to illustrate or back up a particular part of the work that you are working on, not just mashed together a lot of sentences vaguely about the topic.
posted by Jabberwocky at 1:11 PM on May 9, 2012

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