small-scale plagiarism: right or wrong?
April 26, 2015 3:53 AM   Subscribe

My friend is currently studying at university, and she asked me to help her out with one of her assignments. I refused, saying I considered what she was asking me to do to be wrong. She became upset, and now I feel lousy, like I've let her down. I would like to gauge others' perspectives here: if you were in my shoes, how would you have reacted?


My friend is in the third semester of a four-semester Master of Teaching. She is studying four courses this semester, each of equal value.

One particular course requires online forum participation; participation according to the guidelines is worth 20% of the grade. The guidelines require her to participate in the forum conversation three times; each contribution needs to be about 300 words.

The request

She has come up against a due date for which an extension cannot be granted, and to alleviate her stress and free up time to focus on bigger assignments, she asked me to write one of the 300 word contributions, for her to submit as her own.

She understands the definition of plagiarism, and understands that it is against the university's rules to submit someone else's work as her own. But she considers this particular submission to be of such small account - one third of 20% of one of 16 courses that constitute her degree - that it is not a problem.

She says that assuming that the plagiarism isn't detected, no one else will know; she also said that it isn't hurting anyone, that she considers herself to be a good person, and that this plagiarism is of such small account in the overall scheme of things that it is more or less of no account.

My concern

I'm not trying to win an argument here. I am in post-argument mode now, trying to understand if her perspective is aligned with the norm, and my perspective is missing the point of navigating moral choices in the real world.

Am I overreacting, judging such a relatively small instance of plagiarism as wrong? If we had gone through with this, and the plagiarism remained undetected, does it matter?

My conscience tells me that such small actions are the thin end of the wedge, and have a cumulative negative effect on the individual as well as on society at large. But if the consensus is that I am being too legalistic and need to loosen up, I am open to digesting that.
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Religion & Philosophy (58 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're right, it would be wrong for you to do this. We all consider ourselves good people. It's the easiest and most comfortable way to justify bad actions.

She might wish to consider that she is studying to be a teacher. Given this, I feel it's even more problematic that she considers this an acceptable request.
posted by tavegyl at 4:00 AM on April 26, 2015 [57 favorites]

...such small actions are the thin end of the wedge...

I think this is pretty astute. What your friend might not realize is while she is willing to compromise her integrity for a simple task (300 words is only one typewritten page) she is asking you to compromise your integrity, too. If you think that is too much to ask, then it is.

My two bits...
posted by CincyBlues at 4:00 AM on April 26, 2015 [22 favorites]

I think you made the right decision not to do it. It's not so much the plagiarism as such, but just the dishonesty involved. I think it's fair enough to just say that she is free to do what she wants but you can't participate in something of this nature, sorry, and can you help in some other way?
posted by dave99 at 4:01 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you are on sound footing, taking an unfaltering stance on something that is unambiguously cheating, and that your friend is rationalizing. If it is of such small account, then she can eat the loss and take it as a lesson in time management and/or deliberate prioritizing. The important thing is that you took a stand on something that you had a reasonably strong ethical opinion on, and stuck to it - perhaps the visible direct harm would have been minor, but you should certainly not neglect the harm to your self-image; you consider yourself the sort of person who doesn't do that sort of thing, and from what you've said it sounds like you'd rather be that person than the person who gives in and cheats a little when nobody's looking.

Don't let anyone guilt you into becoming someone you don't admire.
posted by NMcCoy at 4:05 AM on April 26, 2015 [25 favorites]

I think you did the right thing. It's her own fault that she didn't get her assessments done on time and it is up to her to find an ethical solution to solve it. One that doesn't involve asking a friend to compromise their morals. She needs to speak to her professor and either come up with a solution, or get a lesser grade.

I would ask her this: "If it's such a small task, is the risk of being punished for plagiarism really worth it?"
posted by kinddieserzeit at 4:06 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You were absolutely right to say no. Have no qualms about it.
posted by Kwadeng at 4:09 AM on April 26, 2015

After reading the intro on the front page, I was expecting a much more ambiguous situation than the one you presented. Your perspective is not outside the norm-- this is cheating and plagiarism, period, no different than if you took a small quiz for your friend in class.
posted by deanc at 4:11 AM on April 26, 2015 [36 favorites]

I agree with everything NMcCoy said and with what you said about "cumulative negative effect on the individual as well as on society at large." This is absolutely plagiarism and all institutions take a dim view of it. Though the odds of anybody getting caught in this situation were probably low, they're not zero. Instructors can be very shrewd about detecting unaccountable changes in a writer's voice.

IMO, your friend was being selfish by putting this on you.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:12 AM on April 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

You were right to say no.
She was completely utterly wrong to ask you.

That said, if it was high school and you were peers and you'd offered freely could just be seen as silly and unwise. But bloody hell- it's a Masters!

She set you up to either be dishonest or to refuse to "just help her out". That's shitty and selfish. Don't you dare feel bad. Good (mature, adult) people don't put friends in those kinds of situations.
posted by taff at 4:17 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Agreed - plagiarism, and I wouldn't do it either. If it's such small beans to her, why couldn't she just take the 0? (And studying to be a teacher?!)
posted by jrobin276 at 4:18 AM on April 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure if commissioning work from others is plagiarism (which to my mind has implications of actually having looked for stuff to copy) or just fraudulent deception.
posted by epo at 4:24 AM on April 26, 2015

Although I would in most cases also refuse, I wouldn't be mad at a good friend for asking, or even getting momentarily upset at my refusal. To continue to be upset with me, however, would be "the thin end of the wedge" in our friendship.

If we had gone through with this, and the plagiarism remained undetected, does it matter? It doesn't actually matter what other people think, this is a question with no concrete answer and each of us must decide where to draw the line. Kudos to you for drawing it clearly. If your friend can't accept that, it speaks far worse to her as a friend than the plagiarism itself.

Don't let anyone guilt you into becoming someone you don't admire. This is absolutely stellar advice, and the real lesson here.

posted by STFUDonnie at 4:26 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

She says that assuming that the plagiarism isn't detected, no one else will know; she also said that it isn't hurting anyone, that she considers herself to be a good person, and that this plagiarism is of such small account in the overall scheme of things that it is more or less of no account.

Her point of view is so wrong-headed it reads like the script to an after-school special. She's asking you to do something awful and she knows it, or she wouldn't have to explain that she's a good person. You don't get a free pass to do bad stuff just because you haven't done bad stuff in a while.

And for the record, one third of 20% is a little under 7% of the total class grade. That can make or break an A. It isn't minor, and that's why she's trying to cheat.
posted by teponaztli at 4:27 AM on April 26, 2015 [20 favorites]

Best answer: I am in post-argument mode now, trying to understand if her perspective is aligned with the norm, and my perspective is missing the point of navigating moral choices in the real world.

I think her angry reaction to your refusal is what's throwing you off here. But the thing is, people don't like to be told they are wrong. People especially don't like to be told they are morally wrong. And they really, really don't like to be told they are morally wrong by their friends. So when you refused, she basically had two options: to accept your refusal and acknowledge she wanted something that wasn't okay (in other words, admitting to you and herself that she might not be the most ethical person), or to double down and insist she wasn't wrong, making you the bad guy and taking away any guilt feelings. She chose the latter.

It's certainly the easiest choice, and in America these days (possibly all over the world, but I can only speak to the U.S.), there does seem to be a prevailing opinion among young people that cheating is something everyone does, and isn't a big deal. So if you're asking if you're the one who's out of touch with the norm, that may be true in your age cohort. But that doesn't mean that you did the wrong thing in any way by refusing. Especially since this does seem to be an age-based opinion which - as the same people reach maturity - redefines itself to the ethical norm that cheating and plagiarism is unacceptable.

Her anger is natural and even understandable. You didn't just affect her grade; you may have made her experience a sense of shame. That doesn't make you wrong for refusing, or in any way a bad friend, no matter what she says. That she is rationalizing cheating while studying to obtain a teaching degree makes it even more likely that she will come around to your opinion -- or more likely that if she can't do the work, it wouldn't be such a tragedy if she failed to get the degree -- because in that case she probably should not be teaching.
posted by Mchelly at 4:40 AM on April 26, 2015 [23 favorites]

N'thing everyone else: your friend is in the wrong.

Consider this: she is studying to be a teacher, and is willing to cheat on her coursework to achieve that goal. Would she be just as accepting if a future student of hers cheated like this and turned in someone else's work as their own? Doubtful!
posted by easily confused at 4:43 AM on April 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

She says that assuming that the plagiarism isn't detected, no one else will know; she also said that it isn't hurting anyone, that she considers herself to be a good person, and that this plagiarism is of such small account in the overall scheme of things that it is more or less of no account.

I would have said no, too. More, I'd reconsider the friendship of anyone who said this to me. She's rationalizing cheating. She's trying to make it sound okay that she's avoiding the work of earning her credential. I wouldn't go so far as to say it makes her a bad person, but it certainly shines a light on her ethical principles, both in her asking and in her response to your refusal.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:44 AM on April 26, 2015

You are right. She is wrong. You asked how others would have reacted if asked. I would have said no, but depending on my own stress levels and available free time, offer to do something else for her outside of school work to take something off her plate, like laundry or groceries. This would mostly be a way to soften and deflect attention away from the refusal and the awkwardness.
posted by girlpublisher at 4:57 AM on April 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've heard that you can do a day without sex, but can't go a day without a rationalization.

This must have been hers for the day, because what she asked you to do was wrong, and to wrap it up all cuddly in the guise of "They'll never know!" is bullshit.

If she wants to get all cranky about you refusing her, then let the baby have their bottle and keep on moving.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 4:59 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Helping with assignments = sharing lecture or tute notes, or explaining a methodology or formula, or studying together in a library.

Writing a response that is then submitted as another persons work is not helping anyone, by any means at all.
posted by Under the Sea at 4:59 AM on April 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

IAAP, although NHP.

I was also expecting an ambiguous situation when I clicked on the "more inside" ("oh, perhaps this is a dodgy area about revisions or something"). But no. Nthing that this is 100% plagiarism. Your friend appears a little naive about how easy it is to get away with this kind of cheating--even though it might be hard to prove, in this case, the instructor might well notice the stylistic differences and draw some conclusions. Moreover, plagiarism in a graduate program often has even more serious repercussions than at the UG level, simply because there are fewer courses and higher GPA requirements. Does your friend want to risk her entire degree for three hundred words?
posted by thomas j wise at 5:07 AM on April 26, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I'm also pricking up my ears at the nature of the assignment she wanted you to do for her: to participate in the [online] forum conversation three times; each contribution needs to be about 300 words."

So she wasn't asking you to write a 300-word essay to pass off as her own - she was asking you to participate in an online forum (which implies conversation or otherwise interacting with others). The reason this is part of the course is that they want her to master a certain set of skills, or help her to do better at that sort of online interaction - something they believe she will need as part of her future employment. No matter whether she thought this was boring, or too time consuming, or too daunting, or too trivial to matter - the people who created the course thought it was important. Her downplaying it to just a percentage of her grade, rather than a valuable skill set she is supposed to be acquiring, is another potential indication that she doesn't understand the degree she is pursuing, and you were right to refuse for her own best interests as well.
posted by Mchelly at 5:10 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

trying to understand if her perspective is aligned with the norm
Unimportant what's the norm. Important is what seems right to you.

and my perspective is missing the point of navigating moral choices in the real world
Your moral choices are part of the world that's real for you. So for you, there's no "point to miss." You did right. For her: it's not her business, simply.

I agree with others that outsourcing one's assignments may be defined as something else than just "plagiarism," noting that that doesn't make the problem less serious (rather the opposite). Also the calculation "one third of 20% of one of 16 courses that constitute her degree" does not make the problem less serious. Dilute the bad? I don't think so.
Because it's not: "assuming that the plagiarism isn't detected, no one else will know (tautology alert btw.)," it's rather: 'assuming that the scheme (of letting someone else write her stuff and submit it as her coursework) is detected, she will want to be very far away indeed from where that happens. "It isn't hurting anyone" is false, and so people tend to get really pretty upset about this kind of shit. It hurts all those who try to do a good job studying, or a good job giving shape and meaning to an education--other students, professors, admins, you name it.

And finally:

She has come up against a due date for which an extension cannot be granted, and to alleviate her stress and free up time to focus on bigger assignments.

Why would anyone want to make that your problem? She's your friend, you say? Her reaction to your 'nope' is ridiculous. Thousands of students and millions of other people face deadline problems every day. It's part of the assignment to learn hacks to cope with this kind of pressure, apart from writing those puny 300 words (which could be done any given day before breakfast).
posted by Namlit at 5:10 AM on April 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Part of being a grown-up is learning to communicate with others if it turns out that you can't live up to your commitments. The alternative to this is living up to your commitments. The good thing about this happening in a university program, even a graduate program, is that if you fail to complete an assignment, you're probably not going to end up losing your ability to pay your mortgage. There are consequences, but they're milder consequences than in the real world. She's upset now because, well, she didn't want there to be consequences.

In the long run, while this was wrong, hopefully it is wrong at a time when she'll learn and do better in future with managing her workload, or else she'll communicate better with her professors about problems with said workload. I think you did the right thing. I think she's wrong. I wouldn't draw and quarter anybody who did this, but if you had, you'd have been contributing to the idea that this is a working strategy, and it isn't. She's unlikely to ever recognize it as such, or at least tell you so, but I think this is not just the ethical decision but also a better act of friendship.

I had terrible problems with managing workload in grad school and my first job, which is what led to my actually getting the ADD diagnosis I needed, ultimately. If I'd been able to get someone else to do stuff for me, I might have tried, but my life would be a mess today! Not that she has ADD, but all organizational problems need solving at some point, or else eventually you stop being able to cover them up.
posted by Sequence at 5:19 AM on April 26, 2015

"Her point of view is so wrong-headed it reads like the script to an after-school special."

Haha, yeah, I read her list of rationalizations and thought, "Are you sure she isn't doing a psych experiment on you, or possibly running the world's lamest police entrapment scheme?"

I mean, it literally sounds lifted from an ethics exercise for middle-grade students. Your friend is completely in the wrong, and banging out 300 words shouldn't take her more than an hour if it "doesn't matter."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:28 AM on April 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

I thought much the same thing as Eyebrows McGee. I hope this is just some assignment on how and why and whether people will cheat for her teaching degree, because otherwise, fercrissakes! Ask her if one of her present/future students had someone else do this and she detected the plagiarism, would she think it was totally okay?
posted by jacquilynne at 5:43 AM on April 26, 2015

Best answer: You know what? I am not necessarily opposed to cheating, and I don't think choosing to cheat in school necessarily makes one a horrible scoundrel on a slippery slope to dissolution. Schools do often place unreasonable demands on people and enact unreasonably harsh consequences for failing to meet those demands, and given that people are (up to a certain time in their lives) legally compelled to be in school, and then compelled by the demands of capitalism - well, occasional cheating in school is not exactly bank robbery.

Having said that: of all the things wrong with this, the actual fact of the cheating barely even registers.

-Three hundred words is NOTHING. It's less than a single page. She could do this in an hour if she wanted to. She probably spent more time thinking of this little scheme and convincing you to do it than it would have taken to just do it herself.

-Hahaha wait. When you said 'university' I assumed this was a throwaway required undergrad class, where you might be compelled to cheat because the work is truly irrelevant. But this chick is in a MASTER'S program and she can't do the work? Maybe she shouldn't be in the program.

-And it's a TEACHING program? Does she have any idea what the workload of a teacher is like? Will she be asking you to grade her students' essays in a couple of years, to "free up time for her to focus" on her lesson planning?

-Finally - and I'm surprised so many people skipped over this frankly - where does she get off demanding you do her any favors, moral or immoral? Are you in her debt? Did you kill her puppy? Leaving aside the entire issue of cheating, let's say she asked you to do a morally inert favor of a similar level of difficulty. If you said "sorry, I just can't," and she reacted by freaking out at you and making you feel lousy, she would be the asshole regardless of what the favor was.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:09 AM on April 26, 2015 [23 favorites]

And you know, do you, that your question counts 413 words? Just for a perspective of how much effort it takes (for your friend) to type out 300 words.

Turned around, I hope it's not like that this very question is the debated assignment
posted by Namlit at 6:11 AM on April 26, 2015 [14 favorites]

You are right! Your friend comes off rather badly here.

I would just add that, if you want to bow out of something like this in a low-key way, just say that you don't feel comfortable doing it. Keep the focus on yourself. Don't emphasize that she is asking for something wrong; that may make her defensive and angry.
posted by grobstein at 6:30 AM on April 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: No, no, and no. But this sounds so bizarre, I wonder if she is undergoing a personal crisis to the point where her judgment is way off. The time she has spent effing around like this and jeopardizing her relationship with you, she could have handily done the work. If this is unlike her, maybe you should ask what is up. As a teacher, I've seen people do roughly this kind of thing when they lose their perspective at crunch time and maybe that's all this is, but it's over the top.
posted by BibiRose at 6:32 AM on April 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't say it's typical, no.

It'd be more understandable to me if this was a technical field with right and wrong answers, weirdly enough. But just the nature of writing makes this a stupid idea altogether. Anyone who has ever frequented a forum could tell you how distinctive certain writing styles are.

Though I could see it if she just wanted a jumping off point, for three hundred words it is fully ridiculous and you should've laughed in her face.
posted by Trifling at 6:37 AM on April 26, 2015

You're in the right.

Situations where someone might reasonably ask for help and generally not be outright plagiarism:
- Asking you to proofread existing work for feedback
- 'This doesn't work but I can't find the bug' for programming-type assignments
- Asking if another student found any particularly useful sources or references for an assignment
- Sharing notes, or high level tips ('watch out for X in part 5')

Note that none of these are remotely close to 'get someone to do the work for you'
posted by Ashlyth at 6:43 AM on April 26, 2015

Best answer: I am a high school teacher. At the beginning of each school year I discuss plagiarism and copyright with my students. One type of plagiarism is saying "I wrote this" when you did not. Her request is absolutely plagiarism, and as others have pointed out it has disastrous consequences at the college level and in the "real" world. People are kicked out of college programs, fired from jobs, publically humiliated, and had reputations destroyed for similar offenses.

You asked if her perspective is outside the norm. In my experience, this is very common. Many people use the excuses "I'll never be caught" and "It's a minor rule break" to justify behavior. This is especially true in times of stress and desperation. We all do this to varying degrees, it's just a matter of where you personally draw the line. Sometimes the potential consequences make that choice easy. Sometimes we have to make the choice on our own. We each must decide what kind of person we want to be, no matter what the social norm is. This is how we shape our world into the kind of place we want to live, one choice at a time.
posted by rakaidan at 6:47 AM on April 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's not that small-scale cheating is okay, but I somehow don't blame her for asking. I don't think that it makes her a bad person; mandatory forum posts is a really awkward way to measure group participation, and it's not only irresponsible of her to have waited till the end of the semester to try to participate all at once, but also makes the task way more difficult. I think it was out of line for her to ask you to do it for her; it would have made way more sense to ask you for ideas and then do it herself. That said, it doesn't matter what she was asking, she knew it wasn't right, so it was way way out of line for her to get upset that you didn't want to do this for her.
posted by aimedwander at 6:47 AM on April 26, 2015

300 freaking words that ...she considers this particular submission to be of such small account ....
But she couldn't pencil whip something out?

Bullshit. She's at that stage on her program where she should be able to toss that off with less expenditure of energy than it would have taken her to ask you to do it for her. Factor in the time and energy she's wasted on being pissed at you, and she sounds like Miss Lazy Cheating McCheat to me.

I would say she needs to grow some ethics before she heads out to teach the kiddies. I bet she'd be appalled at the idea a student would cheat on one of HER future class assignments with such lame ass excuse, but she's special and different.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:12 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

What the heck. No. Of course this is cheating and nobody in their right mind would agree to do it.

What I would do is say no, watch her reaction, and then consider the friendship in that light.

I would also ask myself why it is so important to her to get you to do a five-minute job for her.

Is she setting you up for something?

Has she been doing this with all her assignments all the way through the course and this is the first time she's asked you because she thinks it's small enough that you won't say no?

I just really hope this is a psychology experiment. Yeesh.
posted by tel3path at 7:15 AM on April 26, 2015

Best answer: I'll bet your friend has spent more time and mental energy talking and arguing with you about getting you to do it, than she would have done just to write the $#&*@# 300 word piece and be done with it.

Any person who has made it this far in this type of program could hammer out a mediocre 300 word item in about 15 minutes, just press the submit button, and be done with it.

Considering that this is just "one third of 20% of one of 16 courses that constitute her degree" it is perfectly OK for this to simply be mediocre/adequate rather than superlative.

My guess is, your friend can't give up on the idea that every single things she does must be highest quality. She would rather cheat than give up on that notion.

She will be well served to learn the value of good-enough-and-done, which is what most of the world operates on most of the time. And is far superior in a large number of ways than cheating. Including the fact that one actually learns something useful by ***actually participating actively in an online forum*** whereas when you hire someone else to do that for you, all you are learning is how to cheat and lie a bit more effectively.

(Huh, look--I just wrote a 247-word online forum submission in like five minutes. Another two minutes at it and I could easily be up to 300 words. It CAN be done.)
posted by flug at 7:19 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

She's upset because you framed her request as a moral failure and an insult (that she would think you would engage in such an activity.) If that's actually how you feel about it, you two should not be friends because your values differ too greatly.

If, on the other hand, it's just something you would feel uncomfortable doing though you can understand her asking, you should be able to tell her that and she should be able to understand and accept it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:28 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

If your friend cannot understand why it's not only immoral but also unfair to ask you to write for her an assignment that she is graded on, then your friend is a questionable friend and a questionable candidate for a teacher.

Don't let her guilt you into feeling like you should have done this for her. You aren't the one studying for the Masters of Teaching degree. You also aren't the one who planned poorly and put herself under the gun to meet a deadline. By the time she was done arguing with you, she could have written those 300 words herself. I'm sure she spent at least 300 words telling you why you're wrong to not help her cheat.

I'd stand firm on your position and leave her alone/don't initiate contact for a while. I think she owes you an apology before the two of you can move on.

Nthing tel3path's comment above that I hope this is a psychology experiment.
posted by nightrecordings at 7:43 AM on April 26, 2015

Wow. Plagiarism is only part of the problem with what she's proposing here! Part of passing the program is demonstrating effective time management and learning to handle deadlines. She wants not only to pass your work product off as her own, but to earn her degree without having acquired two of the key skills that the degree will signify that she has.

Don't feel bad. Hopefully she will come to you soon and apologize for even asking. If not... well, I have a pet peeve about people who think rules do not apply to them, and I avoid those people, but ymmv.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:54 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just to pile on to the pile-on:

I teach teachers about plagiarism. It is REALLY BAD that someone who wants to be a teacher is asking you to do this. Your instincts here are 100% correct. How can she possibly teach her students to make good choices about credit & original work when she can't do it herself?
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:57 AM on April 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Aside from it being unambiguously plagiarism and the kind of thing that could get her kicked out of her program, that's kind of a shitty request to make of a friend. If you're going to ask a friend to go out of their way to do some work for you, you at least offer to buy them some drinks in exchange or something, and you definitely don't get pissy if they don't agree to do it.

You are way, way right. She is wrong in every respect. Kudos to you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:01 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

It would make me seriously question my friendship with a person if they asked me to do this. I would have said absolutely not and distanced myself from them until they demonstrated they understood what they asked of me was wrong.
posted by cecic at 8:24 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Being ethical is entirely about not doing wrong even if you know you won't get caught.

And lets face it, we all are morally compromised at some level, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to be better and we most certainly should not try and rope someone in on such things then act all bent out of shape when they refuse.

If it's "of such small account" then she should have no problem letting it go, and hopefully learning from it in the future. It's easy to say "needs to learn time management" and perhaps it's true, and perhaps it is just one of those things that no amount of time management would fix, in which case you take the hit because other things where more important, sometimes we have to sacrifice.

A totally appropriate request would have been "Hey X I have an important assignment coming up but I also need to do $_thing (non school), if I give you a few bucks could you do $_thing for me this time, but I understand if you can't or don't want to."
posted by edgeways at 8:42 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It is REALLY BAD that someone who wants to be a teacher is asking you to do this

Well, just to keep this in perspective--I've supervised and graded in a university program for teachers for the last four years and the stuff people (students who want to be teachers) have tried...and they know that we use plagiarism detection software and nevertheless they try. Whether or not they want to become teachers apparently doesn't mean diddly squat to some people.
posted by Namlit at 8:56 AM on April 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Is she wrong and is plagiarism wrong? Unquestionably, no matter how small the assignment. Is what she did common, statistically normal? Maybe - not sure a sample of Mefites represents most current and future corner-cutters, as Namlit points out. But you're not overreacting - I can't imagine responding any other way than you did.

(Does she come from another culture with different attitudes to education? In some places, plagiarism and students "helping each other" is very normal. Sounds like not, though, sounds like she's just rationalizing, as others have said.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:16 AM on April 26, 2015

Best answer: I would be so disappointed if someone asked me to do this and passed it off as if it was a minor thing, or not a big deal. Especially if they put pressure on me to do it even after I had moral qualms. It would be relationship breaking stuff. I am a firm believer that even if we disagree with someone on moral issues, it's a pretty big deal to ask someone to violate their conscience on something. I hope that didn't happen in your situation.

Small things really do add up to big things, and are often indicative of deeper tendencies to compromise. It would make me suspect of her integrity in more than one area after this point. You are doing the right thing by insisting on having a high standard. I would encourage you very much to not think of this as an issue about you and your response to her request, but primarily about her and her willingness to try and pass off a big thing as if it were a minor thing. My question would be how to maintain (or if I should maintain) a relationship with someone who asked me to make these kinds of exceptions. You should advocate for her to do better, not worry about your standing on a principle that is essential to academia even working.

Just to add one more point: it's not impossible to be a person of integrity. It takes work, and we sometimes falter. However, people who sell themselves out on the "small things" because they say it's impossible to be a person of integrity in a complicated moral climate have probably never met people who are actually doing the work. I would encourage you to continue trying to be that kind of person. I felt good simply reading your question and realizing that you were willing to take a stand on this issue. It was encouraging, even though I know it was probably hard for you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:49 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

That she's asking this is really sad both that it's unambiguously cheating and that it's such a pathetic thing on which to ask someone to help her cheat.

By the time I was done with graduate school you could've woken me up at four in the morning and asked for a thousand words on any topic under the sun and I'd've written it in less than ten minutes without even fully waking. It should have taken her less time to actually do the assignment than it took to ask you to do it for her.

You are completely right here and she is completely wrong.
posted by winna at 10:12 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was also expecting something a little more morally ambiguous. This is an easy one.

Is it plagiarism? I don't know. It's her intention to represent work she didn't do as her own work. BUT, she wouldn't be stealing it; the actual author would have agreed to the deal. It's kind of like ghostwriting.

Doesn't matter though, because it's clearly cheating. The forum post is a method her program is using to evaluate her ability. She proposes to defeat that purpose by having you do it instead without telling them. Would she agree to post your work with a statement at the end that you wrote it for her, but she fully endorses it? Would she get any credit for that? Of course not.

I think it's likely she's mad at you because she's embarrassed. She thought you were "cool" and would play along with a little nudge nudge wink action. When you declined, how did you do it? Was it a low-key, "mmm, I... can't this time, I have [lame excuse]" gentle rebuff that lets her save face? Then she would know not to ask you for such things again, but there wouldn't be an explicit judgment about her morality between you. Or was it more like a "Gasp! I'm shocked! I could NEVER," -type implication that she's a bad person?
posted by ctmf at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2015

I refused, saying I considered what she was asking me to do to be wrong. She became upset, and now I feel lousy, like I've let her down.

Don't feel lousy. You haven't let her down. You also haven't let yourself down by agreeing to perform an act of academic dishonesty. And it's possible (slim chance, but possible) that your refusal will make her start to doubt her own willingness to cheat on assignments. Every time a person questions her belief that "it's fine because everyone does it," it's a good thing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:32 AM on April 26, 2015

she considers this particular submission to be of such small account - one third of 20% of one of 16 courses that constitute her degree - that it is not a problem.

If it's really as small an issue as she says, then she should be willing to take the low grade (or the zero) for not doing it. Since she balked at that option, it shows this is really a bigger issue than she's admitting. If a problem is really so small that an unethical choice is okay, then there should be no harm in simply embracing the consequences of the ethical decision in the first place.

You did the right thing. I agree with the poster earlier who suggested that your friend has such unrealistically high standards that cheating seems like a better option than turning in less than super-stellar work. This is exactly the kind of situation that will help her develop better coping skills; it's not like she's going to enter teaching and never again face stressful deadlines with mountains of work where it's impossible to complete everything on time/high quality. This is where she learns what corners she can cut and which ones she can't.
posted by lilac girl at 10:48 AM on April 26, 2015

A slightly different sort of answer, as you asked how common this is. I teach at a university in Australia and in any given semester I catch between five and (once) forty(!) percent of my students plagiarising or cheating, when we apply the criteria strictly. I know I don't catch everyone, so the actual percentage is doubtless higher.

That said, your friend's request is not even borderline. That sort of deliberate deception, as opposed to stuff that could be due to poor understanding of referencing requirements, is only a tiny percentage of the cases I see. So no, not everyone is doing it.
posted by lollusc at 11:13 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You made the right decision.

At the risk of hurting feelings, I'm going to go ahead and state the obvious: this person has no business becoming a teacher. She's the kind that will falsify her student's grades to make herself look good.
posted by stormyteal at 11:58 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have been in your situation, and my solution was to give a counter-offer to what my friend wanted.

In my case, the assignment was a ten page paper of some sort, and my friend had some psychological issues that lead to a tendency to procrastinate. She felt that just taking a first step toward starting was just too much, and also that she was too smart to actually do the assignment-- that I should recognize that she was capable of doing the assignment, so therefore actually doing the assignment was an unnecessary hurdle.

I told her that she was fully capable of completing the assignment, and I was here to help her every step of the way. I said that doing the assignment was just a matter of doing one step after the next and that I would be happy to help her if she would just type "X Y" into google, and cut-and-paste and email back to me any piece of text that seemed relevant from the very first hit that popped up.

She didn't do that, and never emailed me back.

The assignment is not insurmountable. I have every sympathy for people who have issues with avoidance and procrastination, but according to my values, I am willing to help so much, but not beyond a certain point. I merely countered with a request to produce something that I felt I could ethically respond to, and my friend didn't reply. She did find another way to complete the assignment, and I do not know what that was, and I did not hold it against her in the slightest. But, you do deserve to be allowed to act in ways consonant to what you believe, and not have that held against you. So my advice would be to affirmatively tell your friend how and to what extent you are willing to help them, and to also advise them that a single grade is not the end of the world, and that you are there for them in the long run.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 12:08 PM on April 26, 2015

This is like pure, unadulterated plagiarism. And on top of that she's upset that you said no? In other words, now she's guilt-tripping you on top of asking you to help her cheat? Lovely. I wonder if she's the kind of kid who's parents did her homework for her when she whined. That's what it reminds me of and it's why parents shouldn't do that because this is exactly the kind of mentality it creates. Good for you for standing your ground.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 12:28 PM on April 26, 2015

Adding that yep this is not plagiarism in the strict sense because she's not 'stealing' it from you. However it is 100% cheating.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 12:34 PM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here is the thing, she thinks she won't get caught. Since we have discerned her strength of character over a 300 word forum posting, we can assume that you will bear the brunt of any repercussions. Her judgement is not optimal.

Lord knows, we have all done things we are not proud of, but I like to think that a majority of us have not sold our souls for pocket lint. Really, this is on par with selling your pick up truck for gas money.
posted by jadepearl at 1:22 PM on April 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is definitely cheating, and you are well within your rights to feel weird about it and not want to do it.

I do think some of the responses that go in the direction of "anyone who would cheat in this way must be incredibly immoral in all areas of their life" are probably a little over-the-top, unless this is part of a long string of situations in which your friend has made you feel ethically uncomfortable. I'm sure I do some things that some of my friends would rate poorly on their ethics meter (say, pirating media on occasion), and I'm sure they have some small moral failings too. I personally think the cheating in this situation is not cool, and I also would not be comfortable helping with it, but's not like she's gone out and murdered someone and is asking you to help bury the body.

The bigger issue here, I think, is your friend getting mad and pressuring you to do this when you're not comfortable. Asking is one thing, but "No, I'm not comfortable doing that" should have been the absolute end of it -- she should have immediately apologized and said something to the effect of "Sure, I'm sorry I put you in a bad position." No rationalizing all the reasons why this is a perfectly fine idea or being a shit about it. This aspect of the situation would make me a lot more concerned about the long-term future of the relationship, especially if she tends to act this way when you can't help her out with favors (for whatever reasons).

If you do want to try and smooth things over, I might offer to help with a totally different task that has nothing to do with school. As many people have mentioned, a 300-word forum posting REALLY should not take more than an hour, tops. If your friend is just stressing/procrastinating, you could offer to literally sit with her and make sure she doesn't run off to Facebook and just writes the thing. Or alternately, you could offer to pick up groceries/bring over a few meals to stock her freezer/run some errands/do her laundry/or whatever makes the most sense. Note you are absolutely NOT obligated to do any of this, but if you're feeling bad and want to feel like you're helping your friend out, I think these would all be better options that might ease up her schedule a bit with zero cheating involved.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:31 PM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone who responded. I was really bracing myself, expecting there to be less of an overwhelming consensus. Your responses have helped me feel more at peace about the path I followed. Plus, some really interesting issues were raised, giving me plenty to think about. Really glad I posted.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 1:13 AM on April 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

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