Every year the university I teach at prepares a report on academic integrity investigations. One year, out of morbid fascination, I read the report and determined that although I was only teaching about a hundred and fifty discrete students in my faculty (a year long first year seminar and two lecture courses with about sixty students each), I was catching at least one third of the documented cases of plagiarism. I have not dared to read the report again, but the most recent report available is for 2011.
While reading the report, three possibilities stood out:
- based upon the rate at which I was catching students in violation of the academic integrity policy, the rate at which plagiarism was being officially caught was surprisingly low.
- this means that there were significant numbers of missing cases which, if being caught, they were dealt with “locally” either through failing the student on the assignment or merely assigning a poor grade that the student would grudgingly accept.
- due to the over-reliance on teaching assistants (including upper year undergraduate students, who are paid roughly one-half of what graduate student teaching assistants are paid) and contract instructors (over sixty percent of undergraduate credits offered were taught by contract instructors in the department in question), significant amounts of plagiarism were not being detected at all in the first place.
It seems likely that a number of different factors are coming together causally to create this situation. On the one hand, we as instructors know what works in terms of pedagogy: reading interesting texts, having discussions about those texts, letting the discussions flow naturally in unexpected directions, and then writing frequently and intensively about the issues that have been discussed. We also know that students prefer classrooms that are organized in this way rather than the alternatives. On the other hand, classrooms are getting larger every year, there is an increased reliance on underpaid and overworked contract instructors who, in turn, have to depend upon unprepared but well-meaning teaching assistants to mark on their behalf. But, as classes get larger and teaching assistants cannot keep up with grading written assignments (they have their own courses to stay on top of), instructors increasingly turn to exams, especially those that can be marked automatically by computers. Instead of having skilled humans read written student work, universities turn to algorithms to preemptively catch plagiarism (such as “Turn It In”) or outsource marking to mysterious firms in India.
A further, largely unrecognized, problem is also at play: the bureaucratic way in which plagiarism is dealt with administratively. (It turns out there is a manual for instructors that I have never seen that runs a full forty-one pages on how to catch plagiarists.) To the credit of my institution, algorithms that presume guilt and steal the intellectual property of our students have not been adopted. And, as far as I know, grading has not been outsourced any further than undergraduate teaching assistants marking their peers. The problem is that the process is excessively onerous on instructors. To properly document plagiarism, instructors are required to reconstruct the steps that students took in “writing” their essays. We must identify suspect passages, find the sources that were plagiarized, and demonstrate that this was not merely an error on the part of the student. On average, in my experience and I admit I might be especially fastidious in this regard, it took me about five hours to properly document each accusation. When contract instructors, such as myself, are only paid for 225 hours of work per semester long course and when we are dealing with multiple cases of plagiarism, it is in our best interest to just shut up and find a way to deal with the problem locally: give the student a bad mark, threaten them (“Accept this D- or I will report it to the Dean!”), or just ignore it.
However, if we put in the effort to prepare the report, the student is usually found guilty of the accusation (again, at least in my experience) and some sort of penalty is assigned, ranging from re-writing the assignment, failing the assignment, or failing the course. I don’t know what happens in cases of repeated plagiarism, but given that all of the students I have caught were “first time offenders,” my suspicion is that students are rarely caught a second or third time.
Recognizing that this system was unsustainable and as I was lucky enough to be able to teach two full credit first year seminars, I began to re-evaluate how I assessed my students. My first impression was that when I discuss plagiarism with my students, they are shocked to find out that students do plagiarize, that it is fairly easy for an experienced instructor to catch, and that the penalties are very severe. The students ask how I know when I’m reading a plagiarized assignment and I’ll answer honestly that if the tone suddenly changes mid-sentence, or if the sort of words being used suddenly changes, or if it is written in the style of Wikipedia, or—worst case scenario—if the student forgets to change the typeface and font size after copying and pasting. Outwardly, at least, the students agree that it is unfair to them that I have to “bank time” for dealing with plagiarism when I could be spending that time preparing classes, interacting with them, or providing them with more detailed feedback.
My solution to the problem of plagiarism is to enroll them in the policing of plagiarism by having their final assignment be a long (roughly twelve to fifteen pages; a significant length for first year students in a public university) essay written as a group. The students understand that not only must they select a topic, agree to an analysis or interpretation of that topic, and outline an argument to develop that analysis, but that they must also divide up the tasks in order to complete the assignment. Once they agree what they are going to do, they must each write their own sections and, once that is done, they must re-integrate all these parts into a whole. As a result, they become collectively responsible for the final project. One group; one essay. If one cheats, they all go down. This has worked. I have gone from having one of the highest rates of detected plagiarism (at least among the colleagues I know who are willing to discuss this) to not having a plagiarism problem at all. By convincing students to invest themselves in the final product, they have taken responsibility for it and have met their obligation to be honest.
Unfortunately, this system was bound to break down. For the first time in my five years of doing this final group project, I had my first case of plagiarism. It was a group of three students who wrote—ironically enough given the means of surveillance that the internet has opened up—on George Orwell’s 1984. It was clear upon reading the essay that each student wrote one third and that they made an attempt to connect the parts together. It wasn’t an excellent essay, but it was decent, except with one proviso: it was obvious that the final third was plagiarized. It was plagiarized in the style of Cliff Notes. That is, it was written at a “high school level” rather than a “Wikipedia level.” I dutifully did my research, documented the plagiarism, submitted my report to the Chair who in turn submitted it to the Dean, a meeting was scheduled for all of the students. One student took responsibility for the plagiarism (to their credit) and the other were (as is appropriate) let off the hook without punishment.
We now get to the point where the plagiarism system really starts to break down. As I mentioned above, penalties range from re-writing the assignment, to failing the assignment, to failing the course, to worse. Because this is a first year course, the general policy is that a student shouldn’t fail the course on account of one plagiarized assignment. Normally, the student is told to re-submit the assignment or is assigned a failing grade on the assignment.
This wasn’t the result of the investigation, although it was the one I was expecting. The student in question was penalized thus: the assignment as a whole would be re-marked, I would “pretend” that the plagiarized part was not plagiarized (“pretend to insert quotation marks and footnotes”), and a collective grade would be assigned. The penalty was that the guilty student would lose 12.5 grades or half the value of the assignment. In all the plagiarism investigations I have been involved with, this was the first time I was angry with the result.
The assignment was worth 25% of the final grade, so, in effect, the student was being penalized 12.5% points (or the equivalent of roughly three and a half grade points). Insofar as the guilty student is concerned, it is a penalty, but not as severe as I had expected. I am willing to live with this if the student learns their lesson and does not plagiarize again. The problem was the position I was put in: either I had to penalize the innocent students or I had to reward the guilty student. This was unacceptable to me.
Per my instructions, I had to mark the assignment as a whole. The problem was that the plagiarized section, even if I pretended it wasn’t plagiarized, was still terrible. It would bring down the grade for the other two students if I weighed it equally (for instance, seventeen out of twenty-five each for the first two sections and zero out of twenty-five for the final section, with the final result of (17 + 17 + 0)/75 = 11.3/25; in other words, the two innocent students fail the assignment for doing nothing wrong, although the guilty student would end up with the improbable grade of -1.2/25) or I ignore the plagiarized part thereby rewarding the guilty student (for instance, 17/25 for the innocent students and 4.5/25 for the guilty student). Neither solution was acceptable to me and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone, except, apparently, the Dean who in effect told me that there is a policy and nothing they can do (other than, of course, assign appropriate penalties).
My point in all of this is the bureaucratic logic we rely upon in dealing with the appropriate penalty for plagiarism is impractical and unjust. In an ideal world, all courses would be seminars and they would all be taught by tenure-track or tenured professors and all students would be competent, intelligent, and eager. Plagiarism would be rare and Deans would have the authority to tailor punishments to the infraction. Instead, we have a world where courses increase in size every year, students are not required to do written work and when they finally get to upper year courses where they have to write essays they have not acquired the requisite skills to do so, and where bureaucratic, formally and ostensibly fair procedures produce absurd consequences that penalize innocent students for having made the poor decision to form a group with an unreliable friend of theirs. Surely there is some middle ground between the utopian liberal arts and the bureaucratic dystopia of the contemporary public university (that does not depend upon algorithms, outsourcing, or MOOCs). We are good at denouncing violations of academic integrity, but we are not good at dealing with them.