Tag Archives: plagiarism

Publicly exposing cheaters?

Is this going too far to punish and deter academic dishonesty?

Texas A&M International University in Laredo fired a professor for publishing the names of students accused of plagiarism.

In his syllabus, professor Loye Young wrote that he would “promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating or stealing.” After he discovered six students had plagiarized on an essay, Young posted their names on his blog, resulting in his firing last week.

“It’s really the only way to teach the students that it’s inappropriate,” he said.

Young, a former adjunct professor of management information systems, said he believes he made the right move. He said trials are public for a reason, and plagiarism should be treated the same way. He added that exposing cheaters is an effective deterrent.

“They were told the consequences in the syllabus,” he said. “They didn’t believe it.”

Young was fired for violating FERPA. Young, and some of the commenters at the original article, don’t seem to understand the idea that a syllabus is not a legally-binding contract, and a course syllabus cannot overrule Federal law. So it doesn’t really matter whether he had this public humiliation clause in the syllabus or whether the students read it. Choosing not to drop a course does not amount to acquiescing to the syllabus policies if those policies are illegal. You might as well say that cheaters will be shot on sight and then claim immunity from assault charges for putting a cap in a plagiarizing student, because after all the student knew the consequences.

There’s also a sort of moral issue here too. Young lost his job because what he did violates FERPA. But if there were no FERPA, would it be OK to publicly humiliate a student who had been determined — let’s say beyond a reasonable doubt — to be guilty of cheating?

UPDATE: Young’s blog no longer has the offending article on it, but he has this response to TAMIU in which he claims he “analyzed FERPA at the department chair’s request” before posting the article, submitted his analysis to the university, and got no indication that his analysis was incorrect.

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Handling academic dishonesty

Virusdoc, always the prolific commenter, has left another comment that raises the issue of how a professor should actually deal with academic dishonesty when it occurs. What follows is my own procedure for handling these situations; I’m sure it’s not perfect, and I’m open to suggestions for improvement, but it’s worked pretty well for me over the years. 

The overall strategy for dealing with academic dishonesty is that the students involved should be confronted with the issue promptly after it’s been discovered, given a chance to give their side of the story, and then the professor can move forward on the dual basis of the evidence in front of her/him and the student’s own statements. This strategy is opposed to two other possible strategies: 

  • Avoiding doing anything about the academic dishonesty at all, either by simply looking the other way and pretending it didn’t happen, or else using the suspected academic dishonesty as an occasion to give an alternate exam or some kind of second chance assessment. I’m not against second chances or mercy in general, but look: academic honesty is bad. It’s more than just youthful indiscretion, like drinking too much at a frat party or sleeping through an exam because you were up all night studying (or drinking too much at a frat party). Academic dishonesty is a willful, intentional violation of trust, and if you are a professor and have a shred of respect for the life of the mind, you have to do something about it, even if it might earn you a reputation as a mean SOB among students. (This goes double for new faculty, for whom academic dishonesty is often perpetrated by students as a means of testing boundaries.) 
  • Executing a summary judgment on the basis of evidence alone, without the students giving their side of things, even if you are within your rights as a prof to do so and even if the evidence for academic dishonesty is overwhelming. First of all, I’ve had many cases of something I thought was academic dishonesty that could be logically explained away by students when I confront them with the work; or at least, I could see that the student was so scared and authentically sorry that I can at least scale my recommendation for their punishment back a little. Second, many times students will simply confess when they are confronted. 
So now, my means of working through an academic dishonesty situation goes like this: 
  1. Make a paper trail. Make photocopies of all the suspected dishonest work. Make copies of the syllabus policy or any other pertinent document where the rules against cheating are stated. Make printouts of the Wikipedia article that was copied. Save and print any email exchanges on the subject that you have with the students. We do all this because you should never underestimate how litigious a situation like this can get. I’ve never been sued for writing someone up for cheating </knock on wood> but I have had angry parents show up in the office before, one time with a firearm. But that’s another story. At any rate, having good documentation takes a lot of pressure off. 
  2. Contact each student individually for meetings to discuss their work. And phrase it that simply: “I’d like to meet with you to discuss your work.” No mention of academic dishonesty yet. And if there’s more than one student involved, don’t meet with them in a group — because they will likely meet before your meeting to get their story straight. Or, phrased more positively, if it’s a group of students involved and they all have the same explanation with the right details even when meeting separately, you can be confident they are telling the truth. 
  3. Start each meeting by getting the student to discuss the work itself. This will help you gauge the extent to which the student really understands the material, and consequently how likely it is that the student actually cheated or plagiarized. 
  4. Then, after you have gathered some information about the student’s skills with the material, shift the discussion to the academic dishonesty. Something like this: “I had something else to discuss with you about this work. Here’s your work. [Lay out the student’s work.] And here’s [another student’s work | a Wikipedia article | a website | whatever]. These are very similar as you can see. Can you give me some context for what happened here?” I’ve seen this called “the reveal” ala Trading Spaces. In other words, confront the student with the problem: They’ve turned in something that appears to have been lifted from something else without attribution, and you would like to know what the deal is with that, from their perspective. 
  5. One of three things will happen at this point. You will get (a) a believable explanation, (b) a crap explanation, or (c) a confession. If (c), then that student’s case is, sadly, pretty straightforward from this point onward. If either (a) or (b), then you will eventually have to weigh the student’s words against the evidence. But for now, all you do is listen and ask questions to clarify what the student is saying. And make notes — make notes and add them to the paper trail. Above all, be nice. The student is probably about to crap his or her pants out of fear and uncertainty, and so being a professional who is merely seeking understanding of a questionable situation will make the student more comfortable and more likely to think straight. 
  6. Once you’ve met with all the students and heard everything that needs to be said, you now have to take the evidence in the work, each individual student’s words, and the interactions between the words of different students, and figure out which student crossed the line into academic dishonesty and how willful and bad that crossing was. I can’t offer any rules or procedures for that, other than general advice to be professional and to seek a proper combination of justice and mercy. Also, I’d say that if you have any doubts about whether a student crossed that line, then it’s better to err on the side of mercy and give the student the benefit of the doubt — along with a serious lecture about how close they came to getting their grade nuked for cheating — rather than administer a punishment you’re not sure is deserved. 
  7. Finally, based on (and partially guided by) your institution’s procedures for academic dishonesty, you probably have to write a report and send it up the chain of command to the Dean. At my college, we profs have the option to suggest restricted punishments for academic dishonesty if the circumstances merit it. The standard penalty is a 0 on the offending assignment, a lowering of the semester grade by one full letter (on top of grade damages caused by the 0), and expulsion upon the second offense. If my interview with a student leads me to believe that they were guilty of academic dishonesty — but their behavior was closer to indiscretion than it was to cold-blooded cheating, and they were not giving me a crap explanation in step 6 — then here’s my chance to suggest they not be punished as badly. I almost always have plenty of cause to call for mitigated penalties, because students are usually pretty forthcoming in their interviews. 
I wish I could describe some specific cases I’ve dealt with to show how my way of doing things usually leads to conclusions that I can feel relatively good about, but there’s FERPA and all that. But suffice to say that while every academic dishonesty investigation for me has been distinctly unpleasant — it takes a lot of time and a lot of energy to do things this way — I’ve never come away from a case feeling like I did the wrong thing, either letting someone off too easy or being too heavy-handed. 

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I’ll say it again:

Academic dishonesty is not only easy to catch, it’s a horrible miscarriage of the mutual trust upon which all of education is built, and students who willfully engage in it deserve all the punishment they receive, if not more. There’s simply no rationalizing it, and I don’t think we in higher ed do nearly enough to eradicate it. 

I bring this up because of virusdoc’s comment, just made on an old post

Resurrecting an old thread, but I just graded my first ever take-home essay test (open-book, open web, but no collaboration allowed and students were instructed to make sure their ideas and words were their own).

Out of 30 tests graded thus far, there were two students who boldly copied and pasted huge blocks of text from multiple websites into their test answers, without so much as an attempt to change any words or even alter the font from that in the website. It was horrific. In addition, I uncovered one clear example of two students who almost certainly shared answers. One of them had screwball, left-field answers for two questions in a row, using examples that weren’t in our text and I hadn’t discussed in lecture. This was odd, but I dismissed it as a singularity. Several tests later, another student used exactly the same screwball examples for the same two questions. (no other student has used these examples). Further comparison of the two students’ tests side by side reveals multiple verbatim quotes in their answers, and several of the answers that are not verbatim are structurally highly related.

I never anticipated senior level students would a) cheat so frequently, and b) do so in such stupid, obvious ways.

Yee-ha for higher ed!

Yep. I’m actually a little (pleasantly) surprised that I haven’t had a clear-cut incident of academic dishonesty yet in my own courses this semester. But that could be because I’ve taken to designing my courses specifically to avoid assessments with a high risk of cheating or plagiarism. I have very little in the way of take-home assignments that are worth very much.

That doesn’t seem right for higher education. Profs ought to be giving assignments that are challenging, engaging, and therefore take time and effort outside of class. But when we do that, there’s all this rampant and ridiculous cheating that takes place. So we profs feel this intrinsic pressure to make most of our grades come from timed assessments which are easier to manage, but which by definition operate at a lower cognitive level than the kinds of assignments we would like to give (and which college students ought to be getting). So cheaters and plagiarists are ruining not only their own education, but the education of others as well. 

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You can’t make this sort of thing up

True story from a faculty meeting today: A biology prof gave an assignment in a class at the beginning of last semester on the subject of proper academic conduct in a college class. The assignment was to research the definition of “plagiarism” and write about how it applies to the biology class. 

When the prof got the assignments back, guess what he discovered? That’s right: One of the students had plagiarized his plagiarism assignment.

As some great mind once said, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever. 

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Retrospective: Four reasons why academic dishonesty is bad (2.24.2006)

Editorial: Here’s the third article in the weeklong retrospective I am running this week. This article was, I think, the very first one I posted at CO9s about academic dishonesty (cheating, plagiarism, etc.) and might be the clearest statement I’ve made on this painful subject. Academic dishonesty remains one of the biggest personal issues for me in my work as a college professor.

Four Reasons Why Academic Dishonesty is Bad

Originally posted: February 24, 2006

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I’ve had to deal with my first academic dishonesty (AD) case of the semester this week. I won’t blog about the details, but suffice to say that this time it was plagiarism; a student copied some examples from a couple of web sites and submitted it as his/her own work. (I am now in the habit of typing any suspicious written work into Google to check for plagiarism, and that’s how I caught it this time.) In the recent past, I’ve also had to deal with larger plagiarism cases, situations where students copy each other’s homework, and catching a student with cheat notes on a test.

Every semester for the past few years, I’ve had at least one case of AD that I have to adminster. It is unfailingly a disappointing, saddening, time-consuming process. Even though my college takes a pretty hard line on AD, and so do I, some students still do it.

Why is academic dishonesty considered bad? Why do we in higher ed place such harsh sanctions against it? I’ve had to ask myself that this week, and here are a few ideas:

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Academic dishonesty again

OK, commenters, you win. My proposal for extending the punishment for academic dishonesty is probably too draconian fascist much like walking the plank strict. Even if I fixed the “five-game suspension” problem for athletes, I admit most students caught in academic dishonesty aren’t cold-blooded cheaters but basically good people who are naive to the ways of college and have gotten themselves talked into thinking that cheating is acceptable if one can sort of morally justify it. And as such, they don’t need the full force of the sanctions that I proposed to get the lesson across.

But at least at my college, the professor reserves the right to suggest withholding parts of the standard penalty for academic dishonesty. While I always report academic dishonesty to the Dean, and while I have done so at least once a semester ever since I started working here, in fact I have almost never recommended the full punishment. So even if the range of punishments allowed were expanded drastically, like I proposed, a professor could hold back whatever portions s/he chose while retaining the right to drop a bomb on somebody who was violating academic honesty blatantly and without remorse. So I’m not sure why raising the upper end of what punishment can be meted out should be such a bad thing.

But regardless, I still think that punishing academic dishonesty at the level of grades only is barking up the wrong tree. Students get into academic dishonesty — cold-blooded or otherwise — by thinking that cheating is what’s best for their grade right now. It’s all about the grade. The punishment needs to communicate unambiguously that academic honesty is not all about the grade but about defending the basic foundation of college, which is mutual trust. You violate that trust, you dismember the community, and you should receive some temporary but substantive time-out from being a part of that community.

If it hurts or takes away something that’s important to the student, then so be it — cheating takes away something that is important to the college, and to me. 

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Getting tough on cheaters

My college’s official policy on academic dishonesty (cheating, plagiarism, and the like) goes as follows. When a student is “convicted” of academic dishonesty on a course assignment and it is their first offense, then:

  • The student receives an automatic “0” on the assignment.
  • The student’s final letter grade in the course is reduced by one full letter. (An earned B- becomes a C-, etc.)

And should the student ever commit academic dishonesty a second time, the student is expelled.

This policy is pretty typical of a lot of colleges. But I am beginning to think it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s what I am thinking ought to happen to a student caught in academic dishonesty:

  • The student gets a grade of “0” on the assignment and a reduction of one letter on the final grade, as is currently the case.
  • The student is barred for one year from holding any officer position in any official college organization. If the student currently holds such a position, the student is to be removed from that position immediately.
  • The student is barred from membership in the Student Congress and any other form of student government for one year.
  • The student is barred for one year from being an admissions counselor, campus tour guide, or any other function in which they represent the college to the general public.
  • If the student is an athlete, the student is given a five-game suspension.
  • If the student is a member of a fraternity or sorority, then the student is banned from the fraternity or sorority for one full semester except for the use of study tables.

All students take their studies with varying degrees of seriousness at any given time, but when a student commits plagiarism or cheats, or deliberately allows it to happen, I think the gloves are off, and colleges need to start hitting these people where they live.

Additions? Comments? Accusations of draconianism?

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