Benefit of the Doubt
Last year I led a workshop for faculty members in my department’s writing program about how to prevent and handle plagiarism in student writing. For many writing instructors, the specter of plagiarism is a near-constant source of anxiety, and frequently also of self-righteous indignation. My attitude is decidedly more laissez-fair. I’m convinced that rigorous and creative assignment design, as well as not repeating assignments too frequently from semester to semester, can eliminate the vast majority of cheating temptations (at least when it comes to writing assignments). I also don’t go out of my way to search out plagiarism using specialized detection software. However, when I do detect cases of plagiarism — usually through egregious sloppiness on the part of the guilty student — I do of course believe we should follow our universities’ sanctioning procedures, to the letter.
During the workshop, I began by outlining the positions I’ve just stated here, before elaborating on what I mean by "rigorous" and "creative" assignment design and before stressing that I think educators have more pressing things to attend to than detecting plagiarism, which for overzealous instructors can become a counterproductive preoccupation. It’s a much better use of my time to respond to the merits and deficiencies of the students’ writing, which is, after all, my job. Crusading for plagiarism cases is misspent energy, particularly when the vast majority of plagiarized papers I’ve encountered would score low marks anyway.
Toward the end of my presentation, when things opened up for discussion, I was taken aback when an instructor suggested that when a student's writing improves dramatically from one paper to the next that perhaps the student should be confronted.
"On what basis?" I asked.
The instructor went on to elaborate that when student work improves too much, too fast, we should consider investigating. I became even more worried. The implication is that instructors have some sort of intuition for what an individual student’s capabilities are. How are instructors to know an individual student’s capabilities? What if the student wrote a horrible initial paper, perhaps because of distractions unknowable to us an instructors, and subsequently got his or her act together and wrote a stellar paper? Ought that student be the object of suspicion without any additional evidence of wrongdoing? I hope not, and I want to argue here that suspicion is the wrong attitude with which to begin evaluating
Personally, I wouldn't ever confront a student about the possibility of plagiarism without verifiable evidence in hand. I wouldn’t even consider scheduling a conference with the student about the possibility of plagiarism unless I had airtight evidence, the sort of proof that I would be willing to present to a disciplinary committee. In addition to the fact that accusing or questioning a student about plagiarism without any evidence could expose you to legal liability, the more likely problem is that after a wrongful or unsubstantiated accusation, the student will be lost to you. Forget about imparting any lessons after that conversation.
Potentially litigious issues aside, I cannot see the value in confronting a student about the possibility of plagiarism without tangible evidence suggesting the wrongdoing. Even if a case of dishonesty does exist in such a situation, it is unverifiable and I know of no honor system or academic integrity code that allows an instructor or college to assess a penalty for academic dishonesty in the absence of evidence.
For some reason, some instructors have a tendency to take instances of academic dishonesty extremely personally. While I am not in any way trying to excuse academic dishonesty, nor suggesting that we turn a blind eye to it, I do feel that the individual reactions of instructors are sometimes out of proportion, even inappropriate. We make a mistake when we are personally offended by a student’s act of academic dishonesty.
Certainly the problem must be dealt with, but we must resist the immediate, knee-jerk impulse to personalize the issue. Students didn’t cheat or plagiarize to "get" you — they did it out of laziness or fear or ignorance, and I can assure you that "pulling one over" was only their objective insofar as the student thought it would help to shortcut work or secure a high grade. Taking the episode personally only potentially escalates the situation and confuses what is at stake, which is academic and intellectual integrity, not an instructor’s hurt feelings.
It makes perfect sense that we would react strongly, and possibly even overreact, to cases of suspected or actual academic dishonesty: academic dishonesty, whether committed intentionally or through some form of negligent ignorance, threatens the principles upon which academic disciplines and knowledge building are founded. Our own research and scholarship is predicated upon assumptions of honesty and integrity, and when peers in our profession violate this assumed virtues it can call into question entire lines of research throughout a discipline.
At least when it comes to writing classes, which are what I teach at the undergraduate level, cheating tends to come out in the wash. A plagiarized paper is unlikely to respond directly enough to the writing prompt to merit a high grade. So, rather than bending over backwards to make a plagiarism case when something is suspicious, I do a quick Google of a few of the suspect phrases. If nothing turns up, I simply proceed with grading, with full confidence that plagiarized papers rarely directly address my prompts, and that Fs are Fs.
When you do catch a verifiable case of plagiarism, I think it’s essential, both for your own protection and the protection of the student, to follow through on your university’s policies for documenting and dealing with those situations. We do students no favors by turning a blind eye to verifiable cases of dishonesty, nor any favors for our departments, universities, or higher education writ large. At the same time though, students should be trusted until they engage in an action that warrants losing the instructor’s trust. Only by treating students as adults (which many of them already are in the legal sense, even if not necessarily in all senses) can students become adults. That means holding students accountable for their work, for their honesty or dishonesty. It also means approaching student work with an attitude less cynical than immediate suspicion.
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