• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Plagiarism Reports

Use the process. Please.

February 17, 2020
 
 

In college I had a history professor who warned us a few weeks before a paper was due that the deadline was rapidly approaching. He ended with “I know I’m wasting my breath …” to which we all laughed. But he said it anyway, because saying it was the right thing to do.

In that spirit, I’ll reissue my periodic request to faculty who fail students for plagiarism or academic dishonesty to file a report. I know I’m wasting my keystrokes, but there’s always hope that this time will be different.

Very few faculty file reports, and that has been true everywhere I’ve worked. It wasn’t because plagiarism was unknown; informal surveys indicated that it was dispiritingly common. It was usually based on a combination of undifferentiated fear of The Administration and a sense that they were sparing the student (and/or themselves) some dreadful fate.

But that reluctance leads to several unintended consequences.

At one level, it allows serial cheaters to bounce heedlessly from class to class, pleading “first offense” every time they get caught. In the absence of some sort of central record keeping, there’s no way to prevent that. A student who is never held accountable never learns. But if we know that Prof. Patterson’s report on Jane Doe comes on the heels of two previous findings that Ms. Doe plagiarized in Prof. Smith’s and Prof. Jones’s classes, then we know exactly what’s at stake.

It happens.

Central record keeping also helps to ensure some consistency of the level of sanction for various offenses. A couple of colleges ago, we set a default schedule of penalties for garden-variety copy-and-paste plagiarism cases: the first offense meant getting a zero for the assignment, the second meant failing the class and the third meant suspension or expulsion. That way, we could ensure consistency regardless of the race, gender, age or demeanor of the students involved. If everybody is improvising penalties on the fly, it would be easy for patterns of unequal treatment to result through unconscious bias. Codifying the penalties gave us greater confidence that the same first offense would be treated the same way, regardless of who committed it. If challenged in court, we could point to the process, schedule and records. We could even track patterns over time. That’s impossible when hundreds of faculty are making undocumented, disconnected decisions.

Reports also come in handy if/when students appeal the grades that result from sanctions. It’s far easier to uphold a penalty when the offense has been adjudicated and documented.

From the perspective of the accused student, filing a report allows the student due process. At my college, for instance, if the student appeals up the line, the case is eventually heard by a panel of two professors (from other departments) and two students. (I preside over the hearing and only vote if needed to break a tie. We haven’t had a tie yet.) The accused has the opportunity to present their side of the story. Sometimes that matters.

Having been through several years’ worth of those, I can report that The Administration is the least influential party in the room. We keep records, get the room and call time -- that’s about it. The actual decisions are made by the two professors and two students. I’ve been struck, too, that the students are typically much tougher questioners than the professors. They know how hard they’ve worked, and they know the options available to students. They know how important academic honesty is.

Finally, the process offers a layer of legal protection for the instructor. If your sanction was upheld through the internal process, including by other people, then you aren’t just hanging out there alone. When students get litigious, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to say, truthfully, that you followed the college’s process. The more by-the-book, the better.

I only know what’s reported, so I can’t give exact figures on what goes unreported. But in the name of fairness, due process, serial offenders and legal protection, I encourage faculty to use the process, rather than freelancing. Even if, like my erstwhile teacher, I’m wasting my keystrokes.

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