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I realize why plagiarism is morally wrong and punishable. This is not a question about why it is wrong.

This question is about why plagiarism is dealt with so harshly compared to other violations. This might be because I'm uninformed but as per this question and what I've often read plagiarism can easily mean being expelled or suspended.

Here's a short list of offenses that typically get lighter penalties:

  • Stealing from another student
  • Doing illicit drugs
  • At my university (NYU, where discipline is handled through the housing staff), physically hitting someone would result in a combination of warnings/sanctions/being moved with the harshest outcome being kicked out of housing. This is definitely an odd system, but I wouldn't be surprised if other universities had a similar imbalance between the punishments for violence vs. plagiarism.

I'm sure you could add a lot more to this list.

Plagiarism is essentially fraud + stealing, but I've always found it strange that the gut reaction many people have towards it seems to be worse than for getting punched in the face. We definitely don't expel people the first, second, or even third time they get in a fight.

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@prime take into account that plagiarism is not punished in the same way everywhere, and the offenses you gave as example don't get lighter penalties everywhere. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 3 at 9:23
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Violence and illegal drugs can be handled, if the offense is severe enough, by normal law enforcement. However, plagiarism has to be handled by the school because if not, then the state will not do anything to prosecute the culprits. – vsz Jan 3 at 17:25
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Like others, I might disagree that your examples really get lighter penalties. Stealing and doing drugs can both potentially result in arrest and jail/prison time; plagiarism may "only" get you de-registered as a student. Albeit the former would be assessed by civil law enforcement and not the college, so that may be where your perspective got tricked. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 3 at 18:52
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"discipline is handled through the housing staff" - NYU routinely offers to refer cases of assault and theft to the NYPD. I don't think it's accurate to say that "discipline is handled by housing staff" when police involvement is a real possibility. – ff524 Jan 3 at 22:40
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A mean, drunk, drug-using and thieving person can still be a great scientist. A plagiarizing scientist however is of absolutely no use to society. Quite the contrary, their behaviour directly erodes scientific efficacy and credibility. – fgysin Jan 5 at 14:28

11 Answers 11

up vote 158 down vote accepted

One key difference between plagiarism and violence is that plagiarism is a specifically academic offense, while violence is already handled by the legal system. If a violent incident is sufficiently serious, it can and should be dealt with in court. This means university rules only need to deal with cases in which the people involved prefer not to take legal action, and they can leave more serious cases to the legal system. In particular, the university rules are typically geared towards the less serious end, since those are the only cases they expect to handle. (If a student or colleague punched me in the face, I would press charges in court, rather than relying on the university to administer justice. By contrast, if two athletes got worked up and started fighting during a high-stakes game, it's possible that neither one would consider the incident worthy of legal action.)

Plagiarism is not always punished severely: a first offense or minor case may be treated leniently. However, the rules allow severe punishments because there are no courts to fall back on. By contrast, universities don't need to have special rules for how to punish a truly dangerous student.

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This is an excellent point and I hadn't considered that. It doesn't make much sense for the university to have a punishment for murder because... presumably someone else is dealing with that. – Prime Jan 3 at 7:41
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I'm not sure this is correct. In my country (France), cheating at an exam for a national diploma or at a competitive examination is an actual crime that can result in a fine or even a jail sentence. This includes plagiarism, of course, and I've been told that my university does actively press charges. The disciplinary consequences are in addition to the penal consequences (as made explicit in the fifth article of the law I linked). – Najib Idrissi Jan 3 at 11:11
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@NajibIdrissi Could be country-dependent, then. This is the first reason I thought of in the context of American higher education. – David Z Jan 3 at 11:53
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@NajibIdrissi well, I can say this: given the context of American higher ed, I think this answer is correct. If we are going to take the premise that the answer of this question is not country-dependent, then it logically follows that I think this answer is correct in any country. – David Z Jan 3 at 12:04
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@DavidZ So if I understand you correctly (because I think that previous comment was a hypothetical to try to reach a contradiction), you think that in the US plagiarism is punished harshly by universities because it's not punished by the legal system, whereas in, say, France it's punished harshly by universities but because of other reasons? Even though for example jakebeal gives a plausible answer that works for both countries? Have you heard of Occam's razor? – Najib Idrissi Jan 3 at 12:37

An important part of the answer to your question is lurking in the "can" in your statement "plagiarism can easily mean being expelled or suspended." In fact, a first offense in plagiarism is likely to result in warnings, zero marks, and/or failure of a class rather than directly in the expulsion of a student, except for particularly egregious violations (e.g., plagiarizing one's thesis). Note, however, that particularly egregious theft or violence can get a student kicked out for a first offense as well (drugs aren't as good a comparison because many are dubious about considering them a significant offense in the first place).

So why is plagiarism considered an offense on the same scale as violence against another student? Like violence, it strikes at the foundation of the entire academic and scientific enterprise. The foundation of academia is production and dissemination of knowledge. Plagiarism undermines both, particularly since discovering one instance of plagiarism can cast doubt on all of a student's other work as well---is it original, or have they merely failed to yet find the source from which it was stolen? Likewise, since it is such a foundational and corrosive problem, an institution can be badly damaged by tolerating it or by gaining a reputation for tolerating it.

Thus, the zero tolerance policies and the potentially draconian punishments: one serious case of plagiarism can cast doubt on the entire history of a student's work, and tolerating plagiarism can form an existential threat to an academic or scientific institution.

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I don't consider plagiarism "an offense on the same scale as violence against another student" - it's a very bad thing, sure, but not quite as bad as physical violence. Do you, really? – ff524 Jan 3 at 22:28
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@ff524 The impact of violence on its victim is certainly generally much worse than the impact of plagiarism on its victim. I do believe, however, that condoning plagiarism has a similarly bad effect on an academic institution as condoning violence does. – jakebeal Jan 3 at 22:34
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To expand on jakebeal's comment, the university is first and foremost a business (or at least that is how most are run). Consider a company that sold defective products because it's QA procedures are lax, that would most likely have a very bad effect on their bottom line. The reason that the university cares less about violence and other offenses is that they usually have a much smaller affect on the universities bottom line. TLDR; universities are a business first and foremost, their product is students, R&D, and their own reputation (to encourage further business). – user3730788 Jan 4 at 2:33
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@BobJarvis I don't doubt that plagiarism is a serious offense. But even in an academic environment, I consider violence a worse academic offense than plagiarism. (If a student plagiarized in my class, and it's a first time offense, I feel pretty good about his/her chances of rehabilitation and eventually becoming a member in good standing of our academic community. If a student in my class is violent towards another student... I feel much less confident.) – ff524 Jan 4 at 2:58
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@msw I'm aware that violence is not handled as an academic matter. The intent of my comment was to disagree with jakebeal's comment that "condoning plagiarism has a similarly bad effect on an academic institution as condoning violence does" (I believe that violence has a much greater negative effect on an academic institution, regardless of what disciplinary system is invoked in response.) So, I still disagree with the statement that plagiarism is "considered an offense on the same scale as violence against another student." – ff524 Jan 4 at 10:19

One factor that I don't see in the other answers so far is that plagiarism is usually very hard to detect: if a student copies an answer from an obscure internet website or book, only a tool such as TurnItIn might be able to detect it; if they copy from a student in another section or from a previous year, they may only be caught if the same TA graded both sections; if they paid another student or TA to write an answer for them, it might be entirely undetectable unless someone confesses. A student may also plagiarize in multiple classes, and might get off because each of the teachers who catch them decide to let them off with a warning.

If punishment for plagiarism was lenient, students would be likelier to risk cheating, knowing that on the off chance they're caught, they'd only receive a minor punishment. Therefore, the punishment has to be harsh enough that students acting rationally realize that, even with a small chance of getting caught, the resulting punishment is severe enough to deter them from attempting it at all. (See Psychology of Academic Cheating, pg. 144 for a possibly clearer description of this problem).

My own approach to this is to scare my students at the start of the semester by telling them how seriously I take the slightest attempt at plagiarism, but then evaluating them on a case-by-case basis, and only sending the severest cases to my school's Honor Code Council.

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It's unfortunate that your answer isn't getting more attention. It's a very nice hypothesis, and it sounds very convincing to me. Now, I wonder whether anybody in the source you're citing did any experimental research around this: e.g there's an interesting counterexample for a similar situation where automatic three-strike lifetime criminal sentences or minimum sentences appear to have no effect crime deterrence. This could have something to do with future cost discounting: time is hard to mentally quantify. Threat of expulsion, like automatic death sentences, might be far more effective. – Paul Milovanov Jan 6 at 1:51
    
This is just what I was about to write. It's clearly the main reason as it undermines the very purpose of the school. Nicely put. – Chuck Jan 6 at 16:53
    
Yes, this is an extremely important point. From a game-theory/incentives perspective, the "average penalty" for doing something wrong is the penalty for getting caught multiplied by the probability of getting caught. For infractions that are difficult to detect (or for some other reason the penalty is rarely applied), the penalty must be harsher to avoid letting potential culprits feel like they are statistically immune to the negative effects of their actions. – Kyle Strand Jan 8 at 22:53

First, I think it's debatable whether the premise of your question is correct. Some instances of plagiarism are punished more harshly than some instances of the other offenses you listed, but I'd have to see some hard data justifying the claim that as a general rule plagiarism is punished more harshly than violent behavior or theft. Until I see such data, I'll remain skeptical.

Second, with regards to your statement that "I've always found it strange that the gut reaction many people have towards it seems to be worse than for getting punched in the face," I think there is another questionable premise there, namely that violent bad behavior is by its nature worse and more reprehensible than non-violent bad behavior. At the abstract level I don't think that's true. To take a much more extreme example, Bernard Madoff perpetrated a non-violent financial scam that is estimated to have cost a total of $18B to thousands of investors, including leading to some people losing their entire retirement and life savings. I'm sure some of those people would absolutely prefer being punched in the face to what happened to them. Madoff is serving a prison sentence of 150 years, which suggests that the courts also think what he did was much worse than most violent crimes.

Going back to the subject of plagiarism, the answers by jakebeal and Anonymous Mathematician already do a good job of explaining why it is harmful and deserves to be punished (and you yourself said in your question that you understand and agree with that part). Now, some plagiarism cases are much more egregious than others, and certainly expulsion can be an appropriate response in some cases, whereas in other cases a warning and a failing grade in the assignment may be enough. The same is true for fighting, drug- or alcohol-related transgressions, or petty theft: all of these types of offenses can come in very mild varieties that would represent little more than a sign of typical late-teen immaturity and not warrant a severe punishment, but can also escalate to very serious levels where they even warrant a criminal prosecution. So the bottom line is, it all depends on the precise details of the offense. I strongly doubt it would be correct to generalize and say that plagiarism is either worse than, or not as bad as, other typical types of student misconduct.

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[Note: I'm posting this as a second answer since it adds a new (and, I think, important) insight that's completely unrelated to my first answer.]

I think a key point to understand is that the value system of academia is different from the value system of the rest of society, and that that makes perfect sense. I don't mean that academia and everyone else disagree on what's moral behavior and what isn't -- I think by and large, in a qualitative sense, they agree on those things -- but they have quantitative disagreements on the extent to which certain behaviors are moral or not (and therefore how severely they should be punished).

Specifically, in academia, honesty and honest behavior (in a professional context) are much more prized than outside academia. That is because this type of honesty is essential to the mission of academia, which is to advance human knowledge. So, for a professor to cheat on his wife is seen by other academics as not good in exactly the same way, and to the same extent, as it would be seen by anyone else. But for a professor to copy a section of a paper written by someone else and publish it in his own paper without attribution, would be viewed by other academics much more severely than it would be viewed by most people outside academia, because it is not just "ordinary" dishonesty, it is a special kind of dishonesty that discredits and harms the entire profession and its mission.

Note that this is analogous to the situation with many other professions that have their own unique value systems and codes of conduct that are different from the rest of society. For example, lawyers care much more about confidentiality of their clients' information than other professionals, and that's why if you are a lawyer who disclosed some information about a client that you were not allowed to disclose, that would be viewed much more severely by your profession (and could lead to harsh punishments such as being disbarred and forbidden from practicing the law) than if you are just a random guy (even a lawyer) who was told a secret by a friend and told it to someone else without permission. The same violation of trust, which according to our normal moral code is just as bad in both cases, is interpreted completely differently according to the context in which it took place, since in the latter context a different value system and moral code would apply. (Similarly, doctors have their own unique codes and find certain behaviors unacceptable in a professional context that most people would not find very problematic. I could come up with some examples to drive home the point but this post is already getting a bit too long.)

To summarize, although in my first answer I argued that it's not necessarily the case that plagiarism is punished more severely than any other offenses, here I want to argue that even if it is punished more severely, that could be rational and based on the unique value system of academia, which holds certain values, and in particular professional honesty and integrity, as much more cherished and important than the rest of society does. When viewed in this way, I think this situation makes perfect sense and is precisely what you'd expect to happen.

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Academia is not the only profession / domain with a strong and well-enforced code of ethics. Others include medicine, civil engineering, and law. – jakebeal Jan 3 at 14:35
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@jakebeal indeed. The military is another example that comes to mind. Even criminals have their own code of behavior, which they need to ensure the proper functioning of their criminal enterprises. Seems like this plagiarism example is part of a much more general principle. :-) – Dan Romik Jan 3 at 23:07
    
Hmm... I'm not sure that I'd really say that it's so much of an issue of professions considering a particular behavior "more morally wrong" so much as just that those behaviors are incompatible with the mission of those professions and, as such, are punished more harshly than they would be in other professions where they matter more. Still, this is mostly a semantic difference, so +1 for a good point and giving similar examples from other professions. – reirab Jan 5 at 15:47

Colleges, above all, are institutes of higher education, and the standing of each college in academia hinges upon the perceived academic rigor and integrity of the said college. Since plagiarism, compared to the other offences, is especially damaging to the quality and image of a college, it is dealt with most harshly.

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Would that make it out of self interest? If it's just a question of "what's worse for the university", then it's basically a PR problem. Though I suppose it would explain it since plagiarism is more newsworthy ("busted a cheating ring" vs. "dude was punched in the face yesterday") than other offenses. Questions of justice shouldn't be about PR. – Prime Jan 3 at 5:59
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@Prime Well I said "damaging to the quality and image", not just "damaging to the image". Plus, perception and reality are not really dichotomous. – Drecate Jan 3 at 6:02
    
good point. And the people who make these kinds of rules probably have several goals in mind anyways. – Prime Jan 3 at 6:08
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All justice is about PR in the end. – rackandboneman Jan 3 at 16:44
    
Whereas stealing and fighting are crimes aganist another person, and drugs are a crime against "the state", plagiarism is a crime against the integrity of the college. Simply put, they take plagiarism personally, because it hurts the perceived value of their product more than real crimes do. – Billy C. Jan 5 at 9:51

It has to be handled extremely harshly because of how massively advantageous to the student it is to plagiarize, and how massively unrepresentative it is of the student's abilities.

If it were not handled extremely harshly it would be more advantageous to plagiarize than not to, even with the possibility of getting caught (they probably won't get caught every time...probably not even much of the time). If it's more advantageous to plagiarize then not then it will be rampant (because people aren't dumb...they'll do what they need to do to be the best...which in this scenario would mean plagiarizing constantly in order to compete with the others that do and they will recognize that).

If plagiarizing is rampant then it means the university is putting out people that don't actually know the things the university is giving them accredited documents saying they know.

If a university is handing out degrees to people that can't do the stuff the degree says they can...the university's prestige is what takes the hit...leading to it getting less students and being able to charge less as an institution...leading to all sorts of problems up to and including actual failure of the university.

It is literally a matter of survival for the university itself to punish plagiarism so harshly. That way the punishment is so harsh that no advantage from the act is worth even the minute possibility of getting caught.

If they put out someone that does drugs and punches people...but knows their degree inside and outside then that's a hit on the person, not the university. But if they're putting out sweet angels that are never high on anything but life and take care of elderly people trying to cross streets in their spare time, but don't know their degree, the university suffers greatly for that.

So it's not so much that the punishment reflects the crime as the punishment reflecting how much the crime affects the entity handing down the punishment.

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I think it's debatable whether plagiarism is so massively advantageous to a student. After all, s/he will not be acquiring the experience and skills necessary to do the work on his/her own - and that will make it exceedingly difficult for him/her soon enough. – einpoklum Jan 9 at 21:48

Plagiarism is contrary to the academic ideals, goals and aspirations. To put it bluntly, it is also contrary and damaging to the business model. In an ideal world, plagiarism should not be present in academia.

There are also cultural elements at play. Some cultures are also more adverse than others to underhanded manouvers, lying and in consequence plagiarism. While some cultures only worry about face and being caught in the act, others have better morals ingrained in the society as a whole.

In general, I would say the harsher punishments for this offense work as a detterrent and as an example for less scrupulous students.

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While I don't think this is the reason (Other answers give better primary reasons), one thing I don't yet see covered by other answers is that plagiarism is almost always intentional, and obviously the blame is on the student who plagiarized, so it almost always qualifies for the harshest punishment, when it is found. (There can be cases where plagiarism is unintentional, but those cases are usually readily apparent - and it is hard to say, "I didn't know that was plagiarizing" by this point in education.)

  • Stealing is sometimes hard to prove. It becomes one person's word against another.

  • Violence is generally a "heat of the moment" result of a situation in which others may also share a large part of the blame.

  • Drugs are mostly a safety concern - and the more common ones, while they can be harmful to the user, do not directly impact the safety of others in most situations.

Of course, where those scenarios do become "serious enough" - they can have penalties just as great as plagiarizing. The point is, there are more "arguable" situations in which someone might be accused of stealing, violence, or drugs, but not have actually done it or just doesn't warrant the full harshest punishment.

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I disagree. Many students who plagiarize come from other educational systems with a different approach to attribution, or thought they attributed sources correctly but misunderstood, or genuinely thought attribution wasn't necessary, etc. The students are still responsible, but I wouldn't call it "intentional." Also in the case of students plagiarizing from other students, it can be hard to assign responsibility. In my experience, most cases of plagiarism in a university setting have some of these subtleties. – ff524 Jan 7 at 18:11
    
@ff524 There is always some subtleties, the students who come from other systems fell into "usually readily apparent" when approached with the issue - in my opinion. But I'm not sure how difficult assigning responsibility can really be in the second case. Presumably, you could do some test similar to here. I still think there is a difference between plagiarism and the other violations in terms of how "arguable" they are. – DoubleDouble Jan 7 at 18:27

As colleges and universities are often considered institutions of "higher education", where the mind is meant to flourish and whatnot, it shouldn't come as much as a surprise.

As someone has mentioned, a legal system is already in place to deal with things such as physical violence and theft. These crimes are usually passed forward to local law enforcement, assuming the deed was indeed enough to fall outside of the boundaries of the law. It's simply out of the scope of the institution to focus on these matters. However, that is not to say that they should ignore them and action should definitely be taken if it becomes a problem.

Ultimately, as the law is meant to protect those in society from physical violence, these institutions are meant to protect academic integrity. An offence such as breaking and entering frequently causes jail-time. Plagiarism could be viewed as the breaking and entering of the academic world, which should cause the suspension/expulsion to be reasonable.

It's like cheating in a video game. You can get to the top very easily by cheating, but once you get there, everyone likely knows you've been cheating. If not, they will soon find out. Your skill level(s) will obviously not match what your previous work has displayed.

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Plagiarism can be very costly to other students both past, current and future.

Plagiarizing allows a student to get a better grade; this lets them get a “good” job that they then fail at due to not understanding what they claimed to have studied. This lead to the university getting a bad name and the given employer not trusting the grading of anyone form that university, so hence, not even interviewing students of the given university.

Plagiarism can be of great benefit to the student.

For example they get a better job, due to the better grade. A 1% difference in grade an effect if someone gets an interview to train with a top company. Having trained with the top company, it can increase someone income by $50K per year for the next 30 years!

Plagiarism is hard to detect.

Firstly it is hard to define plagiarism, what if a computer student asks a question on StackOverlow, gets an answer in C#, then rewrites it as Java…..

As to checking if a student asked someone else to do the work, we all know it is very hard to detect and only people unskilled at plagiarism get detected.

Therefore

Given the high benefit, and the low likelihood of detection, the punishment must be great enough for a student not to take the risk. If the risk of being detected is just having to redo the work, then a student has lots of chances of learning how not to be detected with little cost to the learning - hence even in the 1st year there must be a real cost to getting detected.

Other violations…

Stealing form anther student for example, will not give the same long term benefit as getting a better grade, therefore does not need as high a punishment to prevent it.

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I don't see problem in your second point. If they get a better job just for the grades then it's very much likely the company isn't worth much. If they hire that person not only for the grades but mainly because of it AND THEN the person doesn't fail at the job as you pointed in the first point, then the person is at the right place doing the right job. Nothing wrong with that, plagiarism isn't the causality here, only correlation. – Michal Jan 8 at 15:55

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