As a tutor marking assignments, I regularly come across cases of plagiarism. As someone who put a lot of effort into my coursework studies it really offends me to see what students think they can (and ultimately do) get away with - it's making me incredibly jaded about the way universities are run and the value of (my) degrees.

I spot things from the mild "sharing answers" to the "change a few things so it's not obvious" copying, to the virtually identical outright blatant copying (not even changing the student number) to the absurd "submitting a screenshot of last years solutions". Talking to other tutors I seem to spot and pursue a lot more than anyone else.

When I come across these I always examine them, make a determination if it breaches my threshold (usually a bit past the "just change it a bit" level), then pass it on to the lecturer for them to decide what to do. It takes be significant effort to do this - I might recognise an unusual way of writing something, then go back through the assignments I've already marked to check how similar it is, then I'll decide if it looks too similar, then send an email about it.

I can't remember a single case that has gone further than a warning (yes even the one who submitted last year's solutions). I care about this a lot and I don't want students to think they can keep doing this with impunity, but there seems to be a general reluctance in academia to do anything, even in extreme cases. It makes me wonder whether it's worth the checking, the discussing, the extra time that I don't get paid for and ultimately the emotional toll it takes on me. It would be so much easier to let it slide.

From a pragmatic perspective of (for want of a better phrase) cost/benefit, what level of plagiarism should I be bothering myself with? Should I just ignore anything but the most absurd cases?

  • 1
    Realistically only in proctored, controlled exam environments is there any hope of avoiding massive copying and plagiarism. Any work to be done in an environment not directly controlled by the professor is susceptible to copying/plagiarism. The small minority of intellectually motivated students won't do either, but the vast majority of students will do both if they feel they can get away with it. Severe application of the available penalties is probably the most effective deterent (although it is perhaps not effective), but the labor required to catch the cheaters is generally prohibitive.
    – Dan Fox
    Sep 5, 2018 at 6:48
  • To be clear about my previous comment: I share the questioner's frustration, and don't know what the answer is to his question. In practice, other than final projects, which I read carefully for plagiarism, I don't evaluate any activity not realized in my presence.
    – Dan Fox
    Sep 5, 2018 at 6:50

2 Answers 2


I'd like to base my answer on the following piece of the question:

[…] but there seems to be a general reluctance in academia to do anything [about plagiarism], even in extreme cases.

This does not seem to be true. In cases of plagiarism in journal publications, theses or otherwise published material academia is quite strict and careers have ended because of plagiarism (not only academic careers - at least two ministers in Germany had to resign from office due to plagiarism in the PhD theses which have been written years, even decades, in the past).

Things are indeed different when it comes to homework assignments and there are various reasons. Homework assignments do often repeat and the same assignments may have been assigned in the same form a lot of times in different places. So it is actually likely that different people come up the similar or almost similar solutions. Also, it is hard to prove that people deliberately copied something. Moreover, students may (or should?) be encouraged to work on the assignments in teams and hence, they may produce similar output.

But the dealbreaker for me is: At the place where I am students may cheat on homework assignments, but they will never be able to graduate with plagiarism and copying only. There are more safeguards: oral and written exams, one-on-one meetings with a thesis advisor to discuss the progress of the thesis, theses presentations… As a consequence: I am pretty sure that my students do copy homework regularly. I tell them that they miss a chance to learn something if they write down other people's work and that this will backfire in the written and oral exams later (and it does…). But I never investigate any case of plagiarism in homework (however, I do investigate cases of plagiarism in theses).

  • The quoted line second square brackets I intended to imply specifically [plagiarism in coursework], but I can see that might not be completely clear. This is a fair point you make about other forms of assessment. At the end of the semester we do of course have exams and these usually account for a substantial part of the grade (50 - 80%) and looking at a particular course there are hurdle requirements on the exam. That will make it exceedingly difficult for students to pass by pure copying
    – Bamboo
    Sep 6, 2018 at 1:44

From a pragmatic perspective of cost/benefit? You should be ignoring these cases. It is highly unlikely that this will ever devalue your degree in hiring situations, especially since this is common practice among undergrads.

But I sympathise with you and from your post I gather you have too many principles to be mere pragmatic.

In my university, there is a policy that all plagiarism cases, whatever the level (all your levels are included), are handled by the exam committee. This has the benefit that students are remembered centrally, and they cannot pull the same trick in every course. (It also scares them, of course.) Usually, no punishment is needed although sometimes they get minus points for the exercise that it occurred on (which usually has no real impact on the final grade). You could find out if your university has a similar policy, and if so, continuously bring it to the attention of the teachers you are working with.

If you evaluate a course with the TA team afterwards or have a start-up meeting, those are ideal moments to discuss it as well. Get everybody on the same line, ideally with concrete examples of what is too much and what is still OK. If others don't see the issue, maybe that is a sign for you to decide that for that particular course you shouldn't bother too much. These wrap/start-up meetings are also ideal to change grading schemes. If you are worried that on a too large part of the final grade can be plagiarised, bring it up.

What I have also done in the past is prepare a start-up email for my tutorial group or the entire group explaining some ground rules. Have your teacher read it and send it himself. This loosely binds her to those ground rules, so that later you can say: "but in your ground rules you said you would handle plagiarism!"

As a side note: if you are working more than you get paid for, discuss it with your teacher. He can try to get more money or more assistants. (In my university it is common that TAs work more than they get paid for, but nagging does help a bit.)

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