I am a PhD student in the US and teaching a lab this semester. The labs have become online and students are provided with data and submit their reports. All communications take place through email. There is also online office hours but relatively few students attend.

Recently I found two groups submitting the exact same drawing in one of their lab reports (this was a significant part of their work for the report). So I emailed them separately and asked whether this report was completely their own work. Or was it created by one of them and shared for others, and if not, where was it taken from. One of them did not reply at all. The other did, offering apologies but saying that we did not plagiarize. But they also didn't reply to my next email in which I told them exactly which part has been found in another group's work. Basically, they didn't say anything in the face of clear evidence. I should mention that I did have email communications with the same students before and I'm sure they have read my emails.

If it was an in-person class I could just talk to them in the next session to clarify things. But now, they're just ignoring my emails. This has left me with my own speculations. The most probable scenario is that both have used material from the previous semester, and since they neither denied, clarified, or apologized for this, I have lost confidence in their other reports too.

This is making it difficult for me to make an appropriate (proportionate) decision and honestly, I don't know what to make out of this. Are they too stressed/ashamed to reply or are they so relaxed about this that don't even bother to do so?

How should I proceed from here? Is it OK for students to ignore the instructor's emails on such an important issue? And should I continue grading their reports? As I said, I can't trust their works anymore even though I don't have evidence of further plagiarism elsewhere. Would it be appropriate or too much to give a failing grade because of a single verified incidence of plagiarism? 

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    What prevents you from setting deadlines on answers and then proceeding with more grave consequences when your emails aren't answered by the deadline? – Polygnome Mar 14 at 17:53
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    What is the policy from your university about this matter? – Mast Mar 14 at 19:01
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    If there is no official policy, you set the policy. You state that the evidence strongly indicates collusion and you will distribute the available points across all colluding parties. That should motivate at least one of them to talk. If there is an official policy, follow it, e.g. escalate to the official investigators. – Captain Emacs Mar 14 at 19:48
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    Every sensible university in the US (if that's where you are) should have a process for dealing with academic dishonesty, including a central source of information and consultation about it. You aren't the first nor probably even the only teacher facing this problem at your institution within the last 30 days. Perhaps try googling for related keywords and add the site:myschool.edu at the end of the query: it'll limit the results to those on your own school's pages. – Kuba hasn't forgotten Monica Mar 15 at 0:20
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    Are you the instructor of record, or are you working for the instructor teaching the course? If the latter, the only correct thing is to let them handle it. – user541686 Mar 15 at 4:23

10 Answers 10


First, some important caveats:

  • It is certainly worth checking their other work to see if you find any further evidence of plagiarism. In the absence of such evidence, you must proceed under the assumption that the only case of plagiarism is the one you have evidence for.
  • You should check your university's regulations; you may be required to proceed in a certain way (e.g., to advise the students of their rights, or to turn this over to a committee rather than handling it yourself).
  • Since you are a PhD student, speaking with a more experienced professor is probably also a very good idea. In particular, if you are not listed as the "instructor of record," you should speak with the instructor of record before proceeding (different universities will have different policies about whether the grad student who does the "actual work" will be formally listed as the instructor of record).

Still, let us assume for the sake of this question that you can and must handle this yourself. In this case, my advice would be to send an e-mail along the following lines:

Dear Student: it has been over a week, and I have received no response to my below inquiry. If I do not receive a response by Friday, I will assume that your report was indeed plagiarized and will accordingly assign [some appropriate but relatively harsh penalty]. If you believe you are not guilty, or if you have mitigating factors you would like me to consider, please let me know, either by e-mail or by scheduling a virtual meeting. Regards,

As for what penalty would be appropriate, I reiterate my advice to discuss this with someone locally; campus cultures vary, and your department probably faces issues like this with some regularity. Still, my experience is that for something like this, a proportionate response would be to (1) give a zero on the lab report in question, which should cost them about a letter grade overall, and (2) file a report with the college so that they cannot have a new "first offense" in a different class.

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    It may be worth reiterating in your email (or in a separate email to all course participants) that plagiarism isn't just an academic misstep but a serious breach of research ethics, which is treated harshly in the real world. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 14 at 17:01
  • In particular for labs, you may look after an experiment or a group (or several of either), and you may be named as such, but there's probably an academic in charge of the whole year's labs who will have the responsibility for this, as well as the experience. Failing that, there will be an academic with responsibility for all undergrad teaching (Director of Teaching for example). – Chris H Mar 15 at 14:34
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    Thanks. The university policy states that the faculty member should first review the facts with the students to come up with a conclusion (and then report if verified). I just received a reply from one of them saying it was in fact taken from a previous semester but only that diagram was accidentally copied. Am I able to ask them to send me the original document they used to verify their claim? (I mean in terms of things like privacy, etc.) – Instructor Mar 16 at 2:22
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    That's actually a good idea. Ask them for the document. Accidentally copied? Right ... Honestly sounds like a lie. Of course, if they did copy more than that, they won't send you the old work. But wouldn't last years instructor have that? – DonQuiKong Mar 16 at 6:35

In the case of suspected plagiarism you have to follow your institution's formal rules. I'm sure your university has those.

This might not seem a helpful answer but it is the only correct one. For example, the course of action outlined in another answer (while perfectly sensible) would violate university policy at my institution and get me in real trouble if I were to follow it.

In any case, given that you're unfamiliar with the process and your institution's policies it is strongly encouraged for you to contact the professor in charge of the course. That's a good idea whenever you're unsure about how to proceed with grading, but many institutional policies on plagiarised student work involve the professor. So this is probably a necessary step in any case.

  • Thanks. In this case I am the one in charge of the course with my name listed as the actual instructor, not just a grader or TA. – Instructor Mar 14 at 17:14
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    In that case, whoever put you in charge should have provided you with instructions how academic misconduct cases are handled at your university. If they have not, contact them and ask. (While you wait for an answer you can investigate whether your university describes the academic integrity investigation process on their website somewhere. That might give you an idea already, e.g. whether there has to be a meeting with the student!) – user2705196 Mar 14 at 20:31
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    To be fair, the "course of action outlined in the other answer" also says to check your university's regulations and talk to more senior colleagues before proceeding unilaterally. :-) But, it is possible that the "institution's formal rules" will still leave considerable discretion to the instructor -- e.g., I was always allowed to assign penalties up to failing the course at my discretion, and needed to pursue a formal judicial process only if I wanted to get a student suspended or expelled. Formal rules are probably becoming more and more common though. – cag51 Mar 15 at 5:41
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    @cag51 I didn't mean to criticize your answer at all! I think it is excellent. The purpose of my answer was to shift the emphasis, i.e. that first and foremost this is about finding out the OP's institutional rules. – user2705196 Mar 15 at 11:58

The correct course of action is strongly institution-dependent. The most important things are to remain polite and not indicate you have reached a conclusion when communicating with the students, to keep a paper trail of all communications with the students, and immediately advise to the appropriate authorities.

Where I work there is an official form to fill advising students of any allegation of academic misconduct, and sending this form forces the student to speak with the instructor within a set timeframe (usually 5 working days) to clarify the situation. If you are not satisfied with the answers, it escalates to the Dean.

I would be very much surprised if a graduate student would bear the burden of dealing with a penalty: it is for one unfair to the graduate student to have this responsibility, and also to have a reasonably uniform policy such sanctions are better handled by someone with a more holistic view of the situation and history of such sanctions.


I dealt with this exact issue in the last fall semester. The best practice likely depends on your institution's rules. At my institution, we have a distinction between academic sanctions and disciplinary sanctions.

Academic sanctions are those applied purely by the instructor, with the effect of lowering grades on a particular assignment or course. The instructor has more authority in this case. If I have strong evidence of plagiarism, then I immediately fail the student on the assignment and inform them of that, without advance conferencing. If they think they have evidence to the contrary, then they can argue it, but it's hardly ever correct (I think maybe once in ten years there was a legitimate defense, barely).

Disciplinary sanctions involve probation or possibly expulsion from the institution; this is not something the instructor can effect, but happens at the Dean level. Here the formal process does require instructor to "review with the student the facts and circumstances of the suspected violation whenever feasible", before filing a report and triggering a further protocol. In my experience from the fall: I had 7 students who clearly plagiarized their online final exams. Only 1 responded to the interview request (and they denied any cheating with me). So after a day or two I assessed the "whenever feasible" clause as negative, turned over all 7 cases with evidence to the academic integrity officer, and within a month she had convinced all of them to confess to cheating and accept academic probation (in lieu of more elaborate proceedings with an investigatory committee).

So my recommendations would be: (a) become very familiar with the details of your school's academic integrity policy, and (b) contact the academic integrity officer or equivalent if you need further guidance. For time purposes, I would not engage in an inquiry or interview unless it's absolutely required by the formal college policy; and I would advise against spending a lot of time cycling with students who have reason to be evasive.


How should I proceed from here?

The other answers address this.

Is it OK for students to ignore the instructor's emails on such an important issue?

Yes, unless your university has a policy saying otherwise. Normally there is no obligation to defend one's self against accusations. If the accused is either obviously guilty or obviously innocent, staying silent is often a good strategy.

  • Not only that, it's often culturally expected, depending on where you come from. – Adam Burke Mar 17 at 9:49

First, all the other responses explaining that you need to check your institution's formal policies about plagiarism apply.

It is possible, if unlikely, that one of the two teams submitted original work and the other team copied that work. In this case, only one of the two teams has plagiarized. (The team who did the work probably should not have let the other team see their documents, but that is a different problem.) This is really the only reason to delay following your institution's process (which may include giving both teams a zero for the assignment and/or other punishment by the institution). The team claiming that they submitted original work should be able to provide process documents, emails in which they discussed the work, etc. They need to understand that because two teams have submitted the same work, they must respond within a fixed period of time or they will be subject to whatever the policy is. Since neither team is responding to your emails, most likely they have both plagiarized work done during a previous term.

I will offer a few suggestions about how to avoid this in the future. The most important thing is to make expectations clear from the beginning, e.g. in the syllabus and in first-session communications with students (whether online or in the classroom).

When I teach statistics online, I assign projects rather than quizzes, and I allow students to communicate about their projects, and even work together on shared topics. (The students choose their own topic and data source-- I define the statistical operation they need to demonstrate.) However, I warn them all in advance that I will compare their answers and I expect them all to be unique. The numbers could be the same, but the text they write to explain their work has to be their own. This has worked well to prevent plagiarism.

Letting students choose their own topics helps, too. I try to make the projects interesting and practical so students will find them worthwhile. This isn't always an option.

I have found that many students are shockingly unaware of what plagiarism is and how serious it is. They also seem unaware of how likely they are to get caught. When I am reading text submitted by a student, it is easy to spot the places where they have copied and pasted from some other source by changes in writing style. There are also tools like TurnItIn that check text against large databases of documents and report similarities. I have found that it is helpful to let students use these tools to check their own work before submitting it to me.

I have also found it helpful to require students to submit early drafts of their work before turning in the final assignment. It makes extra work for me to check these, but it improves the quality of the final result, and most "paper mills" that distribute assignments don't include multiple drafts. I've also found that it helps to improve the student's sense of ownership of the work, so they are somewhat less likely to cheat.

We shouldn't have to start every undergraduate course with an explanation of what "original work" means and the penalties for plagiarism, but I've found it saves a lot of trouble if I do.


How should I proceed from here?

As all the other answers have stated, you should contact an academic to learn what are the appropriate steps in your institution. While no University I know of is really lenient towards plagiarims, the steps (and your freedom to decide them) vary a lot.

Like, where I studied, academic plagiarism was technically a felony - which meant that any teacher/tutor/TA who messed up their part in the process of assessing and punishing plagiarism risked sanctions outside the academical world. I don't know a single case where it happened, but the law was there and everybody who had a say in students' grading was throughly lectured (and scared) on how to behave in order to avoid this.

Is it OK for students to ignore the instructor's emails on such an important issue? And should I continue grading their reports? As I said, I can't trust their works anymore even though I don't have evidence of further plagiarism elsewhere.

Technically, they are under no obligation to answer your emails on any subject but, as you stated in your own question, this can undermine the trust relationship you need with your students in order to grade their work. I think you should raise this issue with your academic superior, even if it's not part of the process for plagiarism.


I would proceed with the following in mind (paraphrasing the Berkeley Course on Physics): Ideally, every part of a course, including exams (and in your case for sure homework), should provide an opportunity for the student to learn something.

In your case, they should learn about the subject matter and about plagiarism: They should do their bloody own research, for both reasons.

For first time offenders, I don't see a need or obligation to pull out the big guns, inform the department, start an investigation because of an ethics breach etc. These kids have simply done what they did in high school all along, where it was accepted: Siphon stuff off of the internet and hand it in as homework, or copy from your neighbor.

Handle this yourself in a sovereign manner: Set a deadline, insist on a video talk with them. Insist that they respond. (A reliable communication channel is a requirement for the course anyway; could be google groups or whatever you and they agree upon — kids these days may not read email daily.) Make clear that if they don't respond, they won't get a grade. But if and when they respond, make clear that they are expected to do their own work so that they learn something, that plagiarism in other situations would be an academic death sentence, and then grade the work they hand in later.


In general (not related to plagiarism specifically, focusing on the "not answering" part), my suggestion is to decide yourself, inform them on the decision, and follow through with it.

As an example: I work in IT, and often I need clarification from some stakeholder about some requirement for a software we are developing. I know from experience that they often don't answer for whatever reasons. So my strategy is to not ask them at all, but succinctly present the problem together with my preferred solution; and a very clear statement that I will proceed with my solution unless I hear otherwise before some deadline.

The same works excellently for superiors when asking for approvals (if allowed by the "process") - acceptance by silence.

It is nice for them, because they don't even need to waste the 3 seconds it takes to reply "yes", and they see that I have thought it through, and know what I'm doing.

In this particular case, I agree with the other answers that you must go by the rules of your institution, as plagiarism is a quite sensitive subject in the world of academia, and simply for the reason that there probably are regulations which it never is a good idea to ignore.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the policy is that if both works are obviously identical, and it is not possible for either party to prove that theirs was not the copy, both are discarded. In this case, you would write them both the same mail roughly along the line of "I have no way to discern which of the two works is the original. If by the time of XYZ nobody can bring light into the issue, I will treat both as not submitted."

If you follow through with this approach, it is of utmost importance that your statement is short, concise and has zero need for interpretation (which is obviously a good guideline in all communication); also without emotions, accusations or anything superfluous. A classic "I" message works best. No accusations or assumptions.

The deadline should be long enough, but not too long. Especially if you have an "upstream" deadline - assume that you get a response minutes before the deadline from your mail runs out; there should be enough time to then follow up with the issue before you have to close the case due to external factors.


Turn it over to the "module convener" "course leader" or whatever it is called at your institution.

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