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Is there a "statute of limitations" on plagiarism? After being accused in one course, can my work in past courses be re-examined? I believe I unknowingly plagiarized in a past course.

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  • Comments (mostly about "unknowingly plagiarizing") have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Feb 22, 2023 at 3:15

7 Answers 7

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Actually, anyone reading your work can accuse you of plagiarism if it is noticed that you copy the ideas of others without attribution.

Ordering an investigation, however, is a different matter and would depend on local rules and customs. But universities like to protect their own reputation and so some "due diligence" is required. This would be especially true for graduate degrees, I'd expect.

But once you have been accused and not exonerated, then it would be natural for people to look for other instances. In a serious case, such as a thesis, you would bear considerable risk.

Edited to add: No, there isn't a time limit or statute of limitations. No statutes at all in most places. It is what it is unless corrected. If the work can be seen you can be accused. This is distinct, of course, from local disciplinary rules.

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  • Whether or not there is a time limit depends on the policies of the particular institution. For example, at my institution, policy states I can't raise allegations of plagiarism more than three weeks later. Feb 21, 2023 at 12:55
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    @MichaelMior, you are writing about local rules and what can be charged as a disciplinary matter, not plagiarism as a general academic offense. My view is broader.
    – Buffy
    Feb 21, 2023 at 12:57
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    @MichaelMior Wow, that seems an unacceptably short timeframe! I'd be tempted to not trust an undergraduate degree from an that has decided to self-impose such rules. It'd be like the IRS publicly declaring that it won't pursue any claims of tax fraud more than 3 weeks after the submission of your taxes... Feb 21, 2023 at 13:10
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    @user2705196 I agree with you that the time frame is very short. Especially when students are permitted to dispute their grades indefinitely. Feb 21, 2023 at 13:21
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    @MichaelMior, yes, but for anything that might later appear outside the course/university context, there can be other, long term, consequences.
    – Buffy
    Feb 21, 2023 at 13:38
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Anyone might accuse you at any time, even decades or centuries past your death. However, the burden of the proof is to the accuser.

Accusing someone of plagiarism is a serious issue, and normally, the people who does the accusation have proofs sustaining the accusations.

Once accused, you are expected to defend from the accusation. If you are actually guilty, it is likely that there is nothing you can do to defend yourself and the best you can do is to apologize and recognize your error. However, the academia tends to be unforgiving and ban you forever from working on anything seriously even if you actually apologize.

If you are innocent, defending from a plagiarism accusation is hard. There are a lot of cases where innocent people had no real chance to defend themselves from unfair accusations of this type. What you should try to do is to prove that there was no plagiarism at all and that you properly quoted everyone you should quote, which is a very tiring, stressful and cumbersome process.

Sometimes, someone else plagiarized your work and the accuser thought it was the other way around. In this case, you should accuse that someone else as part of your defense.

Sometimes a defendant defends by counter-attacking and plays the "uno reversal card": The accuser is actually who is plagiarizing work! If the defendant is innocent, this is probably the case, but proofing it might be hard. If the defendant is guilty, this would be part of their strategy to steal other people work.

In cases of a work with several authors that is accused of plagiarism, this might create a serious issue as possibly, only one of the authors did the plagiarism and the others were simply trusting him. If the other authors aren't able to clear themselves, everyone would be considered guilty.

It seems that you previously plagiarized stuff as part of a work done in the context of a previous discipline. If you are a grad student and plagiarized due to not actually knowing how to properly quote stuff or as a result of a very sloppy work, the teacher, while still giving an F or a zero to your work, might then just choose to rub that under the rug. I once caught a student who made exactly that and what I told him was simply "quote all those things correctly and resubmit your work as soon as possible, otherwise there is no other grade than a zero", I also gave him a 10-minute informal lecture about how to properly quote stuff. He did fixed his work and resubmitted, which is a much better outcome than just ruining his academic life.

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    I don't think I'd agree with the "ban you forever from working" point... Plenty of undergrads do stupid things, learn from them, and have no hard feelings going forward. It's a different matter if you're an established researcher though Feb 21, 2023 at 11:53
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    I disagree with "There are a lot of cases where innocent people had no real chance to defend themselves from unfair accusations of this type." Feb 21, 2023 at 13:29
  • @ScottishTapWater If the name of the undergrad (or anyone else) ends up being publicly as a known plagiarizer, he/she is doomed and he/she might also doom the adviser and coworkers. That is precisely the main reason why most of such cases are handled very discretly within the context of the department of the undergrad with the problematic material being just silently deleted. Once the case becomes widely known, it is out of control and the damage might be irreparable. Feb 21, 2023 at 15:43
  • @user2705196 Well, I already had heard about some cases, including here on academia.se. But since this is somewhat a taboo for all the involved people, it is hard to find material describing that. Further, this might depend on the type of the university. The best universities would have an established process with an actual investigation where the student have a fair chance to defend. The worst universities don't care at all about plagiarism. The problem lies in those in the middle tier, when it is just easier to concede to whatever accusation received than to do a proper investigation. Feb 21, 2023 at 15:57
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    @ScottishTapWater Not every country is UK. Where a live (Brazil) there are very few ways where you are allowed to change your name: (a) Getting married and adopting the surname of the husband or wife; (b) Getting divorced and reverting to your previous name; (c) Getting adopted as child; (d) Being registered by your parents with a ridiculous name and petitioning the justice to change it later; (e) Be a witness of a serious crime commited by a criminal organization and entering a government program to protect witnesses. - I.e. none of those are realisitic for people with academic problems. Feb 21, 2023 at 21:29
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I believe that the process varies widely by institution and country. In my experience working for a public university in the United States, I needed to file a report for each student accused of plagiarism with the university. I need to provide documentation of plagiarism, an explanation of why this constituted plagiarism, and course materials about the assignment in question. After this process, the university would contact the student to see if they wanted to dispute the accusation or accept a failing grade, with a requirement to take a remedial course regarding plagiarism in order to graduate. This was a thorough, time-consuming process so I did not do it unless it was a clear violation of plagiarism. For students who seemed to have issues with citations, for instance, I would give them a warning that they needed to follow proper rules or else they would be reported to the university. Again, this process can vary widely, but in my instance as a professor, I only reported plagiarism that occurred within the classes I taught while the classes were in session. Unfortunately, I usually report two to three students for plagiarism each year.

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  • Appreciate the response. Have you or your colleagues ever been requested by your school authorities to investigate into plagiarism for any particular student? The reason I am asking this is because I want to understand if investigations into plagiarism are solely the responsibility of a professor or can the school authorities ( dean , academic affairs etc ) request professors to investigate students based on their previous violations.
    – Owl104
    Feb 20, 2023 at 18:30
  • I have never heard of anyone other than the professor instigating an investigation. Otherwise, how would that person be familiar with the student‘s work? Again, this is just my own experience.
    – Parrever
    Feb 21, 2023 at 19:46
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There is certainly no accepted “status of limitations”. Researchers now have old papers retracted because plagiarism is discovered by other unrelated academics sometimes years after the fact.

As an example a German rabbi has recently been found to have plagiarized part of his 1992 dissertation. This is not a university example but you can find a large number of miscellaneous examples by searching for the keyword “plagiarism” on the Retraction Watch website and find those related to university, including some cases where degrees were withdrawn, as this case of a US Senator.

So: it does happen that people look back on old work, and it does happen that degrees are revoked as a result of plagiarism.

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There are no real rules, but as you allude, things can get fairly complex, as there are two fairly conflicting goals of Academic Honesty procedures in US schools.

One goal is to defend the value of the diploma from a given school. If employers figure out that a school graduates a large number of cheaters, they will (appropriately??) weight the value of a diploma from that school in a downward direction. Toward that goal, finding every instance of dishonesty in a student's history at that school may be a valuable exercise.

The other goal would be to modify the behavior of a student caught cheating, providing the opportunity of learning from the experience and learning how not to cheat. With that in mind, if one delves too deeply into past behavior, one might find a veritable well of plagiarism, bringing the level of penalty up to permanent separation, thus removing the pathway of modifying behavior.

These goals may well conflict. The ideal medium would be to identify cheating every time and immediately upon the event, but that really can't happen.

Practically, it would be difficult to gather all of a student's past (and passed!) assignments and put them under a microscope. It's also a big ask for faculty members.

Note that for faculty caught plagiarizing, it's fairly likely that their life work will be put under a microscope, that that's probably appropriate.

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In Germany in 2013, 33 years after writing her doctoral thesis, the education minister Annette Schavan was stripped of here doctorate by her Alma Mater, Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. She subsequently resigned her post. Your country may differ but educational institutions and employers can have long memories in this regard.

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At my institution each department has a plagiarism officer, who deals with cases reported by faculty according to the procedures set out in university regulations. I am aware of at least one case where the plagiarism officer conducted a review of a students previous work because of the nature of their offense (after it had been investigated and punished appropriately). So retrospective investigations can and do happen, if the institutions regulations allow it (and there is good reason).

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