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During the last term, I recorded at least 50 cases of student plagiarism. The most common cases were students copying and pasting paragraphs verbatim from various Web sites, assembling them together, and calling it their essay.

I took what I thought were sufficient steps to inform students of what was not allowed:

  • I posted the rules in the syllabus, on the course Web site, and listed relevant rules in the instructions for larger projects.
  • I issued spoken warnings in class regularly, occasionally showed some examples of such submissions, and also showed students some of the steps I took to catch the plagiarism.

I also set what I thought were strict enough consequences so that students know it is better to do nothing at all than to cheat:

  • 20% grade loss (from their entire grade) per infraction, no matter the value of the assignment (most assignments were only worth ~5%).

Note, these are policies I established from the very first day of the class, and carried through the whole term. Yet, even in the final weeks, I continued to catch copied work and failed a lot of students.

What further steps can I take to reduce this problem?

  • 4
    Just a curiosity: where are you teaching? – xxx--- Aug 9 '14 at 15:19
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    What you're doing seems fine. There are limits on what you can do. In the cases where the student turned in a plagiarized final paper, had they turned in previous work that wasn't plagiarized? – Ben Crowell Aug 9 '14 at 15:45
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    I think, too, that what you do is fine. The problem is more of the poor time management or similar factors on the side of the students. If you want to have less fail students, maybe you should focus on that part. – Greg Aug 9 '14 at 16:17
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    You have my sympathies: 50 cases per semester sounds unusually, distressingly high. As with other commenters, I think you should just stick to what you are already doing. If you routinely fail (sufficiently repeated and/or egregious) plagiarists, then the word will get out and over time I suspect you'll have many fewer cases. Unless these students are so out of their depth that they cannot hope to pass the course honestly, cheating when you know it has caused many other students to fail is really irrational behavior. Students are not so irrational, in my experience... – Pete L. Clark Aug 9 '14 at 22:50
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    This is exactly why my standard consequence for a second offense, no matter how minor, is an F in the class. – JeffE Oct 25 '14 at 15:36

11 Answers 11

15

It might be helpful if you can tell us what field you are in, or more specifically what kinds of class you are teaching. What is the subject, and is it a big lecture class or a small section, etc? Catching 50 plagiarists makes me think you are teaching big lecture sections.

Here are two things I do: First, I have a very harsh plagiarism policy. I automatically fail anybody I catch plagiarizing. This raises the stakes.

Second, I consciously try to design assignments that are hard to plagiarize. There are a variety of ways to do this. For instance, you can give fairly specific assignments. Don't say: "Write a paper about Shakespeare" but instead "Write me a paper on the role of ghosts in King Lear and MacBeth." This doesn't make cheating impossible, but it makes it harder to google and get a prefabbed paper.

  • Also, you can use a service like turnitin.com if your university subscribes. it makes it trivial to catch plagiarism and discourages students from plagiarizing. – shane Aug 9 '14 at 18:59
  • he somehow answered some of your questions in the latest comment under his question – Kristof Tak Aug 9 '14 at 22:21
  • @shane do you have any evidence that it discourages students? We don't see that in my department. – StrongBad Aug 10 '14 at 10:18
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    I haven't run a controlled test, this is just anecdotal. But my experience in my own department is that my colleagues with policies like "50% off the grade on that one assignment" end up with lots of plagiarism (>5 cases per year) whereas me and the one other person I know who autofail students hardly ever get plagiarists (<1 per year). Again, that's merely anecdotal. Maybe there is some empirical literature on this though? – shane Aug 10 '14 at 10:20
  • I did the zero policy at the same university as shane, and averaged 0.5-1 per semester. – virmaior Aug 10 '14 at 15:51
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I sit on my departments academic misconduct committee and see a huge number of cases and have looked at a number of statistics. We use TurnItIn at my university and allow students top precheck there work to obtain both a similarity score and a detailed report of which parts of their paper are likely copied. About half our students use this precheck feature, but they seem to ignore the output since the similarity index on the precheck are generally not that different from the similarity score on the final copy. In other words telling students exactly what is copied does not decrease plagiarism. We have a pretty light penalty for a first offence of plagiarism, but the penalty for a second offence is much more severe. Having previous offences does not reduce the probability of committing plagiarism on future assignments, so we do not think that the severity of the penalty matters. We have concluded that the students who plagiarise just do not care and that there is nothing that can be done to discourage them.

Looking at the sources students copy from, we do not think the specificity of the assignment would reduce the number of incidents. What we notice is that some types of assignments (e.g, take home essays) are much more likely to contain plagiarism than others (e.g., exam essays) and that plagiarism is much more likely to occur during the first year. We therefore limit the number of assignments with high rates of plagiarism during the first year.

  • When you say "Having previous offences does not reduce the probability of committing plagiarism on future assignments" do you mean that you get roughly the same number of first time plagiarism cases as you get second time cases? – shane Aug 10 '14 at 11:30
  • @shane thankfully no. If you divide the assignment base on number of previous academic offences you get a huge stack for people with zero offences, and a tiny stack of people with two offences. What I mean is that N percent of each stack, not N assignments, contains plagiarism. Does that make sense? – StrongBad Aug 10 '14 at 13:14
  • It seems the question is: do you have more people in the "one offense" box than the "two offense" box? If so, then it would seem like the strict policy is effective, no? – shane Aug 10 '14 at 13:15
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While both of the existing answers have the same basic answers as me, I will add mine simply because I don't have time to make it short enough to fit into a comment.

As Shane wrote, design assignments that are hard to plagiarize and fail all students who plagiarize.

I do both of theses but still have a problem with students plagiarizing. I fail all who plagiarize but they have a chance to resubmit one time (school policy). If it were up to me, I would fail then without a chance to resubmit, but it is not up to me.

In the end, some students do not take the issue of plagiarism seriously. These are the students whom you need to awaken and finally seeing that they will not graduate until they write their own assignments will eventually awaken them.

I have had students (more than one) who end up taking one of my modules three years in a row (because they keep failing for plagiarizing). Eventually, they all get it and do their own work (or they change schools). The students who get caught and open up to me usually have the same reason: They waited until the last minute and did not have time to complete the work, so they took a shortcut.

I have even had students who clearly spend hours modifying the work of someone else just to avoid detection. I constantly wonder why they would not simply spend those hours doing the actual work. I don't always get a response when I ask the student.

First semester students are usually worse than more senior ones but it does seem that some students think that even though one teacher is tough, they still try it (and sometimes succeed) with other teachers. A more coordinated school-wide effort would seem to help with this, although I have been unsuccessful in making my colleagues as concerned as I am on the topic.

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To reduce plagiarism I would increase the penalty to "failure" for any instance of plagiarism. This policy might make students react emotionally and therefore might seem difficult to do. Therefore, I would add to your "let them know in advance" policies a few statements (eg in the syllabus) to show the problem context, as "Last semester 50 students failed the class due to plagiarism," and "the purpose of the policy is to protect the value of the university's degree. If the school gets a reputation as a cheaters' school, the value of our degree may drop to that of a low tier school."

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I used to work in a college when desktop computing was in its infancy. it was inevitable that a class of 30 students would come up with similar papers if they all used the same research sources.
I failed 27 out of thirty papers submitted in the first week because they were all copied from Microsoft Encarta, which was available in the college library. I knew that the article had been copied and pasted as I had a print of it on my desk which I had used to prepare the module with. After a class protest against my actions I reviewed my actions and failed the other 3 as they had copied the article but at least had the good sense to re-word it so it wasn't quite so obvious. Sadly, none of the students had acquired any knowledge of the material.

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Plagiarism is violation of administrative policy enforceable by a forfeit of benefits. Students are all adults and should know about plagiarism from their former schooling prior to attending the university.

  • First case: Warning and educational session explaining intellectual dishonesty

  • Second case: Exmatriculation/expulsion.

We as society need such specialists and often we pay our taxes for their education. Tolerating plagiarism allows students to graduate from the university with an art of criminal thinking. Exmatriculation is in this case just a prophylaxis of more substantial and society-harmful crime.

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This is a very hard decision to make if you are alone with the problem.

It is my experience that teaching institutions tend to gloat about having a hard line / zero tolerance policy towards cheating (plagiarism is cheating, at least once the students have been told so), while being rather soft on cheaters when it comes to actually taking action.

I would therefore recommend that you actually ask your bosses (department heads and the like) what they recommend. Do make sure they are not encouraging you to waste your time (by taking action against cheaters only to see your actions canceled by some committee). If your institution actually enforces a hard line policy, go with it. If it is rather permissive, well, you cannot do much more than go with it too... :(

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Just a couple of things to add, having been the plagiarism czarina at my school for a number of years.

1) The university should have a campus-wide policy so that students in different sections of the same course don't receive widely differing consequences.
2) It's written into the California Education Code that teachers cannot grade punitively, so failing a student for plagiarism was out. We could give the student a zero on that paper only, and figure that zero into their final grade. 3) We sent particularly egregious cases to the Student Discipline Officer, who as the President's designee could be punitive or whatever she felt appropriate. 4) Many students come to college not understanding how to cite sources correctly. They need to be taught. 5) Change your assignments every semester and as one responder said, write questions in such a way that students will not be able to easily cut and paste.

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Depends on the number of your students and a little bit of work from your end. I did teach a programming class with 100 students. I did the following:

  1. Created 20 topics and with a little bit of guideline for each.

  2. In a class, asked students to write their names and I put them in a hat. Then asked a student to come to the board and pick names from the hat. So we randomly created 20 groups of 5.

  3. Monitored their work every week to see who is doing what in the group.

  4. The last 2 weeks of the course and during the presentation of their work, I asked each person individually in a group what they have done and if the rest of the group agree with that.

Almost all students came through. The best thing was created this interactive process, I was happy because they were gradually building up and learning and solving their problems ,and they were very happy because they felt they got what they deserved.

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The thing that has worked best for me is to explain that citation and accompanying references show me, the instructor, that the student has actually done work instead of just jotting down whatever comes immediately to mind, and that I reward work.

That and assigning a grade of zero on the first instance with a warning that a repetition will result in referral to the student conduct office.

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The university I attended and teach at has the same plagiarism policy and I've only ever heard of 3 cases occurring during my time learning and instructing.

The policy is that if you are caught plagiarizing you fail the course and can be taken to court. Legal charges depends on who they are stealing from and if that person wants to press charges. Of the 3 cases I have seen never has anyone pressed charges.

In terms of what you can do to reduce plagiarizing there's various methods that depends on what your university allows you to enforce. First, I would fail a student immediately if it's copy & paste. If it's a student who clearly just doesn't know how to cite things correctly (example: "famous quote in paper" no acknowledgement as to who said it).

You seem like you put a good amount of effort into telling your students the consequences for plagiarism but I don't think losing 20% will deter a lot of people form at least doing it once. 80% is a passing grade though simple path would say if they assignment is less than 20% if your final grade, just don't do it rather than copying it from somewhere else.

You mentioned that you teach a writing course? In my writing courses we had to have a peer proofread our rough drafts before moving onto the final paper. If you do something similar then you may want to encourage having students review a digital copy of the assignment and have the peer run it through copyscape or even inform the students to run their own assignments through copyscape.

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