We have two students in my department who handed in identical essays. As per our policy we scheduled independent meetings with both students to determine what happened. Going into these meetings our primary objective is to figure out which of the following 5 possibilities occurred:

  1. The students worked jointly and wrote one essay
  2. One student wrote the essay and knowingly allowed the other student to copy the essay
  3. One student wrote the essay and the other student copied their essay without the first student's knowledge
  4. The students worked independently and managed to write word for word identical essays (this seems unlikely)
  5. The students independently copied the same source

One student is on medical leave and was therefore unable to attend the meeting. The student who attended the meeting showed us drafts of previous essays which have convinced us that neither (4) nor (5) occurred. Further, when we exclude the other student's essay, TurnItIn doesn't find anything of concern. We also are confident that the student who attended the meeting did not copy the essay from the other student. This leaves us with possibilities (1), (2), and (3).

Our policy states that both students would be punished for academic misconducted if either (1) or (2) occurred and only the other student would be punished if (3) occurred. It seems without talking to the other student we cannot really come to a fair conclusion. Without a decision the student who attended the meeting will have neither passed or failed the class and therefore is not eligible to retake the class nor take any class which has the class in question as a prerequisite. It is unlikely the student on medical leave will be back in time to make a timely decision. How should we proceed?

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    My gut reaction is "innocent until proven guilty." If you can't determine what the truth is, best to assume innocence.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 17:09
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    @JimConant but you can sit in jail a long time waiting for your innocence to be proven.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 17:10
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    Probably not an optimal decision, but you can assign an IN grade until the decision is made, and then maybe waive the prerequisite for any class which requires this class as a prerequisite. Usually waiving the prerequisite is a department decision... The student involved know exactly if he cheated or not, so he should be able to plan accordingly...
    – Nick S
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 17:27
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    @StrongBad: My point is not to draw a connection to criminal justice, but to the underlying philosophy that it's better to let a guilty party go free than to wrongly punish an innocent person.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 17:41
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    Also, if you find solid evidence of guilt later on, is there any way to retroactively assign a penalty of some kind? For example if a student of mine, whom I assigned an A, was later shown to have cheated, I could retroactively change their grade according to our university's policy.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented Oct 26, 2014 at 17:43

7 Answers 7


Not letting this student move forward at this point would be punishment. If there is a chance that you will find the student innocent of any wrongdoing, it seems like the injustice of punishing them for something they did not do is worse than letting them get away with something they did.

Make it clear to the student that they will pass the class given the lack of evidence against them but that you will continue to evaluate the situation. Make sure they know that if you conclude later that they have colluded, you will update their grade to a failing one and force them to retake the class.

The only real negative consequence of this is that the student might be able to take classes that require this class as a prerequisite before they are forced to go back and take the original class again. That's not ideal, but it doesn't really seem so bad.

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    It's not really a negative that the student might have to go back after taking classes that required the given one as a prerequisite - the offshoot there is that the student gets to go ahead if they are innocent. If they're lying, then it would only be reasonable for them to admit guilt and take the class again - since otherwise, they'd just waste time in some other class before they're forced back. So the student gets a chance to be make a choice, and if they choose to take a class they know they haven't satisfied the prerequisites for, well, that'll be their problem when they're discovered. Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 2:01
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    The reason course 1 is a prerequisite for course 2 is that a student is unlikely to understand course 2 without first understanding course 1. If the student proves they understand course 2 by passing that course, who cares if they are subsequently failed on course 1? It's unusual administratively but it in no way invalidates their pass on course 2. Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 17:16
  • @DavidRicherby: That may be the idea behind the prerequisite, but, depending on the respective university's rules, fulfilling the prerequisite can easily be enforced. If passing of course 2 is defined as "having passed course 1 + achieving X points in the exam on course 2", a later discovery of a failing in course 1 would obviously invalidate the passing of course 2. What would be unusual administratively is that the student might be given a chance to pass course 1 after passing the exam of course 2, thus fulfilling the requirements of passing course 2 in the opposite to normal order. Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 8:58

If you are convinced that the student who attended the meeting wrote the essay in question, then you must conclude that either the other student stole a copy or the two students collaborated. I think that almost requires grades of "Incomplete" for both students until the matter can be resolved.

Edited to add: I like Nick S's comment about waiving the prerequisites for the student who attended the meeting. His is a comment to the original question, and is worth reading.


I know this can only apply to some of the situations, but if the student is unable to attend, yet still able to communicate I would say:

Have you considered scheduling a call?

You can just do the talk by phone, or Skype and documents can be scanned and mailed. Perhaps this is not as good as a face to face meeting, but I would say there is a good chance that you can clear things up this way.

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    If I might add, you could also ask of the sick student to come for a meeting or... provide a note from his medical doctor saying he is not fit to do so. Then see what happens.
    – A.G.
    Commented Oct 27, 2014 at 17:09

In my university we have a general rule: If you collude, you both fail that assignment. If you took another student's assignment and copied it (stole from a classmate) then you not only fail the assignment but you fail the subject and must retake it. Note: It is possible to fail and assignment and still pass the subject by resubmitting the failing work (as I believe most UK universities do and I believe you are in the UK).

I do not believe there is a perfect solution but by having a rule such as this, you can mostly avoid having one student say "It is my original work" when really it was joint work because they would not want to save their friend at the cost of retaking the module (when they could both pass, albeit with a lower grade).

If you have the same rule and the student in front of you is very clear about that and the student in front of you says "Yes, this is mine, all mine, he must have stolen from me" then I would let that student pass (without any contradicting evidence from the other student).

The challenge with such a rule in this case is that they might have colluded but the other student might simply take the fall, if only because he has nothing to lose because he's out on medical leave and cannot complete the module this term anyway. So, he might as well fall on his sword.

In your case (where one student is unavailable) I would have the student present sign some simple declaration ("It's my original work and the other student must have stolen it from me and I agree if the above is found to be untrue then my grade will be changed after-the-fact.")

I would not worry about the student taking subjects which need this subject as a pre-req. If he doesn't understand, that will be shown clearly later and will sort itself out.

Again, it's not a perfect rule but it mostly prevents colluding students from getting away with it by imposing double punishment on one.


As an answer, I would like to bring up a question. Are the drafts conclusive evidence that (4) and (5) can be excluded? As far as (4) is unlikely, I find (5) highly likely. My question is extended to ask what was the time frame between finding the plagiarism, informing the students of the plagiarism, and the submission of the drafts by the student who isn't on sick leave?

As most "drafts" are neither handwritten or typed on a typewriter, the ease and quickness that a draft can be made does not remove doubt that the work isn't of the student.

If (1) and (2) are options, and this brings into suspect their collusion, then don't think that they still wouldn't be colluding in the fallout.


I have another idea. Are the students both of the same sex? I just found something interesting that may help.

This site analyzes text for traits statistically associated with the sex of the writer.


It seems to be fairly accurate. It correctly identified George Eliot as female (it was not fooled by her male pseudonym, LOL), and me as male. I also used it to analyze a text translated by male and female translators of a male writer (the same passage of about 600 words). The male translator's text came out 8% more 'masculine'.

If the test text comes out 'female' and one or both of the students is male, you have reason to suspect one or both has copied it. But of course, this is only one tool and must be viewed as such. It is just a piece of evidence to add to whatever other evidence you may have. To 'calibrate' the system, you could run all the students' papers through the process to see if it correctly identifies the male and female students in the class.

Of course, if both students are male or female, and the analysis does not show any discrepancy, it is of no help in determining which of the five possibilities occurred.

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    You can't punish or not punish a student based on the result of this test. The fact that it is often right is not enough to justify failing a student. See my answer for details for why I think that "innocent until proven guilty" is the correct approach.
    – mako
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 19:58

It's hard to believe that both students would have agreed to turn in identical papers. Most students would know that turning in a paper identical to some other student's would certainly be noticed. So, it is more likely that only one of them is the culprit. In this case, this student is most likely stupid as well as dishonest. The question is how do we tell who is lying? I believe King Solomon had a similar problem, when two woman claimed to be the mother of a single child. You might want to offer to give half credit to each. The one who cheated would likely object less.

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    Despite repeatedly telling them group work is not allowed, we often get identical papers from students. As for offering half credit and then trying to gauge objections, especially when one student is unavailable, seems like an awful idea.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 17:11
  • Apparently there is a communication problem if that is happening 'often'. Are these students Oriental? Culturally, some east Asian societies encourage group endeavor, the Japanese in particular.
    – Myra
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 17:14
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    I have never heard of such a thing regarding Asian people, and I'm Asian.
    – Compass
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:08

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