I am nearing the end of teaching a course for first year students with a fellow student.

We assigned a paper and 2 students have submitted almost identical papers. The policy is that if a student is caught they get a 0 and possible legal action on a case-by-case basis governed by department heads.

I know that one of these students is a 4.0 students and it seems odd that she would either share or copy her paper from another student. I'll refer to her as student A. Student B's paper is about a 90% copy and normally cases where this happened it's evident that the students are friends and socialize during classes. I have never seen Student A and B talk to one another and I find it hard to believe student A would plagiarize off of another student.

I do not want to have to fail both students if only 1 copied off the other without the other's knowledge. How can I appropriately handle the situation without seeming like there is a favoritism towards student A? Student B has been on the lower end of the class grade wise but is still a passing student.

  • 11
    I guess that 4.0 is a GPA score? Perhaps specifying it would help the readers not familiar with the system.
    – user7112
    Jul 27, 2015 at 14:56
  • 5
    Or maybe the person got a 4.0 because she has a huge network of friends to help her cheat. I actually used to know such people who would basically abuse their "popularity" to get the smart people to help. Fortunately I think they got caught eventually.
    – ithisa
    Jul 28, 2015 at 0:52
  • You have no proof of who did what. I personally believe someone stole something from someone else. I'd say you should demand a simultaneous meeting with both of them after you've objectively determined the incredible odd's against such similarities. At the very least, you will be enlightening both as to what the other may have done. You could tell them you're informing other professors to be on the lookout. Aug 9, 2016 at 0:03

10 Answers 10


Usually, the way to handle this is to ask both students to come in at the same time. And then in separate rooms, ask them to articulate one of the key points of the essay. It's usually simple to determine who wrote the paper and understood the ideas and who merely copied the text.

However, the key issue doesn't seem to be just whether B copied from A, but whether:

  1. A allowed B to copy the material willingly (perhaps for remuneration)
  2. A allowed it to be copied by B accidentally or through neglect (e.g., A left a draft on a public computer); or,
  3. B copied it by malicious action (B hacked into A's computer).

(There is a fourth possibility: that both B and A used source C and both are plagiarists.)

It would be unfair to punish just B and let A go without proving A's innocence or culpability.

That all being said, untangling this is non-trivial and at this point, I'd declare it above my pay grade and send it up the chain of command to the university committee responsible for student ethics and misconduct (via the instructor on record if you're a teaching assistant).


You go to whoever in your department is responsible for this kind of thing, explain the situation to them and do as they advise. This is a serious matter and you need to be acting in accordance with your department and university's policies, not on the well-meant advice of strangers on the internet.


Speaking as a student lab instructor who recently handled a similar situation, this is the general decision-making process I go through, with concrete examples from the incident with which I was involved.

  1. Determine if any school policy constrains your actions. For example, in my case it is required that even suspected cases be turned over to the academic misconduct people. This centralised mechanism allows the school to accurately track students who offend in multiple courses, and it offers additional disciplinary options that aren't available to the instructor (e.g. the incident may be noted on all transcripts the student requests).
  2. If the above step doesn't prevent you from doing so, document the facts of the offence. This may require you to do additional research (e.g. checking the assignment against an online plagiarism detection service), depending on the particulars of the assignment. In my case, the papers were submitted electronically, and I was able to prove that Student A had turned his in barely prior to the posted deadline, but Student B had turned his in several hours late.
  3. Should the evidence be insufficient to determine who has what level of culpability, it may be necessary to interview the students. This is tricky, because an instructor doesn't have the same powers as the police. For example, depending on jurisdiction, you likely cannot force them to show you their inboxes, or restrict them from communicating with one another before you interview them. I strongly recommend taking steps to protect yourself against the possibility that the student will accuse you of extortion (i.e. they claim you said "I won't report this if you give me money/favours/etc."). You may be allowed, depending on privacy laws, to inform an authority in your department, or to record the conversation. In my case, I informed the professor who taught the associated lectures, and he conducted the interview via email, so neither of us was never alone with the student and there was a written record of the discussion.
  4. Use your findings to determine what likely happened. Do your best, just like you would when marking the assignment normally, to keep the students' identities at arm's length. That is, don't presume that since Student B is a poorer student, Student A did the work and he copied it. In my case, I concluded that there was no evidence of collaboration before the deadline, and that Student A was likely under the impression that he was free to discuss it with Student B (discussion after an assignment being commonplace and tolerated here, even to the point of emailing work to another student), but Student B misrepresented the work as his own. Student B did not contest this in his email response.
  5. If there is an office to handle these things at your school, present them with your evidence and, if appropriate, a recommendation. If not, determine what consequences to impose. In borderline cases, it may be appropriate to issue a warning; in clear-cut cases, it can vary quite a bit depending on both the severity of the offence and the local academic culture, from taking a zero on the assignment to failing the course to expulsion. In my case, the assignment was heavily weighted and a zero on it caused Student B to fail the course.

In general, the first priority is to play by the rules of your school and the laws of your jurisdiction.


So you're a student and not faculty? That can be tough to deal with because you lack authority, both in the faculty's and the students' eyes. I'd advise you to get advice from some faculty member in the department. It'll help to involve them early if it ends up going to some sort of hearing.

One tactic in this situation is to send an email out to the class advising them that you caught people cheating off each other on this assignment. If they turn themselves into you you'll go easy on them. Sometimes it works and you'll have an easier time of it with this route.

  • I have thought about talking to a faculty member because like you said, I lack authority. My issue is that I believe (90% sure) that student A is not at fault. I don't have a bias towards student A but I don't want to see someone having possible legal action taken against them for something they did. I have sent out an email (less than 12 hours ago) stating that I fear someone may have copied someone else paper and that I can only help them if they identify themselves.
    – Memj
    Jul 26, 2015 at 0:50
  • 18
    You should definitely talk to whatever faculty member acts as your boss with regards to this teaching job and get their advice on what to do. Jul 26, 2015 at 3:36
  • 6
    This email sounds like a bad idea to me. You should not (either implicitly or explicitly) pressure a possibly innocent student into "confessing" with the offer of a more lenient sentence. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – o.m.
    Jul 26, 2015 at 10:28
  • 1
    @o.m. while we do not do it over email, that is essentially how our policy works: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/20841/…
    – StrongBad
    Jul 26, 2015 at 10:51
  • 9
    Doing it consistently by policy is one thing, but for the most junior possible teacher (a student) to propose a plea-bargain on their own authority, when they have little or no discretion as to punishment since it's up to the department head, would I think be unwise. Don't make an offer you can't stick to! Jul 26, 2015 at 16:18

Without talking to both students, you can't be sure of anything. The first step in a plagiarism case is to talk with the student. How would Student B have obtained Student A's paper before the paper was due, without her cooperation? I think the best strategy is to talk with both students, get whatever information you can, give the department chair your best estimate of the situation and let him or her handle it.

  • 8
    No, when you're an extremely junior member of the department (a student teaching a course), the first step is to talk to the senior person in the department who is responsible for student conduct. Jul 26, 2015 at 17:11
  • 1
    It's not clear whether the poster is the teacher-of-record. If she records grades in the course, she's responsible for the students, and from her comment "normally cases where this happened" suggests to me that this is not her first time teaching the course. Of course she can talk about the situation to a more senior faculty member, or a faculty member or dean designated to deal with plagiarism (a function I fulfilled at my college), but I still would recommend that the teacher -- and she is the teacher, it seems to me -- talk with her students before passing them on to a higher authority.
    – ewormuth
    Jul 26, 2015 at 17:44
  • 1
    Discussing the matter with a senior colleague is in no way "passing [the students] on to a higher authority." Jul 26, 2015 at 19:26
  • Agreed. No problem at all with having a conversation with a faculty member/department chair before speaking with the students.
    – ewormuth
    Jul 27, 2015 at 1:53
  • 1
    But big problem talking to the students before finding out what you're supposed to be doing! Your answer claims that the first step is to talk to the students: this is simply incorrect. Jul 27, 2015 at 7:24

You seem to believe that A is innocent and you seem afraid that the university rules will punish her anyway.

Do you have faith in the fairness of university rules and their fair application? If so, talk to your professor. If not, ask yourself if you're at the right university ...


Some universities have codes of conduct to prevent fishing of students who are suspected of cheating. Talk to the Head of Department or a senior professor. Do not do anything else.


An advice I have to is check if Student A uploaded her document to a shared resource of some sort. For example, if the university has a shared network drive for students, it's entirely possible student B accessed this somehow. Just ask how she stored the document and take steps in that direction.

While a undergrad at college I noticed lecturers and students alike tend to not protect their digital usage. I known a teacher who uploaded all the homework solution to a website and simply unlinked them. Basically you had to change the url from homework_solution_1.html to homework_solution_2.html and you'd see the solution well in advance.

Also at my previous job, I noticed this co-worker seemed to have similar and/or exact code as someone else well in advanced. I finally figured out that this co-worker would wait until someone uploaded their code for the day then start picking it out. This co-worker was grossly incompetent otherwise and even after bringing it up to the management they kept this person on.

So digital protection is a must anywhere.


You should talk with the people responsible for the plagiarism policy at your university and ask how to handle the case instead of asking for advice on the internet. It is very important to follow the rules. For example, at some university where I previously was, there was a rule that a professor should meet with each student A and B separately. If this rule was not followed, then the case of plagiarism may be dropped.


First you need to identify if the work is acceptable, such as is it referenced correctly.

Second, see if you can show signs of collusion or plagiarism based on the universities definition.

Third you can ask the student to defend the work by agreeing to an oral exam, there is a technical term for this but I can't remember.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .