I have a student who has handed in a term paper from another class, only changing the title page, and he claims that he only put the due date for the current course's term paper on the cover sheet of the old term paper to remind him of when the new term paper was due. He claims he was then cutting and pasting (appropriately, of course) between the old paper and the new paper and must've gotten the two files mixed up. Of course, the "wrong" file (old term paper with new due date) was "accidentally" uploaded to our learning management system and he did submit the "correct" file two days later (that was extremely poor quality), but only after I pointed out the problem to him.

Now he is claiming I am unreasonable because I don't believe him and have failed him for the course. We are about to go to a grade appeal at the department level. I was wondering if everyone on here could provide suggestions for why it is reasonable to stick to my decision, despite the student arguing very vigorously that I'm unreasonable, unfair, and even irrational for not believing this was "just an honest mistake". (Given my university's fondness for "student friendly" I may not be supported very vigorously by the committee.)

Any help is greatly appreciated.

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    It's called self-plagiarism. – Significance Mar 1 '16 at 3:13
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    I am troubled by the idea that you've failed the student for self-plagiarism, which presumably would mean that you are very confident of his guilt, and yet you're posting here asking for arguments to support your case. If you need uninformed strangers on the internet to give you reasons to believe he is guilty, to me that's a sign that you're not really very sure of his guilt. In that case, it's probably better to let him enjoy the benefit of the doubt (frustrating as that may be) and instead of failing him for self-plagiarizing, give him a bad grade for submitting work of very poor quality. – Dan Romik Mar 1 '16 at 8:22
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    @DanRomik Who doesn't feel this sort of way when they've failed a student for committing academic dishonesty and they have to go before a committee about it? Sounds like little more than proof that the OP's human (and probably doing this for the first time). – zibadawa timmy Mar 1 '16 at 9:11
  • Why was he cutting and pasting between two different papers, are the two similar in scope? Some opinions I agree with: REF1, REF2. – CKM Mar 1 '16 at 17:31
  • He may have meant something like copying papers between folders, rather than copying content between them, or copying a title/signoff page with a set structure - I did this once, with a /Module/Jon_Story_Assignment1.docx type file structure, and grabbed the wrong file when uploading. Fortunately I noticed before the deadline and uploaded the correct file and there was no problem, but I can attest to the fact it can happen and is surprisingly easily done, particularly when doing a repetitive task like renaming 5 files to add your name, and then uploading them. – Jon Story Mar 1 '16 at 17:42

I might be having a completely different stance on the topic, however I feel it needs to be thought about. The primary goal of a school would be to asses whether the student in question has achieved a certain level of competences. In order to test those competences you'd give all sorts of assignments to see whether the student has both competences AND skills required for their studies.

As @Significance and @DanRomik mentioned before, filing the other paper can be seen as self-plagiarism. However, if you consider that filing this paper is invalid you could also say that he never filed any valid paper in the first place. Meaning he crossed the deadline that was given for this paper.

School is a place to prepare a person to work at companies and more. So it would not be a bad idea to treat a student as if he were an employee. He filed his work late, couldn't meet the deadline and would obviously be penalized. Now since school is a place to learn from your mistakes you could throw him a lifeline. Rather than smashing him down, I'd accept his paper that was of extremely poor quality, but penalize the grade of this paper based on crossing the deadline.

Now, in the end he may still fail due to the poor quality + crossed deadline. But at the very least he would have learned to be more punctual about his work.

After all, being able to deliver good quality work on a timely way are some of the most important competences a student has to learn.

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    Neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you with the following, I just felt it's worth pointing out that in a business setting it's pretty common for someone to attach the wrong file and nothing is thought of it! I probably get a couple of "Whoops, forgot to attach the file" or "Whoops, disregard that, here's the right attachment" emails a month, along with one where I have to ask for the correct document – Jon Story Mar 1 '16 at 17:45
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    While I hate comparing academia to industry, there are behaviors in industry (e.g., intentionally deceiving your boss or customers) that will get you fired. – StrongBad Mar 1 '16 at 19:05

In case of such doubt, I'd ask the student to show evidence. I.e., show me on your computer the file that by mistake didn't get uploaded, and I'll check if it wasn't written yesterday (yes, that can be faked, but...) and I'll consider grading that one. In any case, whatever grading penalty there is for sloppy work or similar will apply, and probably also the penalty for turning it in late (as applicable).

  • It can be faked incredibly easily... and if they had the wrong title page, they could easily argue that they have since edited the file to correct the title pages. While I see where you're coming from, there's no way to be sure about it: modifying created/modified dates is trivial – Jon Story Mar 1 '16 at 17:46
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    @JonStory, I know. But if you ask them cold to show you the work of their computer they are carrying around, they don't have time to fake what they didn't turn in, and even less fake file dates. – vonbrand Mar 1 '16 at 18:35

In the absence (or even presence) of a clear policy statement about incorrect submissions, just let the department committee sort it out. If your department wants to be "student friendly" let them be. If you really want to fight the "student friendly" approach, take it up at the next faculty meeting.

Here is my problem with the student's story: Every LMS I've ever seen allows you to review your submitted documents. We learn as a function of not wanting to fail our classes very quickly that we need to make certain that the docments we submitted are free of technical fault. This includes making sure that: you submitted the right document, there are no formatting issues, that our file isn't actually broken or inaccessible.

In all those cases, regardless if the student had plagiarized or not, he would still be penalized. If I make the assumption that he did not want to fail this assessment, and that his due effort still resulted in the submission of a fraudulent document, I would undoubtedly hold him as accountable for academic dishonesty. If I assume that he was careless, and that his lack of attention resulted in the submission of the wrong document, I have to dig deeper:

Compare the quality of paper 1, and paper 2 (the poor quality one). Does it look to you like he threw paper 2 together hastily in an effort to cover his tracks, or does it look characteristically like his attempt at a term paper? There should be marked differences between a paper he took the time to polish and something he attempted to churn out in the two days that he knew there was trouble.

Now, as serious as the offense may be, I don't believe in derailing on-time graduation or graduate school prospects. I believe in instilling values that down the road when, for example, he contends to self-plagiarize something that he no longer holds copyright or publishing rights on and ends up in a bit of legal trouble, it just doesn't happen.

I think that instead of failing him, you can work this out giving him an honest grade on his final submission, penalized for the late days, at a larger percentage of the final grade.

  • My former department used Turn-It-In and while it had a review feature, the program typically took hours to process so the ability to review the document did not happen until after the deadline. – StrongBad Mar 1 '16 at 19:09
  • @StrongBad That's strange in my experience, when I used Turnitin as an undergrad we could generally view our own submission within 10-15 minutes (we used Canvas for everything else, just one class in one term used Turnitin). – CKM Mar 1 '16 at 19:18

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