I gave my students an opportunity to rewrite one of their papers for extra points. As I was grading, I realized that two papers were almost identical. They had a similar structure, organization, and presented ideas in a similar manner. I asked the students about plagiarism but they denied it. Since it was a rewrite, I told them that I wouldn't add any points to their grades and they should never do this again.

One of the students, however, emailed me stating that she is worried their final assignments might look similar as well. She was trying to convince me that her paper is her original work and the second student "worked really hard to make sure their papers don't look alike!".

She included screen shots of their fb conversation as evidence. In FB conversation the one with the original work is telling her friend to use her paper as a basis but change the sentences and examples so it won't look like plagiarism.

This is a clear case of plagiarism. Correct? I am not sure how to handle it. I know they are not realizing that's plagiarism, otherwise they wouldn't have shared those fb conversations. So I don't want to report to the school (yet!). But I am also not sure how to penalize them? Give a zero for the assignment? What do you recommend? Should I give zeros to both of them?

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    The student with the original work has not completed plagiarism. She may have committed academic misconduct if the policy explicitly says do not share your work. The second student has committed plagiarism.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 0:14
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    Maybe you should give them an extra assignment – one where they have to write a 1-2 page paper on this topic: What Is Plagiarism?
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 11:45
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    Make them write the exactly same paper 10 times. Longhand. And they will be enlightened. ;-) Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 12:56
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    I went to public schools - plagiarism is redundantly covered, repeatedly, over and over. For emphasis. They're being lazy and playing dumb, but they know exactly what they're doing. They're testing you and think you're too lazy to throw the book at them. Don't let them get away with it.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 13:10
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    It sounds like the students don't completely understand what constitutes plagiarism. You'll at least need to help them understand what constitutes plagiarism, whatever you choose to do in relation to the assignment. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 14:34

7 Answers 7


This isn't just plagarism - it's out and out cheating - and both students are guilty and one of them has kindly produced proof of their guilt. I would escalate to whatever process is usually undertaken for cheating students.

That they apparently have failed to grasp the concept doesn't make them any less guilty of the infringement and it simply doesn't matter whether they "meant to cheat" - they did.

The appropriate way to deal with cheating students is to escalate it to the system for dealing with cheating students. You should trust that this process will take their ignorance into account while (a) being fair to other students and (b) expressing the appropriate level of opprobrium for their actions.

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    That they apparently have failed to grasp the concept doesn't make them any less guilty of the infringement. Actually it precisely does make them less guilty. That is a well-established principle of the law, known as mens rea. See my answer.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 18:55
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    @DanRomik Mens rea applies to the offense - not to the knowledge of the law. Mens rea applies when your actions accidentally cause an offense - these are typically cases of neglect. However those students knew they are copying their works, they just didn't know that it's an offense. Different concept applies there, called Ignorantia juris non excusat. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 14:18
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    It simply doesn't matter whether they "meant to cheat" - they did. The appropriate way to deal with cheating students is to escalate it to the system for dealing with cheating students - that process should take their ignorance into account while (a) being fair to other students and (b) expressing the appropriate level of opprobrium for their actions. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 15:32
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    Thanks! Administration recommended the same thing. I was worried because I knew it would show up in their records but apparently they would just get a warning for the first time. After meeting with one of them, the story got more complicated. Therefore, I think asking for the professional advice of more experienced people would be the best option.
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 22:40
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    @TomášZato - fun fact: that principal was developed in the beginnings of the ancient Roman Empire when the plebeians demanded to know the laws so that the learned people could not make up laws. After some demonstrations, the government put up the Twelve Tables. This made it so that all citizens will be held liable for any unlawful actions, and ignorance of the law is no longer an excuse because the laws are publicly available.
    – Daniel
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 14:55

Learn about your school's policy. Learn about whether your school has an honor code, defines plagiarism in its catalog, or requires mandatory training such as an online orientation. Many schools have specific rules about what kind of punishments are allowed, and these rules may be based on their own interpretations of local laws or their past experiences with lawsuits. For example, my school's policy specifically tells us that we are not allowed to give a student a failing grade in the course for dishonesty, and it also spells out different levels of consequences for a first and second offense.

Look at your own syllabus to see what you said about plagiarism; usually administrators will support you on anything that's laid out clearly in your syllabus.

Don't assume that administrators will support you. Their priorities may be very, very different from yours.

Once you have done all your homework, talk to your dean and propose how you want to handle the issue. Make sure your dean is on board with what you plan to do. Consider "soft" penalties such as forcing the students to meet with the dean.

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    Thank you! That is a lot of work. I cannot say I am looking forward to it!
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 0:18
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    Sad that the administrators might not be on the side of the instructor. When I was teaching, it was a great comfort to know that my back was guarded by a bureaucracy larger than any of us. It was particularly helpful when dealing with the litigiously unreasonable.
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 6:15
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    "we are not allowed to give a student a failing grade in the course for dishonesty..." Boy, is that backwards. I would understand if you were required to pass someone who could honestly demonstrate competence in the material even if they had lied about doing their homework—but a blanket rule that you can't fail someone for dishonesty? Even if they cheat, plagiarize, and don't actually learn the subject themselves? Yeesh.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 8:33
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    Wildcard, you may be misinterpreting the statement. At our University we cannot alter grades for academic misconduct, but we can and should report the student to the honor council, which can and will give them a "special F" for the course if they are "convicted." Not only do they fail, but they have a permanent "black spot" on their record. Failing them would actually be a mercy we are not allowed to do, and skip their "due process." Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 9:57
  • Similarly, in France higher education teachers are not allowed to grade taking into account assumed fraud. Frauds and misconducts should be dealt with by a special committee. The main reason is that students have the right to be trialled fairly, including seeking legal advice by an lawyer. A benefit of this approach is that when student cheat repeatedly but get caught only every now and then, precedents show up at the committee, not if different teachers dealt with the matters discretely. Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 11:26

This is a matter of education. Some students think plagiarism is only copy and pasting from one another. They also think placing a citation is a license to copy. Some also define it as ok if software, eg turnitin, cannot detect it.

In my case I make it clear. If they steal one sentence it is an automatic zero. It is also a zero if they steal the structure of a paragraph or section. These need to be emphasized multiple times until they eject their old ways out of their system.

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    +1 This is the real problem. If these students don't think they've committed plagiarism, you need to make sure they learn and understand that they did. It's not about giving them the correct grade or penalty, but about making damn sure that they understand the principle, and never forget it. The grade is secondary. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 9:22
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    Honestly, I have been a bit irritated by the two of them throughout the quarter, especially the one who copied the work. They kept challenging me on their grades constantly. The one who copied the work emailed me saying "if it will make you feel better, I will write the essay again!". I don't know if it's because I am a new teacher or I am being oversensitive, but that sounds rude. It also shows she knows what she did was wrong!
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 6:45
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    @Karin These kids are trying to walk all over you. They seem the type that will scheme and whine and cry to get their way. Schools are full of these kids - they'll do anything but the work they're supposed to do to try to scratch together a higher grade for themselves. It's a manipulation game and every time you let them win, give them some slack or leeway, extra chances, you are encouraging this awful behaviour. For the sake of those who will have to deal with these creatures as adults in the workplace, please dispense the discipline now.
    – J...
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 11:05
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    @Peter I guess branding irons are out of question... Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 12:54
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    Oh I agree! They are trying to push boundaries. I gave extensive comments on second student's assignment. It was a 3 page paper, and I had 2-3 long comments per paragraph. She could have fixed her own paper but instead chose to use someone else's work. There is a section on academic misconduct in my syllabus, the paper was only 3 pages double spaced, it was from the material we discussed in the class, and I told her how to fix her paper.There was also the option of sending me outlines to look over before submitting the papers. Btw, Administration told me to file a report.
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 22:33

This is a clear case of plagiarism. Correct? I am not sure how to handle it. I know they are not realizing that's plagiarism, otherwise they wouldn't have shared those fb conversations. So I don't want to report to the school (yet!). But I am also not sure how to penalize them? Give a zero for the assignment? What do you recommend? Should I give zeros to both of them?

I'm going to disagree with Ben Crowell's answer, despite it being well-written and mostly sensible except for one crucial detail. The students have perhaps committed what we technically define as plagiarism (or more precisely, as StrongBad commented, one of them committed plagiarism and the other allowed her work to be used), but the element of mens rea, the "guilty mind" that we consider morally necessary to inflict punishment, is clearly lacking. So my verdict is not guilty.

The bottom line is, it doesn't matter how much we educators wring our hands about "kids these days". If someone clearly doesn't know that a behavior is wrong then it is foolish and harmful to penalize them for it. It is our job to educate students about what constitutes plagiarism and what are the standards we expect of them for independent work and citation of sources. All the things that Ben Crowell's answer lists are basically irrelevant, since if a student is showing you a facebook conversation proving that they did not realize what they were doing is plagiarism, that means your institution has failed to properly educate the students about this subject, whether it's written in the catalog or not.

I should add that in my opinion part of the problem with this common misunderstanding of plagiarism by students is that plagiarism is in fact quite a subtle concept, and that our expectations of how fast and easily students can understand and adapt to it are simply unrealistic. To criminalize a behavior that can result from a misunderstanding or lack of sophistication that is very common among students entering university is very problematic, and can backfire in all sorts of unexpected ways. (On the other hand, of course plagiarism is a real problem that needs to be dealt with; I don't have all the answers about what is the correct approach or balance to strike, and a detailed discussion of this topic is in any case beyond the scope of this question.)

To summarize, in my opinion it would be wrong to penalize the students in this case. You can and should use this as a teaching opportunity, and it would be reasonable to require the plagiarizing student to submit a revised paper that satisfies your standards for academic writing, after very clearly and carefully explaining to her what those standards are. This is also an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what we are trying to achieve with various "zero tolerance" policies that impose an unrealistically high standard of behavior on students who may not be adequately prepared to be capable of satisfying those lofty standards.

Edit: thanks to all the commenters for their lively and intelligent discussion and criticism of my answer. You have persuaded me that the answer is perhaps more subjective than I thought. I am willing to tone down my recommendation and say that the plagiarizing student may be deserving of punishment. I think ultimately it would all depend on specific details about the facebook conversation and other evidence that we do not have. At the same time, given the information presented in the question I still think an educational, rather than punitive, approach, would be the most appropriate one in this case. The key question that needs to be answered in my opinion is whether the student "knew what she was doing" in the sense that she had an understanding that basing her paper off of another student's paper was wrong. It doesn't sound like she did, but I'm only speculating and am open to changing my mind about this if presented with new information.

  • 38
    I think this is a misunderstanding of the concept of mens rea. The student knew what they were doing, even if they didn't know that it would be classified as plagiarism, so I would say they did have mens rea. If they had read someone else's work years before and then unwittingly reproduced the argument without citing that might be plagiarising without mens rea.
    – bdsl
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 16:49
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    I mean it was done on purpose, it wasn't an accident. The students understood their own actions, they just didn't fully understand the concept of plagiarism.
    – bdsl
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 17:57
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    A good number of university plagiarism policies I'm familiar with have no requirement that students understand that they are committing plagiarism before they can be found guilty of it. Many policies explicitly state that plagiarism will be treated seriously regardless of whether students know they are violating the policy. The student didn't need to know he was committing plagiarism; he just needed to know that he was copying another student's work. Similarly, a bank robber doesn't need to know robbery is against the law, just that he intended to permanently take someone else's money. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 19:36
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    @DanRomik I certainly respect using your own judgment and not wanting to take drastic measures, but I don't consider this "mild plagiarism" at all. It seems one student did an assignment (actually, multiple assignments) and shared it in its entirety with another student, who did a sloppy job of rewriting a few bits and turned it in as his own work. In other words: multiple entire assignments containing zero original work. That's no missing footnote or quotation marks, which can be honest mistakes. If the students thought this was a group project, I can understand, but that's not the case here. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 20:01
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    -1. I strongly disagree with this answer. If we had to prove a "guilty mind" before any kind of punishment, the law would be a complete joke. The students might have not been aware of the concrete consequences of their actions, but they knew that what they were doing had quirks (otherwise, why change the paper at all?). What will they (and others) learn if this goes unpunished? Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 21:11

Some students, myself in particular, get taught incorrectly in the early years of education that "putting something in your own words" is how to avoid plagiarism. This is of course, overly simplistic and wrong of course. If you give both students the benefit of the doubt, that neither know what plagiarism is, I don't think they should be penalized for this naivety.

I think you should probably invite the students to your office to teach them or send around the school's academic honesty guide to all your students (it should be pretty small and thoroughly define the terms it uses). If this is happening to one pair, it is likely happening to others or these two students are doing similar in other courses. Example: Jill reads something online and simply rewords it for the report while maintaining the structure and flow of the original material.

  • 4
    This myth continues well beyond the “early years” of education.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 17:45

Honestly, I have been a bit irritated by the two of them throughout the quarter, especially the one who copied the work. They kept challenging me on their grades constantly. The one who copied the work emailed me saying "if it will make you feel better, I will write the essay again!"

It sounds like you have a student who is eager to learn how to do the right thing and get it right, even if she isn't doing so right now. This is a good thing because you have a much stronger opportunity for a teachable moment where the teaching is more likely to be effective, than a student whose attitude is "I'll try this minimum that I think might scrape by, and in the unlikely event someone is paying enough attention to catch it, oh well, that'll just be the end result." Further, you have students who care about their grades, and you control at least one of those, so you have some leverage that seems likely to be effective.

How about having that student write the essay - or a similar one on the same topic or another topic still related to your course - in a supervised environment* where she would have no access to classmates' work? If network-isolated, you might have to provide some printed reference material, but (a) it might be a good thing for students to get at least one experience writing in that way and (b) this exercise/test is focusing more on the student's ability to critically analyze content and discuss the material with some potentially original insights, than on breadth of a background literature search.

You do apparently need to teach the distinction between copyright infringement (which involves copying the particular expression of ideas, and for which paraphrasing all the content is a valid way around), plagiarism (which relates more to passing off another person's ideas as one's own), and failing to write original content/ideas (which may involve proper citation of the others' ideas and is honest, but may not meet the course requirements for a top grade). It appears the students in question are confusing the first two, and those in the third sentence of Prof. Santa Claus's answer ("They also think placing a citation is a license to copy") are confusing the latter two. These distinctions are not obvious and the ethics of each are not universal. It does take teaching them, and it might be worth you having a conversation with the dean to try to make sure this gets into the curriculum in a first semester writing course or something like that.

Here, your students at least seem willing to learn. Good luck making the most of the teaching opportunity!

(*): Where there are more people present than just you and the student, in case the student would otherwise come up with false accusations against you should she receive a poor course grade.

  • 3
    Thanks for the comment! I learned my lesson for future classes! rewriting the essays is not an option. I gave students extensive comments on their papers. Instead of fixing her own work, one of them copied her friend's work. I don't think the issue is her eagerness to learn but her obsession with grades. I told her she wasn't getting good grades because she didn't understand the nuances of the arguments and offered her help if she needed. Idk, my skin might become thicker once I do this often, but I am very exhausted right now! Teaching is very difficult!
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 23:14

When my mom was a TA back in the day, she had a similar situation where one student thought she was helping her friend by letting her see the paper, but the second student was straight-up copying. My mom and the TA of the other student came up with this idea: Grade the paper as though it were submitted singularly. Then, go to both students and let them decide how they want to split the points. For instance, if it were worth 80 points, they could do a 40-40 split, or the original writer could take all, or whatever else.

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    Do you know how the two decided?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 18:27
  • Sounds a lot like "giving an F for cheating."
    – user28174
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 1:32
  • This is in fact the strategy i think works best is. It works even better if you announce the policy beforehand as it makes it implicitly understood that its a bad idea in general, also makes a 3 way split impossible. But then you get these papers where they declare the WANT a 60-40 split.
    – joojaa
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 5:45
  • @ joojaa 60-40 split would come out as 48 and 32, but I would say this is just a bad way to do it. At least one of them is cheating. I don't think there is anything wrong with showing others your work but you do risk them stealing it and the lecturer not knowing who it belongs to.
    – rom016
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 13:34
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    @jakebeal In my mom's case, they split it evenly (much to her surprise).
    – RblDiver
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 14:48

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