What punishment for plagiarism?

Enforcement of the rules should be strict but not so harsh as many fear.


A little while ago, I expressed interest in the position of President of King’s College in Halifax. Sadly–perhaps they were reading this blog– they expressed no interest in me. But if I had become President there, one of the first things I would have done is have a good look at the plagiarism policy.

Recently King’s came under fire for its handling of  widespread plagiarism in its Foundation Year Programme, whereby some students were punished only with reduced grades on their papers. Obviously, King’s doesn’t want my advice, but it raises a question that is often overlooked in discussions of plagiarism at universities. What should the punishments be?

In the popular imagination, plagiarism carries exceedingly heavy penalties, often expulsion and perhaps some kind of public shaming ritual. In reality, punishments are usually much lighter. Indeed, in over 20 years studying and working at universities, I have never known a single student who was expelled for plagiarism. It might happen, but not often.

In fact, many professors are reluctant to pursue charges of plagiarism at all, either because they fear the student will be punished too harshly, or they think the charge will lead to a long bureaucratic  and legal rigamarole  that just isn’t worth it. Having a clear and reasonable punishment policy would help in this regard.

So where is the right balance? Somewhere between nothing and expulsion. Let’s consider this in a little more detail.

It seems clear to me that simply having a student rewrite the paper is grossly insufficient. There’s an old joke to the effect that a man who steals a horse cannot be found “not guilty provided he returns the horse.” Why not? Because whether he makes amends or not, a crime has still been committed. With plagiarism, the violation of the rules itself must be addressed, not just the result of the violation.

Similarly, only deducting marks is not strong enough, either, because it fails to recognize the seriousness of the offense. For reasons that I have addressed elsewhere, plagiarism is not simply a matter of misunderstanding an arbitrary convention. It runs contrary to the whole process of higher education. Consequently, plagiarism cannot be treated in the same way as one treats margins that are too wide or a font that is the wrong size or a sentence that runs on.

Minimally then, a plagiarized assignment should receive a grade of zero, recognizing that the student has violated a basic principle of academic discourse. Such a punishment seems fair for a first offense. It sends a clear message, but it does not unreasonably hobble a student who has learned the lesson. But if we are counting offenses, cases of plagiarism must be reported to the administration which must, in turn, keep track of how many offenses a student has committed.

For a second offense, a student should get a zero in the course in question. This punishment is in line with simple justice: a second offense is worthy of a harsher punishment than the first because the offender should have known better and should have reformed after the first time. The university should also consider including a notation on the student’s transcript to the effect that the grade of zero was given for academic dishonesty. Such a notation would serve as fair warning to any potential graduate or professional program that the student has refused to play by the rules on more than one occasion.

A third offense should result in some kind of suspension or expulsion from the university. The penalty would serve as a deterrent to students who might adopt cheating as a general strategy, would assure that wider community that the university values academic integrity, and would remove chronic offenders (who take up valuable time from teachers and staff) from the system. The suspension or expulsion for academic dishonesty should be noted on the transcript as well.

I have a feeling that most students would see such a regime as fair and reasonable. As I mentioned above, I suspect that most students think the policies are already harsher than this. My own august institution has something like this now (partly because I helped draft the policy).

As for faculty, they are responsible for ensuring that plagiarism has been fully explained to their students. A boilerplate reference to the academic calendar is not enough. Similarly, faculty must agree to take their university’s policies seriously, particularly when it comes to reporting infractions. Failure to report plagiarism means that a student can offend multiple times without facing serious consequences. Professors may feel they are being generous to the student, but such favours to individuals come at the cost of the integrity of the entire institution and thus to the whole student body. I have heard more than one faculty member say, “I didn’t become a professor to be the plagiarism police.” Well, actually, you did.

Administrations bear some responsibility, too. To be fair, they must have a clear and accessible route for students to appeal if they feel the charge of plagiarism was unwarranted. At the same time, administrators must ensure that all faculty understand the policy and remind them that following academic policy is a responsibility of their employment. Faculty who overlook plagiarism should be disciplined just as surely as if they never showed up to class. At the same time, universities should assure faculty members that they will have the full support of the administration when they do report academic dishonesty in the unlikely event of a lawsuit. Anything less, and faculty members may worry that they will be on the hook for legal costs should the case end up in court.

No university can be credible without a commitment to academic integrity, and dealing with plagiarism is central to that commitment. It begins with a fair policy conscientiously enforced.

Photo: Getty Images

This is The Hour Hand’s 100th post! You gotta like that!


What punishment for plagiarism?

  1. Where I teach, it is expected that faculty refer suspicion of plagiarism to the Chair. If the Chair agrees, then the file is sent to the Dean. I’ve made about two dozen accusations of plagiarism and they have all been supported by the Chair and Dean. The result has always been failure on the assignment and failure in the course. This is in serious cases: where the student has passed off other work as their own (including my own once!) or slightly modified the work of others and presented it as their own. In cases of poor citation practices or clearly forgetting to insert a citation or clearly missing proper punctuation, I deal with the infraction on a case by case basis. There’s a world of difference between handing in two or three Wikipedia articles with your name at the top and forgetting to put in a parenthetical reference. Students seem to agree that failing the course is adequate punishment for first-time offenders. Anything less than a failure cannot be taken seriously–it questions the instructor’s authority and it delegitimates the honest work of the other students: and it makes it impossible to give a student 0 on a truly terrible assignment. I’m not sure what will happen to one student who I’m accusing of having submitted two plagiarized assignments in a single course (a methods course, if you can believe it).

    (I’ve declined to provide my name to protect my anonymity and the anonymity of the student in question.)

  2. I guess I am old. When I went to school, plagiarism was badly viewed by the students themselves. It yielded ostracism.

    But then, this was pre-internet, and plagiarism was harder then. Today, one can download anything, if one knows where to go, or so I am told. So, definitely, some kind of policy is sadly needed today.

    I think at the very least, any policy must include an “interview”, to assess the student’s mindset….

    Someone who keeps handing in Wikipedia articles as work, has a bad mindset….

    On the other hand, I’ve seen immaculately word-processed papers, with meticulous citations… and not one whit of original thinking of analysis! So well researched, that one wonders just how much “help” the student had. Yet, no plagiarism, at least technically. This sort of work too, is not a good mindset….

    It brings to mind the old saw that “if you steal from one, that is plagiarism, if you steal from many it is research.”

    I recall a paper that I wrote once, long ago. It was a highly opinionated paper, not much R&D. My professor was impressed, anyway. A couple of months later he ran into the documents of a Royal Commission… which had recommended much the same thing as I had argued for… to some government or another, and was ignored, as most Commissions are.

    Apparently, great minds think alike. (My ideas were still better, though!) A quick tete-a-tete revealed that I had come about my ideas independently.

    I would hate to think of a paranoid prof who would have lept to the accusation of “plagiarism!” Instead my prof realized that my essay was from the heart, and that a student (in those days) would hardly have been expected to dig up some 10 year old dead Commission’s Report!

    This also brings to mind the topic of “fair use” and copyright, but then that is another topic, and I would like to hear your views on that, too!

  3. The author states that he has never known of a student being expelled for plagiarism. I have seen one at a university where I taught. Of course, it was a 3rd offense and followed a one-quarter suspension for the prior plagiarisms. On a separate note, I believe the University of Virginia has expelled a number students for plagiarizing.

  4. “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those that do.” This is the Honor Code at the Virginia Military Institute. Plagarism is stealing. About 20 years ago I helped a professor track down the words in a paper that a student wrote. Turns out the entire paper was from 2 different sources. It was his last college paper due before he graduated and commissioned. That night he was drummed out (expelled). Besides losing 4 years of education and experiences at one of the toughest military colleges in the world, he lost his military commission. Plagarism/stealing is just not worth it!

  5. The article and responses pay little heed to the cultural variations around the world and other culture’s view to plagiarism. I understand that in some Eastern cultures, citing your not very famous professor’s journal papers could be taken as an insult because it downplays the importance and “widespread” recognition of the professor’s work.

    At the University of Melbourne, Australia, the policy is that the first offense that should only receive a requirement for intensive education on the customs and rules of the western education and research culture in which we operate. Second and subsequent offenses then begin to attract penalties. This gives a clear opportunity for students who come from all over the world to internalize the expectations.

  6. Nothing less than “F” for the whole course is fair to the other students.
    A student can get an “F” for an assignment by just not doing it, or by trying honestly and making a mess of it.
    Cheating is worse than not attempting an assignment or failing it due to lack of knowledge etc.
    So in fairness to the other students, the penalty for cheating has to be more than “F for the assignment”
    Examples I have encountered in my own classes –
    1. One student knew that her friend (in the same class) was away for the weekend, and that the other student had already finished her final exam, but was waiting until she came back to email it to me. So the cheating student went to her friend’s apartment – the girls who shared the apartment knew that the two were friends, so let her in. She booted up her friend’s computer, copied the exam answers, and emailed them to me as “her” work – thinking that if she got them to me first she would be credited as the author.
    The friend returned from her time away, polished up her exam, and emailed it to me. Result – I received two almost identical sets of answers. I emailed both students telling them that they were both getting “F for the course” – The innocent student phoned me, in tears, protesting innocence. The guilty student phoned me with a confession. So just the guilty one got the “F”.
    On another similar occasion, two students, both members of the same fraternity, and sharing a computer, were in the same situation, but although I was sure from stylistic and other evidence that I knew who was the author and who the copier, I did not know for sure whether the copier had stolen the work or whether the author had handed over a diskette with the answers. In that case the (presumed) guilty one refused to confess, and both students ended up with “F”s.
    Yet another student said blatantly :
    “This is the first time I’ve been caught cheating.”
    From which I concluded that 1. He knew it was cheating, 2. he had cheated previously and 3. no-one had “caught” him previously (and that raises questions as to why not – laziness? fear? indifference?sloppiness?)

    However – We now have a new VPAA, and the “rules of conduct” have been changed – and weakened (as a result of a legal case involving another faculty member and cheating behavior of a group of students). It used to be possible for me to tell the Registrar – “this student gets an F for a Breach of Academic Integrity” – the “F” went on the record, and the student was not allowed to weasel out by Withdrawing from the class.
    Now, in this litigious age, if the plagiarism occurs before the last day to Withdraw from a class, the students are allowed to Withdraw from the class rather than have the “F” recorded. They EARNED that “F” – they could have got a “W” just by taking too many classes and having to drop one.

  7. I’m a student at King’s and this incident really bothered me. They made a big deal about plagerism at the beginning of the year and a copy of the plagerism punishment is listed on every one of our essay topic papers.

    It’s an embarrassment to the school that my peers were not punished appropriately. Their punishment was the same punishment of late papers.

    Obviously copying someone else’s work and passing it in as your own is more severe than passing your own work in late (and they are STRICT with the late policy!)

    This is frustrating to me because now I feel like my hard work is going down the drain.

    This whole situation has made me view King’s in a different way. It’s a very biased and unfair school.

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