How do colleges treat plagiarism?

There are a few things I know about plagiarism in high school. It's rampant. High schools tend to be pretty lax about it--it's seen more as a teaching opportunity than a reason to destroy someone's yet-to-begin career. Teachers warn that colleges are much more strict and you better learn your lesson or there will be dire consequences.

But how often do we hear about someone suffering dire consequences from cheating in college? Rarely. The "things will be more strict in college" threat seems about as empty as the "this will go on your permanent record" threat. How exactly do colleges treat plagiarism? The answer isn't simple. It depends on the circumstances, the school, and the professor. It's very subjective and case-by-case.

So here's a story about an actual case of plagiarism and the consequences. It's by no means the only way that plagiarism gets treated, but I think it's fairly typical.

I was a graduate student in the English department of a Texas university in the early 2000s. My fellowship, which paid for tuition, required me to be a Teaching Assistant to a writing professor for two semesters my first year and that I teach a class of Rhetoric 1301 (more commonly known as "Freshman Comp") for two semesters my second year. I used the basic syllabus and major assignments that my supervising professor asked me use. It required four major papers over the semester.

When I assigned the last essay of the semester--about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and the movie The Matrix--one of my students got really excited. He told me that he'd had the same assignment as a senior in high school; he told me that he already knew pretty much everything about the topic; he told me that I was going to be so impressed with his essay.

And of course I wasn't impressed. I could tell by the end of the first page that the voice of this essay was very different than his other essays, and I could tell by a just a few seconds on Google that he had copied almost all his essay, word for word, from a website. When I passed back the essays with grades, his had a printout of the website pages stapled to it and a note to come see my at my office as soon as possible. At this point it wasn't emotional, and he wasn't necessarily in trouble. I wanted to hear what he had to say, and to understand how someone so cocky about his expertise two weeks earlier literally had nothing original to say. 

But what he did next really pissed me off. He used the "wrong draft" excuse. He brought in another draft of his essay, this time with all the copied parts (almost all of it) in quotation marks with citations. He explained that he accidentally submitted the wrong draft, the one before he put in the proper citations, and that he hoped I'd take his "actual essay." The "wrong draft" excuse is such a total piece of crap. For one, nobody believes you. It's as lame and laughable as "my dog ate my homework." And what if it's actually true? If it's actually true, then it basically means that your writing process is to plagiarize a paper and then go back and put in citations so it's not technically plagiarized. Not much better. I explained this to the student. Even the new draft, if I accepted it, would get no credit, because it demonstrated no thought or analysis. I told him I was disappointed in the excuse and would get back to him.

I knew that I wanted to give this guy an F for the class. It wasn't just the essay, but his bragging before-hand and the dishonest excuse afterward. But I knew that I was being emotional, and I also knew that I was just a grad student and not a "real" professor. I didn't want to get myself into trouble by over-reacting. So I called up the chair of the writing department, explained my situation, and offered to send over all the documentation. She said I didn't need to bother with that. It was my class, and I was free to handle it as I saw fit. I had four options:

1. If I thought that the problem was one of not understanding the assignment or not understanding plagiarism, I could let him re-write the essay after more instruction. I may or may not, as I thought appropriate, place a penalty on the grade.

(I'd actually done this the semester before. I had an international student who struggled with English and with academic work. He came to see me regularly during office hours for help. And when his second essay had plagiarized sentences, we had a conversation--MLA Handbook with us--about why this is unacceptable and how to do it better. He was embarrassed, apologetic, and grateful. He turned in another, non-plagiarized draft and I deducted a letter grade as a penalty. No problem.)

2. I could give him a F for the essay. He could appeal this decision with the department chair if he wanted. He might also end up passing the class if his other grades were high enough.

3. I could give him an F for the entire class, no matter the grades on his other essays. He could appeal this decision.

4. I could refer him to the Student Judiciary Committee. It's a group of students--a jury of your peers--who confidentially listen to both sides and make a decision that cannot be appealed except under very specific conditions. The student judiciary tends to be tougher than professors, more inclined to suspend or expel. But it's a more objective, and trained, group.

I couldn't take the first option. I didn't believe that this was a case of not understanding, and I didn't think he needed another chance--he'd already blown it with his "wrong draft" excuse.

I didn't want to take the last option, the Student Judiciary. It would require more work from me, submitting the documentation and possibly submitting answers to questions. I was trying to finish up my thesis, and I didn't want to waste any more of my time on a cheater. Am I proud of that selfish reason for avoiding the jury-based process? Not really. Do I feel bad about it? Not at all.

So I had to choose between an F on the paper or an F for the class. I chose the F for the whole class. Because for me it wasn't just the essay--it was the follow-up. When he didn't get away with his first dishonest approach, he tried a second dishonest one. That, to me, warranted a stronger punishment.

When I told him my decision, he screamed and called me an asshole and slammed my office door. But that was the end. The department chair told me after the end of the semester that he didn't appeal the decision--and that the F meant he lost his scholarship and left the school. 

So his one case of cheating ended up having the effect of expelling him from school. That's the way it works sometimes. Most schools have similar options to the ones given to me. And those options are probably used more often than we think. We rarely hear about people caught cheating, but remember that it's almost always a confidential situation. We usually only know when the person caught talks about it.

Related blog post: You've been caught cheating. Now what?

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