Monday, May 23, 2005

Plague of the Plagiarists

Blogging has been light because grading has been heavy. But as I slog through piles of papers and exams, I will sometimes begin to fantasize about blogging… about grading.

As usual, my paper grading turned up some plagiarism. This happens almost every semester; I’d guess two plagiarists per semester is about average. I uncover the miscreants not by deliberate search, but by epiphany: I’m reading, making little marks with my red pen, my eyes starting to glaze over, my brain gradually turning to mush… and then I become vaguely aware that something smells fishy here. The paper I’m grading isn’t quite right… it’s strangely well written, but also badly organized… the style is inconsistent, making sudden jumps from lousy to lucid… there’s some technical jargon here that I never introduced in class… Wait a minute! I realize with a jolt, This is plagiarized! After that, a few minutes of Googling is usually sufficient to turn up the original source.

Now, what’s the appropriate punishment for plagiarism and other forms of cheating? I usually argue for the guillotine (or more realistically, an F in the class and a report to the dean of students). I’ve discovered during my time as a professor that cheating is shockingly common, and it seems that most cheaters don’t get caught. To compensate for the low probability of capture, we need a correspondingly high magnitude of punishment to provide an effective deterrent.

But the flipside of this argument is that if cheating were easy to catch, mild punishments would be sufficient. Suppose that every act of plagiarism could be caught with 100% probability. Then I could grade as though the student had written down nonsense – or lines from Alice in Wonderland – for any plagiarized passage, resulting in a correspondingly lower grade. Since plagiarism would be pointless, no one would bother.

This question comes to mind because I like to think I’m pretty good at catching plagiarism (though not as good at catching other forms of cheating). If so, then perhaps my punishments are out of line. Should I reduce the punishment? I rebel against that conclusion, but it seems to follow naturally from my deterrence-based argument above. Here are some potential ways to justify maintaining high punishments:

(1) Maybe I’m mistaken about my effectiveness. I might be catching only the tip of the iceberg. Since I cannot know how many plagiarists get away with it, I should assume the number is large. The low cost of avoiding punishment (just don’t plagiarize!) means there’s little danger of over-deterrence.

(2) Maybe other professors aren’t as effective at catching plagiarism. If students don’t know which professors are good policemen and which aren’t, then professors who catch and punish plagiarists provide a useful service for those who don’t.

(3) Punishment might have some purpose other than deterrence. It may serve a retributive goal: people who plagiarize have done evil and they deserve to be punished for it, regardless of the ease of capture. I suspect this argument is a bit easier for a non-economist to swallow.

(4) The educational context matters: we have a duty to teach students about the consequences of plagiarism in the real world, and in the outside world they’ll be punished severely (through loss of job, wealth, and reputation) for plagiarism. But that just pushes the question to another level: why do we punish people so harshly for plagiarism in non-educational contexts? Is plagiarism much less likely to be caught in these other contexts than in school?

I encourage comments. (Aside to any of my students reading this: None of the above should be taken to indicate a change in my actual policy. I intend to punish this semester’s cheaters exactly as promised.)


Anonymous said...

phew...thank God i'm not getting the guillotine. Glen, i am confident enough in my paper i turned in recently for you to google the whole damn thing. rest assured, the badly organized part is solely my doing and not anyone else's. ;)

but as far as people getting severly punished for plagiarizing in the real world. i would think it's only really important in academia or any literary field.
for instance, i work at a software company as an analyst (a vague title for "i do everything they ask"--technical writing, project coordinating, data-mining, programming). i write client proposals, techincal documentation, and user manuals sometimes for software that we build for our clients. And you bet i'm lazy about plagiarism there. I don't plagiarize a whole lot because a lot of the software is proprietary software, but the techincal jargon is sometimes grabbed from Microsoft documentation (of most which I site but not all) since we are a Microsoft partner. Granted i don't copy and paste chunks of paragraphs or sentences, I don't think I am as careful as I am when writing school papers.
User manuals are read by clients who are installing the software. The proposals are read by executives or business development people and nobody has the time nor cares enough to pinpoint out how many phrases were plagiarized.

but i guess it's different if you're working in journalism or something.


Anonymous said...

The proper punishment? 20 lashes with a wet noodle. Loosen up a little (or a lot), Glen. Don't overestimate your importance in space and time. And don't by any means get a reputation for being a meany. Why not give the paper back to the fightened student and ask them to rewrite the 'exact' paper using their own words this time (and throw in a few references)? If I like an author's idea, I have the option of quoting them or incorporating and rewording their ideas into an essay of my own. I doubt you could catch a good 'plagarist' because they sit at their computer with a thesaurus and reword and reorganize the 'stolen' passages so you can't readily catch them on Google.

The value in having the student redo the essay is to confirm that they know or have learned something worthwhile on a given topic. Isn't that your point? You are not a police detective or a prosecutor or a vindictive sort, so ease up, dude! So your possible mission, if you choose to take it, is to turn the bad plagarists into good plagarists (the rest of us) and leave the moralizing and do-gooding for the philosophy professors. You know you really hate that ethics stuff anyway. You better take my advise this time or I'll send your sorry ass to the dean's office for a real whoopin'! Your well-deserved summer vacation is coming, so don't do something to a poor, "miscreant" student that will keep you awake at night. Be the nice guy that you (usually) are. (Notice how carefully I put quotation marks around your lovely word miscreant)

-Mr. Friendly Advice

Glen said...

In the software industry, failing to plagiarize is mostly a bad thing. Whether it's the structure of your test plan, the legal boilerplate in your contract, the communications algorithms in your software, or user interface elements, a certain amount of plagiarism is generally assumed and expected. Inventing new things from scratch rather than basing most of your work on stuff you or other people have written before is called the Not Invented Here Syndrome or failing to adhere to Industry Standards or even failing to do your homework. The person who looks up a sort algorithm in Knuth or reuses a standard library is being more productive, and that's what really counts.

Thus, your point #4 doesn't do much for me.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm all for giving the student a fail, but if I were a teacher, I might actually feel a tad bad about it. I'm just too nice. I'm learning how to be more just though. This semester I was in a group with 7 other people (which is way too many people for a group). One of the members was a good friend of mine and he stopped showing up to group meetings and to class after week 9 (of 16). This is our last semester. He did rougly a third of his share of the work. I had a small bit of guilt, but I gave him a 3/12.5.

I would like to mention an experience I had that involved cheating. First of all, I never cheated in college. Even though I'm nice, I backed off from moochers. When I took biology at my JC, my teacher accused me of cheating. We had a quiz in endothermic/exothermic. If my memory is correct, then reptiles are exothermic and humans, endothermic. The question read, "a lizard is lying in the sun. What is this an example of?" I wrote down that, "it is an example of exothermic because reptiles like snakes lie in the sun to get warm." The teacher had two quizzes and the other one had snake in the question...mine had lizard. I didn't cheat and told her so. Luckily, she believed me.

Anonymous said...

Isn't an F rather harsh. How about a D+? There must have been something redeeming in the essay--perhaps the nice choice of font or the 25lb paper. An F should be reserved for the one who got killed on the way to class rushing to turn in the assignment on time. Neal, lighten up! This bugaboo about original work in academia is a lot of horse manure. Admit it, most doctoral theses do little to advance knowledge are not worth the toilet paper they are written on.

Anonymous said...

I love how the comment in opposition to punishment are from anonymous sources. Especially the severely condescending ones.

Comparisons to, say, software development are completely off base. Yes, you are encouraged to "plagarize" in that context, because the purpose is to achieve an outcome goal, not to aquire an education. And certainly plagarism *does* exist in the software world -- it comes from improperly used GPL code. And we're starting to see real world lawsuits over this.

The purpose of a grade in a class is as a metric of a student's demonstration of subject knowledge through the course of that class. Plagarizing answers is no more a demonstration of subject knowledge than a blank piece of paper. Treat it as a blank piece of paper for those sections. If they plagarized 2 sentences in a 5 page answer, cross out the two sentences and grade the rest. If the result is a B instead of an A, so be it. If it's an F, fine.

Tom W. Bell said...

So long as your students have adequate notice of the consequences, Glen, I think you can and should give an F for plagiarism. Many of your commentators treat the matter simply as one of learning economics, arguing that even a mostly-copied paper might contain a valuable discussion about, say, Gresham's Law. But that takes too narrow a view of your pedagogical duties. I'd argue that even you take too narrow a view of them when, in your 4th point, you discuss (and question) the benefits of teaching about *plagarism.* I'd say there's value in teaching students about the consequences of fraud, a universally deplorable act.

Glen Whitman said...

I'm frankly shocked at how many apologists for plagiarism there are here. I appreciate Nathan's jumping to my defense, particularly on the software issue. However, I think even he goes too easy on the plagiarists. If I adopted Nathan's rule -- treating the plagiarized passages as if they just weren't there -- then students would have incredibly poor incentives for honesty. Essentially, they would face a "heads you win, tails you break even" proposition. If I could identify all instances of plagiarism with 100% accuracy (and not merely paper-by-paper, but line-by-line within a paper), this rule would be sufficient to deter plagiarism. But given that I cannot achieve that level of accuracy, I must compensate with a high level of punishment.

Neal sympathizes most with my position, but even he only gives an F on the paper. In most cases, I give an F in the whole class (and I'm not alone in this -- it's standard practice in my department). Again, the reason is incentives. For many plagiarists, an F is what they expect to get anyway. They're already doing poorly in the class, and they see plagiarism as the only way to pull out a passing grade. So giving them an F on just the paper creates, once again, a "heads you win, tails you break even" proposition. If they get caught, their grade is just about what it would have been anyway. If they don't get caught, they rescue their class grade.

As you can see, I've re-convinced myself of the wisdom of my original rule. Given anything less than 100% accuracy in catching the perps, I have to punish more harshly than just marking down the paper. Even marking it to an F is not sufficient to deter the most likely offenders.

Anonymous said...

Every college class I've taken in the past several years has had a written plagiarism policy. If the professor said at the beginning of class that he would fail and report plagiarists, then that is what he should do, regardless of any self-serving arguments by cheaters to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

Might the concept of "signalling" be important in punishment here. (Not that I really understand that concept). The reason why, say, I support universities with both my tax dollars and personal donations is that I hold the objective search for truth to be an important ideal. If Universities were to not punish plagirists harshly, then one could (correctly in my view) reason that the Universities didn't take academic work very seriously.

Punishing plagiarists is a way of signaling the the academic process is not a huge farce.

Anonymous said...

I am completely disgusted by the lax attitudes towards plagairism demonstrated by several of the posts here. As an employee of my beloved cal state system, and as the grader for an unreasonably large mass of undergraduate papers, I am appalled at the cheating I see going on. The good students almost kill themselves putting these papers together, then the slackers try to slide past by STEALING work from someone else. What kind of ethics are we supporting if we hand the paper back, pat them on the head, and say "do better next time?"
My students have had ample time to come see me with questions, but instead they cut and paste off some website of dubious research value. ( comes to mind.) We are slowly introducing the use of, which googles the papers for us and provides iron-clad evidence of cheating. Glen, fail 'em with my blessing.

Anonymous said...

I'd say there's value in teaching students about the consequences of fraud, a universally deplorable act.

True. But this reminds me of the topic of teaching students about business ethics in b-school. I'm really glad that classes cover ethics. I remember an instructor in accounting talking extensively about cooking the books and the jailed executives (the whole semester was about big companies like enron, tyco who cooked the books). But she did mention that teaching students in the MBA program about ethics is like placing a bandaid on a more serious and deeply rooted personal problem. She thought by this age if you have no qualms about committing white-collar crime then ethics classes won't save you. She thought moral fabric was something that a person developed earlier in their years. And to a certain degree I agree with her.
But to lend support for perhaps lobbying for harsher punishment: the ethics classes may not be as effective if there aren't real examples of people going to jail for fraud or losing jobs as a result. If there are real threats to your livelihood as a result of fraud, people will pay attention. So perhaps harsh punishments or examples made of people (like martha stewart) is sometimes a good deterrent.
Because heck yeah, i don't want to plagiarize even more because someone told me that a person in the MBA program was kicked out for plagiarism last semester.


Anonymous said...

to the anonymous professor: some of the lax attitude demonstrated on this post is regarding workplace documentation that is not academic. If anything it's just procedural stuff that everyone needs to follow, thus the reference to plagiarism. i think perhaps nathan is right when saying software industry plagiarism is not a good example/analogy because it can't really be a direct comparison to academic or journalistic plagiarism.


Anonymous said...

I hereby give any CSUN student (especially those in Glen's classes) the absolute right to use my great-great-great-great uncle's time-tested law of money without having to give any type of credit or mention whatsoever to that deceased creepy old bastard (and child molester).

Abigail Gresham trustee, heir, and grand neice of the very late Sir Thomas Gresham (Gresham's Law)

Anonymous said...

Fraud is a universally PRACTICED act, Tom. And the "perps" keep lawyers in business. We can start with the fraud perpetrated by the Bush administration against the world regarding Iraq's WMD. The ends justify the means, don't you know anything? Shame on you all for wanting self-righteously to destroy a measly student while the big shots who muck up the world with their greedy and dastardly acts are unassailable. Your priorities are so backward. Don't lord your power as a teacher over your students even the sorriest of them.

Steven Horwitz said...

What disturbs me is not the lax attitude toward plagiarism, but that only one person has suggested dealing with it as an opportunity for student learning. There are different types of plagiarism and I don't think we can assume that students understand all the rules of the road. Simply saying "don't plagiarize or you'll fail" is not enough.

Clearly, downloading a whole paper from the Net is one thing. But sloppy citation or cut and pasting here and there is another. In an info-rich world, students don't understand the need to do the former well nor always see the problem with the latter. It's our job as teachers to TEACH them how to do this right. Thus, unless the infraction is both severe and clearly with malice aforethought, I'm all in favor of returning the paper back to the student, working with him/her to identify the concerns, and then getting a revision back.

Two other thoughts:

1. We ought to be constructing assignments that involve both instruction about how to do this right and that are set up in ways to minimize the likelihood of plagiarism. And yes, that's labor-intensive work. The other alternative is the place Glen finds himself.

2. is the work of Satan. I'll amplify if requested.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment, Professor Horwitz. You stated the case for using a less draconian approach when dealing with many cases of plagiarism much better than I ever could. We need to turn the students around and not step on them like bugs if at all possible. Btw, can I borrow one of your old papers for an assignment due in 2 weeks. I'm desperate!!

Glen Whitman said...

I agree with Neal and Steven that mere shoddy citations don't warrant the guillotine, and I too go easier in those cases. But I should also point out that there's not a sharp line between these cases and the outright plagiarism.

For instance, I've had a student lift an entire paragraph verbatim from an article, with no quotation marks or parenthetical citations of the author, but with the original source listed in the works cited page. Or how about this, which happened last semester: a student referred vaguely in the paper to their "research" and a "textbook from a previous class," and then lifted entire sections of text verbatim, without quotation marks and without a works cited page.

In the former case, I let the student off with a one letter grade deduction. In the latter case, I ended up marking the paper down to an F, but I didn't fail the student in the class (although they ended up failing anyway, and would have even without that one grade). But that incident motivated me to be much more explicit about what counts as plagiarism with this semester's students.

Also, if you let students off easy if you think they just didn't understand proper citation rules, and other students find out that's your policy, you create an incentive for people to plagiarize and then pretend ignorance about proper citation rules.

Steven -- why the hostility toward

Anonymous said...

This is the most surprising thread. I can't believe how many people are minimizing the significance of plagiarism. One thing that comes to mind as particularly "evil," as Glen puts it, is that in a class that is graded on the curve, the people who DON'T cheat could be subjected to lower grades, given the percentage that goes undetected. Now even if this particular set of papers isn't being graded on a curve, the fact that much of the work in any given class IS, means that the penalty needs to be sufficiently severe across the board to deter, as has been mentioned before.

My attitudes about the cheating student's education are pretty laissez-faire when it comes to the impact it can have on the cheater. If he/she would rather cheat than learn, that's his/her business, as far as it pertains to their own edification. My objections arise from the ways in which said cheater's actions can affect the rights of others. When any student chooses to make the playing field uneven, thereby unfairly skewing the average performance of the class, they are potentially robbing the honest students of future earnings by lowering their grades.

Consider This:
Let's say that the average honest student has their grade reduced by 10% to 15% over the course of their time in college. Now let's suppose that this margin is the difference between getting into Anderson and Warton, where the weighted average of salaries three years post-MBA are about $124,859 and $143,966 respectively [source] Assuming 3% in annual raises, the total earnings for a period of about 40 years (say 25 yrs. old to 65 yrs. old) for the Anderson graduate is $9,414,525.88 and $10,855,217.75 for the Warton graduate. While this might be a VERY simplified example and doesn't take many factors into account; we are talking almost a million and a half dollars in lost earnings potential over the course of a lifetime...I say that kind of crime calls for failing ONE the VERY least. Considering the economic impact cheating can have on someone's life, I say go after those students with the RICO Act and squash them like bugs! But that's just me =-)

Steven Horwitz said...

Oy. Lots to respond to here.

Of course the line between ignorance and malice isn't a bright one. And lifting a whole paragraph without attribution is headed toward malice for sure. My point in all of this is that it's our job to *teach* this stuff. Glen's comment about being more explicit about what is and isn't plagiarism is a good example. We also have to teach them the ethics of why citation is necessary and useful, as well as *how to do it*. They ARE generally ignorant of much of this.

I don't think it sends a signal of weakness if, when faced with crappy citation practices, you make the student rewrite and give him/her the help needed to do it right. If THEN they don't get it right, off with their head. (We actually have a student-faculty board here that hears all cases, taking justice out of the hands of the instructor. I think this is a good thing.) The signal it sends is that you care about students doing this right.

As for turnitin... it starts with the assumption that students are guilty and it frames the whole issue as being about detection and punishment, rather than education - to return to a familiar theme. I think there are ways to use it that are better pedagogically, but it is too often a substitute for teaching rather than a complement to it.

If we turn this into an arms race of detection and punishment, we are not doing our job as educators. Granted, I'm at a small college with smaller class sizes, but there are ways to design assignments and provide instruction that head these problems off before they happen, and that actually teach kids what the issues are and how to handle them right.

Anonymous said...

"but there are ways to design assignments and provide instruction that head these problems off before they happen."

This is true. The first MBA class assigned a mandatory assignment on how to cite properly and avoid plagiarism. As sad as it sounds, a lot of people didn't know how to properly cite or use chicago style citations etc, so that assignment was VERY useful. I think the instructor emphasized that the assignment was so that there is no vagueness/ambiguity or sorry-ass excuse given by students saying "oh, i didn't know" when in fact they very well knew exactly what they were doing.

It should be a mandatory assignment for writing classes, just like i think basic accounting or finance (personal money management) should be required for HS or college students.


Anonymous said...

"Hell, I think someone deliberately plagiarizes that they should not only flunk the assignment, but the course, and be subject to disciplinary action by the school!" -JMPP

First, you look hot! Second, that quote of yours looks awfully familiar. You little thief, I think you plagiarized it. I've already made goo-goo eyes at you, now I'm going to google you with my typing finger. I'm into a little disciplinary action myself!

-Pussy Galore

Anonymous said...

And what should be done with a professor who previously enabled plagiarists before he was a professor? I'm talking specifically about the fact that half of the work I turned in during college was a lame rewording of Glen's high school papers. And let's not forget about the time Glen posed as a CIA agent in an interview I conducted, which was presented in audio format to the rest of my ethics class. The task was to interview someone in the "real world" whose job dealt with ethical questions. Is there a statute of limitations on such treachery?

Anonymous said...

I've only cheated twice in my life. The first time was in my ninth grade algebra class, when I wrote a program on my calculator to factorize quadratic polynomials (we were supposed to do them mentally). The teacher caught me, but said that the fact that I was able to write the program in the first place indicated that I had the best understanding of the concepts in the class. She threw out my test, and gave me an A.

The other time was in an idiotic CS requirement, where I already knew substantially more than was taught in the class before it started. I saw no point in spending two hours doing pointless, boring assignments, so I arranged that I didn't have to.

I agree that plagiarism is generally bad, but sometimes it indicates poor teaching to begin with. If your assignments are pointless busywork, I think that this disrespects students. Is it shocking that students feel no desire to do them themselves? Of course, this probably doesn't apply in this situation--most of the essay homework I've been assigned in college has been tolerable to do. My comments apply to low level math, CS, physics and chemistry homework.