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.)