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What Should the Punishment for Plagiarism Be?

Whenever I talk with students and teachers on the topic of plagiarism, the conversation inevitably turns toward the issue of punishment.

Teachers, almost universally, feel that there is not adequate enforcement of plagiarism and that even major cases of academic dishonesty are treated softly. Students, however, talk about a climate of fear, an environment where they feel even a mistake could cost them their academic career.

To make matters worse, student handbooks are filled with dire warnings about the consequences of plagiarism though, according to many instructors, those warnings rarely come to fruition.

But with both students and instructors struggling to come to grips with the issue of plagiarism during a time of great transition for academia, the lingering question remains: What should the punishment for plagiarism be?

There are no easy answer to this question but there are definitely ways we can improve the current enforcement regime to make it both more fair and more likely to discourage plagiarism.

Bringing an End to Zero Tolerance

Most schools have, at least on paper, a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism. Even a single incident of plagiarism is greeted with a punishment, whether it is a zero on the assignment or even expulsion. However, zero tolerance policies have a slew of problems and, in matters of plagiarism, are often counter-productive.

Consider the following issues:

  1. Discourages Conversation on Plagiarism: Students in a zero tolerance environment are often scared to ask instructors for help with citation, fearing being suspected of plagiarism.
  2. Encourages Minor Plagiarisms to Be Treated Harshly: If all cases of plagiarism are treated equally, than minor ones are treated as harsh as severe ones, meaning the student that forgot a pair of quote marks is treated the same as a student who bought their paper.
  3. Encourages Major Plagiarisms to Be Treated Lightly: With all cases being treated the same, some schools just treat all plagiarism softly, as if they were unintentional acts, similar to lower-end cases of plagiarism. This is especially true for first-time offenses.
  4. Almost Impossible to Follow: Few zero tolerance policies on plagiarism are followed to the letter due to the problems above. Instead, most schools try to use some level of judgment outside of the policy, but that leads to allegations of both lax enforcement and excessive enforcement.
  5. Teaches Students to Go For Broke: If minor plagiarisms are treated the same as major ones, students, especially those who fear accidentally plagiarizing, learn to go ahead an plagiarize everything since the punishment is the same either way.

In short, these policies only increase allegations of unfairness by all sides, discourages a healthy conversation on the topic and may actually encourage egregious plagiarism. In short, they don’t work and probably never will.

Asking the Right Question

Instead of asking the question “How should we punish plagiarism?” the question should be “How should we punish this case of plagiarism?”

Smart plagiarism policies allow for a range of punishments from redoing an assignment for extremely minor (likely accidental) cases to expulsion in extreme cases.

The goal of these policies is to try to separate students who plagiarize because of a mistake or a misunderstanding from those who do so deliberately and are trying to cheat.

While students who make mistakes deserve to have their assignments and coursework docked, as they would for any other mistake on an assignment, they don’t deserve broader disciplinary action. On the other hand, students trying to cheat deserve stiffer penalties.

These decisions, usually, are best left to the teacher as far as practical. The teacher knows the student, the assignment, the evidence, the rules laid out for the assignment and the specific standards of plagiarism in his or her classroom. However, that isn’t practical at most schools where disciplinary action is left to some form of board or administrator.

This, unfortunately, is where the problem often gets out of hand. Though the school may have an official policy on plagiarism, teachers often have another and administrators may have a third. This makes it impossible to enforce plagiarism consistently.

So, while having a flexible but firm plagiarism policy can help, especially when it comes to making the policy consistent, there’s still a need to do more to make the policy more balanced. On that front, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Offer a Plagiarism Amnesty Policy: Tell students that they will not be punished for asking teachers about plagiarism and following their guidelines. Even if the teacher makes a mistake, the student will not be disciplined. This encourages dialog and learning on the topic.
  2. Have a Single Authority for Plagiarism Enforcement: Plagiarism usually falls under the regular disciplinary system. However, it’s a fairly specialized area of enforcement and one that may be better handled by a single person/entity that specializes in it.
  3. Educate Accidental Plagiarists: Rather than merely disciplining accidental plagiarists, an act that seems to motivate them to become better plagiarists, instead focus on teaching them about what is or is not plagiarism, perhaps creating a course to take on the topic academic honesty.
  4. Target Cheaters: Those who are clearly and deliberately cheating need to be dealt with more strongly. For those who cheat, the disciplinary system is a better fit.
  5. Keep an Even Keel: If you keep a plagiarism policy that’s flexible enough, you should have no reason to deviate from it. There’s no need to make exceptions if you realize that not all plagiarism cases are created equal.

All in all, plagiarism is a lot like speeding. Everyone knows that it’s wrong and most try not to do it, at least not egregiously, but there is a lot of confusion as to what is actually considered speeding in the practical sense and the enforcement system doesn’t treat 1 MPH over the same as 25 over.

If you follow that example, you’ll be better able to enforce your policies and deal with cheaters without condemning accidental plagiarists.

Bottom Line

Much of this, unfortunately, may be moot. Many teachers, especially at colleges, worry that students are treated more like customers than scholars. Even at public schools the concern is that students are treated as the children of voters and not pupils.

Teachers feel helpless to enforce plagiarism policies and this is problem across all disciplinary areas. Sadly, there is no easy answer to these issues and likely none to be found. Combine that with the way technology is making plagiarism easier than ever and you have a very dangerous mix easy cheating, ineffective enforcement and students who don’t care.

This is why it’s important that schools deal with these issues now and draw a line and set standards that they can hold to. Academic dishonesty, whether it’s copying answers, obtaining a test early or plagiarism, can not be tolerated. However, without flexibility, drawing a line becomes meaningless and useless. In fact, it may do more harm than good.

Not only is the quality of education at stake, but so is the reputation of the graduates, current and prior, as they go into the world.

After all, no one wants a degree from a school that is perceived as “cheaters’ haven” and schools owe it to those who earned their degrees to defend the honor that comes with as much as they can.

6 Responses to What Should the Punishment for Plagiarism Be?

  1. Florence Hunt says:

    Like ignorance is no defense for breaking the law, ignorance, or accident, is no defense for plagiarism. Anything less is a disservice to academe, faculty, students, and readers.

    • Jonathan Bailey says:

      On this front, we agree but I think terminology may be getting in the way.

      If a student buys a paper off the Web and turns it in for an assignment, they need to be punished, regardless of whether or not they were aware it was an offense. They were clearly trying to get out of doing their work and that is a form of cheating in my book, ignorant of the law or aware.

      That being said, there is a difference between a student who rips off a whole Wikipedia article and one who doesn't paraphrase enough or forgets a citation. All are incidents of plagiarism technically, but clearly the latter two are not cases of a student trying to cheat.

      Students have to be able to make mistakes. That's part of learning. What they can't be allowed to do is cheat, regardless of whether they were aware of the rules or not…

  2. DensityDuck says:

    I will say that, from what I remember of schooling, the sum total of discussion about plagiarism was "plagiarism happens when you copy something someone else wrote. don't do it because it's bad". At no point were we educated on how to avoid doing it, or what you're supposed to do when the assignment is "collect six facts about Medieval Capitalism and do not plagiarize". If the assignment is a bare repetition of facts then how do you not "copy something someone else wrote"?

  3. [...] What Should the Punishment for Plagiarism Be? (plagiarismtoday.com) [...]

  4. Question: because one of three in a group of 300 level students used a website without attribution, all three are accused of plagiarism. The one who plagiarized admitted it, exonerated the other two, and was willing to take extra workshop.the others’ grades were docked. They met regularly preparing the paper. Are all three guilty because of guilt by association?

    • That’s a touch question and it’s contingent on whether the other two were aware of the plagiarism, approved of it or had any role in it. Normally, in a group project, if one person plagiarizes, the others suffer for it as well because it’s rare to know who in the group did it or if they all had a hand in it.

      In these situations, you have to look at the facts of the case. However, I would definitely advice anyone doing a group project to check and make sure that the work they are submitting isn’t plagiarized. It only takes a second and saves a lot of headache…

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