Whether it is an issue of academic dishonesty or a case of online plagiarism, confronting a plagiarist is never easy. Whether you’re the person who caught them, the person who has had their work plagiarized or otherwise given the job of enforcing the rules, dealing with plagiarism is difficult.
Simply put, a plagiarism is a lie and, when you accuse someone of it you are accusing them of deception. That’s something that is difficult to do no matter how clear the evidence is.
However, if you do find yourself in a position where you have to make such a confrontation, here’s some of the more common reactions you can expect as well as how best to deal with them. Because, while there is always an element of unpredictability in all hostile conversations, I’ve found that most plagiarists tend to respond one of five different ways (or combinations thereof), each of which can be countered relatively easy.
One of the more common and difficult reactions is outright denial. Denial is a reaction that escalates the situation and can make an already tense situation even worse for both the plagiarist and the person confronting them.
While sometimes denial can be somewhat believable, such as when the plagiarism is gray area, much of the time believability doesn’t matter. I’ve caught plagiarists who took thousands of words and claimed “coincidence”, others that came years after me and claimed to have written it first and I’ve had teachers tell me stories about plagiarists who left the links in their copied paper and claimed it to be original.
This is especially common in cases of academic dishonesty, where a plagiarist may place the blame on an automated plagiarism checker, forgetting about the role of human evaluation.
How to Respond: The best way to deal with denial from a plagiarist is to refute their evidence and then leave it alone. If you used a plagiarism checker, show the results, if you did a human analysis, show the comparison. Then, take whatever outside action have, be it legal or disciplinary but don’t push the plagiarist to confess, you almost certainly won’t succeed and you’ll only make the situation more heated.
Sometimes paired with denial, anger is another common response. This reaction is often a knee-jerk one, stemming from the anger at getting caught. So while it’s not so much at the accuser, it often gets directed that way.
Anger is the reaction that escalates the situation the most. Accusers wonder why they are the ones being attacked. As the plagiarist lashes out, doing and saying whatever they can to harm the person who is lobbing the accusation, they are setting the stage for an ugly conflict.
These are the confrontations, more than any other, that blow up and become much bigger dramas than they need to be, not to mention bigger distractions and time-wasters.
How to Respond: Don’t get mad. No matter what, don’t let your tempers flare or get emotionally involved in the debate. Instead, remove yourself from the situation and take whatever other action is appropriate. If it is a case of academic dishonesty, forward the case to the correct authorities, otherwise, seek out the correct legal channels. You can’t win a shouting match with a plagiarist as they, usually, have much more to lose.
Some plagiarists will attempt to “strike a deal” with you regarding the situation. This is especially true if you come in strong initially and threaten legal or disciplinary action against them.
Phrases like, “If you don’t sue me I’ll take down the work,” or “If you don’t suspend me, I’ll redo the assignment,” are common. Basically, in these, the plagiarist admits, at least tacitly, what they did but tries to find a way to lessen the repercussions of it.
While this is at least a cooperative reaction, it’s one that can put the accuser in a strange emotional state, feeling at least some level of pity and uncertainty about what to do next. This can be especially difficult in cases of academic dishonesty where the accuser is not personally aggrieved and may be tempted to strike a deal and move on.
How to Respond: Take a moment and think honestly about what it is you want or need to do and how strong your position is. While striking a deal with a plagiarist is never ideal, especially since it makes it more likely they will repeat the mistake, sometimes it’s the best you can do. If you can’t or don’t feel it’s appropriate to strike a deal, say you are sorry but that you have to move forward and leave it to that. Sometimes a refused bargain will lead to another defense tactic that may be much more hostile so it’s important to leave it there.
4. Depression (Excuse Making)
Sometimes the quickest way to hear about all the sad details of someone’s life is to accuse them of plagiarism. Many times the bad things are meant to justify their actions, such as inability to sleep, computer trouble, etc. but other times it’s more of a pity play, dragging up depressing but non-relevant things to put them in a more favorable light.
While, once again, this is at least a tacit admission of plagiarism and a more cooperative approach, it comes with its own set of problems. Separating truth from fiction, for example, is nearly impossible.
Plagiarists who are caught will not hesitate to reveal very intimate details of their lives to gain pity (already feeling exposed) and others won’t hesitate to try and extend the lie (nothing left to lose).
How to Respond: There’s no good response here. If someone genuinely needs help, get them it but try not to get personally involved. As the accuser, whether you are also the victim or not, there’s a potential for a conflict of interest so it’s useful to bring in someone else to investigate and assist any outside problems. Otherwise, it is best to doubt what you are hearing and move forward with that in mind, taking whatever action is needed.
Finally, some will accept that they were caught and admit to their actions. Usually, they are contrite and apologetic and will even take some level of responsibility. Though there may be some deflection, it is usually minimal.
The general emotion in these situations is usually more one of relief or nervousness than sadness or misery. Generally, these plagiarists weren’t happy with their actions beforehand or watched as a less-egregious offense snowballed out of proportion, often through a series of small lies and missteps.
For them, the situation is now over and they just want to put it behind them, quickly. Sadly, this is probably the least common response.
How to Respond: Of all the responses, this is the one most worthy of consideration as a plagiarist who is genuinely contrite and not deflecting are the least likely to re-offend. That being said, you need to gauge how sincere the contriteness is, but it usually is not a difficult matter.
If you’ve noticed a pattern in this article, clearly you’ve been paying attention in psychology class. Quite deliberately, the reactions above mirror, perfectly, the Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief.
The stages of grief were proposed as the steps of coping one goes through when they learn they are dying but it’s later been applied to other forms of personal change, grief or trauma. While they aren’t linear as many believe, they are defense mechanisms people use to deal with stressful situations, including having their plagiarism discovered and much of their work/reputation threatened.
Knowing these coping and defense mechanisms helps you understand not just the plagiarists’ reaction but how to spot something that’s out of the norm and may be worth paying closer attention to.
While, to be fair, the steps above aren’t a perfect fit for the Kübler-Ross, it makes the point. Whenever you accuse someone of plagiarism, especially when you do so justly, you’re creating a trauma in them and, even though it is a justified one in most cases, you should expect them to respond accordingly.
More than anything though, it shows that there is much more to fighting plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty than just using a plagiarism checker and spotting what’s wrong. There’s a very human side to this and one that is easy to forget.