The Role of Schools in Fighting Plagiarism

Coupon for plagiarism
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wesley Fryer

When it comes to issues of plagiarism, it is only a matter of time before schools and universities come up.

Plagiarism has become a hot topic in the academic arena. High-profile scandals have made a historically private issue a very public shame, technology has made it easier than ever to copy your work and universities have invested more than ever in tools to counter that threat.

When I talk to professors and deans, I get the feeling that they see themselves as being in the middle of the war and, specifically, that they are losing. However, when I talk to the students, I get a very different picture. One of a faculty clueless about the latest technologies and unwilling to adapt to the modern world.

Since the attitudes and problems college professors and students deal with in plagiarism matters often spill over into the larger Web, it is worthwhile to take a moment to think about these issues, what is going on and what both sides can do to fix the problem.

Darn Kids

Every once in a while I get an email from a college professor. He suspects that he’s caught a student plagiarizing and wants a second opinion. He forwards me the information that he has and I give it a cursory look. I note similarities and differences and help him draw some kind of a conclusion.

Most of the time, it is a very informal process and, to my knowledge has never lead to any formal charges against a student. Though I have been paid for this a few times, usually out of some kind of “discretionary fund”, it often is pro bono as well.

But where the cases I have helped with have, traditionally, been fairly mild. Other universities have been far more aggressive in dealing with plagiarism.

Some schools, it seems, feel that they are at war with plagiarism and they have armed themselves with the latest tools to fight the “enemy”.

Never mind that the enemy is their own students and that the tools they use do not detect plagiarism, only similar text. In many of these schools, when an originality report ticks above a magic number, the professors and administrators seem to glee at calling the student on their alleged plagiarism in the same way a guerilla army celebrates capturing an occupying soldier.

These accusations, almost inevitably, lead to disciplinary trials which can then result in the expulsion of the student. Students can have their lives and futures ruined by the mere allegation of plagiarism and some universities seem to be all-too-quick to throw around the word.

This, in turn, creates a climate of fear on the part of the student. But where a fear of plagiarizing may be necessary, this particular fear goes well beyond performing any intentional misdeed and create undue stress about making honest mistakes or even having bad luck.

This is not conducive to good research, academic writing or learning in general.

The Problem of Plagiarism

Schools do have a great deal to worry about with plagiarism. With computers and the Web, plagiarism is easier than ever before. Where a plagiarist had to be dedicated to stealing in the age of the typewriter, the invention of copy and paste has brought plagiarism to the purely lazy.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many students do cheat. Though studies are unreliable, a high percentage of students do admit to having done something dishonest on an assignment at least once.

This creates a serious problem for schools. If they earn a reputation for being light on plagiarists, outsiders think less of the school. Should that happen, it’s degrees are given less weight, it is a less desirable school to attend and that hurts both admissions and donations.

For this reason, schools are scared. As technology increases the ease and likelihood of cheating, it also increases the danger their reputation could take a serious hit.

Many smaller schools, eager to improve their standings, have taken the initiative in this area, creating super-strong academic dishonesty policies that show zero tolerance for plagiarism.

As a result of these policies, every year, thousands of students are expelled or disciplined for plagiarism, often times for minor infractions or even accidents.

Why the War on Plagiarism is Bad

The problem with this war on plagiarism is two fold.

First, plagiarism, save in its most extreme cases, is highly subjective. Unless the student copied the entire paper or very lengthy passages, it is entirely possible two people can look at a case of plagiarism and, despite both being very smart and capable people, can draw two very different conclusions.

This subjectivity creates serious problems. First, it means that students often face plagiarism accusations due to misunderstandings or simple mistakes. Second, it has been used, allegedly, to push out students that were unpopular with the faculty.

The second, and much larger, problem is that schools are not supposed to be in the business of throwing out students or damaging their futures. The primary function of a school is to teach students and help them achieve greater things. That is not achieved by intimidating students and throwing them out on their ear.

Yes, cheating students need to be dealt with harshly. Not only do cheaters hurt the university but they are also unfair to the students who do put the effort in and do their own work, no matter what the grade.

However, not all plagiarists are cheaters. For every student that downloads a paper from the Web to pass of as their own, another forgets a citation, doesn’t paraphrase adequately or makes some other simple mistake.

It is the latter group of students I fear for and the latter group that needs the most attention.

Plagiarism as an Opportunity

If the goal of a university is to teach, then they should be eager to jump on any chance to educate students. Plagiarism issues, especially those that are borderline, provide such a chance.

Rather than being in a rush to throw students out of the school, where they can’t learn anything at all, every effort should be taken to educate and help students who face such accusations.

Simply put, a high number of similar but unmatched words could be a sign of many things, not just of a cheater. Consider the following problems the student might have:

  1. Poor research skills.
  2. Flawed writing skills.
  3. Lack of computer experience.
  4. Limited of familiarity with citation styles.
  5. Misconceptions about plagiarism.

The point is that plagiarism should never equal automatic disciplinary action, though at some schools it does. Such a subjective crime with so many opportunities to educate should not carry automatic penalties. Room for human judgment has to be considered.

It makes sense, for first time offenders with subjective cases, that remedial courses, not suspension or expulsion, be the first punishment. Some schools have caught on to that idea, but many others have not.

This has resulted in many students being subjected to harsh punishments, not because they tried to cheat, but because they either made a mistake or lacked the skills to do the assignment correctly.

Schools should not be punishing students for what they don’t know or can’t do, instead, they should be helping them obtain the skills to get it right the next time.


While most universities will say that they are battling plagiarism for the benefit of the students who do their own work, I fail to see how overreaching policies that punish students for mistakes helps any legitimate students at the university.

Simply put, no one learns well in a climate of fear. Furthermore, no one does their best work nor do they grow as a person when they are worried about making mistakes.

The school’s job is to support its students, including those that need help.

While we can all agree that plagiarism is bad and the students who do cheat deserve serious punishments, we have to recognize that not all cases are so clear.

Simply put, originality reports are not definite answers from a magic program. They can not tell you whether or not plagiarism took place, only whether or not duplicate text appears.

It is up to the administrators and the students to decide if any rules were broken and to help those who may have unwittingly run afoul of the school’s code.

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