Why Finding Plagiarism Terrifies Me

The following situation may, sadly, be familiar to many of us in the teaching profession:
You are reading a student’s paper, let’s say a ninth grader. It’s fine, but suddenly you come across a sentence which causes you a double take.  It’s a great sentence with sophisticated vocabulary and a solid point.  In fact, it’s apparent that you would have trouble putting such a fine sentence together yourself.  The sentence doesn’t sound right: it’s in a different voice from the rest of the paper.
You might Google a choice phrase, but you already know: it’s been plagiarized.  What’s more, as you read on, you find four other similar plagiarized sentences in the paper, and not only that, you have given this student a warning about the same thing just three weeks ago.

When this happens, my stomach sinks: there is a major conflict between my head and my heart as I consider five of the constituencies who could be involved:

  1. The student: No matter how frustrated I am with the student for the amount of time we have spent discussing what plagiarism is, why he shouldn’t do it, and the correct use of “air bunnies”, I still don’t want him to be punished.  Big picture, I am supposed to be helping him, and how will I be helping him if he gets suspended or it goes on his personal record? I want the best for him: he’s a good kid.
  2. The parents: Whether it might be that they haven’t had to write an academic paper in years, whether it wasn’t part of their schooling, whether it was just much more difficult to cut and paste in their day, or whether their instinct is to defend their child, many parents find it difficult to understand or accept the seriousness of plagiarism. It can be an uphill battle to explain to parents that their child has actually done something wrong, unethical even, and that there may be serious consequences.
  3. The administration: In some schools, there are fairly draconian statutes on the books for plagiarism: failing a course, suspension, or even expulsion. And, of course, no one has actually been hurt here.  And there are so many reasons why holding a student accountable for plagiarism is unpalatable: it could cause negative relationships with parents or even bad publicity, it could affect the student’s college acceptance hopes, and it could even affect the school’s enrollment numbers.
  4. My colleagues: What if they think I am incompetent for not educating my students about plagiarism, or for assigning them work that encourages plagiarism?  What if they think I am vindictive for making an issue of this?
  5. Myself: Following through with the process for plagiarism is going to be a huge pain.  The little angel and the little devil are on my shoulders: the angel telling me its the right thing to do, the devil telling me just to speak to the student about it and give him another warning in the hope that he will change.  Is it really going to be worth it?  The weight of all five constituencies weigh heavily upon me.

At the end of the day, we know we should address plagiarism.  There really are no winners here – it is an unfortunate situation all round.  However, this kind of plagiarism is happening all the time at the college level: as middle and high school teachers, the onus is on us to prepare for this high stakes environment.  There is also an issue of justice and fairness – is it ever right to sweep it under the carpet?   We should do all we can to get ahead of the problem, speak to our students about it on a regular basis, give them assignments which make it difficult to copy and paste, and interest them in fair use.  More about this in the next post.