Monday, November 24, 2008

Dear Plagiarist


Dear Plagiarist in my 100-level survey class,

I know you're a first-semester freshman, taking this class as part of a general education requirement for a major far, far different from my department. And I can see from your grades that you've been hanging in at the C+ level for most of the semester. But you know, moving from a C+ to a B- isn't all that difficult. I'd have been happy to give you the extra help that I provide for anyone who stops by my office and asks for it: I go over their drafts, help them develop strategies for studying for exams, and tips for getting the maximum participation points. Believe it or not, a couple of them have improved their grades dramatically by asking for help, and acting on my advice.

But instead, you went elsewhere for help. You paid, bribed, or cajoled someone to write your most recent paper for you. Or maybe they "loaned" you one that they had already written, onto which either one or the other of you slapped a new intro and conclusion as well as a few transition phrases that linked the whole thing up to the specific question I asked. So I have to give this person credit for having actually paid attention to the assignment. But the fact is that, according to the anti-plagiarism software that you know full well we run these essays through, over 50% of this material came verbatim from materials freely available on the web. The fact that you knew about this plagiarism software and still turned in a plagiarized essay makes me fairly sure that someone told you they were writing an original essay for this course. It's not. 18% came from a Geocities site. 9% came from Sparknotes. Another 7% from Gradesaver. And a few other miscellaneous sites. It was a patchwork, and whoever stitched it together actually took the trouble to hit the thesaurus button when the language looked too sophisticated for undergraduate writing. But still, nothing was hard to find.

I know you'll be upset -- probably very upset -- when I inform you that you are now going to receive an F for the course. I can only point you to the relevant section of the syllabus where it says that I'll do just that, regardless of the point value of the assignment in question. You'll probably decide I'm the person to be upset with: I'm heartless. I'm mean. I probably enjoy giving students Fs and ruining their lives -- and right before Thanksgiving, too. This will be your first and very natural reaction, because it's hard for any human being to face the fact that they fucked up. Hell, since this is your first semester in college, I may well be the first person who has introduced you to the equation of "actions => consequences." Trust me, you're not the only one learning it. Read the papers.

But I digress. Let me suggest some other targets for your anger. First, you might get a bit upset at the individual or company who sold you a paper that they themselves plagiarized. You trusted them, and maybe even paid them. And they've duped you as surely as you tried to dupe me.

Second: read that final sentence: they've duped you as surely as you tried to dupe me. What you are feeling now -- that sense of betrayal or even moral outrage? -- is what I feel every time I come across a plagiarized paper. So if you think the person who gave you this paper acted dishonestly, then examine your own behavior.

You will still rant and rage at me, in person, and/or behind my back. You may cry in my office when I make you sign the academic misconduct forms. I won't be moved, because I know that someone has got to be the first person to impose consequences. I wish it didn't have to be me, because it's uncomfortable. I wish your parents had done it, or your high school teachers, or that you just had an internal sense of right and wrong. I wish you didn't have to be learning this lesson so late, when there is so much more on the line than there would have been if someone had brought you up short the first time you pulled this in middle schoool. But they didn't, so I will.

Why am I being such a hardass? Why, when it would be so much easier to just give you a zero on the paper and let you fail under your own power (and you would, trust me -- I've seen your grades). The newspapers every day tell me what happens when people put self-interest over ethics. I may be forced to bail these fuckers out, but I will not be complicit in raising another generation to take their place. And dear plagiarist, that's just what I'd be doing if I let this slide.

So, if anything, blame me for being an idealist. Hell, you can even accuse me of taking out my rage at the big swindlers on a little one. You might be right about that last bit, and the rectitude of my behavior in that regard is certainly open to debate. But I hope that you might save a little, tiny bit of room to acknowledge your own culpability, and resolve to do better from here on. Yes, I actually hope that will happen. Because, believe it or not, this is not about punishment for its own sake. It's about holding the line on the fundamental proposition that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong.


Professor Notorious, Ph.D.


Anonymous said...

Hang 'em high, Notorious. No quarter for cheaters.

Anonymous said...


Belle said...

Yeah you! Go for it!! Yah, can I use this letter for my next one (due in tomorrow)?

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Notorious,

Many, many years ago in a freshman comp class I insipidly copied an acquaintance's paper and turned it in as my own after a little tinkering. I got a mediocre grade on the paper, but spent a whole week fretting over whether I would get caught. I did not ... but I learned a valuable lesson: that it was better to labor over 5 pages of my own words and accept the grade they earned than to get an easy passable grade with a long-term guilty conscience. I never turned in a paper again that was not my own. I now have 3 M.A.s and am working on my doctorate. All my own work. Perhaps you could go easy on a cheater once in awhile. Perhaps they can learn a lesson without being branded for the rest of their academic careers for something they did while young and silly.

Formerly Young Fool

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ FYF: Congratulations. I mean that seriously. I'm glad you took it into your own head to reform, and that you are doing well, and doing so honestly.

But note that I'm not "branding" her with anything. No scarlet "P" on her chest, I promise. No calling her out in front of the class. No chewing her out. She simply comes to my office, signs the forms, and takes the grade she has earned. The hope is that she will go on from this point with the knowledge that this is inappropriate behavior.

This is my position. But I'll be interested to hear what the commentariat has to say.

The History Enthusiast said...

I'm totally with you here!

I have a student paper that I just read today which came through the plagiarism software clean, but there are other signs that it was plagiarized. I just don't know how to verify my gut feeling.

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

Pardon my ignorance here, I'm still a pretty green teacher. I have only ever really used What is this anti-plagiarism software of which you speak? There's been quite a few unfortunate occasions in which I was convinced a student was cheating (I can never convince htem how glaringly apparent it is) but was unable to track down online with a google search, which is all I've ever known to use.

Anonymous said...

If anybody is going to take out their anger at big swindlers on a little swindler, you are in the best position to do so. This is because their ability to become the big variety begins in their education. This is why I will have to pay close attention to my future students. Little bullies can grow into big bullies, you're just cutting off the problem before it blooms.

Anonymous said... is a subscription service that runs papers through a massive database of papers and all published on-line material (including other subscription-only services) to detect plagiarism. It doesn't decide if a paper has inappropriate amounts of work copied from other sources--that's the faculty member's job. It just diagnoses whether or not there are similarities between papers submitted in the same class, or similarities to other published or unpublished work, and only a careful reading by the faculty member who designed the assignment can render a decisive verdict.

This software is very useful if you (like me) teach large (100+) classes and believe that students should be evaluated by something other than electronically graded quizzes and tests. Notorious is right to flunk this creep. That's her course policy. Incipient cheaters should read their syllabi more carefully before commiting to a course. It's not fair to the other students who did honest work NOT to flunk the cheater.

medieval woman said...

Amen, sister! Flunk them! FYF, had you been caught would it necessarily have kept you from going on to get your 3 MAs? Nope.

Seriously, someone has to lay down the law - you're not their parent, but this is your house. You make the rules.

scot in exile said...

harsh but fair. and life has consequences. i'm amazed at the efforts people put into cheating, you'd think they do ok if only they diverted it into honest work...

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Once upon a time, in the days before Google, I had a student plagiarist whose paper was in some ways a very well-done re-phrasing of an article by Louise Fradenberg (with which I was very familiar, having worked it over good in a reading group in grad school). It was not his own work, and he did not reveal where he got the paper. If he had done the re-phrasing himself, I would have been tempted to give partial credit, because it took real intelligence to do that work. But he didn't understand anything in the paper, so he failed the class. If you're teaching in a content area, keeping up with the critical literature is good for your teaching as well as your research.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Standing Ovation!

Dr. S said...

I have been trying to figure out how to tell you YOU KICK ASS about this post, but I've been so tempted to tell you my plagiarism story from this semester that it's been safer just to read everybody's comments and then click away from the text box.

But YOU KICK ASS. Plagiarism is wrong. And prosecuting plagiarism according to the guidelines that the students have access to before they cheat is absolutely crucial if anyone's ever going to believe that we believe plagiarism is wrong. I tell my students that plagiarism usually signals one of two things to me: 1) that the student was so blind with panic in the face of an assignment that all s/he could do was steal something to turn in; or 2) that the student didn't give a shit about the assignment. And in both cases, I tell them, you're better off turning in a blank sheet of paper with your name on it.

We don't use turnitin here, but I'm glad you're using it (or similar) there.

Dr. S said...

(I don't actually tell my students that I think plagiarists don't give a shit about their assignments, by the way. I tell them that I think plagiarists don't care.)

Gorgon said...

I will admit to having had a visceral reaction to the post. I do believe that plagiarism is wrong and that there should be consequences to improper actions. But I often feel that many, not all, academics show an indifference to the personal lives of students. Sometimes students, especially freshmen, will do things they wouldn't normally do. Not all plagiarists are alike - there is a chance for redemption for some. Let's not brand them all cheaters and criminals. The act was improper, the student may actually be a good kid making a mistake.

P.S. I am glad there won't be a public humiliation.


Dr. S said...

I care deeply about the personal lives and overall well-being of my students--and I let them know this in every way I can, including by being very flexible about deadlines if they request extensions. The fact that I make myself as flexible and approachable as is reasonably possible is actually part of the reason that students who plagiarize get no academic accommodation from me. I'm not judging them as people. But I do judge the choice to plagiarize harshly, not least because in my classes it's an absolutely unwarranted, unnecessary act, since I make it clear from day one that I want my students to succeed in my course and that they need only make contact with me in order to work out compromises when they're in difficulty. There is no public humiliation; in fact, if there's only one offense, there's not even a lasting record (beyond graduation) at my institution.

I will also say that I have had plagiarism cases wherein an act of cheating was a blatant call for help that a student desperately needed but couldn't get it together to ask for in any other way. And in those cases, faculty who look the other way are doing their students an enormous disservice.