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After Plagiarism

FAQ: What can teachers do After Plagiarism? (Jerry Nelms)

On May 26, Jerry Nelms sent the following as a response to a question posted on WPA-L about “After Plagiarsim,” what do schools do with / for students who (may) have plagiarized.

Donald McCabe, who has spearheaded several major, major national surveys of student cheating during the 1990s and early 2000s (asking students to self-report), returned to academia from the work world because he wondered if honor codes diminished the amount of cheating. It’s fairly remarkable to see how his attitude has become more nuanced over the last decade and a half. He began as a staunch advocate of honor codes. His survey generally confirmed his notion that institutions with honor codes did experience less cheating overall; students at these institutions were less tempted to cheat; and students under honor codes were less likely to rationalize or justify cheating. But there were interesting anomalies. To his credit—whatever the shortcomings of the research (and all research like this is open to critique)--McCabe did not simply dismiss the anomalies. He found that there were institutions with honor codes that experienced a lot of cheating and institutions without such codes that did not, and he asked, why didn’t these institutions follow the pattern? He found that it wasn’t the honor codes per se that made the difference. It was “the culture of academic integrity” (dare I say, “honor”?) that was important and such culture did not, McCabe found, require an honor code. He found some campuses without honor codes—that is, without pledges from students and mandates for unproctored exams—did things that inhibited cheating: making academic integrity a priority, discussing it in lots of different venues, placing the responsibility for academic honesty (and for their education generally, I’d bet) on the students. McCabe tells the story of his evolution with regard to student cheating in very readable essay, “It Takes a Village: Academic Dishonesty & Educational Opportunity,” published in Liberal Education 91 (Summer/Fall 2005). He and a couple of his collaborators published a review of the surveys conducted during the 1990s on student cheating in Ethics & Behavior 11.3 (2001).

That said, it’s important to note that McCabe’s interest is in “cheating,” not “plagiarism,” per se—AND there is a difference, a big difference. Some plagiarism certainly is cheating, if by cheating we mean the intentional effort to unfairly and/or dishonestly take credit for an accomplishment.

But not all of the activity that we call plagiarism is intentional, as we should well know from Rebecca Moore Howard’s and others’ work in this area over the last 15 plus years. Not all plagiarism is cheating, then. Some of it is caused by a lack of knowledge or the wrong knowledge. It’s amazing how different the instruction on citation and documentation can be from instructor to instructor, institution to institution, textbook to textbook.

I know of a case where a GA accused a student of plagiarizing, because the student used CBE style instead of MLA style and the GA didn’t know CBE style or that CBE style or other styles beyond MLA and APA even existed. But unintentional “plagiarism” can also be patchwriting, a “stage”/”phase of activity” that many (virtually all? all?) writers go through as they work to move from outsider to insider of a discourse community. I recently described this phenomenon to a friend of mine, a non-native English speaking professor who had recently left teaching in a situation where he was not required to do research to a position where he was required to publish research. He admitted that he’d received reviews of manuscripts telling him he was plagiarizing, but he couldn’t see it at the time. As he became more immersed in the research and writing of his discipline, he realized how he was inappropriately using the wording of others and not fully making the knowledge his own—that is, how he was patchwriting.

And of course, at least some intentional plagiarism occurs due to extenuating circumstances that, while professionally we can get away with ignoring, ethically and morally many of us, I think, have trouble not taking into account: the fact that most of our students—at least most of mine (I ask every term)-- work long hours, some up to 40 hours per week; many have families; given the rising costs of higher education, many have financial worries; some had serious personal problems that consume them (e.g., pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, spousal abuse); some experience grade pressures, either self-imposed or imposed by parents—and often by institutions themselves when they provide financial support; and of course, time pressures. I’d say virtually every student I’ve taught over the last 10 years at least has experienced time management problems. They attribute it to procrastination, but when we explore procrastination in class, it turns out that, while they may tend to procrastinate, they also tend not to do any kind of assignment planning. Few have calendars; all too many lose their syllabi and never ask for additional copies. They live from day-to-day academically, barely looking ahead more than several days at most. They may have a sense of big projects off in the future, but they have no idea exactly when that is. They don’t picture time passing. Thus, they always do things the day before they’re due.

So the distinquishing of learning and punishment is especially crucial. With plagiarism, the two are so often conflated, because we tend to conflate the above different “plagiaristic” behaviors. If all “plagiarism” is cheating and extenuating circumstances are irrelevant, then there’s no need for nuanced responses to these behaviors. It’s all too easy. Way too easy.

But the final conclusion that McCabe comes to—and that I think is right on target, even if I disagree with McCabe’s sometimes traditional views—is that cheating and plagiarism need to be addressed institutionally. I don’t think that honor codes will work at every institution, but we definitely need to create cultures of integrity in higher education. Not an easy task, of course. One need only read Wilfried Decco’s Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct to get a sense of how institutions often work hard to coverup cheating among faculty. Don’t think that message is lost to our students. They see it all the time—in the news, on TV, at home, at tax time, in relationships, etc. While I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen Carter’s politics, he does make a legitimate point his book on INTEGRITY. Consider this example he gives. He was watching a football game on TV with his kids:

“A player who failed to catch a ball thrown his way hit the ground, rolled over, and then jumped up, celebrating as though he had caught the pass after all. The referee was standing in a position that did not give him a good view of what happened, was fooled by the player’s pretense, and so moved the ball down the field. The player rushed back to the huddle so that his team could run another play before the officials had a chance to review the tape . . . . The only comment from the broadcasters: ‘What a heads-up play!’ Meaning: ‘Wow, what a great liar this kid is!’”

I’m more convinced than ever: in addition to more instruction in citation and documentation, we need required ethics courses. No, I don’t think we’ll stop athletes from cheating during games—I’m not sure we should (It’s more complicated than Carter really understands, I think)--but when watching that pass play above, something metacognitive ought to click on the viewer’s head: a recognition that while we understand the motivation to win, winning by cheating is not right, it’s dishonorable.

So, whatever assignments we might come up with for students we’ve caught “plagiarizing,” they need to somehow be reflective pieces, I think, at least in part. They need to not simply punish—or be perceived as simply punishing—but also teach ethics and teach ethically. What might have a greater impact than our outrage at plagiarism would be revealing our sincere disappointment in the student for cheating—assuming that the behavior was intentional.


Gerald Nelms
Associate Professor, Rhetoric and Composition
Department of English\\ Southern Illinois University Carbondale

3506 visitors since May 26, 2006

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Page last modified on June 29, 2006, at 05:59 PM