Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How Not to Respond to a Plagiarism Accusation

worst. graphic. ever.
Hey there, I have a new name! I'm not really that new, but I've been quiet for a while, partially due to being busy, and partially because the original pseudonym I'd been using here was slowly becoming too well known. One dramatic change of personality (and email and username) later, and I feel a bit more confident posting. I think the only person who really would care about me is Aware and Scared, and just by mentioning said person, they should know who I am. I doubt anyone else gives a flying tuna.

I allow my students to turn in late work with the caveat that the later it is the lower grade it will get, and that this point-lowering decision is arbitrary. Since I work at a community college, this is nice for my students who really have legitimate life reasons things don't get done, and in my experience, most basic snowflakes never get around to work they missed. Major assignments (like lab reports) and tests don't fall under this policy.

So, I get an emailed late assignment from a student that has a short answer bit answered with a too precise sounding answer, oh, and IT HAS LINKS STILL EMBEDDED IN IT. I use teh Googles and find that is copied straight from Wikipedia. The shock! The horror!

Since it is summer, and I'm pretty cool with my students. I email back and suggest that copying from Wikipedia is not the appropriate way to complete an assignment, and if you are going to do that, you definitely shouldn't leave the links in.

The student emails me in return and says, oh, I'm sorry, my roommate was helping me and I didn't realize that he'd done that.



  1. I've also been given the excuse, "My roommate was helping me and I didn't realize he'd done that." My reply was "Why then is only your name listed on the paper?"

    Still, you want to hear a REAL bummer? Jane Goodall, the one and only, the primatologist who discovered chimpanzees making tools, was found in her 2013 book "Seeds of Hope" to have plagiarized---FROM WIKIPEDIA, for crying out loud.

    Many of her admirers, like me, cried out "Say it ain't so!" like I did. Quite a few of them then proceeded to make excuses for her. This opens up a question: Does Jane get a pass, because she's a scientist of the first rank?

    1. That depends on what you mean by "get a pass." One late-career incident shouldn't compromise what has long been established as the good, original science that built her career. But the specific plagiarism case still needs to be called out and condemned as such. The professional community is also within rights to bring extra scrutiny to future work, and any repeat offense would (and should) likely spell the end of her productive career.

      Of course, since Jane Goodall is recognizably famous, even without new science she could maintain a public profile through popular lectures and other appearances, and plagiarism or no, she certainly has enough of a history to continue her contributions to society in this way.

    2. I think at this point Goodall is as much an activist as a working scientist -- not that she isn't the latter -- and as much an industry as an individual -- which means that one of her research assistants apparently did the initial plagiarizing/poor note-taking. This is also apparently the case with a couple of rather famous historian-plagiarists, and, of course, it happens to politicians pretty regularly. I'm ready to give the politicians a pass so long as they fire the offender as soon as (s)he is detected; the supposed academics, I'm less sympathetic to. I really think one ought to do the work which is published under one's name -- or, if humanists want to start working like many scientists, with grad students and research assistants doing much of the actual work, they need to start doing the lead-author/multiple sub-authors thing that scientists do. I'm not sure what happens when someone on the team plagiarizes in that sort of situation. Is the lead author ultimately responsible for policing members of the team? Are enough members of the team supposed to be familiar with all the possible sources to recognize plagiarism if one member of the team commits it?

      Before our students start working in teams, however (which some of them seem a bit too eager to do, perhaps without realizing that that doesn't mean, in the real world, "let somebody else do the work"), they need to learn to work on their own, so they'll have skills to bring to a team. That, of course, is the practical reason why plagiarism is a bad idea.

    3. And welcome back, whoever you are! (Yes, I'm curious, but I'm not going to go hunting to see who A&S commented on/asked about).

  2. Now I want to know who you were and I WILL NEVER KNOW!! But welcome back. :)

    I find that this excuse is increasing. I recently (2 weeks ago?) caught a woman for plagiarizing and she told me that she had given her sister the username / password to her submission account and her sister must have altered the assignment before uploading it.

    Scenario A (likely scenario): This answer is bull shit but the student thinks they are transferring guilt onto a nonentity. They plagiarized, they were caught, and they are trying vainly to place the blame on a fictional third person.

    Scenario B (face value scenario): She really does have a sister trying to "help" by "improving" the essay with plagiarized passages and the student is guilty of a different Code of Conduct violation by giving out her password.

    Either way, the student is either failed for plagiarism or expelled for compromising her account. I believe she ended up confessing to the Dean. At any rate, she's no longer in my class.

    Students. Transferring blame. They are so darn cute in their stupidity!!

  3. The "my friend helped me" line is common out here, too. My favorite such incident was a busted plagiarist who said that her friend assured her that because she wasn't required to use Turnitin, there was no way her plagiarism would be caught. As if proffies have never heard of teh Googlez. Or even know how to read. **sigh**

    1. Indeed. They really don't realize that many of us see problems, and *then* turn to turnitin, or SafeAssign, or google. I require my students to run major assignments through SafeAssign, but I rarely look at the results. When I do, it's usually because I've gotten a panicked email from a student who doesn't know how the interpret them (and is apparently convinced that I saw the results the moment they came up; sometimes there's something to be said for appearing more big-brothery than one is; Foucault was right, the result is, indeed, self-policing, though sometimes rather panicky, paranoid self-policing. The narcissism of the average college student -- "everybody is looking at me! me! me!" -- plays a role).

  4. I've never had this excuse. I'll watch for it.

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