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Dealing with plagiarism


WornOutGrad

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I'm not quite sure that this is the forum to go to, but I guess I will give it a try...

This semester, I'm TA'ing for one of my advisor's undergraduate general elective classes. The responsibilities involve grading, interacting with the students, answering questions, as well as teaching a few lectures. We require that all of the students in the class submit their assignments online through a learning site (sort of like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, etc). Well, the site has a built-in plagiarism detector, and I've noticed that roughly every assignment turned in, there will be one or two blatant cases of plagiarism. My procedure, with the discretion of my professor, is to give the student a 0 on the assignment if it's their first offense, and then to warn the student not to do it again. Well... as of the recent assignment, I now have a repeat offender. Honestly, I feel insulted and distraught by the decision, especially given the lame-brain excuse that the student gave with the first offense. I've brought the matter up to my professor, and while she seemed impressed that I've really been pushing the issue with this class, it seems like she has no interest in bringing the case to the school, which is what would be in accordance with the school's policy in the first place. If I were the professor, I'd kick that student's butt out of my class so fast, it wouldn't be funny. Like I said, I'm honestly insulted by him. I don't want to press this issue with my professor too much, but I think letting this student get away with just another "0", even though it hurts his grade, is too lenient. Especially since there are so many hard working students in the class who don't resort to cheating. What should I do?

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I wish I had better news but when I encountered a similar problem (worse, even), my professor chose to ignore the offense too. In my case we are talking about a clear case of 5 students who "collaborated" on a take-home exam(!) and still didn't manage to get a passing grade. The professor was so reluctant to deal with the problem that she asked me to give them all the lowest possible passing grade and not push this any further. I refused to do this--she actually asked me to regrade the whole exam for a class of 40 students with a grading curve in mind which would result in these students passing and others not "suffering" from unfair points being deducted only them. I became extremely disillusioned and my relationship with the professor became almost impossible to manage. It only hurt me, in the end. No one else cared and my degree suffered. If you don't feel that you'll have the support of your professor, sadly my advice is to give the student a "0" and not worry about this any further. No good will come of it; I completely understand how frustrated you must feel, though.

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I think it really depends on the situation. For small assignments, professors seem to be more "forgiving" when it is a class full of 1st and 2nd year undergrads. For the class I am TAing right now, the professor has told me not to worry about it so much with the small stuff. Just as long as they at least say where they are getting the information from. For large assignments, like a paper that makes up the majority of the grade, then professors seem to be less tolerant. I haven't had to deal with this yet, but I could see a student getting a zero for the paper if it was obviously plagiarized. What's weird though with some of that plagiarism software is that you will often see high percentages of plagiarism given to papers that weren't really plagiarized. Like the software isn't looking for word for word, but just similarities. So if you're paraphrasing and using similar terms it can look to the software like it was copied.

Edited by robot_hamster
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If the teacher isn't going to push the issue, just keep giving them 0's, if it keeps building up, let the prof know at the end of the semester. Hopefully the cheat will self-select themselves out of passing the class by acquiring enough 0's so that you don't have to fail for the issue.

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What should I do?

WOG--

I've had an experience similar to yours and to FuzzyLogician's. I agree that it sucks. (But I'm not bitter.)

Here's what I learned / how I'd handle future incidents.

  1. Manage my expectations.
  2. Understand that it isn't about me.
  3. Voice my concerns to my boss.
  4. Accept his/her guidance.
    • If possible, figure out why he/she doesn't want to escalate the issue. (Some of the reasons may actually be good ones, albeit bitter pills to swallow.)
[*]Document, document, document.

[*]STFU.

[*]Go on with my life.

Of these seven steps, 1, 7 may be the most crucial to maintaining a good frame of mind, and one can never go wrong with 6.

Unfortunately, as I am a person who never has thoughts of bitterness, it would never occur to me the option of treating myself to a nice hot Starbucks beverage and to sip it while looking at both the course and section syllabi. I would never ever think to refine my understanding of the discretion I had as a teaching assistant to, for example, administer an oral exam. Or to ask a student to tell the section classmates about the project. Much less to ask them a detailed question about said work, just so the person's classmates could appreciate all the hard work that went into said project.

I most certainly would not recommend to my boss that a specific question in the final exam covered the subject of said project. Nor would it ever occur to me to hold voluntary study sessions for said final exam and spend time talking about the topic of the project and to convey the possibility that said topic may or may not be on the exam.

See? There's a lot to be gained by living a life unclouded by bitter thoughts.

Edited by Sigaba
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I think it really depends on the situation. For small assignments, professors seem to be more "forgiving" when it is a class full of 1st and 2nd year undergrads. For the class I am TAing right now, the professor has told me not to worry about it so much with the small stuff. Just as long as they at least say where they are getting the information from. For large assignments, like a paper that makes up the majority of the grade, then professors seem to be less tolerant. I haven't had to deal with this yet, but I could see a student getting a zero for the paper if it was obviously plagiarized. What's weird though with some of that plagiarism software is that you will often see high percentages of plagiarism given to papers that weren't really plagiarized. Like the software isn't looking for word for word, but just similarities. So if you're paraphrasing and using similar terms it can look to the software like it was copied.

robot_hamster brings up a really good point—SmartAssign on Blackboard is pretty sensitive, and will mark quotes as plagiarized (which means a human has to page through and verify) and also similar paraphrases or common phrases.

I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're seeing (you said you're seeing "blatant plagiarism," so maybe you're seeing something worse than this), but one thing that might make you feel better is that it might not be intentional plagiarism. It may be that students don't understand that they're not doing a substantial enough paraphrase.

Also, are any of the offenders international students? Plagiarism is a cultural construct specific to Western countries; many Asian cultures, for instance, don't really have a cultural equivalent. Oral traditions are also places where plagiarism is not only okay, but in a way encouraged (e.g., Martin Luther King's speeches are largely remixes of other people's sermons, which actually makes them more powerful).

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I'll also add that some of this depends on University policy.

At least at my school, you would be required to report the plagiarism to the University Honors Board, and they would decide the sanctions from there. Make sure your school policy will not in some way penalize you for not reporting it.

Also, I'll say that this decision should come down to the professor you're TAing for. There's a reason you're TAing, and not the teacher of record. Let them handle and be responsible for the sticky decisions.

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Just out of curiosity...

Did you put the plagiarism policy on the syllabus? If so, did your professor approve the syllabus? If he did, it's really his responsibility to enforce it. Tell him you'll do all the legwork.

My own philosophy is to come down very hard on cheaters. Luckily, all of the profs I've TAed for (and my school too) have much the same philosophy. But I can definitely see that it would be hard to enforce without the prof to back you up. Good luck!

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Just out of curiosity...

Did you put the plagiarism policy on the syllabus? If so, did your professor approve the syllabus? If he did, it's really his responsibility to enforce it. Tell him you'll do all the legwork.

My own philosophy is to come down very hard on cheaters. Luckily, all of the profs I've TAed for (and my school too) have much the same philosophy. But I can definitely see that it would be hard to enforce without the prof to back you up. Good luck!

I did not write the syllabus, the professor did... BUT, there is a fairly strict plagiarism policy on it.

I guess for me, it's such a hard pill to swallow, because I worked my hardest in Undergrad to avoid plagiarism, and there are many diligent students in the class... I think if I, or the prof, or the school is going to be so lax on it, than what's the point. We are only hurting the students and the school by letting this slip under the radar. I think academics get so caught up in their research and department politics that they completely forget that undergrads, many of whom are paying thousands of dollars, count on them/us to provide them with a quality education. Frankly, this is one of the many things about academia that is making me sick to my stomach, and why I'm only sticking around for a masters.

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