When Plagiarists Get Caught

In the deeper recesses of Paragraph City’s library, in the rare book collection, is an odd little pamphlet originally written for SUNY’s now extinct Teachers Colleges.  Plagiarists of the First and Second College Year: A Field Guide contains the usual sections on the Unruffled Plagiarist, such as habitat and varieties, tracks identification, conditions in which they thrive, hunting and capture practices which are both legal and effective, domestication, and a mostly ironic section having to do with mounting and display practices.

However, recent experience has brought the section on behavior, particularly post-punishment behaviors, to my attention at the moment. Our anonymous pamphleteer identifies five reactions the plagiarist displays when she (I am using singular pronouns randomly when gender is irrelevant) is caught and the necessary discussion takes place.

For background, in my courses I break the bad news to student plagiarists by returning their papers (electronically usually, most often that’s the way I collected them) with the plagiarized portions highlighted, the source they used identified, and a not unfriendly but terse note that they have failed the course and if they wish to talk they can email me or stop by during office hours. Since I don’t force an exchange, the most common response I receive is the first one named in the pamphlet.

Disappearance. This response has a lot to recommend it: no scene ensues, nobody weeping (on either side), no challenge of evidence leading to an appeal before a higher power. The student either fails the course or, if it’s early still, withdraws and I imagine his shame as he mentally recounts all that his gambit has cost him and vows never to cheat again. Of course I’m wrong, but the illusion is comforting.

Excuse Leading to Forgiveness. Students taking this tactic face two problems: there usually is no excuse and the forgiveness almost never includes rescinding the F grade. Excuses are always some variation on “I didn’t know I was plagiarizing” and are often accompanied by “Nobody ever taught me what plagiarism is” and “This is how I have written all my other papers and it was OK with those profs.” This is a difficult product to sell, especially my most-visited-by-plagiarism course, where I define it in the syllabus, remind students they learned what it was in a pre-requisite course, require a reading assignment on it, mention it again in each assignment, and emphasize that course failure is the penalty for it.

However, when accompanied by tears, multiple explanatory notes to a higher power, and affidavits of the student’s earnestness and honesty from the student’s advisor and counselor, that “I didn’t know” can build a pretty good head of steam in some administrative offices. And in fact, parts of what is said is probably true, considering how the student has ignored reading assignments, skipped classes, misunderstood plagiarism, and received wonderful grades on previous plagiarized papers. So for this gambit, every faculty needs to know whether they are really going to stand behind “Ignorance of the rules is no excuse” or not. So does every “higher power.”

Anger.  While I’ve encountered very little of this, I have seen it, both online and in the wilds of the classroom. It’s been brief: “Well that sucks! That really sucks!” accompanied by considerable floridity, a dramatic slam-dunk of the offending paper, and a failed attempt to slam the classroom door.”

Denial. I have seen denial only twice, both from rather quiet students performing quite well in the course in every way. One met me in the hallway and said, without making eye contact and in a rush of words said, “I understand how you would think I plagiarized that paper and I accept the consequences but I did not plagiarize the paper” and walked quickly away. I was so taken back that I went back for a third check on the plagiarism, finding the entire paper, minus the introductory paragraph, online, posted there some time before the course had even begun.

Acceptance. One online student plagiarist, associated with law enforcement, wrote simply, “I guess I underestimated you,” which is more than the acceptance folks usually say. More often it’s “OK” or “Eyupp.”

Apology. An apology might accompany other responses, but usually it comes along with an excuse, mostly as a way to sell the excuse. Just an apology by itself is rare. But nice. An apology recognizes that there’s a human side to those student-teacher exchanges and plagiarism trashes that; an apology puts it right. The student still fails, but we could work together again, and maybe we will.

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