Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Student Plagiarists Who Watch too Many Crime Dramas

Every year I discover a plagiarist in one of my classes. Half of those have clearly watched too many crime dramas, where the guy who 10 witnesses saw murder somebody in clear daylight, gets off on a technicality, just because his lawyer filed every possible appeal for every possible loophole, or because of behind-the-scenes politics, where the judge just doesn't like the prosecuting attorney, so lets the perpetrator walk. Apparently this belief in the combination of tenacity and luck as the road to success for any good capitalist, drives them to appeal my decision to give them a 0 on their assignment which they clearly copied word-for-word from another source. When I find plagiarism, I gather the evidence, present it to the student, tell them the consequence, and inform them of their rights: “if you want to appeal my decision you can go to the Dean’s office,” which is the basic procedure at all of universities where I have taught.

The best stories about my plagiarists come from the most extreme cases. In two instances, I had a student who, as it turned out, were dating a student who had taken my class during a previous semester, or from a different section of the course, and the plagiarist submitted papers identical to what the other student had submitted to me earlier. Unfortunately for one of these students, he might have got away with it, except he referenced a textbook from a previous semester that I had stopped using. An obvious give-away. In several instances, the students literally copy/pasted an entire Wikipedia article and submitted them as-is. In each of these cases, when I confronted the students with the evidence, they were shocked at my accusation, having no idea where I would get the idea they had copied somebody else’s work, despite the identical papers sitting in front of them—theirs and somebody else’s.

When I inform them of their right to appeal, I strongly urge them not to appeal the decision because as it stands, they are facing a 0, and usually they can pull out a passing grade. Sometimes it only drops them one letter grade. I explain that if they appeal, they enter the Dean’s radar as a cheater, and an official report is filed in their permanent record. Not to mention the fact that the Dean’s office reserves the right to take further action—such as expel the student. Here’s where the stories get frustrating, more so than the original plagiarism itself. The students, who watch too many crime dramas, “hear” my warning as, “this professor is afraid that the Dean’s office will overturn his decision, so if I appeal, not only will I get my grade back, but this professor will get into trouble, so if I just keep appealing, I’ll get off on some kind of technicality, or a brain-dead administrator who doesn’t like this professor.”

As one particular of these students later confessed to me, “how could I trust that you were looking out for my best interest, when you were giving me a zero!?” This confession occurred after they had appealed my decision, and the Dean confirmed to them, “Yes, now you have a permanent record of cheating on file, and if it happens again, you are expelled. You should have listened to your professor,” followed by the administrator's very stern lecture about the stupidity of copy/pasting a Wikipedia article, and asking the student how they had got this far in their college career?! I tend not to yell at students. Some Deans seem to relish it in certain instances--dealing with plagiarists is one of those times.

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