Today was a very disappointing day in my interactions with students. Few showed up for my class, and then I guest lectured for a colleague on ethics. I’m not particularly fond of lecturing on ethics, because it can be a frustrating topic. However, the timing aligned well, because there were not single, but multiple instances of plagiarism on an assignment this class handed in. So after an hour of talking about Kant and Bentham and Rawls — and tying this back to some professional ethical dilemmas from my own experience — I turned to the topic of plagiarism, and what was an appropriate way to deal with it.
I was blown away by the response. In retrospect, I don’t know why. Students seemed to think that a warning or a slap on the wrist was an appropriate way to deal with plagiarism. Why?
Because maybe it wasn’t intentional. I proposed a hypothetical: it was an entire paragraph. Yes, some said, but maybe they just forgot to cite it or add quotes. If that was the case, I suggested, they were stupid, and should still fail.
Because if it was just one paragraph in a 20 page paper, they should only be punished proportionately. There are two problems with this. First, that a single paragraph of plagiarism is usually simply a matter of what is detected. If I detect plagiarism, I don’t bother to read the rest, because I have no way of knowing who wrote it. Second, the act of plagiarizing an assignment is so egregious that it doesn’t really matter how good the rest of your work is.
Many of them seemed very reluctant to deal harshly with the plagiarists in their midst (“it could have a serious effect on their lives”), which to me was inexplicable. If, as a graduate student, I found out that one of my colleagues had cut and pasted their work from the web, I would have wanted to see him or her strung from the nearest lamppost. But many among the students — and the faculty! — seem very reluctant here.
One of the students suggested that as professors we surely accidentally forgot to quote things, but that this was then caught by an editor. Seriously, this is what the student seemed to think. I tried to convey to the student that this isn’t how things worked, and that a professor or information professional who plagiarized was likely to loose all credibility, and possibly his or her job. But they just don’t seem to think that plagiarism is an important issue.
It’s just a depressing and unfortunate thing to have to deal with. And frankly, it says a lot about the quality of the students you are admitting. In the Communication program this year, we have a small but truly outstanding group of new students. I cannot even imagine any of them plagiarizing their work. But even more depressing to me than the few bad apples in this other class is a group of people who seem simply not to care that it has occurred. I wonder how long it will take for me to stop caring.