Sunday, April 20, 2008

A moral quandary.

Suppose one has this student who has submitted two pieces of work for evaluation after the end of term. In both pieces, said student has blatantly and flagrantly plagiarized online sources. Almost the entirity of both is copy/pasted.

Here's the rub, though: the plagiarism isn't done well. In one case, the plagiarism is of an unrelated subject outside of philosophy that happens to share its name with the philosophical topic. In the other case, the plagiarism is of the brief introductory paragraphs of online encyclopaedia articles, and does not draw from the more detailed information later in said articles. So, both pieces are failures, no matter what. Consequently, the student will fail the course, and not by just a little bit.

The quandary: should I bother meeting with the student and going through the apparatus of plagiarism reporting? Or, since the student has failed no matter what, should I just let it go?

I'm leaning towards the latter. Thoughts would be appreciated, however.

Edit: Fixed typo on "quandary".


Richard said...

Reporting plagiarism is good (assuming it helps discourage the practice), though perhaps supererogatory in this case if the red tape seems excessively burdensome to you.

(Or were you thinking there's some moral reason to let the student off the hook? If so, I'm not seeing it...)

Catelli said...

I was going to say:

"Return it with a comment stapled on.

I know you plagerised this. Even worse you did it poorly as the content you included was not relevant. You were failed for not completing the assignments." etc.

And then I realised (and you probably have too) that either way, it was poorly researched. The student didn't even put in the effort to make it a passable fake.

That says more about the student's situation than the plagiarism. So will the student change if you point it out? Is it worth the effort? Or will the student just shrug off the attempt to help?

I suspect that this student needs a lot more intervention to find out the root cause of their disinterest in completing the assignment. Trouble at home, depressed, lack of self esteem, etc. Its possible that the student is just a lazy kid who hasn't realized the import of their actions. That kid won't respond to a sternly worded note.

But maybe a troubled kid will seek help. Maybe opening that door will help them. But that could be a massive commitment on your part.

ADHR said...

Not so much a moral reason to let the student off the hook as I was wondering if there was any overriding moral reason for me to report it. I'm now leaning the other way, only because I think the student needs to be told that this is not acceptable behaviour. After all, the student could just get better at plagiarizing with practice....

ADHR said...

I really hate how Blogger posts comments in the order received, not the order approved. Above reply was to Richard; this one is to Catelli.

The student is a first-year and (without giving too much away) in a more technical program. The student has also not attended most (ie., the overwhelming majority) of the lectures. So, I'm reading this as a student who would really be better suited for a community college or vocational program, and yet has been shoved into the more comprehensive world of university education. So, overwhelmed, confused, and/or pissed off, the student cheats. It's a not uncommon pattern, particularly in first- and second-year. What instructors always have to keep in mind is something like 25% of a first-year class will never finish their degrees. So, cheating like this can be an expression of a bad fit between student and institution.

It can, of course, also be deliberate malice. But, malicious cases tend to be a bit more sophisticated, I've found.

Catelli said...

"So, I'm reading this as a student who would really be better suited for a community college or vocational program, and yet has been shoved into the more comprehensive world of university education."

How well I understand that. That described me to a T.

It took me 5 years to complete a 3 year community college program, and all because it took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to accomplish, ie get my head screwed on straight.

undergroundman said...

Why would a student plagiarize out of malice? Professors who think students are plagiarizing just to piss the professors off take themselves a mite too seriously, methinks. ;)

Hit the person as hard as you want; I doubt it will make that much of a difference to the student. If you mention that the plagiarism was badly done, the most likely response will be that the student will be more careful at it next time, although the student may also come to realize that plagiarize anything searchable on the internet will fail 9 times out of 10.

If I'm reading you right, I agree that the issue is not "moral" in the sense that some people like to think of it (willful maliciousness), but rather an extreme difference in expectations and abilities.

Incidentally, I plagiarized an extra credit paper on Ayn Rand once. It was terribly obvious. Then I claimed that I'd posted it online rather than copied it -- and they dropped it. I don't feel guilty about it; never did.

ADHR said...


My brother had a similar experience. It took him some time to finish high school, and he quit university before he actually started classes. Then went to a community college and is now doing something he really enjoys and is very good at (if I do say so myself!). So, it can work out quite nicely.


"Malice" not in the sense of trying to annoy professors, but in the sense of trying to achieve a bad end, i.e., success without effort.

I still maintain it's stupid to plagiarize. The prof who dropped the issue didn't do his/her job properly. Plagiarized work deserves at least a fail if not a zero (and I've done the latter to a student this semester, FWIW). I suppose, at the end of the day, if you're in over your head, there's something to the idea that you should recognize you're in too deep and either get out, get help or accept that you're going to sink. Stepping all over other people's hard work is a coward's way out.

Chet Scoville said...

Where I am, there's no choice but to have the meeting and go through the reporting; it's a pain, but I think it's probably for the best. It keeps you covered.

ADHR said...

I think I'd prefer that. It'd eliminate the need to always try to decide what the appropriate penalty is. It's not that I mind relying on my own judgement, but a more formalized procedure would give that judgement significant weight.

undergroundman said...

It was in high school. And I agree that it was probably not right to drop it, although I'd base the punishment on deterrence rather than retribution.

Certainly a willingness to plagiarize does say something about the person.

ADHR said...

I tend to think deterrence has to be done on the basis of a trend of punishments, not a single instance. A single instance can be brushed off. "That prof's just an asshole". "I'll get away with it next time." And so on. If it becomes a pattern, though, then there's a tiny little sliver of hope.

That said, this semester, I'm using Turnitin to make my life easier.