Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Big Thirsty Plagiarism Smack from Professor Chiltepin

This was a banner year for the cheaters.

Klepto Kyle: You emailed me the night before the paper is due. "I had a breakthrough and I'm very proud of my revision!" you wrote. Oh, goody, I thought. Cause the last one -- not so great. And you're right! This paper is much better. Of course, it also pops a nice round 90% on Students Are Lying Shits Dot Com, and tells me that it was submitted a month ago at South Chickenneck Community College. When I asked if you could explain this odd fact, you admitted that your friend from high school wrote a similar paper, but you just used some of his research. "I changed the thesis," you said.

Cheaty Sue: is not a source you want to cut and paste answers from. I also have access to the internet, and I know how to use it.

Sociopathic Sam: You got away with it. I cannot prove that you didn't write this paper, but it's obvious to anyone with a modicum of understanding of English grammar that you didn't. One does not go from a string of simple sentences to a parallel sequence of compound-complex sentences in the matter of a page. But fine, you get away with it. Good luck on that.

Here's the deal: these stories aren't very funny. There's nothing amusing about Kyle, nothing funny about Sue. These are ordinary, rather generic stories, like every one else on this site has experienced dozens of time. But that's what gets me: why aren't these unusual? Why are they generic? Because we do this all the time.

Part of our job is trying to stop people from pretending to knowledge they don't have. And every time I succeed at that part of my job, I feel like shit. I feel betrayed, deeply disrespected, and insulted. It's all I can do to make eye contact with the cheaters after I catch them. And often, while explaining the sanctions, I'll catch myself shaking because I'm on the edge of shouting at them. Which, sadly, I have done a couple times. I'm not proud of that, but how *dare* they! They had a chance to tell me something cool they had learned, or show me something neat about the way their minds worked, and we could have a conversation about ideas which is one of the two or three things that really matter to me. And they pissed on it.

I find that a bit demoralizing. Some places online will tell us that the solution to plagiarism rests with us, that we need to create "cheat-proof" assignments, or "instill integrity," whatever that means. Other professors have come out against the whole idea of being a cop. They just let the cheaters go, and don't give a shit. I'm actually a little sympathetic to that approach, but I won't do it.

What do you do? How do you prevent, or failing that, deal with, plagiarism? And more importantly, how do you deal with the emotional toll that plagiarism exerts on you?

(And yes, the obvious answer is obvious: drink. But what else?)


  1. My coping mechanism is eye-rolling. I just flunk 'em, say "Whatta maroon" to myself, and move on. Sometimes a remorseful student will tug at my heartstrings for a while...but I get over it quickly.

  2. They shouldn't just be flunked, they should be expelled. Of course, this won't happen - even flunking them can sometimes get overturned if they appeal.

    My wife has the best response: she brings them into her office, and tells them very slowly about why this doesn't just mean flunking, it means the end of their careers, dignity, and self-respect. She routinely makes 300 pound football players cry. Then she lets them off with a zero on the assignment.

    I'm not good enough at scaring them to pull this off.

  3. You mellow to it over time. I was on the academic integrity committee for several years, and we recently got a new member who wanted to expel everybody caught cheating, even those who plagiarized one paragraph in the intro section of a lab report worth 2% of the final grade. He shook with rage when the rest of us disagreed, and assigned the standard penalty of a zero on the lab assignment. The rest of us shook our heads at each other in response to his demands. He's new, he'll mellow over time. You need to mellow to it over time, because otherwise it'll consume you, as dealing with plagiarism is a never-ending part of the job. Also, there's a strong element of due process that needs to be considered, depending on how much weight the appeals process puts into precedents - if previous years' academic integrity committees have assigned zeroes on 2% lab assignments, then current committees need to assign zeroes on 2% lab assignments, otherwise a harsher penalty will be overturned on appeal.

  4. Prof C,

    Stand your ground, point things out, call them on it at every opportunity. Teach them the value of ethics. Maybe they will realize that it would have been less of a hassle to have just written the darn paper themselves. Even if the student eventually gets away it, it won't be a cake walk, and that will resonate. Word gets around. Next time their like-minded buddies who probably won't appreciate what you have to offer, will do a cheating-risk-assessment and will take a different prof who doesn't give a shit.

    I feel your pain. My flaw is that I take it personally, and perhaps I shouldn't. I can't let students get away with thinking that I'm stupid. Unfortunately, that often means investing time and emotional capital in trying to out-think, out-wit, and out-play cheaters in some perverse chess match instead of focusing on teaching. Sometimes it is worth it, but I too resent having to do it. Administration that backs the $tudent instead of the instructor, only further compounds the issue of cheating.

    Take everything case by case. Don't buy stress on things that are mouse-nuts. But if you find something that violates the sanctity of your personal circle, and is an assault on your psychic core, then you must address it.

    You have worth, and you should do (or not do) what is necessary to honor that, and to honor You.

  5. For me the broader context is administrator pressure to keep "success rates" up. If in a given course mine drop under 60%, I am given an incredible amount of grief (and I'm tenured). This means my dean and department head *expect* me to allow a certain number of incompetent students to squeak through with a C. It also means I can't be overtly tough, or they'll just drop the course or stop coming, and I won't be able to allow them to pass for *my* benefit. So I have to be "covertly tough".

    On the other hand, conditioned on giving them at least a C their grades are entirely up to me, and I can make sure they reflect my perception of how much they have learned (I don't "curve" grades). So I don't look very closely if there's a certain amount of cheating in the homework: that's their "high grade", and I can then grade their tests accurately. (The percentages are adjusted so no one can pass the course if all their tests are poor.) Sometimes I give take-home tests, and then I include the proviso that if I suspect somebody else did the work there will be an interview to confirm they know what's in the paper. The threat alone is usually enough to stop any attempts. In math the degree to which one can fake it by cheating at home is very limited. You either know what you're doing or you don't, and the evidence of which one it is is usually transparent.

  6. You are writing my own experience. I, too, find it hard to make eye contact with cheaters. Such cheaters dismay me because they think I am that dumb. It doesn't help that my college doesn't have a policy. each professor has to create their own. It appalls me when they upload papers taken word for word from a web page to the anti plagiarism website. Are they smarter than me AND the computer program?

    Lack of ethics is the issue. And it comes out in other ways. I stick to a zero for the assignment, and sometimes, a F for the course. Although, usually, they end up earning that F anyway.

  7. I used to feel that this kind of cheating was a lack of respect, was an indicator of how dumb they must think I am. I don't know why, but I truly have mellowed to this over the years.

    I fail them, when I catch them. I often do have time to sit with a batch of essays and BEFORE I even read them, randomly check sentences and phrases. When I do that, I usually catch between 1 and 4 people. Out of a batch of, say, 22 essays. I don't give a zero on the assignment; I fail them for the course. But the act is completely without emotion or passion. I just do it because I think that is what is fair. I keep their essay "as evidence." I write that on their grading sheet. It seems to help in an intimidation kind of way. But even as to that, I don't write it out of anger. If it helps keep them from arguing about it, great.

    They are lacking ethics, morals. Yes, that's true. BUT I think many people cut corners on lots of things. Some people absolutely don't. I try not to myself.

    I don't think my students think I am stupid; I think they are just desperate. They are willing to give it a shot because they don't feel up to the assignment, or they are lazy, or it's just what they have always done.

    One thing I can tell you is that now that I have come to this attitude, where it truly does not make me angry anymore, I get less arguing. I even get less begging. When they start to beg, I become so bored with it. I am sure it shows. I tell them that this is what is going to happen, and that I understand they are upset but nothing they say will change my mind, and I just stop paying attention.

    I think, as Professor Poopiehead said above, that you just mellow to it over time. I predict it will happen to you, too.

  8. Pretty much what Bella said. The last two cases I had were both desperate students, out of their depth. One of them blew off a bunch of reading assignments, then realized that s/he had to get them done in far too little remaining time, and panicked. The other was just completely snowed under because s/he was well beyond hir level of incompetence.

    But the one that still annoys me graduated this year. Not only did s/he copy someone else's answers on a final exam (and it was obvious that s/he did so; the resemblances were far too close for chance), but calmly denied doing it right up through the whole appeals process.

    1. What happened after the student denied copying the answers? Was the appeals process successful?

    2. Sorry, I never did respond to this -- the student was convicted by a panel of peers, only one faculty member as chair and that member does not vote. The physical evidence was enough.

  9. I'm with Bella and Poopie and Introvert. You do, indeed, if not mellow, then at least stop taking it personally (well, mostly; the really blatant attempts to get me to accept stuff that is not only plagiarized but also bears no resemblance to what the assignment asks for still get me mad. Apparently I've got some sort of standards left, just rather twisted ones.)

    This semester, the worst case I've encountered so far was from one of the best participants in class discussion in my lit. class. Since the plagiarized thing I read counted as a draft, I simply read (wrote) her the riot act, and made her do it over again (and she seems to have gotten the message). But the doing it over simply proves that she does, indeed, know how to do decent work on her own. So why did she cut and paste the first time? I dunno; I really don't know. I'm still going to assign her the highest grade in the class for class participation, because, well, that's the grade for class participation. But I'm also pretty discouraged by the experience (and would probably feel even more strongly if I had enough energy left to feel much of anything. At this point, I'm not even panicked by the thought of getting all the grading done in the next week, and I strongly suspect I should be.)

    As for prevention: assigning lots and lots of preparatory steps -- enough so that it's more work to recreate them from a finished paper than to simply write a new one -- helps a bit (but generates a tea party-ton of grading; see above). So does having students run both said intermediate steps and the final paper through one of the plagiarism checkers. The darn things aren't actually that good, but a significant number of students don't seem to realize that, even when you let them access the results (which I always do); in fact, they seem to hold them in almost-superstitious awe. Of course, this approach tends not only to reduce plagiarism but also to increase drops and other mid-semester disappearances (related phenomena, I'm pretty sure). That might be a problem if you teach at a school, like Peter K's, where such things are held against the instructor.

  10. Hey, don't dismiss the value of a good, satisfying YELL, especially when it's SO richly deserved. I actually enjoyed being department chair precisely because it gave me so much opportunity for some excellent YELLING: it was very therapeutic!