Dealing with Plagiarism: Punishment or Remediation?

I have written previously about classifying plagiarists into three groups (accidental, panicked and systematic), trying to get the student to focus on the journey rather than the objective, and how overwork can produce situations in which human beings do very strange things. Recently, I was asked to sit in on another plagiarism hearing and, because I’ve been away from the role of Assessment Coordinator for a while, I was able to look at the process with an outsider’s eye, a slightly more critical view, to see how it measures up.

Our policy is now called an Academic Honesty Policy and is designed to support one of our graduate attributes: “An awareness of ethical, social and cultural issues within a global context and their importance in the exercise of professional skills and responsibilities”. The principles are pretty straight-forward for the policy:

  • Assessment is an aid to learning and involves obligations on the part of students to make it effective.
  • Academic honesty is an essential component of teaching, learning and research and is fundamental to the very nature of universities.
  • Academic writing is evidence-based, and the ideas and work of others must be acknowledged and not claimed or presented as one’s own, either deliberately or unintentionally.

The policy goes on to describe what student responsibilities are, why they should do the right thing for maximum effect of the assessment and provides some handy links to our Writing Centre and applying for modified arrangements. There’s also a clear statement of what not to do, followed by lists of clarifications of various terms.

Sitting in on a hearing, looking at the process unfolding, I can review the overall thrust of this policy and be aware that it has been clearly identified to students that they must do their own work but, reading through the policy and its implementation guide, I don’t really see what it provides to sufficiently scaffold the process of retraining or re-educating students if they are detected doing the wrong thing.

There are many possible outcomes from the application of this policy, starting with “Oh, we detected something but we turned out to be wrong”, going through “Well, you apparently didn’t realise so we’ll record your name for next time, now submit something new ” (misunderstanding), “You knew what you were doing so we’re going to give you zero for the assignment and (will/won’t) let you resubmit it (with a possible mark cap)” (first offence), “You appear to make a habit of this so we’re giving you zero for the course” (second offence) and “It’s time to go.” (much later on in the process after several confirmed breaches).

Let me return to my discussions on load and the impact on people from those earlier posts. If you accept my contention that the majority of plagiarism cheating is minor omission or last minute ‘helmet fire’ thinking under pressure, then we have to look at what requiring students to resubmit will do. In the case of the ‘misunderstanding’, students may also be referred to relevant workshops or resources to attend in order to improve their practices. However, considering that this may have occurred because the student was under time pressure, we have just added more work and a possible requirement to go and attend extra training. There’s an old saying from Software Development called Brook’s Law:

“…adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” (Brooks, Mythical Man Month, 1975)

In software it’s generally because there is ramp up time (the time required for people to become productive) and communication overheads (which increases with the square of the number of people again). There is time required for every assignment that we set which effectively stands in for the ramp-up and, as plagiarising/cheating students have probably not done the requisite work before (or could just have completed the assignment), we have just added extra ramp-up into their lives for any re-issued assignments and/or any additional improvement training. We have also greatly increased the communication burden because the communication between lecturers and peers has implicit context based on where we are in the semester. All of the student discussion (on-line or face-to-face) from points A to B will be based around the assignment work in that zone and all lecturing staff will also have that assignment in their heads. An significantly out-of-sequence assignment not only isolates the student from their community, it increases the level of context switching required by the staff, decreasing the amount of effective time that have with the student and increasing the amount of wall-clock time. Once again, we have increased the potential burden on a student that, we suspect, is already acting this way because of over-burdening or poor time management!

Later stages in the policy increase the burden on students by either increasing the requirement to perform at a higher level, due to the reduction of available marks through giving a zero, or by removing an entire course from their progress and, if they wish to complete the degree, requiring them to overload or spend an additional semester (at least) to complete their degree.

My question here is, as always, are any of these outcomes actually going to stop the student from cheating or do they risk increasing the likelihood of either the student cheating or the student dropping out? I complete agree with the principles and focus of our policy, and I also don’t believe that people should get marks for work that they haven’t done, but I don’t see how increasing burden is actually going to lead to the behaviour that we want. (Dan Pink on TED can tell you many interesting things about motivation, extrinsic factors and cognitive tasks, far more effectively than I can.)

This is, to many people, not an issue because this kind of policy is really treated as being punitive rather than remedial. There are some excellent parts in our policy that talk about helping students but, once we get beyond the misunderstanding, this language of support drops away and we head swiftly into the punitive with the possibility of controlled resubmission. The problem, however, is that we have evidence that light punishment is interpreted as a licence to repeat the action, because it doesn’t discourage. This does not surprise me because we have made such a risk/reward strategy framing with our current policy. We have resorted to a punishment modality and, as a result, we have people looking at the punishments to optimise their behaviour rather than changing their behaviour to achieve our actual goals.

This policy is a strange beast as there’s almost no way that I can take an action under the current approach without causing additional work to students at a time when it is their ability to handle pressure that is likely to have led them here. Even if it’s working, and it appears that it does, it does so by enforcing compliance rather than actually leading people to change the way that they think about their work.

My conjecture is that we cannot isolate the problems to just this policy. This spills over into our academic assessment policies, our staff training and our student support, and the key difference between teaching ethics and training students in ethical behaviour. There may not be a solution in this space that meets all of our requirements but if we are going to operate punitively then let us be honest about it and not over-burden the student with remedial work that they may not be supported for. If we are aiming for remediation then let us scaffold it properly. I think that our policy, as it stands, can actually support this but I’m not sure that I’ve seen the broad spread of policy and practice that is required to achieve this desirable, but incredibly challenging, goal of actually changing student behaviour because the students realise that it is detrimental to their learning.

6 Comments on “Dealing with Plagiarism: Punishment or Remediation?”

  1. My policies on plagiarism are simpler: minor offenses are 0 on the assignment, major offenses are failure for the course. Both are reported up the chain to those who keep records and can provide more substantial penalties. I see this as a purely punitive system designed to remove from the system those who did not get the message (delivered in many ways) that claiming someone else’s work as your own is the unforgivable academic sin.

    I believe that the consequences of plagiarism must be more dire than the consequences of not turning in the work, or there is a perverse incentive to plagiarize.


  2. lizphillips says:

    It has been my experience in sifting through papers and reporting plagiarism, that the impact of being caught is traumatic to a students who cares about reputation–even though he/she thought they would not be addressed for stealing work. Even at the college level, I see students who don’t see the big deal because nobody has stopped them from downloading music, art, words, research before. Ethics and ownership, especially when addressing online access to content that is perceived as public domain because “everybody’s doing it,” are not adequately addressed from a very young age. Even parents disregard artistic and intellectual ownership, so it is hard for me to convince a student to change. It’s rather like drug abuse. Confronting someone is not enough. There has to be intervention and guidance to mend the plagiarist’s ways. Life is tough, but educators from primary to post-graduate levels need to model best practices. If educators don’t model it, most students will not get it or place value on it. We are talking about something that would meet with great resistance in public education because it is believed that since it is not on a standardized test it does not have to be taught explicitly. We gloss over it so we say we “covered it” when what we did was cover it up with all the other required work to the extent that it does not get the prominent attention it deserves (seeing how digital literacy and ethics are key to the worldwide sustainability of civilization at so many levels).

    I feel strongly that a student who does not recognize or respect another person’s creation or works should receive intervention counseling, be enrolled in a program where professors or peers mentor students to show them how NOT to steal work and properly cite it. No one should quit school, and no one should be given the boot (unless they repeatedly rebuke the intervention strategies to break the dependence on that kind of theft…not sure how many chances a person gets. I suppose that would depend on the student and measures taken previously. I don’t even think a court of peers to decide if a person should get the boot after being found “guilty” is stealing–especially if those peers are iffy on the issue themselves.


  3. […] Our policy is now called an Academic Honesty Policy and is designed to support one of our graduate attributes: “An awareness of ethical, social and cultural issues within a global context and their importance in the exercise of …  […]


  4. […] there is no doubt that some of the best talks on the Internet can be found at TED. (My favourite is Dan Pink, to no-one’s surprise.) But as those who had given TED talks on the panel noted, if your […]


  5. […] there is no doubt that some of the best talks on the Internet can be found at TED. (My favourite is Dan Pink, to no-one’s surprise.) But as those who had given TED talks on the panel noted, if your […]


  6. […] beating the system as the goal itself, which is highly undesirable. You can read a lot more about my views on plagiarism here, if you like. (Warning: that post links to several others and is a bit of a […]


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