A few months ago, I blogged about preventing plagiarism before it occurs. Sadly, I have recently been reminded that we can’t prevent all cases of plagiarism. In an unusual turn of events, I am currently dealing with evidence that one student plagiarized the work of another. This is perhaps the most difficult type of plagiarism to deal with, as it involves not just academic dishonesty, but also hurt feelings, he-said-she-said, and the academic careers of not one but two students.
I’m hardly an expert in this field, but unfortunately I’m rapidly gaining experience in dealing with plagiarism, given the relatively high number of occurrences we are faced with annually. I’m gradually finding that a few steps are helpful in either preventing plagiarism, or dealing with it once it occurs:
1) In every course, ensure that plagiarism and correct citation formats are discussed in the first class. This ensures that any students who might have fallen between the cracks understand the issue, and that you can contradict any future arguments that students were unaware of how to cite references properly.
2) Tell students not to share any unsubmitted work with other students. When papers haven’t yet been reviewed by an instructor, it is much more difficult to demonstrate who produced the original work.
3) Once plagiarism has been reported, start a paper trail. This will be critical for documenting timelines, which may help identify which student was plagiarized.
4) Recognize and acknowledge the emotional trauma to the student who was plagiarized. Victims need the opportunity to talk over their feelings, fears and concerns. Listening to their concerns lets them know that you realize this is not just an academic matter, but a personal one.
5) If plagiarism is detected in a final draft of a document – thesis or proposal handed in to a committee, submitted essays, etc. – follow due process as per the rules at your university. At my university, all cases are handled by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, to ensure that issues are handled consistently and objectively. In all cases, ensure that plagiarism is documented, so that future occurrences can be handled appropriately.
6) If you detect plagiarism in an earlier draft of a document – such as an early draft of a proposal that you are reading to provide comments – then this is the time for teaching, not punishment. If students provide you with drafts that are not intended to be a final version, I think that it is critical that we give them the benefit of the doubt that the final version might not have included plagiarized materials. Nonetheless, it clearly raises a red flag. This is an opportunity for a face-to-face meeting in which the potential consequences of plagiarism, how to write an essay, and how to avoid inadvertent plagiarism are all covered. Think of this as a golden opportunity to potentially turn a student’s life around … instead of facing possible academic disgrace and sanction, they will benefit from personal tutoring in how to write a professional document.