A sad story about the students who plagiarized.

A long time ago, in a little country tucked under the polar circle, there were two students, lets call them Pat and Sam, who were doing a research project for a class. No matter what level, just say, far enough along that one ought to know better.

The project stretched over half a semester, culminating in a research report. Four days prior to deadline, I, who was the course leader but not the advisor, got e-mails from both Pat and Sam as well as their Advisor. Advisor said the project is not in good enough shape to turn in and has recommended waiting. (In this little Nordic country, there are always second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances to turn things in. Only time you get restricted is if we stop giving the course). Pat and Sam did not want to wait. I, their intrepid course leader spoke to Advisor, who apprised me of the situation. But, as we both knew and agreed on, students can turn things in if they want to. We can only recommend against. Which I tell the students.

Come morning after deadline (Pat and Sam have dutifully turned in their paper), Advisor e-mails me and tells me that their paper looks awfully lot like the introduction of AdvisorAvisor’s paper that was given to Pat and Sam as inspiration. Said paper is cross-disciplinary and under review (but not yet accepted and not published).

At a rather cursory glance, I first compare a chunk of yellowed out area, several sentences long, which looks like a slightly re-written chunk from Advisors paper. A little bit different wording, but basically the same content. Also nothing like “as mentioned by Advisor in the not yet published paper” indicating where they had gotten their ideas. (The paper is listed in the references though).

As I scroll down, I start being able to predict what will come next in Pat & Sam’s paper from what is in Avisor’s paper. Pat and Sam also refers to research that belongs to the other cross-discipline, which really has very little to do with their actual project.

On top of this, there is an e-mail exchange between Advisor and Pat & Sam, prior to turning the paper in, where Advisor tells them that their intro now looks awfully close to Advisors intro, and to make sure that they do not plagiarize. Sure, Pat and Sam answers. We’ll fix that. We just want to know we are on the right track.

This little Nordic country has very stringent rules about suspected plagiarism. As soon as there is a suspicion, it should immediately be turned over to the disciplinary committee, for them to look it over, determine whether there really is plagiarism, and, if it is, determine what the consequences are. The consequences can be relatively mild (from a US perspective) – a couple of months where you are not allowed to be at the university, which means you may miss exams and obligatory moments.

We, as teachers, or even the chair, are not allowed to take any actions. In fact, we shouldn’t even speak much about it once the suspicion is there, but just turn it over. That is not very psychological in some ways. We did talk, but really, because both Adviser and I needed to get used to the idea, because we had never encountered this before. Also, to feel that we were backed up, and that we knew how to behave.

I found out, for example, that I’m not allowed to fail students on the grounds of plagiarism. That is from the top down, in the laws surrounding university education. That is because it is seen as so serious that it is immediately taken out of our hands.

I had some thoughts that it would be nice to have options to just fail and scold in some instances – letting the students know how much trouble they are in, but this time they will only get the fail, and a re-do.

But, I can see how arbitrary that can become. In some ways it is nice that it is taken out of our hands. That the law says we are Obligated to report this – we have no choice.

In this case, it is panic plagiarism, because why on earth would you plagiarize your adviser, especially after having been told that it looks too close. But, really, Pat and Sam are too far along to claim that they did not understand that what they were doing – borrowing a structure, and just slightly re-writing – is not permitted.

It feels sad. And, I put it here possibly as a kind of warning. I always mention that we have policies on academic misconduct, usually casting it as a protection for those who do the right thing (which it is), rather than as a “we’re on to you, you cheating bastards”, because I recall feeling slightly offended by that. One of my friends says that too. I also link in the site with the clear policy on what constitutes misconduct, and also another tutorial site on how to avoid plagiarizing. But, having the didactic story, the personal anecdote of the very sad story of Pat and Sam who thought, in a panic, they could borrow the structure of a paper to get a paper in, may be more effective – story telling animal that we are.


I wrote the above a long time ago, when it just happened, but didn’t want to post it close to the event. I’m a public person, and students can read my blog. I don’t want them to walk around wondering which ones of their class mates it might be, so I delayed until it could be none.

The fallout was that the disciplinary group deemed it plagiarism (phew). They got a warning, and the excuse for this was that they had studied abroad (in decidedly western countries), and thought that delaying turning things in would mean that they would get kicked out of the program. (Hmmmm – the repeated chances is not a secret – it is Swedish law – but I am telling the powers that be that evidently we have to repeat this over and over). And, they didn’t realize that they needed close contact with advisor. Hmmmmm. I’ve advised a lot of people, and they have been wonderfully good at scheduling themselves. In fact, the class-mates that I advised had no problem getting in contact with me. It is just kind of typical of the disciplinary group that the students get a lot of benefit of the doubt. But, I thought just having it recognized as plagiarism was a win. It was close to the outcome I wanted anyway – it is plagiarism, now, go rewrite.

But, one thing that gave me pause was that, evidently Pat and Sam thought what they had done was OK – that it wasn’t plagiarism.

About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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1 Response to A sad story about the students who plagiarized.

  1. Phyl says:

    Just a couple of days ago, on a discussion forum in a thread where several university teachers hang out, I read about one of their students who insisted that she didn’t plagiarize, because, “Look, it’s right there in Wikipedia.” Boggling!

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